On Every Front: Miriam Toews’ Fight Night

by Natalie Podaima

Natalie Podaima is a writer from Winnipeg, living and working in Montréal. Her work can be found in CV2, PRISM, The Capilano Review, Vallum, and elsewhere.

Fight Night
Miriam Toews
Knopf Canada
2021, 264 pp., $29.95


After meeting Miriam Toews, I cried in the parking lot. It was 2015 and my mom had bought us tickets to her reading at the Millennium Library. I met her at the Osborne Village Cafe after class, just before it closed down for good. It was November. The snow was wet and thick, piling up in the window frames. We watched the cars on Osborne, their back tires spitting up slush when the light turned green.

We arrived early to the auditorium on the second floor but could only find a spot near the back. The crowd was fractured off into small pods, which I later recognized as book clubs.  When Miriam Toews came out to read from All My Puny Sorrows, she didn’t skip around the hard parts. She spoke as if she was letting us in on a little secret.

Then it was time for the signing. We joined the very end of a long line that snaked around the room, weaving around chairs and out the theatre door. I had brought every book she had ever written. I had to pass them to my mom because my palms were sweating and I didn’t want to ruin the dust jackets. The line grew shorter and my heart was beating very quickly. I was counting down the number of people ahead of us, thinking of all of the things I wanted to tell her.

Finally, I was standing before her. My mom nudged me forward. The only thing I could think as I looked at her was It’s so weird that you’re actually real, which I did not mean to say aloud. Miriam Toews looked at me and said Yes, I’m very much real. And very flawed, and laughed, kindly. Her eyes were very big and blue and kind of twinkled. She signed every single one of my books, even though the librarian said there was a limit of two. Then I shook her soft hand with my sweaty one and tried to form a Thank You that simply would not come. She waved goodbye as we left the theatre.

It was very cold and dark in the parking garage. My mom asked me something but I couldn’t think of anything to say. A tear leaked out and then another and I was crying and crying and couldn’t catch my breath. My mom helped me into the car. We listened to the radio and ate cold French fries on the ride home.

Toews’ latest book, Fight Night, follows three generations of women, all living together in Toronto: nine-year-old Swiv, her pregnant mother, and Swiv’s fiery Grandma, Elvira. When Swiv is kicked out of school for getting into one too many fights, Grandma takes on the role of Swiv’s teacher, her classes ranging from How to Dig a Winter Grave to Poached Egg. She gives Swiv the task of writing a letter to her absent father, and Swiv, in turn, gives Grandma her own assignment—to write to Gord, the unborn baby of the family.

Swiv is captivating. She is determined, articulate, and observant. But she’s also only nine. She constantly exaggerates the world around her, and is deeply scared of the unknown, the future in particular. Despite her anxieties, she takes on the self-appointed role of caring for Grandma, helping to clip her toenails and change the batteries in her hearing aid. Grandma also takes care of Swiv, but in a different way—showing her that she belongs and that there is, in fact, a place for her.

Grandma possesses many of Swiv’s most endearing qualities, but with a sense of self-assurance which Swiv has yet to grow into. “At some point in Grandma’s life someone must have threatened to kill her whole family unless she became friends with every single person she met,” Swiv says, as Grandma charms yet another stranger (in this case, a woman from the airline they meet while boarding a plane). Grandma and Swiv are headed to Fresno, California to visit her nephews, an onerous task for the 90-year-old with limited mobility. On the way, Grandma shows Swiv a large cyst that has recently appeared on her arm. “I’m growing another arm to hug you with,” says Grandma. “It’s part of my personal evolution.”

Toews understands the minutiae and subtleties of people’s lives. She illuminates their crooks and corners. They are very much real. And very flawed.

Both Swiv and Grandma hold the same infectious humour and charm as all of Toews’ most beloved characters: Nomi, Tash, Yoli. Each is so explicitly defined, so deeply believable—so enduring—as if they could never have existed in any way other than exactly who they’ve been written to be. And in actuality, her characters feel true because they are—Elvira is the name of Toews’ own mother. These characters resonate because Toews understands the minutiae and subtleties of people’s lives. She illuminates their crooks and corners. They are very much real. And very flawed.

This fall, I went home after a long time away. My mom met me at the airport, at the bottom of the escalator. We sat for two hours staring at the baggage carousel, waiting for my luggage, which never showed up. We ate blueberry pancakes at Salisbury House and then had a shopping spree at Superstore with the $100 allowance from the airline for losing my suitcase.

Over the span of one week, my mom and I visited 17 thrift stores. We drove to Portage la Prairie, where we chased a semi truck full of pigs down the Trans-Can, their snouts poking through the grated sides. I rolled down the window and stuck my hand out, reaching for the soft, flat skin of one’s nose. It quivered in the wind. But the truck sped up and I was left, waving, yelling goodbye! after them.

During that drive, we listened to Miriam Toews speak on q with Tom Power. She’s currently living on a plot of land with her entire family, she said, all four generations of it. She wrote the book for her grandchildren, as a kind of reassurance—a way to show them that everything is going to be okay, to encourage and empower them, to make them laugh. Toews has previously referred to her mother as a life-force, said Power. What is that? It’s the way she embraces life, said Toews, radiates it—her compassion, her bravery, the way she loves. Her courage going into the world, what she’s lived through. Her mother is the textbook model of resilience, she said, literally—a researcher at the University of Winnipeg wrote about her life in a sociology book. About how she endured the loss of both her daughter and husband to long, arduous fights with mental illness. Toews explains that one of the most important things her late sister shared with her was the importance of protecting our mental health—caring for ourselves so that we’re able to practice resiliency when we need it. To keep the spark within us alive.

