September 21, 2016
by Madi Haslam
Miriam Toews walks through the double doors of the Lord Nelson in Halifax. She’s taking a sip from her disposable coffee cup when she spots me. I’m staggered when she acknowledges me but I shouldn’t be surprised she can pick me out. The lobby is nearly empty and I’m the only one around without greying hair. There aren’t many young people flocking to fancy hotels in this city. Still, I’m afraid she recognizes me because I’ve given myself away as a student. I’m a bit of a mess, hair knotted and wearing clothes from the day before. I fell asleep in them at midnight after having a beer to ease my anxiety. I don’t feel like someone who deserves to interview one of their favourite writers. I care about this. I’m scared I won’t find the right words.
An hour later, after I turn off my tape recorder, Toews will tell me she too is a bit of a mess. She’s also wearing her clothes from the day before. Her flight from Toronto got in late. When she opened her suitcase to change, she found she’d accidentally brought her partner’s dirty laundry. We talk about how long suitcases can sit on bedroom floors, waiting to be dealt with. And now she has nothing to wear tonight but she’s not really thinking about her clothes. She’s giving a memorial lecture and she fears she’ll babble ineloquently. She’s scared she won’t find the right words.
Hearing Toews express this fear strikes me as absurd. My impression of her has always been just the opposite. I revere her writing for her ability to capture the little things and the big things with a striking honesty, accuracy and delicacy. It seems to come naturally to her. Toews attributes the possibility for this honesty in her writing, in part, to her genre. She blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, drawing inspiration for her novels from her most intimate lived experiences. So I ask Toews about the relation between the ambiguity of her genre and the obscurity of memory. I ask her whether she feels a responsibility to capture people and moments in their intricacies. I ask if doing such a thing is even possible.
“I do write very autobiographically and I feel memory is such a fluid watery thing. The freedom of fiction is something that I love. If I’m writing fiction then I can change things around chronologically or even the details I might remember I can embellish or elaborate on. It’s always a combination for me of so-called fact, which I guess you could think of as my memory of things, and the freedom.”
When I ask about the space fiction creates for writing about loss, she responds that whether the object of loss is a person or something more esoteric—like lost youth or a lost sense of home—fiction is a means for recreation.
“And not just recreate but improve on in some way that makes sense. It’s my go-to mode of writing. I can’t really imagine that I’ll ever write something that’s not in some shape or form based on my own memory.”
But at first I’m not quite sure that I understand what she means when she talks about a “way that makes sense.” A significant portion of Toews’ work concerns death. She writes about the suicides of loved ones. She writes about what eludes understanding. How may we come to terms with that which we can’t comprehend? How do we write the incomprehensible? Toews considers “making sense” more of a gesture of illumination than a making logical. She believes it entails dragging what is difficult into the light and drawing us closer to it:
“If we can confront as much as we fear, as we’re ignorant of or reluctant to think about, we’ll be more content. To have these vague, undefined fears—for instance, mental illness or the spectre of suicide—these are horrible things for the people suffering from them and the people around them, but it doesn’t do anybody any good to suppress those thoughts,” she says.
“That is a function of my writing and writing in general … to create a conversation. In that conversation, we can hopefully be moved to think and to be less afraid of the various things that are haunting us.”
For Toews, writing has always been the response to navigating the disorienting effects of loss. Her most recent book, All My Puny Sorrows, is a story of two sisters. The protagonist, Yolandi, is a moderately successful writer and mother. Her older sister, Elfrieda, is an accomplished pianist. Elf is suicidal. Yoli is trying to keep her alive. She can’t. In the novel, Elf explains: “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”
Toews’ own sister committed suicide in 2010. The author had written about her father’s death after he took his life a decade earlier. At first, she couldn’t imagine how she would write about losing her sister. Eventually, she felt she had to. It was a suitcase waiting to be unpacked.
“I don’t know how I would process the stuff in my life—not just the tragic but the beautiful, the mysterious, the joyful, the comic—without imposing narrative on it,” she says. “That’s what I do, that’s what I have to do to make sense of life. To take it, to externalize it and shape it into something I think is coherent and then move on”.
