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Growing up in a one-church town Add to ...

Who knew Mennonites could be so damn funny?

It's one thing to expect the followers of Menno Simons, who arrived in Canada in the late 18th-century to practise their conservative brand of Christianity in peace, to produce heavyweight, serious writers such as Rudy Wiebe, two-time Governor-General's Award-winner for his books so steeped in Canadian history they practically emit a wheat-coloured glow. But then there's Miriam Toews, a Manitoba Mennonite, somewhat lapsed, to be sure, whose third book, A Complicated Kindness, is a black-humour grenade, dealing a devastating explosion of gut-busting humour and heart-wrenching sorrow.

Toews's remarkably vivid heroine Nomi Nickel is a latter-day Holden Caulfield. Pot-smoking, authority-flaunting, she struggles to cope with abandonment by her sister and mother after they fled the oppression of her one-church, zero-tolerance town, East Village, Man. Flunking out of school, a typical exchange with a teacher has him demand of her, "Are you not upset when you get your paper back and everything is underlined in red?" No, she replies, "not really, in the Bible the words of Je --" before she is ordered out of the classroom.

"Sometimes I am bugged by my own tendency to continuously go for the laughs, but I am trying to be genuinely funny even if it's in a dry, tragic way," said Toews (pronounced to rhyme with "waves"), during last week's press tour through Toronto. "I don't know if there is a Mennonite type of humour, but growing up with my dad, from day one I felt it was my job to make him laugh. I worked very hard at it, without much success, but the times it did happen, it was gold."

Aside from inspiring Toews's deft sense of comedy, her father also left her a legacy of tragedy when he ended his life in 1998. Toews doesn't blame the unforgiving strictness of his Mennonite faith for his suicide, although she does think it was a contributing factor; it's certainly evident in Swing Low: A Life, her memoir of his life,written from his perspective. A Complicated Kindness is a sort of fictional, survivor's version of Swing Low, and was in part a way for Toews to live through her own grief, and confront the religion and its complications: so loving in its preaching, if not always its practice.

"Loss inspired the story, loss with no answers, I think I needed to put that on Nomi. She was going to be the person who would take me through that process of dealing with loss and wondering where those people went," said Toews. She adds: "I have seen the damage that fundamentalism can do. The way the religion is being interpreted, it's a culture of control and that emphasis on shame and public shame and punishment and guilt is not conducive to robust mental health."

Toews no longer attends a Mennonite church, but she says she still considers herself a Mennonite. She's even married to one (the couple live in Winnipeg with their three children). The book's reviews have so far been glowing, but she is concerned about how it will be received in the religious community.

Toews hopes the novel is clear in showing that it's the fundamentalism, not the faith she takes issue with and, as she says "that there are decent and genuinely loving individuals in the Mennonite community." The book hasn't sparked any sermons against creative writing yet, although it has just been released.

"I know, obviously, there are going to be people who are unhappy with it, but I hope they understand that it's fiction. I wasn't trying to offend anyone," Toews says. "The thing is, within the Mennonite tradition, there is very little room for anger, you're not supposed to be angry. I know that there is disapproval, and there will be a silent, sort of group pursing of lips, [questioning]what am I trying to prove? Who do I think I am? I understand that. I grew up with it."

A slender blond woman with a warm, subversive wit, Toews, 39, was raised in Steinbach, Man., a conservative Mennonite town of about 5,000 people. It was a wonderful place to grow up as a child, she says.

While devout churchgoers, her family was tolerant and permissive under its own roof. It was only later that her mother would tell her about the devastating effects of some of the church's more oppressive acts, including excommunications, which demanded public shunning of former congregation members.

On paper, Toews and Nomi appear to have a lot in common, so much so that she does get asked if Nomi is her teenage alter ego. "I'm not Nomi," she says. "It's an exercise in character, in voice, and storytelling. Obviously elements of my own life are in there. But I was not the messed-up, grieving, confused-to-that-extent individual that she is. I had a relatively easy childhood. And I wasn't a pot addict."

As a teenager, however, Toews began to chafe in the small town. She tore out of Steinbach after high school, living in Montreal and London and touring Europe before coming back to Manitoba, where she earned her BA in film studies at the University of Manitoba and later a journalism degree at King's College in Halifax. "I always knew I wanted to -- I hope this doesn't sound presumptuous -- but I wanted to artistically express myself, create a narrative or an image, but I never knew what it was going to be," she said. "Obviously I didn't have the body of a dancer, I didn't know how to paint, so writing seemed to be something where I would be able to free myself, figure out who I was within the act of writing."

Toews seems to have it figured out. Her debut novel, 1996's Summer of My Amazing Luck, was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Award for humour and won the John Hirsch Award; her second book, 1998's A Boy of Good Breeding, won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. A Complicated Kindness has been sold to Britain, and her agent, Carolyn Swayze, recently inked a deal that will take the book into the United States.

In love with Winnipeg and its thriving arts community, Toews is wrapping up a year as writer-in-residence at the public library and has started to sketch the outline of her next book. Smiling, she promises the next won't be about small towns or Mennonites. Her own philosophy is simple: Write everything in service to your characters and your story.

"An editor I once had said, just write as honestly and intelligently as you can," Toews says. "It sounds simple, but in fact, it's not simple, and that's what I remember, all the time."

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