In “Women Talking,” Mennonite Women Grapple with Faith and Justice
Miriam Toews on true crime that inspired her novel
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
What can I say about Miriam Toews’ Women Talking? Ostensibly it’s a novel, but it reads like a play. Substantially it’s a #MeToo story, but it takes place in a world far removed from our own. Aesthetically it’s spare—not one character is described, in physical detail—but, visually and emotionally, it is one of the most evocative pieces of writing I’ve encountered, in recent memory. Overall, it is a remarkable book.
In Toews’ introductory note, she explains that the book is based on real-life events:
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.
Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.
The novel opens when eight Mennonite women in the fictional Molotschka colony, whose ages span 3 generations, have come together to discuss their options after the men who attacked them were thrown in jail. The options, as they’ve outlined them: do nothing; stay and fight; or leave. As the men will be bailed out, and return to the colony shortly, the women’s deliberations are hurried. They last exactly two days: from June 6 to June 7.
I talked to Miriam Toews about how historically women’s stories have been mostly told and interpreted by men.
Rachel Lyon: Though the characters are Mennonites, illiterate and foreign—they speak Plautdietsch, or low German; they are believers in a strict, patriarchal faith—they feel utterly contemporary. Though their attackers use Belladonna spray to render them unconscious and not quaaludes, ketamine, or flunitrazepam, crimes against women as heinous as those committed by the men of Molotschka are common everywhere. There were likely at least half a dozen high-profile rape and sexual assault trials going on, presumably while you were writing this book (Steubenville, Vanderbilt, Baylor, Brock Turner, Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby).
The distance of Molotschka, physically and psychically, from our “first world” society; the Petri dish isolation of these women, their lack of outside influences and references; and the simplicity of the premise (do nothing; stay and fight; or leave); all these elements seem to strip down and purify the problem. Was setting the book in this particular cultural context an attempt to filter out some of that noise?
Miriam Toews: No, not on any conscious level. It didn’t even occur to me to set the book in any other cultural context. I think all of my books are, however indirectly, set within some aspect of the Mennonite community. In the same way that all my main characters, in my mind, are Mennonites, which isn’t necessarily always evident in the text. But the hope is, I guess, that the story transcends its specific setting.
RL: The conceit of the narrative is that the women, who are illiterate, have asked an unthreatening man named August, whose job in the colony is to teach young (male) children, to take the minutes of their meeting, although they will not be able to read them. August is a great character: smart, awkward, humble, and hopelessly in love with one of the women, Ona. He is also a big fan of ducks (and has suffered badly for his enthusiasm: “Talking about semi-aquatic birds in jail, even the smallest detail, can trigger a severe beating, I told Ona, and she agreed I should have kept it to myself.”) It strikes me as a playful treatment for such dark material, but I wonder if there is something deeper going on with August. Given a recurring theme in the women’s dialogue about life flourishing under the sea, under intense pressure, in the unlikeliest of conditions, it strikes me as sweet that this character is both able to live on land, in the light, as a man, and visit the watery and mysterious world of the women.
How do you see August’s role in the narrative? Is he more than comic relief? What did it mean to you, as the author, to retain him as the reader’s filter for these women’s discussion?
MT: Ona senses that August is suffering, profoundly, that he is suicidal. Out of compassion and love and concern, she quickly makes up a task for August—to take the minutes of their meetings, because she knows he is literate—to make him feel necessary and needed, but also safe. For as long as he is in the loft with the women, at least, he’ll continue to live. At the end of the book he asks himself, “How will I live without these women?” But in fact the “minutes” of the meetings are irrelevant, at least to the women. They can’t read them anyway and they have far more urgent things to worry about.
There are other reasons for August being the filter, as you say. He inhabits that liminal space between the closed world of the colony and the outside world, as do the women in the loft in their way inhabit such a space as well—the loft is a space between earth and heaven, as it allows the women to discuss their practical, pragmatic options and their faith and fundamental concepts of spirituality and theology. Something has to give. The women need to decide what they will do, how they will keep their faith and remain safe and August also has to decide what he will do: end his own life, or work towards a better world, which means educating or re-educating the boys on the basis of all he’s heard and learned from the women in the loft. In this sense, August takes on a symbolic value as well, as a man: it’s time for men to sit with women, to listen and to learn.
