Monday, November 27, 2006
Reading "A Complicated Kindness." Upset. Must Keep Reading.
I've had this novel on my shelf for a year. My friend gave it to me because I'm Mennonite. The author, Miriam Toews, is also Mennonite. That is where the similarities end.
I'm completely torn apart by "A Complicated Kindness."
It is so, so, so beautifully written it breaks my heart. She has achieved the voice of a bored, betrayed, downtrodden teenage girl, and captured it perfectly.
But it is so damn offensive to me, the way she describes my chosen faith. I am telling you, I don't even recognize anything Mennonite in there. I don't understand her denomination; it doesn't even vaguely resemble mine.
Worse yet, reading this has caused me to do something I vowed twenty years ago to never do. I am worried about what other people will think!
If you were to read this novel, with no knowledge or familiarity of the Mennonite faith, or of the Anabaptist movement in general, you would come away believing that we are all a bunch of joyless, grim, rule-bound, judgemental, miserable prudes.
I was born into a Mennonite family, and raised going to church every Sunday. Sure I rebelled quite a bit in my teens- like a large majority of kids- but I missed the connection of spirituality and that church family, the support and guidance, and I missed the four part harmony, and I came back. Even after I moved way down the highway I kept coming back. I had dropped out of baptism class twice and at the age of 26, married over five years and a mother twice, I was baptized. I was born and raised Mennonite and I thought real good and hard about it before I chose it for the rest of my life.
Now I ask you, especially if you've been dropping by here and reading for awhile. Do I seem to you to be joyless, grim, rule-bound, judgemental, and miserable?
I find myself feeling so angry at the author for misrepresenting my people!!
But then I realize that I am making some very huge mistakes here.
-I know that Miriam Toews is from Steinbach, Manitoba. I've never been there. But I do know that Manitoba is where many Russian Mennonites settled over a 50 year period from the late 1800s to the 1940s. I'm thinking that there are cultural differences between Russian Mennonites and Swiss/ German Mennonites, which is my background.
-She's not the first author I've read from her background who portrays this culture as very harsh and strict.
-If I were to ask ten Mennonites to describe how their faith makes them feel, I'd get ten different answers.
-I am being totally unfair. I've only gotten to chapter ten. I told my mom last week that I'm all torn up over this book. I was only on chapter two back then. I told her that it doesn't look anything like the Mennonite that I'm familiar with. She is a very wise woman. She told me I should keep reading. Things sometimes change at the end of the book.
-What am I getting so worked up over? It's a novel!!!
Or is it??
This is where it gets really tangled for me. Readers expect biographies from their authors. I often worry that anything I write will get dredged by those who know me, looking for clues, wanting to know who I stole the little bits of life from to come up with this so-called fiction! It's the old "write what you know" thing. Admit it: you've done it. You've wondered if the words came out of the writer's experience.
I have so many questions.
Did she make it all up because she's bitter about her upbringing, and wanted to take literary revenge?
Doesn't she know that Menno Simons did not invent the faith that was eventually named after him? Or is it the character that doesn't know?
I've never known of anybody who was shunned- is this an old order thing? Does anybody actually still do this? For real?
Did she quit going to church when she left Steinbach?
Was it really so bad??
Are prairie bound Russian Mennonites really more miserable than the rolling-hills Ontario Mennonites?
(We're not just in Manitoba and Ontario either. We're nationwide. We're in little pockets all over North America. And you can't tell by looking at us all the time. There are more Mennonites in Africa that there are in Europe. Surprize.)
If this town is run by the church, how come the characters don't spend much time there?
And what's with the one totalitarian pastor who runs the church and therefore the entire town with an iron fist? That's so completely un-Mennonite. We choose our pastors. We can unchoose them. Our congregation is full of committees and groups and discussions and outreaches and on top of our bulletin, under the pastor's name and the names of the elders (who are men and women of all ages) there is a line stating, "Ministers: each member." I've never heard of a church with a dictator for a pastor. And there are a LOT of Mennonite churches where I'm from. Is this different in other parts of the world?
Is the town in "A Complicated Kindness" full of Mennonites like me who look (somewhat) like everybody else, or do they wear dark clothes and drive black cars with no chrome? I can't tell. The main character watches TV. She has a boyfriend with a pickup truck and they go hang around and smoke and swear and listen to Led Zeppelin.
Geez...is this book about ME?
So many questions.
And of course, as I read, this dangerous idea that the novel and its writer are so inextricably connected keeps coming up for me, fearing that same thing happening to me someday!
I'll tell you, I have a lot of respect for Miriam Toews. She's a writer with a gift for observation, emotion, and voice. And how cute is this woman? Seriously. Please notice that she's smiling with her teeth showing in this photo. You know that's a big thing for me. Come on, all of you serious and dignified authors! Smile! Let's see some teeth!
I have to keep reading this novel. I have to know what happens. She's got me hooked. I've become totally enamoured with this 16 year old character who speaks with all the irony and sarcasm that teenagers work to perfect. I understand her, because nobody else understands her. I know that she wants to express herself and nobody allows her to. I don't relate to this character because I was a Mennonite teenager. I relate to her because I was a teenager.
I have another reason for reading and it's tricky. It's that awkward combination of jealousy and admiration. About a year and a half ago, I started writing a novel about a Mennonite teenager. "A Complicated Kindness" came out in 2004. I'd been avoiding it. I can't put it down, because it angers me, and it intrigues me, and I hope that some day my novel will turn out half as good as this one.