A number of months ago the City of Steinbach approved a new honourary street sign policy. As soon as I heard about it and read the criteria, I immediately thought this this was perfect opportunity for our community to honour our most notable literary export Miriam Toews. To me, she was the most obvious name to affix to one of these street signs. She is a literary icon, an author of important, brilliant, and often hilarious, books.
By honouring Miriam, we honour the arts; we honour storytelling; we honour the truth.
Unfortunately, writing fiction has not always been a respected profession for our Kleine Gemeinde ancestors, the folks who settled Steinbach in 1874. While not referring specifically to the Kleine Gemeinde, Katie Funk Wiebe writes in The Mennonite Encyclopedia, how some Mennonites have historically discouraged “the telling of tall stories … or any made-up story told as being true,” while some groups “prefer true stories to fiction.” My own great-aunt describes in her memoirs that she was raised to believe that laughter was a temptation of Satan and was shocked one day to hear her father and uncles laughing heartily.
By honouring Miriam Toews, we say as a community that we respect and honour her achievements and simultaneously communicate that, in some small way, we’ve changed our views on the importance of story-telling within our community.
This is a topic I’m passionate about and have written about in the past. When A Complicated Kindness was published, long before I’d published any books myself, I wrote an editorial for the Free Press about the topic. In recent years, I’ve chatted with various publications on the topic, including most recently The Globe and Mail. And, as some reviews have mentioned, I’ve written about this topic in my novel Once Removed. Despite what some folks assume, though, the fictional Elsie Dyck of Once Removed is not Miriam Toews. Not in any literal sense. I was thinking, too, of Rudy Wiebe and Di Brandt and other Mennonite writers who’ve had trouble finding acceptance in their communities (to put it lightly), but the parallels to Miriam and Steinbach, I admit, are strong. In the novel, the local Preservation Society is trying to preserve the home of a famous local writer, who’s been cast out of her community for “making it look bad.” “Elsie Dyck is bad for business,” the mayor says.
So why isn’t Miriam accepted in her home town? First, I would argue that for the vast majority of residents, she actually is. While this has not yet been reflected with any public or official recognition, anecdotally I find that most Steinbachers appreciate her books. Of course, Steinbach has grown significantly and there are thousands of newcomers who either aren’t aware of her work or who don’t understand what the controversy is all about. Most people I ask (not everyone, of course) are excited about the possibility of honouring her in some way. I recognize that this may reflect the company I keep. Still, the fact that it seems not difficult at all to find such company, seems to indicate, if nothing else, a general shift in perception about her here in Steinbach.
Of course, not everyone is a fan. But, as Nancy Macdonald wrote in the recent Globe and Mail article on the topic, those who aren’t fans are reluctant to go on record. Why are they not as vocal as they once were (circa A Complicated Kindness)? Perhaps they know that, even in Steinbach, their opinion is a quickly-fading minority. The pro-Miriam crowd has won. This can be attributed to the tremendous power of her work.
That being said, of course I have heard, here and there, criticism of Miriam’s works here in town. This is not even a joke – almost always they have not read her books. But some are concerned that she’s made their family members look bad. I understand the human instinct to defend one’s family, but at the same time I think this suggests a misunderstanding of literature.
There’s a cognitive bias called spotlight bias, which is the tendency to think people are paying more attention to you than they actually are. You know when you walk into a crowded room and think people are looking at you … or talking about you? Most likely, they are not. That is the spotlight bias. In reality, no one is paying any attention. People are reading her books, but no one outside Steinbach is trying to figure out “who is who.” Literally no one cares. No one is paying attention. That’s not how people read books. This also misses the fact that every writer is from some place, and every writer (every good writer anyway) writes, to some degree, about what they know. This is literally the job of writers. To imagine, yes, but also to observe. And the fact that some folks don’t like it is not unique to Steinbach. I assume her Steinbach critics read other books by other authors, too, but they’re not aware or paying any attention to whatever controversy might be arising in the hometowns of those authors. In the 60’s and 70’s, residents of Neepawa, for example, were not too keen on Margaret Laurence’s fictional depiction of their town, either. Now her childhood home is a museum.
It’s really too bad that Nancy Macdonald’s Globe and Mail article could not have included Women Talking‘s weeklong stay at the Keystone Cinema this week. (Nancy was in town a few weeks ago and the film just played in Steinbach this week.) It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience to watch this film here in Steinbach; to see the line-ups; to see the crowds. I saw people there I would never have expected would show up to a film like this, people who might not even show up to movies in general. On Wednesday, after the screening, Erin and I had the privilege of hosting a conversation with the film’s costume designer Quita Alfred at The Public in Steinbach. This, too, was a packed house.
On Wednesday, even before the film started, I had trouble containing my emotions (I know, I know, such a Mennonite thing–containing your emotions), and I can’t express how meaningful it was for us to see hundreds of folks show up to see this film in Miriam’s hometown. The line was so long they had to start the film 15 minutes late to find a spot for everybody. Read Quita’s Instagram post about it. It was an incredible evening. Important on so many levels.
Here’s a fact: Steinbach loves Miriam Toews.
We’re cheering for Women Talking at the Oscars.
I can’t say right now how it might look or what will happen, but we will honour her in some way. It might not be an Oscar, but it’s something.