‘Mennofasto’ for a new era: Miriam Toews’ Women Talking

Back in 2009, a man whose name I won’t reveal, because he wouldn’t want me to, persuaded me and several other Winnipeg women to respond to what was then coming out in the news, the so-called “ghost rapes” of Mennonite women in a colony in Bolivia. Turns out the rapes were dreadfully real, not ghostly at all; rendered unconscious by anesthetic spray, the women had been raped by men within their own community. The police were eventually called in, and eight men were arrested. I confess that I was reluctant to get involved; in spite of a growing amount of credible reportage, I felt on distant and shaky ground with the context and facts. Nevertheless, my braver friends and I planned and led an evening of prayer and lament for the women, with monies raised going to a women’s shelter in their vicinity. It was our best way of drawing attention, of demonstrating solidarity, even if the victims might never hear of it.

downloadBut I don’t think any of us ever thought it was enough. When I heard, last spring, that Miriam Toews had written a book reacting to these events, I was excited — excited to read her “take” on it since I greatly admire her writing, and excited that her status as an internationally recognized author might bring wider attention — dare I say further prayer, lament, perhaps even solace? — to the women.

Well, the book is out and I’ve read it, and it’s solace alright, but far more than that, it’s a manifesto, born out of vulnerability, complication, and strength, and wonderfully distilled to the essence of what the novel’s women want. A manifesto not only for them, in my opinion, but for women period. In other words, it carries universal heft, even if pointedly specific.

For an example of the specific, and perhaps my favourite laugh of the novel (in spite of pain and anger, there’s a lot of laughter here): after the eight women, who’ve assembled in a hayloft while the colony men are away to the city to post bail for the accused, have rehearsed at some length their options about what to do next, they agree on three things they want. (This happens too far into the book not to be a spoiler, so I’ll be mum on what they are.) One of the women, Ona, seems in reverie about the consensus they’ve reached.

“This is the beginning of a new era, she says. This is our manifesto. (She says “manifesto” in English but with her Mennonite inflection it sounds like “mennofasto.”)

Back-tracking: as far as what the book’s about, it’s what the title implies, mainly women talking. Post the rapes. Since the women are illiterate, teacher August Epp, who’s also in love with Ona, is asked to keep “minutes” of the meetings. The talk is what extended talk can be, revealing of personality, digressive, argumentative, supportive, but there’s urgency here, for the men will soon come back and the women must decide what to do. Theological urgency too, about whether they’re animals (they’ve been treated as such; the spray is an animal anesthetic), about forgiveness, and much more. The novel is mostly talk, yes, but there are turns and surprises, and talk coalesces into action that feels, for the reader, exactly right.

Let me back up some more, to another confession. I found the novel/narrator wooden at first and experienced some of the frustration I’ve felt occasionally with Toews’ Mennonite stories, where bits seem drawn from anywhere in Mennonitentum, a borrowing that makes the group represented seem not entirely consistent to itself. (I remember this same frustration with Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress). It’s a problem of me also being Mennonite, I suppose, too aware of subgroups and nuances and how we imagine the “others.”) So I closed the book some ways in, took a week’s break, lectured myself about this being a novel and not journalism, and began again, suspending disbelief into the fiction of the story — and therefore into the truth of it — and sure enough, it was quite as remarkable as I’d wished it to be. It’s full of layers, teases for a reader’s own digressions within the conversation. Narrator August, for example, whose mother’s name is Monica, who once stole pears, a kind of Saint Augustine? His paean to Ona, “the soul of Molotschna,” her name a version of Anna perhaps, or meaning “graceful” in Hebrew, or are we to think of Blake, or all of the above?

It’s a big story, this narrative towards manifesto, but crazily and specifically Mennonite too — big and unsplintered. As August notes in the discussion of the mennofasto:

“Well, it’s not quite precisely put, Salome says. But it sounds perfect to me.”

 

What I’ve Been Reading (Part 2)

My Books I’ve Read journal reminds me I’ve read four memoirs since late winter, each one wonderful, each worth a 4.5 – 5 star recommendation.

Ordinary Light by Pulitzer winning poet Tracy K. Smith is a remarkable book. It’s a coming-of-age story, and an elegy for her mother, both affectionate and sharp with insight. It’s been described as “a powerful meditation on daughters and mothers.” Informed now by her own motherhood, Smith mines her memories of a 1970s Black middle-class childhood in California and looks for who her mother was before she knew her–a girl growing up in 1950s Alabama. The religious atmosphere of Smith’s childhood felt very familiar to me and I loved how she navigated between what abides for her and what she’s moved away from, into her own understanding of “mysterious presence.”