Historically, women’s stories have been mostly told and interpreted by men. The women in my book will go on to write their own stories, to organize their own lives according to their own ideas, hopefully, or their daughters will, after they’ve decided, collectively, what action to take. And, I should add, the world these women will “organize” isn’t one without men, it’s one with men who see the women as equals.
RL: Any book, but perhaps particularly if it’s written in the first person, requires to some degree a suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. If the book is in the past tense, the reader might ask, “How is it possible that the narrator remembers these conversations verbatim?” If it’s in the present tense, the reader might ask, “How does the narrator have the time, between all this action, to describe these scenes to me?”
In Women Talking the suspension of disbelief is a little different in quality; here and there, August editorializes, adds a “translator’s note,” or admits that all the women are talking at once and he can’t keep up. The facade is never dropped; the reader is never immersed; the conceit remains an essential part of the work of art throughout. There is a kind of brilliant Brechtian obstinance about this, I think. The reader is never really allowed to fall into “the fictional dream,” and yet I found myself utterly immersed. Is there a connection between this artistic choice you made, and the content of the book?
MT: Yes. I spent a long time trying to figure out how I would tell the story and when the idea of the “minutes” came to me, I knew—or at least I felt—that that was the only way for me to do it, or at least the only way that made sense to me.
It’s hard for me to explain but I’ve always felt self-conscious about writing a novel, any novel, without there being some kind of necessity, even a fictional necessity, to the book itself. For instance, with A Complicated Kindness, the whole book was an assignment, really, that Nomi Nickel had to complete in order to graduate from high school. In Irma Voth, the film director character gives Irma a notebook and suggests she fill it with her thoughts and observations. So then, for me, it made sense to write the book, because there was a type of imperative for it. Otherwise, I find I get bogged down in the idea that what I’m doing, as a writer, with words, is ridiculous somehow, I think there are more important or useful things I could do with my time and energy than write books. There are allusions to that thinking in almost all of my books—the futility of words. And yet, the utter necessity of them, of language, of connection through language and story.
RL: Speaking of Brecht, I read this novel in just a couple of days, and found the experience of reading it very much like the experience of watching a play. (In the margins somewhere I wrote, “12 Angry Men, but 8 of them, and they’re women!”)
Like a play, the novel is primarily dialogue. Like a play, nearly all of it takes place on one, static set: the hayloft where the women are talking. I often felt, when I put the book down to go do something else, as if I was closing a book and more as if I was pressing the pause button on the proceedings. Do you think of this novel as a kind of theater, yourself—or did you ever think of it that way, during the writing process?
MT: Wait, what? You put the book down to do something else? Haha, just kidding. Well, yes, absolutely I did sometimes think of this novel as a type of theatre (that’s how we spell that word up here in Canada). The women’s conversations are urgent, they have practical decisions to make, but it instantly becomes apparent to them that what is “practical” arises wholly out of their principles and their beliefs—everything is at stake for them, and so their talking propels them, at every moment, toward the decisive action they are about to take. There’s no time to waste. I think there is inherent drama and tension in that, and hopefully the reader feels it too. The great thing about a play or a movie is that you can watch the whole thing in one sitting, which I think is so essential to the experience.
RL: I read All My Puny Sorrowswhen it came out and loved it so, so much, I recommended it to everyone I knew. It really made such a deep and lasting impression on me. It is also completely different from Women Talking. I’d like to ask you about how different this piece is, tonally, from your other work. What is the relationship like, for you, between the essence of a story and the way it is told? I’m curious, from a process perspective, how you come to the tone of a novel, and from a product perspective, how tone informs story, and vice versa.
MT: I think that the tone of a novel is created by the characters, by who they are, where they come from, what they’re in conflict with and by what is motivating them. I guess I’m saying that I think story informs tone. Or that being true to the character of your narrator will naturally create the tone. Yoli, the narrator in All My Puny Sorrows, is such a different type of character than August, the narrator in Women Talking, in spite of the fact that both stories have a type of urgency in the telling and a serious subject matter. Yoli is a person very much like myself and the character of August is inspired by my father.