Monday, 5 January 2015

School Reflections on Mennonite Culture and "A Complicated Kindness"

This post requires a brief introduction so you will understand what you're reading. In the last few months, I've been working on upgrading my Grade 12 English credit. In the course, I had to read two of three novels, and write three reader response journals for each. One of the books I chose was A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, a novel set in a Mennonite community in Manitoba in the 1970-80s. I was intrigued by a book about my culture and thought it would be great to connect to. I did have to meet a few content requirements, but I liked how the format of this assignment allowed me to express my views and write about Mennonite culture, and I decided to share one response journal on my blog.

Having said that, I want to add that I cannot recommend this book. Readers that know me personally will quickly understand why. The more I read, the more disturbed I became and it certainly had an unhealthy effect on me. However, I also appreciated how the author exposed some of the problems in Mennonite cultures and I really connected to some of the points she brought out. I have tried to be as sensitive as possible in detailing these. Please understand that this is a personal perspective and reflects my understanding and experience of being a Mennonite.


Reader Response Journal 1 for A Complicated Kindness Chapters 1-10

So first I want to vent about how I feel about this book. On a whole, I haven't been impressed. It's a mockery of not only Mennonites, but particularly of the Christian faith. The only way the author can get away with all the use of profanity, including profaning God, is because the story is told from the perspective of a girl who is rebelling against her culture. Having said that, Toews effectively tears down the outward image of Mennonite culture and gets a lot of points about the culture bang on!

While I'm on the topic of my reactions to this book, I may as well expand more. Although I grew up in a different Mennonite culture in a different time, I can understand a lot of what Nomi is working through. I understand that although the characters profess religion and go to church on Sundays, there is a huge youth culture full of sex, drugs, alcohol and rebellion. What happens down at the pits is really not far-fetched. What did surprise me was the author's use of profanity, and particularly using the names of God as swear words. This is generally not acceptable in Mennonite culture, or the Christian faith. The reason she uses it though is to show the Nomi who inside has completely turned away from everything she has been taught growing up, as well as to authenticate characters like Tash and Travis. This was definitely a big disappointment to me, but it does show Nomi's troubled life, as well as the youth culture among many Mennonite groups.

Something that surprised me in a good way was the community's focus on third-world missions, aside from the fact that people are often compelled to serve out of guilt or because of manipulative threats. Depending on the community, this is something that is certainly not always common. In fact, in some churches, actively proselytizing can be very looked down upon. However, on the flip-side, in many Mennonite circles, serving the poor or reaching out through missions is an important way of demonstrating faith.

I don't feel very warmly about the characters. Nomi's a rebel who describes herself as a "sad, cynical pothead." (p.32) I don't find much about her likeable. But at the same time, I pity her, because she, along with her family, and all the people around her are trapped in a religion that is all about dos and don'ts, but it doesn't actually change them. They have the Bible pushed down their throats, but they don't "get it". The result is, of course, misery. I like her dad, Ray. I can't say I'm drawn to her mom, or sister. Travis seems like the kind of guy who will, sooner or later, be most interested in getting into Nomi's pants. Although a little more thoughtful about things, he seems to encourage her increasing substance abuse. I don't like him either.

There are things that Nomi says that really hit the nail on the head, specific ideas and mentalities I could really connect with. "We've been hand-picked. We're on the fast track, singled out, and saved." (p.17) What Nomi describes here is the idea that is common in some Mennonite communities that they're a sort of elite people, almost like a special people to God that will be saved, and everyone else will be condemned. Very wrong, might I add. In Chapter 7, Nomi describes the town she lives in, in relation to the museum village. "It's right next to the real town, this one, which is not really real. It's a town that exists based on the idea of it not existing in the world." (p.47-48) Nomi understands that their community denies the pleasures of this world so they can enjoy the next, but she doesn't know what they will be. She makes a good point here. When having a conversation with her teacher, she hits the nail on the head when she says, "I want to know what it's like to be forgiven by another human being (I was stoned, obviously) and not have to wait around all my life anxiously wondering if I'm an okay person or not and having to die to find out." (p.48) This statement really describes her confusion. In the church I grew up in, and in many Mennonite churches, a common belief is that a person cannot know if they're saved and going to heaven. We were taught that Jesus died for our sins, so we could go to heaven, but that was about it. The rest was up to us. We had to try to live a good life, make our good outweigh our bad, and hope, that maybe, just maybe, we'd make it into heaven. Hell was used to scare little children when they did something bad. If a person claimed to be saved or born again, they were gone off the deep end, and quite possibly rejected by their family. This seems to me to be at the heart of what Nomi can't understand and why she sees their faith as fantasy. It's a "reject-everything-here-in-hopes-of-something-better, in-hopes-we-can-make-it-in" way of life. This is what really saddens me about the culture.

