Miriam Toew’s “Women Talking” — and every article written about her novel — begins in Bolivia.
“Women Talking” opens with an author’s note detailing true events that occurred between 2005 and 2009 in the Bolivian Mennonite community known as the Manitoba Colony. During that time, serial rapists terrorized the colony. Many women and girls reported waking up sluggish and sore — their bedsheets stained and limbs bruised. The men in the colony attributed these attacks to demons, ghosts or the “wild female imagination.”
Toews (pronounced “Taves”) says her book, published in the U.S. this year and in her native Canada in 2018, is a reaction to these events and “an act of female imagination.”
The attacks, of course, weren’t the work of demons or imagination; they were perpetrated by male colony members (sometimes family members). Later, one of the men was caught trying to enter a home, which led to eight men admitting to using a powerful animal anesthetic sprayed through open windows to drug entire families and sexually abuse the women.
It’s the premise for a horror novel, but Toews doesn’t go into the lurid details. Her focus is on the women. “Women Talking” was written before the #MeToo movement began but speaks directly to the problem of powerful men abusing their positions in a rigid, patriarchal society.
“Women Talking” is structured as the minutes of meetings between the women of two Molotschna Colony-families recorded by a sympathetic male schoolteacher (considered effeminate by nearly everyone in the colony), ostensibly because the women cannot read or write and want documentation of the meetings (the true reason for his inclusion is revealed at the end of the novel).
While the men travel to the city to bail the rapists out of jail, the women secretly and hastily meet to discuss how to respond to the rapes that they and their daughters have suffered.
Should they forgive the men? Forgiveness would ensure the women a place in heaven according to the Mennonite faith, but what’s stopping the crimes from continuing? Fight back? A choice distinctly not in line with the pacifist group. Escape before the men return and set off into the unknown? Do nothing? The women deliberate over their choices. Choice is, in fact, novel to the women of that male-dominated society.
“Women Talking” plays out like a Hitchcock thriller, full of tension and release (Toews is quite funny), and is set mostly in the claustrophobic confines of a hay barn loft. The women talk and smoke cigarettes among the hay bales. The younger girls roll their eyes, the older women bicker. August, the teacher, occasionally offers advice in the form of abstract anecdotes, but he mostly just listens to the women. Time is ticking and the smoldering cloud of violence hangs on the horizon.
Toews’ is masterful in her work. The most meta line of the book occurs when a senile man asks the women if they are plotting to burn down his barn, to which one of the women responds, “There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.”
More about the author
Miriam Toews’ Mennonite women feel authentic. The older generations are set in their ways, while aware of their dire predicament, and the younger generations are more liberal and more modern in their views on sexuality and personal freedom.
That authenticity can likely be traced to Toews growing up in a Mennonite community in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada. (The Bolivian community in her novel took its name from the province.) Toews left the community at 18 and moved to Montreal. Toews and her older sister, who left the community earlier, were the first of their family, including relatives and ancestors dating back to some of Steinbach’s first settlers, to leave the community.
“It was a monumental thing,” Toews says. “It was something that I knew that I had to do. To stay in a community like that, there is a lot of oneself that one has to suppress. And to constantly be questioning, as I was, the powers that be — that kind of arbitrary, self-appointed authority — I would go crazy or I would be a pariah.”
She moved to Montreal (“it seemed like a cool place to go”) and got into punk music, but still felt like she didn’t belong.
“I didn’t fit in there. I didn’t fit in my community. I was in a kind of limbo,” Toews says. “And maybe that’s a good place to be, for a writer anyway, to always be a little bit on the outside. Maybe a lonely place, but it’s a good place.”
Toews currently lives in Toronto. Her mother — a devout elder in a progressive Mennonite church in the city — lives on the first floor of Toews’ home. As much as Toews rejected her rigid Mennonite upbringing and as critical as she is about the patriarchal rules that govern it, she has a lot of love and respect for the Mennonite faith.
“I hear (my mother’s) church friends coming to visit her,” Toews says. “And they are all playing games — usually Dutch Blitz, which I wouldn’t say is a tenet of the faith but it’s almost like a law. Then they all join together singing hymns and then one of them may have a prayer at the end. And (they are) putting love and hope and joy into the universe. How can you not think of that as a beautiful expression of faith?”