In 2010, the sister of the writer Miriam Toews committed suicide. After that, the Canadian writer decided that she would not write again. Ten years earlier, her father had also thrown himself onto the tracks and she felt “frozen and filled with pain”. But “time passed and passed and passed.” “That’s when I knew I had to write,” he tells EL PAÍS during the Queretaro Hay Festival in early September. It was around this time that Toews began writing Little unimportant misfortunesthe novel about his sister’s death, which he published in 2014 in English and which Sexto Piso has just published in Spanish with a translation by Julia Osuna Aguilar.
Toews (Steinbach, 58) is one of the most relevant Canadian authors of his generation. The novelist grew up in a strict Mennonite community, which she left at the age of 18 – she wrote about it in Complicated Kindness, Irma Voth or They are talking-. After his father’s death, his mother also left the community and now lives with the Toews in Toronto.
Little unimportant misfortunes tells of the tension between the Von Riesen sisters. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live. And we were enemies who loved each other,” Yolandi, the narrator, says of her older sister. They are in the hospital and Yolandi doesn’t understand that Elfrida has tried to kill herself again: “Can’t you be more like the others, normal and sad and with your shit, alive and with a guilty conscience? Drum and smoke like there’s no tomorrow and play the piano like shit. Shit!” Now Toews is the one speaking: “I finally got to see her mental pain. She begged me to help her die, but I didn’t. This is very difficult and yet it would be the right thing to do.
I ask. In the novel, Elfrida wants to die and her sister Yolandi tries to prevent it. But then the youngest begins to accept the will of the older sister. Is that changing?
Answer. This realization has parallels in my own life. This is what happened. We knew for a long time that my sister wanted to die and we did everything to keep her alive, which is impossible, but we tried. She was begging me to take her to a clinic in Switzerland to have a medically assisted death. [Era] the alternative of dying so violently and alone, which is how most suicides work. If I had taken her to Switzerland, she could have been surrounded by love and peace. And the same thing happens to Yolandi in the book, who, after one of her many suicide attempts, tells her sister, “Now you have to fight.” My sister said to me, “Miriam, you know, I’ve been fighting for 30 years.” In retrospect, I feel I should have had the compassion and generosity to let her go.
P. Yolandi tells her sister to be “normal and sad” like “the others”.
R. I think it’s true on the one hand. But on the other hand, it is ignorant to say that when someone is suffering from a real illness. Anxiety is part of the human condition, we all suffer, we all despair. But this suffering can also be a pathology.
P. Why do you think it’s so hard to accept that people are suffering?
R. i don’t understand To be human is to suffer and also to be happy. These days everyone says “take this pill, do this or that”. And I don’t think it’s possible to achieve complete happiness. It is a lie to think we can ever achieve this.
P. With the title of the book, Little unimportant misfortunesit seems to lessen its own pain.
R. The title comes from a poem by Samuel Coleridge. He says that after his sister’s death, he no longer has anyone to tell about his “little unimportant misfortunes”. I wanted to use a line from the poem because my sister was a big fan of Coleridge and the romantic poets. But also because my sorrows are nothing compared to suffering from mental illness, from clinical depression, from this mental despair, from this desire to die.
P. How did you manage to treat such a sad subject with humor?
R. It’s not something I set out to do on purpose. It’s just the way I see the world, which is a ridiculous and absurd place, but it’s also a tragic place. The two things are intertwined, one cannot do without the other. And this is my view on life. I also wanted to write something that… Obviously, my sister won’t be able to read it because she’s not here anymore, but if she does, she’ll be like, “Okay, good jokes.” She has always been something of a muse for me, she was in very high demand and I always wanted to make her laugh.
P. How important is humor to you?
R. is of significant importance. I’d say it’s everything. We joke around a lot in my family. My father, who also took his own life, and my sister suffered a lot and the role I was given from a very young age, from day one, was to be almost a clown. The big challenge was getting them to smile, it was almost like a competition in our family. Which isn’t to say I don’t get into some really low, awful, just plain despicable places. In these moments it is very difficult to find the light and to find the joke, the comedy, the humor, but it is always so necessary.
P. Do you draw a line between your life and fiction? Is this something you think about how far to count?
R. I think I’ve managed to separate fiction from reality. I hope so, or he would definitely need psychiatric help. But yeah, absolutely, I think about it all the time. There are many things I keep to myself. But on the other hand, I have long understood that I will use my life, my experience for my work, for my art, and that carries risks. For me, writing is necessary to live and to maintain my sanity. I am willing to share my life in hopes that I can connect with other human beings. This way I feel less alone and I hope my readers do too.
P. Has there been more talk about mental health in Canada since you wrote the book in 2014?
R. There is definitely something to talk about. Corporations, schools, society at large are saying, “Okay, let’s talk about it, let’s address the mental health of our employees, our students, our citizens.” But there’s a lot of talk. I don’t really see much of a change. I think there’s still a lack of education around it, a lack of tolerance and a quickness to judgement, you know? This person is crazy, this person is mentally ill and therefore violent and therefore unemployed and therefore homeless… These are stereotypes and misconceptions. Mental health research and funding is simply non-existent. Access to psychiatric help, for example, is impossible. You have to wait a year or two and it’s not covered by the public system so you have to pay out of pocket and most people can’t afford it.
P. In the novel, he describes a lot of hostile attention.
R. Of course, there are great psychiatrists and great nurses, but there is a kind of infantilization of patients who are there because they suffer, because they need care. They are often made to feel responsible for their own illness, they are not taken seriously, they are not treated with respect and it is quite heartbreaking.
P. Aren’t you uncomfortable talking to strangers about such personal things?
R. No. I feel obligated not to sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. Because it doesn’t help anyone and it keeps you in the dark and makes it kind of scary. People don’t want to think about it and I understand and respect that. But I personally want to talk about it as much as possible with anyone who will listen and hopefully the more we talk about it the better we can deal with it and hopefully prevent it from happening . Suicide has always been with us, always will be. Fortunately, there are all kinds of people who talk about it and try not to stigmatize it so much or consider it immoral, a sin. Churches condemn the act of suicide and it is terrible. We have to feel compassion and try to understand how people can get to the point of believing that this is the best they can do.
P. The media hardly talks about suicide.
R. Because they think there will be imitators. I’ve seen it many times. They don’t want to say the cause of death because they think that will open the door for other people to have ideas. [similares], which seems a bit ridiculous to me. I don’t think this is a good idea. People are suffering alone, suicide survivors, people who have tried to kill themselves and can’t talk about it because, you know, people don’t want to hear it…
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