I ask the author how she goes about beginning that process. She says instead of shying away from the particularity of her experience and her pain, she dives into it. She resists the temptation to write about any topic broadly or from a remove. There is no distance in Toews’ work, no ambiguity beyond that which comes naturally with the question of death.
When she begins writing, she already has a character and a specific set of circumstances in mind. She emphasizes the importance of finding the right tone and pacing. These are difficult subjects. They must be handled slowly and with care.
“It’s like circling around my own demons, the things that haunt me, the things that I’m obsessed with. With every book, I’m trying to get closer to that—to the truth,” she says.
“The truth is somehow represented by characters, by narrative, by the details of the story. I try not to think of it as how will I write a universal story but about my own circumstances and feelings to create a narrative. The hope is that specificity will take on a more universal significance.”
Her writing is, to a certain extent, a way of maintaining a relationship with the people who have left her. “Love letters,” she calls them. Her work isn’t about letting go because Toews feels her relationships with those she has lost never really end.
“As I get older and lose more people, I feel there’s no such thing as closure. We bring those people with us. I have a character who says, and my mother said this, that the dead are just as present to her as the living. She communicates with them and gets advice from them and I find myself doing the same thing.”
Toews has her characters in All My Puny Sorrows do this too. In the final pages of the novel, Yoli writes Elf a letter. She updates her sister on what has happened in her absence. She asks for guidance. She tells her she loves her. But there are no accusations. There is no blame. Because while the author believes these connections never break, she insists that eventually, the pain must end.
“From having lost people, from the horror and the memory of losing them and the violent way in which they died and the profound sadness they were experiencing … for a person to commit suicide that’s their way out of the pain. I try to respect that. I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think there’s often help for some people,” she says.
“But if we do have people we’ve lost to suicide, there is something necessary in respecting it and understanding it in order to go on and live with that decision. Otherwise, the anger, the bitterness, the guilt can consume us. I feel I need to accept their choices. What is it about that human need—and ability, in resilience—to keep moving forward with a degree of optimism or some type of hope? It’s almost the most important aspect of how to be human—how to keep going.”
Humour helps. Toews’ novels are not only honest and sad—they’re funny too. She feels a part of moving forward is learning how to go on to laugh again. But most of all, grief helps. It helps us understand. It helps us grow.
“Grief is such a mysterious, kind of beautiful and profoundly difficult process. It comes in waves. There’s something so rich about grieving—so profound about what we learn about ourselves and what’s meaningful to us,” says Toews.
“The idea of losing somebody and thinking we’re never going to see that person again is a startling, stunning, really disconcerting, and definitely very sad thing. Grief is how we deal with that, and go about our lives, always with the loss that we take with us. Grief is shocking in the possibility to learn about ourselves and life and joy and appreciation and gratitude. Hopefully, it makes us stronger and better.”
I’ve given a copy of All My Puny Sorrows to countless people over the past year. I’ve shared the story with friends and partners and family members. But I’ve struggled to pick it up and enter the story, from beginning to end, once again. I read it at a particularly painful time in my past, one distinctly marked by loss. In the months leading up to when I purchased my copy, a family member had died and the relationship I was in had ended. I was in the midst of trying to help a suicidal friend want to stay alive. My first encounter with All My Puny Sorrows was moving and invaluable and difficult. But it also belonged to a period in time I didn’t wish to return to.
I read the novel again before the interview and I’m grateful I did. Still, when I admit my hesitation to Toews, she understands. She tells me returning to a book which has been significant to us is a lot like reflecting on—and writing about—periods of grief.
“I’m afraid sometimes to read books I read at certain points in my life. I remember them having such a huge impact on me,” she says. “When I think of some of the harder times in my life and what I was reading in those times, I try to recreate the impact of the book because that’s what we want. We want that visceral experience with that book without having to remember who or how we were back then.”
“It’s always an interesting way that we try and respect and pay homage to our former selves. To respect the pain we’ve experienced, the loss, whatever it is. But not to stay there, not to dwell in it. It’s always all that forward momentum.”
Madi Haslam studies journalism and contemporary philosophy at the University of King’s College. She also contributes to the Halifax arts publication The Arts Abstract. You can follow her on twitter @mhaslam_.