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  • Freedom to Know Me: The Conflict between Identity and Mennonite Culture in Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness

    Rita Dirks

    Chapter from the book: Jonsson, H et al. 2021. Narratives Crossing Borders: The Dynamics of Cultural Interaction.

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    In Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness (2004; Giller Prize finalist; winner of Canada's Governor General's Award) Nomi Nickel, a sixteen-year-old Mennonite girl from southern Manitoba, Canada, tells the story of her short life before her excommunication from the closed community of the fictional East Village. East Village is based on a real town in southern Manitoba called Steinbach (where Toews was born), where Mennonite culture remains segregated from the rest of the world to protect its distinctive Anabaptist Protestantism and to keep its language, Mennonite Low German or Plattdeutsch, a living language, one which is both linguistically demotic yet ethnically hieratic because of its role in Mennonite faith. Since the Reformation, and more precisely the work of Menno Simons after whom this ethno-religious group was christened, Mennonites have used their particular brand of Low German to separate themselves from the rest of humankind. Toews constructs her novel as a multilingual narrative, to represent the cultural and religious tensions within.

    Set in the early 1980s, A Complicated Kindness details the events that lead up to Nomi’s excommunication, or shunning; Nomi’s exclusion is partly due to her embracing of the “English” culture through popular, mostly 1970s, music and books such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Insofar as Toews’s novel presents the conflict between the teenaged narrator and the patriarchal, conservative Mennonite culture, the books stands at the crossroads of negative and positive freedom. Put succinctly, since the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, Mennonites have sought negative freedom, or freedom from persecution, yet its own tenets foreclose on the positive freedom of its individual members. This problem reaches its most intense expression in contemporary Mennonitism, both in Canada and in the EU, for Mennonite culture returns constantly to its founding precepts, even through the passage of time, coupled with diasporic history. Toews presents this conflict between this early modern religious subculture and postmodern liberal democracy through the eyes of a sarcastic, satirical Nomi, who, in this Bildungsroman, must solve the dialectic of her very identity: literally, the negative freedom of No Me or positive freedom of Know Me.

    As Mennonite writing in Canada is a relatively new phenomenon, about 50 years old, the question for those who call themselves Mennonite writers arises in terms of deciding between new, migrant, separate-group writing and writing as English-speaking Canadians.

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    How to cite this chapter
    Dirks, R. 2021. Freedom to Know Me: The Conflict between Identity and Mennonite Culture in Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness. In: Jonsson, H et al (eds.), Narratives Crossing Borders. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16993/bbj.b
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    This is an Open Access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (unless stated otherwise), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright is retained by the author(s).

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    This book has been peer reviewed. See our Peer Review Policies for more information.

    Additional Information

    Published on June 15, 2021

    DOI
    https://doi.org/10.16993/bbj.b


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