Miriam Toews on her new novel, Irma Voth

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A sneak peek at The Next Chapter (04/11/11)


For the eponymous protagonist of Miriam Toews' new novel, language is everything.

She embroiders "dangerous" words like anger and lust into her dresses and her underwear. She keeps a journal filled with deliberate mistranslations.

"Words are a weapon," Toews told host Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview on The Next Chapter. "The act of writing down words that contradict the things that you've been taught [...] For [Irma], writing is a subversive act."

A 19-year-old Mennonite living on a remote settlement in the Mexican desert, Irma has almost nothing but words to keep her going. She was abandoned by her husband for failing to be a good wife and rejected by her community for marrying outside the faith.

But when a film crew shows up to make a movie about Mexican Mennonites, the arrival of the English- and Spanish-speaking workers and their "worldly" views opens up a realm of possibilities — and perhaps also a can of worms. Irma gradually becomes aware that if she ever wants to escape the constraints of her conservative religious upbringing (not to mention her increasingly violent father), she has no choice but to flee her home for Mexico City.

This is, however, not the only journey Irma embarks upon during the story. In fact, she's been on a journey the entire time — a journey to becoming herself or, at least, discovering who she would like to become. But although she may be able to escape the geography of her community, running away from the events of her past is not so easy.

"She's trying to figure out how she can forgive herself in addition to forgiving her father," Toews explained.

It's in that same subversive act of writing that she finds the strength to try to do so.


Read a full review of the book here.

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