A National Literature

Keynote address given by Miriam Toews

First presented at the International Festival of Authors, Toronto

Giving back-to-back Keynote addresses, China Miéville presented ‘The Future of the Novel’ ‘remixed’, along with Miriam Toews who debated ‘A National Literature. The event was hosted/moderated by journalist and author Rachel Giese.


Miriam Toews Keynote text: “A National Literature”

Last month I was at a literary festival in Mantova, Italy. Most guest writers were Italian, but there were a handful of writers from other countries, and as it turned out I was the only Canadian in the program. I figured that during appearances and interviews I would be asked a few questions about the literary scene in Canada, perhaps about Canadian politics, but I quickly realized that for the Italians, my Mennonite identity was of far more interest than my Canadian identity. For them, I was a Mennonite writer. I had no problem going along with this, I’ve been in this position before, but it reminded me again how so much of our self-identity is determined by others, how the person we’re imagining ourselves to be, the self we expect to impose on the world, is always in negotiation with the identity given to us by other people.

Granted, I was there to talk about my latest novel, Irma Voth (In Italian: Mi chiamo Irma Voth), and the book is about a nineteen year-old Mennonite girl named Irma who lives in a religiously conservative community in Northern Mexico.
Irma Voth is my sixth book but it’s only the third time I’ve featured Mennonite settings and characters. I’m happy to answer questions about Mennonites, and in Italy I talked about their history, their practices, their beliefs – all the while thinking: what an odd position to be in! I’m not a historian or sociologist or theologian. I’m only a fiction writer. And though I am a Mennonite – born and raised in a religious Mennonite town in Manitoba – I am not a good Mennonite, at least for a great number of people in the Mennonite community who continue to regard me as an irritant, a shit disturber, and most certainly the last person who should be telling their epic tale of persecution, exile, and hard-won religious independence.

I can’t count the number of times people have made a point of telling me – in writing or to my face – that I’ve besmirched the reputation of Mennonites, made a mockery of the very community that raised me up to be who I am. In fact, during a recent interview with a publication in Manitoba, I was asked how I feel about the fact that my novels reinforce negative stereotypes of Mennonites and fail to represent the educated, cultured, tolerant urban Mennonites who are very much open to the secular world.

It was one of those questions that is also an accusation, and it told me I should feel guilty, ashamed, and repentant. But the truth is I have never set out to expose flaws in the Mennonite community. Fiction writing, for me, comes from a much more child-like impulse. There are stories to tell and I dive right in.

But it would be bad faith to say I simply can’t understand why certain Mennonites would object to my books. We don’t want people to think we’re unsophisticated inbreds, mad for cruel practices like shunning and condemning gays and lesbians to hell. It’s a natural, defensive gesture to say “Wait, we’re not all like that!” It has to do with arrogance and embarrassment. And self image. But protests like that conveniently remove the onus of confronting difficult truths and lobbying for change. We know that some Mennonites were involved with the Nazi Party. Should we erase this from the history books? Should we say, “Yeah but forget about that, most Mennonites are pacifists and apolitical!” (is this even true anymore?). And is it somehow my responsibility to write a novel about an agnostic cocaine-addicted Mennonite working at a New York fashion magazine who abandons her sophisticated, polyglot Wall Street boyfriend in order to fulfill her childhood dream of joining NASA and becoming an astronaut – simply to redress stereotypes of religiously retrograde Mennonite farmers?

No. I’ve come to realize what it is these Mennonites want from me – both the conservative Mennonites who have condemned me to hell as well as the secular Mennonites who regret the way I’ve depicted their other half: they want my piety. Not just loyalty to the community, but allegiance to whatever transcendent authority unifies the community. In other words, there are services to be rendered. They’re fine with stories about Mennonites, they welcome stories about Mennonites, but only as long as the stories reinforce certain pre-determined narratives. The insinuation is always that because I fail to show piety towards my own community – especially this historically beleaguered community – I am a spoiled, mischievous, rebellious child, someone not to be taken seriously, a prankster, or worse, a morally directionless castaway who is best kept at a distance else I infect the community any further.

The parent-child analogy is inevitable when talking about identity. Identity is so much about inheritance. The Mennonite community often compares itself to a family, as do other minority communities. Even nation-states are sometimes described as families. In my life I’ve heard talk of the Canadian family, especially in times of crisis – during sovereignty referendums in Quebec for example: suddenly Canada is a marriage on the verge of divorce, or a family of several children, the eldest threatening to run away. You can be sure that whenever a politician chooses to describe the nation-state as a family, or extension of family, or even of a human personality developing into greater maturity, he or she is asking for your obedience, your allegiance to the status quo.

