One of Canada’s finest spins another classic
Toronto novelist Miriam Toews’ latest a very personal tale
Miriam Toews made the decision to plunge into fiction when she was in Winnipeg working on a radio documentary about single mothers on welfare. It struck her that everything she was learning would make excellent material for a novel, so she abandoned the documentary and used the material to create her own story.
The result? Summer of My Amazing Luck was published in 1996 by a small independent press in Winnipeg, and it was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. Almost 20 years later, she is still writing fiction, with six novels and a slew of awards under her belt.
Her latest, All My Puny Sorrows, follows sisters Yolandi and Elfrieda, whose bond is loaded with a closeness and tenderness that only siblings can share. In spite of this, they are bitterly at odds over one thing: Elfrieda’s wish to die and Yolandi’s to keep her alive. Although the storyline and characters are fictional, the story is very close to her heart: Toews’ own sister committed suicide in 2010 after several failed attempts.
“I wanted to try to make something beautiful from all of that pain and tragedy, and whether I succeeded, the readers will be the judge,” she says.
In addition to showing us this conflict, Toews, who now calls Toronto home, captures the humanity that often is masked by the stigma of mental illness. In spite of its growing pervasiveness, stereotypes stubbornly persist and make life for those affected all the more difficult. Her father was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder (now called bipolar disorder) and her sister with depression. Although people generally react to these types of afflictions with fear, she wants to teach them otherwise.
“My father and sister were decent, fun-loving, funny, smart people, yet they had these horrible, cruel illnesses,” she says. “Part of the hope is that people learn something, are a little bit less afraid, a little more open and come to an understanding of certain things.”
She also touches on the attitudes of psychiatric staff and the tendency to blame patients and make them feel like liabilities, a pill that is difficult for family and loved ones to swallow. She does make the caveat that there are exceptions to this, and that some individuals provide excellent care.
“I see the world as a tragic place, a comical place, an absurd place, a ridiculous place, a heartbreaking place, all of those things,” she says. “And the relationships of the characters of the book, between Elf and Yoli or between Lottie and her daughters or even Yoli with the various men she was with or her kids, there’s humour in that.”
This lightness pervades the entire story. The balance she has struck makes us able to relate regardless of our experiences.