Friday, October 30, 2015

#CrazyforCanLit: These are OUR stories

In the spirit of #CrazyForCanLit, as well as Women’s History Month, I had a plan to write a blog post about my top five CanLit heroines. However, when I went through my short list of personal favourites, I realized that many of my favourite female characters in Canadian literature were personally connected to me in some way through geography or ethnic background. Here are a couple of my very personal favourites:

Sandra Birdsell’s 2001 Giller-nominated novel, The Russländer, is a very personal read for me. The story follows the life of Katya Vogt, an elderly Mennonite woman living in Winnipeg who remembers her life as a young girl living in Russia at the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Katya's life as a child is mostly happy, but her family eventually becomes caught in the violence that erupts between the wealthy landowners and the impoverished Russian workers. We see the horrifying results of these tensions through Katya's eyes, and watch her attempt to come to terms with this tragedy even as an elderly woman now living safely in Canada. 

This book echoes my own grandmother's experiences about living in Russia as a teenager in the same time period, and gave me a richer understanding of the stoic but unwavering religious faith of my Mennonite ancestors. In recent days, I have thought a lot about these refugee ancestors of mine, who were actually banned from immigrating to Canada between 1919 and 1922, along with Doukhobors and Hutterites, due to their alarming religious views and tendency to not assimilate to the greater Canadian culture. The parallels with current political situations are impossible to ignore, and I credit books like The Russländer with strengthening my empathy towards our modern day refugees of war, because it reminds me that this too is my own history.
While Sandra Birdsell's books have helped me understand how my past helps to mold my present political views, many of Miriam Toews' books relate to me on a more direct level. Toews grew up in the same southern Manitoba town that I did, and her description of East Village in the Giller-nominated and Governor General’s Literary Award-winning book, A Complicated Kindness, describes the Steinbach of my childhood to a T. While my own family wasn't as repressive as Nomi's, I still feel a kinship to a character who is stuck in her small home town, stuck in a religious ethnic identity that she doesn't identify with, and stuck in her own rebellious adolescent mind. I feel like I could have easily written this quote when I was a snarky and self-absorbed teenager:
We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.... Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking , temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
Much has been written about Toews' ability to inject sarcasm or humour into tragic circumstances, which is an aspect of her writing that I didn't notice until other people mentioned it. To me, the black humour in the dialogue and internal narration in A Complicated Kindness and her more recent Giller-nominated book, All My Puny Sorrows, felt familiar and completely expected in the context.

Canadian literature provides readers with a wonderful range of characters with wildly diverse experiences, but when it comes down to it – I love CanLit because I see myself reflected in some of these stories.

No comments:

Post a Comment