I finally decided to go back and look at a few papers I wrote last year to edit them in an attempt to get published. While going through my files I came across this short paper that I wrote last fall on Miriam Towes’ A Complicated Kindness. The novel is a fascinating coming of age tale about a young Canadian Mennonite girl , Nomi. Although I am not or ever was Mennonite, I could relate to her experience of isolation, confusion, and frustration based on my own religious background. A Complicated Kindness quickly became one of my favorite books from last year.
While reading, I noticed the recurring motif of blood, menstruation, and otherness. This is what I decided to write my short response paper on and eventually a full length final paper. Today, I share my short paper thoughts with you.
The bleeding body, in particular the female bleeding body, has often been maligned, relegated to the margins, abjected and left to walk the line between acceptable and not. The menstruating body is ‘cleaned’ up through feminine hygiene products that promise a “happy period” that aim to forget the messy nature of blood. In Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness, sixteen year old Nomi Nickel highlights her narrative of remembering through the motif of blood and bleeding as she negotiates her position of insider/outsider within her family and community’s culture and faith.
Nomi struggles to define herself in, what she calls, “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager” (5). Nomi’s family is Mennonite. Living alone with her father, Ray, after the excommunication and disappearance of her older sister Tash and her mother Trudie, Nomi attempts to retell her childhood and familial memoires as she tries to better understand her place in the line of women who are rejected and removed from her family and community. Nomi explains that blood is linked to a reoccurring memory of her mother, Trudie (2). The link between blood and memory congeal as it becomes clear that Nomi keeps track of time through her own monthly bleeding ritual; she knows exactly how many times she has menstruated since the day her mother left (4). In this way, Nomi signals her strong connection to the abject female body and therefore her liminality within her religious and community culture.
Nomi is in the space of insider/outsider as she finds herself trapped between her desire to reject her home town and faith and her feelings of duty toward her father.
Nomi attempts to negotiate this liminality through the presence of absents. The bloodstain on her wall is an artifact that Nomi repeatedly considers wiping away, yet with each consideration, she decides against it (88). This bloodstain, created by picking debris from a facial wound acquired when cycling home with a box of pads for her menstruating sister, Tash, acts to reinforce the link between Nomi and the abject body of her bleeding sister. She states that her reason for keeping the stain is “because every time I looked at it I was reminded that I was, at that very moment, not bleeding from my face” (88). Nomi finds this presence of absents hopeful. In this way, Nomi seems to embrace the abject as purposeful and positive therefore illustrating her alignment with her shunned maternal influences that hold the most significance in the development of her identity.
Nomi’s insider/outsider status is further evidenced when she cannot match her blood to the blood of Jesus. Although by teenage-hood Nomi is disillusioned with her community’s Mennonite faith, as a child she embraces it. However, for the first time, Nomi negotiates the possibility of outsider status when she discovers that her blood from a scratched mosquito bite does not match Jesus’ as displayed in a children’s book. This distresses young Nomi as the colour of her blood suggests that she does not belong in her faith, and she concludes that her blood is “wrong” (188). Nomi’s ability to be accepted is disrupted and her lack of matching blood aligns her with the unease and excommunication of her sister and mother. Her outsider status is secured with these other women in her family. The use of blood as a marker for remembering while also embracing the abject feminine allows Nomi to negotiate the unstable space between adolescence and adulthood, familial ties, and community acceptance.