When my mom and I arrived in Portage la Prairie, we sat in the car, listening through to the end. When it finished, my mom said Well! and I said Huh! and we went into Lita’s Station, the train-themed diner on the main strip in town. The owner, Norm, let me wear the conductor cap and showed me how to work the model train that circled the room. We ate eggs and toast and strawberry jam in little individual packages. At the MCC, I bought a set of multicoloured water glasses for a quarter, but they broke into pieces on the way home.

We are all perpetually fighting, Grandma tells Swiv, and to varying degrees. These fights differ drastically between us and may not be visible to the people that populate our lives. In one of her lessons, she teaches Swiv about bioluminescence, the ability to create light from within. Ostracods, the organisms that hold this quality, can range from fish to fungi to fireflies. “I think you have that, Swivchen,” Grandma says. “You have a fire inside you and your job is to not let it go out.”

This fight to live—to rebuild after grief and pain and hurt—is also the battle to choose laughter, as often as we can. Toews rides this line between discomfort and hilarity, showing that comedy and tragedy are indistinct. “To be alive means full body contact with the absurd,” Grandma tells Swiv. “We need tragedy, which is the need to love and the need … not just the need, the imperative … to experience joy. To find joy, and to create joy. All through the night. The fight night.”

How do you even begin to organize a person’s parts?

My parents live outside the city, in the house I grew up in. One of my tasks while visiting home was to sort through a large trunk I had stored there. The trunk is green with polka dots and belonged to my mom as a child. It is overflowing with diaries and film negatives and expired bus transfers, all stuffed into shoeboxes. I spent the week tiptoeing around it, as if afraid to untether what’s inside. Fight Night begins with a Steinbeck quote: “An odd thing is that sadness does not necessarily become greater with age.” Perhaps the most significant part of this quote is the suggestion that it does not necessarily get smaller with age, either—the battles we fight, the suffering we endure, are not proportional to our years. Swiv’s fears—of dying, of losing the people close to her, of the future—are no less great.

I didn’t find the nerve to open the lid until an hour before my flight back to Montréal. I began to sort through tattered letters and notes passed in math class, news clippings and valentines. I don’t know how I’d even begin to comfort that smaller version of myself, populating a world that felt so unfit to my proportions. That little idiot! I want to pinch her cheeks and tell her to get the hell off the internet. I sat on the floor amidst these remnants, attempting to arrange them. How do you even begin to organize a person’s parts?  

Swiv’s non-stop inner monologue, these brief instances of stillness feel grounding—they are small reminders of the truth of mortality in a tempestuous world.

Toews is particularly skillful at capturing quiet moments. When Grandma takes a fall in the kitchen, Swiv hoists her up and helps her to bed. They lay together side by side, watching Call the Midwife—“we were quiet together, holding hands and breathing.” Usually so subject to Swiv’s non-stop inner monologue, these brief instances of stillness feel grounding—they are small reminders of the truth of mortality in a tempestuous world. “I don’t want to understand impermanence,” says Swiv. “You are in the process of understanding impermanence,” Grandma says. “Whether you want to be or not. We all are.”

These allusions to the brevity of life permeate Toews’ work. There’s a particular excerpt from A Complicated Kindess that I often return to, one I pencilled on my bedroom wall at fifteen, right near the spot I laid my head:

That’s why life was so fucking great. I want that day back. I want to be nine again and be told, Nomi: someday you’ll be gone, you’ll be dust, and then even less than dust. Nothing. There’s no other place to be. This world is good enough for you because it has to be. Go ahead and love it.

In Fight Night, when Swiv asks Grandma why Mom is so weird, Grandma tells her that Mom is “fighting on every front”—internally, externally, eternally. She tells Swiv that there is stress, fear, anxiety, and rage, and these are all normal facets of life. But then there’s mental illness, “which is a whole other kettle of fish.” Then, Grandma reads from a paperback sitting nearby:

Yes the world was… however it wanted to be. One way or the other, it wasn’t to be counted upon. It pleased itself. Not much point in having special wishes, as far as the world went, that was clear. So long as one could be alive, take part in it. And that’s what he was doing.

I put my book down. I know these lines intrinsically and inexplicably—internally, externally, and eternally.  This life is so good because it’s the only one we’ve got. What else can we do, but keep up the fight?

My mom bought us matching copies of Fight Night from the Costco on Regent and won’t let me pay her back. I read mine in the Winnipeg airport, on my balcony in Montreal, and in two apartments and one hotel room in New York City. It takes me a very long time to make my way through because I keep re-reading every second passage, reciting bits to whoever is sitting next to me, copying bits into the Notes app, and whispering Wow. Fight Night is cheeky and grim—it is proud and tender and striking. I’m just waiting for my mom to catch up so that I can call her to talk about it.

Natalie Podaima is a writer from Winnipeg, living and working in Montréal. Her work can be found in CV2, PRISM, The Capilano Review, Vallum, and elsewhere.