A Complicated Kindness
Nomi’s New Religion
Miriam Toews’ novel, A Complicated Kindness, delves into the concept of Mennonite martyrdom. Looking back into the history of violence, the Mennonites experienced during the Reformation and later in the Russian Revolution, Toews looks forward to the modern day, charting the effects of this martyr script as it transformed over time. Here, Toews follows a pair of sisters – Tash and Nomi – as they navigate their lives as Mennonites, both rebelling against and embracing their Mennonite community while experiencing violence at the hands of that same community. This violence is portrayed as a new wave of martyrdom, this time affected by the Mennonite community itself as it turned inward against its own members. The sister pair is offered as representative martyrs of the new oppressor – the Mennonite community. Through the reversal of the expected roles in the martyr/martyrer dyad, Toews decries these types of martyrdoms where martyrs are created by those within the Mennonite community.
Toward the close of the novel, Toews forces the reader to rethink the martyrdom discussion yet again as Nomi comes to a new and complex understanding of life and her community as a whole spurred on by her provisional New Religion based on the tenets of Mennonite religion, such as love, forgiveness and redemption but rejecting the concept of a life after this. In this way, Toews claims the binaries erected throughout the novel are unhelpful – in fact, are harmful – tools with which to build identity, calling for an eradication of binaries altogether. Toews skillfully weaves a postmodern counterplot that denies the crux of much of Mennonite literature that has held so tightly to the martyr complex, opting for a more mysterious way of being and believing in the world.
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