Miriam Toews in Peterborough (May 21 - 2015)

and How Humour can make us Sad

After Day One of the Contesting Canada’s Future conference at Trent University (May 21-23, 2015), I felt like a break from all the talking, listening, and thinking, but couldn’t resist one more session.  That evening, at Peterborough’s Market Hall theatre,  Miriam Toews  gave a reading and a bit of her time to fans.

Toews has written many books, and any one of them could have supported an evening’s conversation.  But her latest, All My Puny Sorrows, naturally served as the touchstone for introductions and most questions on this occasion.  In the form of a novel, the book tells the true story (the way only fiction can do sometimes) of her close, tense, always loving relationship with her sister, the complexity of mental illness, and then suicide.  An earlier Toews work dealt with her father’s depression and, again, suicide.

Reviewers call the new one “desperately sad,” “unbearably sad” and just “sad.”

With this, you might not expect those reviews to also talk about humour and the funny
side of the story.   But they almost always do, and perhaps surprisingly to those who only know of the general subject matter of her works, Miriam Toews, a humour-writing award winner as well as winner of big literature prizes, likes to laugh, make jokes, and smile.

In fact, she did a lot of that on this night in Peterborough when she was forced, for the first time in her life, to use glasses at a reading.  She joked around, a few times pushing them up and down on her head like a Star Wars storm trooper flicking his visor.

During the talk and then later in less formal interactions, Toews sought assurances that what she called her “jokes” were really funny.  By this she meant, the humorous parts of Puny Sorrows.  At first, I took this as a sign that she really would like more recognition as a humour writer.

And this inspired the humour writing student in me.

But as she spoke about this feature of her book, it became clear that her motive in writing humour is the same as any other exercise of her writing skills.   She just wanted to do justice to the story and, in this case, to her sister’s memory.   She wanted readers to feel her sister’s humour and fun side, which was intertwined with that desperately sad, long walk toward suicide.  The humour amplifies the sadness.

Think about it.  The people you miss the most are often those who made you laugh and can still make you smile when recalled by a humorous passage in sad book or when just talking, listening, and thinking.
DBD
May 2015