I like most of the books I read, but I especially appreciate unique ways of telling stories.
Miriam Toews wanted to write about the events that happened in the Manitoba Colony of Bolivia.
Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia named the Manitoba Colony, after the province in Canada, many girls and women would wake in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding, having been attacked in the night. The attacks were attributed to ghosts and demons. Some members of the community felt the women were being made to suffer by God or Satan as punishment for their sins; many accused the women of lying for attention or to cover up adultery; still others believed everything was the result of wild female imagination.
Eventually, it was revealed that eight men from the colony had been using an animal anesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them. In 2011, these men were convicted in a Bolivian court and received lengthy prison sentences. In 2013, while the convicted men were still in jail, it was reported that similar assaults and other sexual abuses were continuing to take place in the colony.
“Women Talking” is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.
Instead of writing a straight-forward fictional account of the story, Toews writes about the ‘after’. What happens to the women next? If the women got together to discuss this situation, what would they say? Where and how would their opinions differ?
The women in the novel are trying to decide what to do now that they know the truth of what’s happened, and what their men are capable of. They determine that they have three options: 1) Do Nothing, 2) Stay and Fight, or 3) Leave.
Because it’s not possible for all the women to be part of the meeting (life must go on as usual, and the men must not know about the meetings), representatives from two families have been chosen to meet and discuss the options, while the others cover for them. (Except for the women who have chosen to “do nothing”.)
One of the big concerns of the women is forgiveness. If they are not granted forgiveness by the men for lying about their secret meetings and disobeying their husbands, then they believe they will not be allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Perhaps, says Greta, there will be other elders or men of God that will be able to forgive our sins, individuals we have not yet met.
At this, Salome erupts… We do not have to be forgiven by the men of God, she shouts, for protecting our children from the depraved actions of vicious men who are often the very same men we are meant to ask for forgiveness. If God is a loving God He will forgive us Himself. If God is a vengeful God then He has created us in His image. If God is omnipotent then why has He not protected the women and girls of Molotschna? If God, in the book of Matthew, according to Peters, our wise bishop, asks: Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, then mustn’t we consider it a hindrance when our children are attacked?
The bulk of the novel is made up of these discussions between the women. The representatives include three generations of women from each family – the youngest are 16. At the beginning, some lean heavily toward staying and fighting, while others lean more toward leaving. They hash out the pros and cons of each, recognizing that both options have challenges. As these things usually go, the women tend to talk in circles, coming back to the same concerns, the same questions and arguments. It helps them to zero in on what is important to them – what it is that they want to achieve – 1) protect the children, 2) keep their faith, and 3) be able to think.
We are women without a voice… We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to, and even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are.
None of us have ever asked the men for anything… Not a single thing, not even for the salt to be passed, not even for a penny or a moment alone or to take the washing in or to open a curtain or to go easy on the small yearlings or to put your hand on the small of my back as I try, again, for the twelfth or thirteenth time, to push a baby out of my body.
The author adds another layer to the story by choosing to make the narrator of the story a man, August Epp. August left the colony years ago with his parents, and has recently come back to it on his own. Primarily because of Ona, one of the women at the meetings. Because the women can’t read or write, Ona has asked August to take the minutes of their meetings. In addition to relaying the minutes of the meeting to us, the readers, he also adds his own observations of the women, and tidbits of information about some of the things that have gone on, or are going on, in the colony.
She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was convince herself that she wanted very little.
Although I didn’t find Women Talking as emotional and spellbinding as All My Puny Sorrows, I found it intensely interesting. It filled me with curiosity and concern for the Mennonite women in Bolivia as well as in any other patriarchal, isolated community.
How would you vote if you were one of the women living in the colony: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave?
“I needed to write about these women. I could have been one of them.”
An interview with Miriam Toews in The Guardian: ““I’ve spent a lot of time with Mennonite women, and there’s a certain kind of natural, inherent, storytelling capacity,” says Toews. “Not to the point where they’re being disobedient. They know their roles and they play them. But when they get together, there’s a lot of laughter and their own kind of coded, rebellious exchange. I wanted to get that into the book.””
Review in The Star: “To read this intelligent, slow-burner of a novel, with its indelible characters and finely calibrated emotionality, is to realize how rarely women are shown, in novels or film, debating anything except relationships. The trope of female hysteria versus male rationality is also subverted: here, logic is the prime tool the women can wield against the men’s deepest animal urges.“