‘Mennonite memes, like our food, make for a rich diet’: 5 Questions With Author Mitch Toews

Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. When an insufficient number of, “We are pleased to inform you…” emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between water and sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin.
Mitch’s writing has appeared in numerous literary magazines online and in print, including anthologies and collections. Some of these, from the UK and Ireland, Canada, and the USA, are riverbabble, CommuterLit, Best of Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Storgy, LingoBites, The MOON magazine, Fictive Dream, Blank Spaces, Just Words, Cabinet of Heed, Pulp Literature, Doorknobs & Bodypaint, Scarlet Leaf Review, and River Poets Journal. His short story Sweet Caporal at Dawn has been nominated by Blank Spaces Magazine for the Pushcart Prize. Details at https://mitchellaneous.com and http://bit.ly/ToewsProseonGoodreads
The author is hoping to collaborate soon on a screenplay of his seaside trilogy The Bottom of the Sky, and is hard at work on a novel set in the noireal forest.

How much of your writing is inspired by (or, a reaction to) various aspects of your hometown?

I was born here and Steinbach and the Mennonite Borscht Belt are a hovering omnipresence in many of my stories. I have a novel on the go too, and that has its schooh firmly planted in gooey prairie clay. I give the town and Menno characters a rest in stories like The Log Boom and The Rothmans Job, only because sometimes I need a break. Mennonite memes, like our food, make for a rich diet. I try to tell stories that hit a balance: some proud and others critical of my hometown and Mennonite culture and society. For me, the old Steinbach of the Sixties is particularly appealing. Nostalgia abrades the rough edges, I guess. I find in that old Steinbach of 3,000 closely knit, inter-related souls a community that knew unerringly what it was. Even when I disagreed with the actions—like sending teenage girls home from school because their jeans were too tight—and might look twice to see where Eric Idle and John Cleese were, disguised in (daily) bonnets and aprons, Steinbach’s persona was reasonably unvarnished, uniform and predictable. “This is who we are.” My belief today—(from afar, I’m quick to admit)—is that the compass point is a little less resolute now. I wonder about the collusion between industry and government and church, these days. Didn’t the original Molotschnan Gemeinde flee that very same troika? Oh well, I live out in da bush, so that’s not my plate of plauts.

Has anything you’ve written ever generated controversy?

The Business of Saving Souls, Groote Pieter, and I Am Otter all have some prickle.

A fair bit of your writing is peppered with Plautdietsch… at the same time, you’re developing quite a following in the UK and Australia. How much time do you spend translating for folks who are unfamiliar with Low German?

Now THAT was and continues to be a (very cool) surprise. My earliest success was mostly in the UK and Ireland (with one accessible editor in Toronto, and a much-treasured placement in Rhubarb) and I continue to submit and receive acceptances and comments from those geos. The stories about Steinbach and Mennonites are, to many overseas readers, like speculative fiction. To them, we are as foreign and arcane as Martians and Klingons! The earthy characters, the un-glossed Plautdietsch, and the place descriptions—many of the prairie and the boreal forest—seem to be well received. I connected with a few people in England and took on a London-based freelance editor. He’s a Cambridge lad and we are of the opposites-attract sub-genus. He’s a young MFA from a huge metropolitan city. I’m… not. But, he is also the grand master of the Mennonite Wannabe club and I’m his pusher-man. He encourages me to plunk in as much Plaut as I want, but to give it a solid foundation in context. I am reminded of reading Roth, Steinbeck (Tortilla Flat!), Birdsell, Toews, and Richler who did the same with both words and idiom. Those greats italicized most of their Yiddish, Espanol, Russian, Plautdietsch, but otherwise offered no definition or glossary. I have come to the point of just laying in the odd Plautdietsch brick, no italics, just mudded right in there and see if it goes to hold out! I’m unilingual, so I have to rely on Jack Thiessen’s brilliant Mennonite Low German Dictionary to interpret my rag-tag Plautdietsch vocabulary made up mostly of inappropriate things to say in bars. (Thanks a lot, high school buddies!) I also count on several Plautdietsch-gifted friends who are reliably appropriate.

What Mennonite, living or dead, would you most like to hang out with?

I wouldn’t mind having a beer with my Great-Great Grandfather (Delegate) Toews, the late Delbert Plett, a historian of high repute and entertaining repartee, and Matt Groening. Armin Wiebe could take my place at the table and I’d just eavesdrop. But, the best hang-outress would have to be my Great-Grandmother Sarah Toews. Her husband John (the gristmill-building son of Delegate Toews), was given the BOOT by his church for attending a Salvation Army event in Winnipeg. Sarah, left with the bleak option of shunning her husband or leaving the church, said YAHTZEE! Oma and Opa sued the church. Yes, they did. Please imagine the jrett of this woman, taking on an all-male bastion of holier-than-all-o-y’all deacons, the pastor, the lawyers and judges. In rural Manitoba in the 1920’s. Keep in mind that women had just been given the right to vote a few years earlier and were not exactly burning their bras in those days. Yeah, I’d bring my granddaughter Hazel to hang out at that schnette jeräde!

What’s the most Mennonite thing you’ve ever done?

Christmas Eve in the darkened, warm church when our kids were little, the singing, the Sunday School programs, the frantic-but-polite rush to get home for presents, the tütes—all that would be the SECOND-most Menno thing. (Although that is so heartwarming and fond. Our youngest used to talk about the “activity” scene when she was an outspoken toddler.) The most Menno thing was at a Grace Church family retreat up at Gimli. On the agenda was “Men’s Swimming”. It was decided in a democratic fashion that water polo was the way we would use our pool time away from the ladies and kids. This was in the Tom Selleck eighties and so we split up into teams of “facial hair” and “no facial hair”. There was no polo involved, Marco or otherwise. It was straight-up murderball. What happens under the water stays under the water – deacon, pastor, aufjefollna, and third-string usher alike. We pacifists made war. Dutch Blitzkrieg. It was more splash than harm, but still hand-to-hand combat with much cursing (while submerged), knee vs. Speedo trauma, and other acts of sheer, glorious violence. I felt bonded and infused with a chlorine-scented sense of kin. Weird, eh? Mennonites as regular guys. Wealth, piety, status, conference, pew or pedigree, Russländer or Kanadier – all of no interest or consequence. All that mattered was beard or no beard.