I really appreciated when Nomi said, "Somehow all the problems of the world manage to get into our town but not the strategies to deal with them." (p.52) This is so true. Mennonites are human, just like everyone else, and many of the same problems exist, whether it's drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, abuse, or promiscuity. But many communities do not seem to have solutions to deal with them, aside from discipline or excommunication, which doesn't actually help the people.

There were other little things that made me excited, like chocolate puffed wheat balls. At home, we press it into a pan and cut it into squares. Simple, but always a nice light snack. I got a good laugh when she mentioned how Mennonites stare! Can they ever! Although this is likely largely stereotypical, I can almost see a line of little Mennonite kids standing at the border line of the neighbour's property, just staring! And Knipsbrat, which I learned later was called crokinole in English. I played that as a kid. It was one of those safe, acceptable Mennonite games. Oh, and can't forget the messy, bloody, and smelly job of butchering chickens. Like Nomi, I can't imagine doing that for a living!

What I found interesting and somewhat surprising was that children read Narnia books, and Ray gives Nomi a copy of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. This may really vary by community, but fiction books weren't of great value when I was a child, and fantasy in particular can be a controversial genre in conservative Christian/Mennonite circles. Lewis can be a controversial writer, and people have mixed feelings about Narnia. The allegory is probably the main redeeming factor, and that the witch is actually depicted as bad. Personally, I enjoy Lewis's work, but I was surprised that this is part of the education system in Nomi's community.

I also connected to Nomi's love and desire to see New York City, but for a reason totally different from hers. I was never drawn, per se, to big cities as a kid, but in the past year and a half, I spent over 20 weeks in Staten Island. What brought me there was actually the fact that I was a Mennonite. I was volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service while they were helping clean up and rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy. I loved being in NY, I got to see different sights, and I loved volunteering with this organization I hadn't hear about before. It also greatly challenged the way I viewed my Mennonite heritage, which I had lost a great deal of respect for. To be quite honest, I didn't even like being considered a Mennonite anymore. But working with other Mennonites in a disaster relief project helped me to see many of the different Mennonite cultures from Canada and the U.S. I also got to know and made friends with people from churches I had little to no respect for, and began to see them differently. I saw that there were people who actually had a genuine, active faith. It did exist among them, even if it wasn't the case with nearly all of them, or at least among the ones I knew. This experience also resulted in something else interesting. I had the opportunity to share my experiences at a number of fundraising and awareness events, and my audience was many times, people from the culture I came out of. Yes, like in Nomi's story, the women sit on one side of the church, while the men sat on the other. It is certainly not the norm to have a young, single woman speak to them! I have often been amazed at the opportunities I had to share with this culture. I am curious to see what will come of Nomi's desire to see New York City and how it will impact her.

The style of A Complicated Kindness is unique and surprising in some ways. It's told in the first-person narrative, Nomi being the narrator. It's effective, because the reader can get right into her head. The story is written free-form, and is somewhat fragmented. Nomi talks a lot about the past, and the past is often interspersed with what's going on in the present. She has a hard time dealing with her mother and sister leaving, and it really affects her life, so naturally, she talks about it. I find that as the story goes on, the focus shifts more to what's happening in the present. However, she jumps from one topic to the next, and many things she talks about are very random. It's almost like the book is Nomi's diary, and she's just writing about her life and what has happened to her.

One thing I noticed right in the beginning was that Nomi speaks about her parents by using their first names, rather than speaking of them as Mom and Dad. This is unusual. Also, the author very rarely puts dialogue in quotations. I wonder why she chose not to do this. Perhaps this is because a lot of the story is just Nomi processing things, or because it reads in many ways kind of like a diary. The author's writing style strikes me as modernist in some ways. She uses assonance quite a bit, mostly when Nomi is talking of riding her bike. In Chapter 8, Nomi frequently repeats "I like to ride my bike" and tells of the places she goes. The author really gets on a roll with the modernist style on page 37: "We'd stand by our front doors yelling stuff like shalom and Faloma and nice aroma let's build a snowma in the dark, we'd just go on and on, in early Menno rap style, until his dad asked him if he wanted a smack. A smack attack jack? Get back on track!"

A literary device used a lot in this book is sarcasm, especially with Nomi being a cynical character, disgusted by her community. There is a dark mood, over the story. Nomi is to a great extent sad and depressed, with a negative outlook on her life and the world she lives in. The author uses wit, especially in the way that Tash responds to their culture and the aspects that make no sense to her, like when she points out they can't dance but they can have sex with extended family members. (p.49) I'm not used to such closely related people marrying, but the girl certainly makes a great point!

I am interested to see where Nomi will end up, and also how this small glimmer of appreciation she has for her community, in the complicated kindness she experiences, will grow or fade.

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