In her fourth novel, an acclaimed Canadian writer transforms a stranger-than-fiction experience into a memorable coming-of-age tale.
Mexican director Carlos Reygadas cast you in his film Silent Light, which was shot in much the same way as the film in Irma Voth. How did that experience shape the novel?
I wouldn’t say that my experience with Silent Light shaped the novel, but it was certainly the source of it. I had never been in a film before and I was unfamiliar with the whole process, which at times seemed utterly chaotic. I couldn't always follow what was going on. Often the crew would be conferring in a Spanish I couldn’t understand, often I’d be off to the side waiting as big decisions were being made . . . it was easy to extend my own unfamiliarity and bewilderment to the character of Irma Voth. Here’s this young girl, raised in a conservative Mennonite encampment in a remote part of Mexico, suddenly surrounded by men and women smoking and drinking, talking about sex openly and whose creative pursuits and their ways of getting there are wildly exotic. She comes to respect the director’s vision though. In a way, it’s only her interior landscape that finds affinity with that incoherence and chaos. I think all her actions are pretty logical though.
You grew up in a Mennonite community and wrote about that world beautifully in A Complicated Kindness. In previous interviews, you’ve said that you weren’t going to write about Mennonites again. What about this story made you return to this subject?
I think I said that during a couple interviews in the whirlwind of promoting A Complicated Kindness. But that was presumptuous of me because one can never truly say what settings and characters will appear in future novels. So many authors return time and again to the communities they know intimately; there they find the stories that are universal to all of us. My Mennonite background is a big part of who I am and it’s an identity I can work with and explore in various ways, directly or obliquely. Everyone in this world defines themselves against some kind of authority, whether religious, familial or social. For a few of my characters, that authority has turned out to be Mennonite fundamentalism. Obviously this is not to suggest that all Mennonites are fundamentalist.
Irma Voth is about a young woman in the process of finding herself, and writing is an important part of her journey. She keeps a journal and embroiders subversive words on the inside of her clothes. Why are words so important for Irma?
Words wouldn’t be so important to Irma if she had a husband she could turn to, or a father who was not so authoritarian. It’s her circumstances that make words so vital to her. She lives in the desert, she looks after cows, she has no stimulation. She’s not a particularly literary person or anything, but words are the only tools she has access to and she writes more out of desperation and urgency than anything else. But then she discovers herself through them: by trying to memorize a poem that Wilson has recited to her, for example, or by changing words until she begins to impose her voice—her style—over top of reality. By inventing her own way of weaving words, she is turning real, lived experiences into imaginative experiences, and this gives her the courage she needs, especially when she and her sister are traveling up to Mexico City with a baby, not sure of where they’ll stay or how they’ll survive.
There are many references to art and making art in the novel—from the filmmakers in the desert to the fascination Aggie has for the Diego Rivera murals in Mexico City. How does art assist your characters on their journey?
Irma and Aggie find their authority—God, the Bible, the religious men with all their injunctions—at home, in their Mennonite community. They find another authority in the artistic community, and it’s one that gives them more space to decide on their own beliefs and behaviours. Irma quickly sees it’s not a loving community, hypocritical like any other, but she spots the possibility of personal redemption of some kind, through art, and it's transformative powers.
You write so thoughtfully about the positives and negatives of growing up within a religious community. With the popularity of Amish fiction and TV programs like "Sister Wives," it's obviously a topic of interest in the culture at large. Why do you think these stories are so fascinating?
I think you’re referring to the curiosity people have, not so much with religious communities, but with utopian communities. All of us have considered renouncement of the ugly, duplicitous world at some time or other, so these people who have removed themselves from the world can seem attractive. So often though, human beings cannot live up to the founding ideals of these utopian communities. Even so, they remain attractive, especially for people who have trouble navigating the “real world.” You don’t have to think so much, constantly consider your values and assess situations and make decisions. Instead, you just obey, let decisions be made for you, kind of like joining the army. That’s pretty appealing.
What do you hope readers will take away from Irma Voth?
I’m genuinely excited for friends and readers to pick up this book and engage with the ideas. You read to feel less alone but you also write to be less alone. It's a continuing conversation with readers, a connection that somehow hopefully softens our aloneness, if I can use that word, even if we never meet face to face.