Like the conservative, religious men of my community, conservative nationalists want each one of us to conform to the identity they’ve imagined for us; they want our stories to become part of a larger authorized story. Which brings me to the dubious idea of National Literature. I say dubious not because I don’t believe in the existence of a “national literature” but because for me, a writer, it implies obligations and confinements, much in the same way that the “Mennonite literature” label can sometimes feel like a confinement for me. Makes me think I’m about to be sent on a mission. I would never need or want to deny my Mennonite background and culture; even if identity is multiple and evolving, forever subject to the judgments of others, I’ll always feel like and be identified as a Mennonite, and therefore possess that little extra authority on all matters Mennonite. I also see myself as a Canadian writer, very much implicated personally in all matters Canadian. Like every Canadian, I have been taught that one of the most important functions of art is to supply and elaborate the myths and narratives of nationhood. Northrop Frye said so: fictional stories are a secular bible for our imagined community. I get this: I wouldn’t tell an Irishman that the great books written by Irish authors have nothing to do with who he is. So for me, to be granted a place under the banners of Mennonite Literature and Canadian Literature is an honour.

The problem is, the more defined these national narratives become, the less they have to do with the individual artist creating her art. The greater the number of stories that fall neatly into the category of “national literature,” they more they threaten a writer’s imaginative freedom. Fiction is perhaps the most emancipated artistic form; it’s messy, shape-shifting, rebellious. Fiction is emissary to no embassy and child to no parent; a writer is not a soldier or Olympic athlete, flying a national flag. The only legitimate role of a writer, regardless of her community or nation is to tell the stories that are truly hers. I’ll quote the American writer Dorothy Gallagher: “The writer’s business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story. Not, you may note, to serve her family, or to serve the truth, but to serve her story.”

Serve your story and you are doing your proper business. You are also doing your part in the national project: helping to create an environment in which the diverse populations of the nation can develop freely and spontaneously towards a future that does not resemble the past. Ideas of national identity always belong to the past. By the time we’ve recognized a unifying national theme, we’re somewhere else. And whether or not your stories are contributing to national literature is for other people to decide. Writers are off the hook, which should be a special relief to Canadian writers. As M.G. Vassanji says: “To define [Canada] or its literature seems like putting a finger on Zeno’s arrow: no sooner do you think you have done it than it has moved on.”

Literature is always moving on, quickly, daringly. If a story happens to serve someone’s national agenda, then so be it. But it’s most likely to do the opposite. Good fiction does not reinforce our complacent self-image; it makes us aware of identities outside our own. It brings to life complex characters who resemble real people, provides new points of reference, reclaims old territories and invents new ones, magnifies familiar moments into epiphanies. If anything, a good story will threaten the sanctity of the establishment and question the voice of privilege and tradition, and in doing so, evolve what it means to be a member of the community or the nation.
To many, serve-your-story-over-family-or-truth is the justification of a selfish and insensitive person. What if your writing hurts people close to you? Why would you want to expose the foibles of a vulnerable minority group that is so important to you? Mennonites need understanding, not critique.

These are important questions. I wouldn’t have written A Complicated Kindness if my father had been alive. Not because I would be afraid of how I’d characterized him in the book, the character of Ray, my favourite and who is in the end the hero… but because of how sad it would make him to know just how critical I was of the community that meant the world to him… so in a way, although I would prefer that he was alive, his death freed me up to write the book I needed and wanted to write.

I worried that Carlos Reygadas, the Mexican film director who was the inspiration for the eccentric filmmaker in Irma Voth, would take badly to the way he was portrayed – a man contriving chaos on the set and given to wild flights of somewhat pompous poetry. Some time after the novel was published, I went to see him. We spent hours talking before I finally had the courage to ask him: Um, what did you think of the book? He wasn’t upset at all. He said he preferred the first half of the book, before the two sisters flee. I was relieved when he told me he liked it very much, and that he saw my blood on the page. Except, he just wished I had bled onto the page even more.

Many Mennonites have thanked me for my books, for telling my story, their story. This has been wonderful for me and deeply reassuring. On the other hand, there are the Mennonites who would be offended by any representation whatsoever. We all know that individuals who define themselves exclusively by the cultural group they belong to are less willing to acknowledge its inherent problems. I want to ask: to whom exactly am I exposing Mennonite foibles? I realize that a minority position is less secure than a mainstream one, but I fail to see why this insecurity makes its members less capable of rigorous self-critique. I think it’s simplistic to assume that a mainstream Anglo reader (or reader from any other social tribe) confronts human foibles more courageously than other people.

Canada has, at times, represented itself as a country in a valiant struggle against powerful and menacing agents that are indifferent to its special practices and sensibilities – most especially American culture. It’s the old, outdated garrison mentality. But even Canada, this highly regionalized, pluralistic, and accommodating country has a palpable sense of national community; it’s manifest in our laws, institutions, and customs, in the unique conflicts of our history, in our differences from other nations, and yes, in our literature. So we’ve got no revolutionary war, no centuries-old Declaration Of Independence, no Walden in the woods, no American dream. Let’s get over it. Let’s embrace our insecurity, and continue to fall short of certainty. The concept of “national literature” promises certainties and definitions and boundaries, all the things that literature withholds. The imagination is inherently subversive and cannot be mandated. A writer can only serve her nation by serving her story.

Copyright Miriam Toews, October 2012