41FlFCPSJML._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_I found myself jotting quote after resonate quote in my journal. (It was a library book, but I ought to buy it, I think, re-read and mark it!) Just one example, about a child’s assumption of (or longing for) the mother’s singular devotion compared to the reality of that mother in her fuller personhood: 

I had no way of knowing then, as I do now, that when a woman delivers her children to a safe place, even for just a few hours, a part of her becomes free in a way that a child cannot understand, reverting in an almost physical way to the person she was before she had children, as if she is testing to determine whether that person is still there.

Since my daughter and I had planned a trip to Ireland for May (which we postponed on account of my husband’s health), I was looking for Irish writers to read, and thus heard Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Nuala O’Faolain, and thus read Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. Written in 1996, this memoir provides a splendid and immersive portrait of a family but also, as O’Faolain suggests, Ireland itself — the deep wounds of large families, alcoholism, abuse, but also the way society changed over her lifetime. O’Faolain longs for love but doesn’t find it by book’s end, except for the outpouring of reader love to her truth-telling words.

240188O’Faolain is a great stylist, her writing packed with detail and lovely description. About halfway through the book I googled something about the book and discovered O’Faolain is dead. Because I’d heard her voice in the interview, I imagined her very much alive, which she certainly is in her words. But once I knew she wasn’t, the memoir seemed even sadder.

downloadNext, Apricot Irving’s The Gospel of Trees, a well-written, well-researched account of Haiti and one rather dysfunctional family’s years there as missionaries. (Her father worked in a reforestration project.) Irving balances critique of the missionary enterprise with its paternalistic instincts and recognition of passions that motivated her parents and others. Her “return” to Haiti via memoir seems to provoke healing in her relationship with her father, a man prone to bursts of anger, and demonstrates how much Haiti has taken hold of her.

51zPmVDeIvL._AA218_And then there’s Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris, a tale of biking the trading route of Marco Polo by Harris and her companion Mel Yule. The young Canadian had dreamed of space travel as a child, specifically Mars, but, she says, “You set off for Mars and end up–marvellous error!–on the Silk Road, this conjuring of dust and light and desire between Europe and Asia.” There’s lots of information here as well as adventure in heat and cold and astonishing landscape, suffering and soaring alike, but I especially liked her meditations on borders, Earth, quest. Sentences like this: “You are getting closer when you recognize doubt as the heaviest burden on your bike and toss it aside, for when it comes to exploring, any direction will do.”

 

What I’ve Been Reading (Part 1)

I began 2018 with a book about jigsaw puzzles (because I did 37 of them last year, which just sounds crazy in retrospect, though it was a crazy year with Trump et. al., plus a transitional year for us): The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble. The book ranges about Drabble’s childhood, childhoods in general, games, mosaics, city spaces, working outward from jigsaw puzzles, and reminiscences of her Auntie Phyl. Jigsaws began in the 18th century as dissected maps used as teaching tools; there was a boom in puzzle purchases after the 1929 stock market crash. I liked the author’s personal stories and reflections on puzzling but grew bored with the rest. “Sitting over a jigsaw as an adult, one may well feel foolish.” Yes. “One of the pleasures of the jigsaw-puzzle world lies in that safety, of knowing that all the pieces will fit together in the end.” That too. 51xJlH133+L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

I forget where I heard about The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, but it was the “old person” angle that compelled me into it, on account of my new blog on aging. This debut novel is astonishingly good—beautifully written, an eerie and growing suspense, but also the feeling (for me) of a very rich life, whether “really true” for 75-year-old protagonist Ruth or not. In other words, if dementia is this internally rich, well… maybe it’s not so bad. However, there’s much more to the story, which I must not give away. Reviewer Rachel Hore, in The Independent, called it “a wonderfully evoked portrait of old age that disturbs and elevates in equal measure.” The book was hard to put down.download (2)

Can a long-married retired couple’s getaway to Amsterdam, including its small details concerning taxis and suitcases and baths and tooth brushing and meals, be interesting? In the hands of Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty, it can. Midwinter Break tells of Gerry, who has a drinking problem, and Stella, who wishes to leave him and fulfill a vow she made to God long ago while pregnant. One is left pondering marriage itself, both its stresses and strengths.

 

Roddy Doyle’s latest book is rather ironically titled. I read Smile on the flight to and from Saskatoon to visit my mother, a fact that has nothing to do with the book itself except that the cramped unremitting imprisonment of a narrow seat in a short-haul airplane flight is small suffering compared to the awfulness of sexual abuse of minors by the Irish Christian Brothers. Doyle is an accomplished writer but the subject, handled here with a twist, is grim.

One of the book blogs I frequently visit is Kerry Clare’s “Pickle Me This”. She had a giveaway lately, and guess what? I won Things To Do When It’s Raining by Marissa Stapley. I read this book on a flight as well, this time to Toronto to see our children. The trip being longer, the seat a smidgeon bigger, this attractive, curl-up kind of story about a young woman’s return to the place she was raised, with secrets, plot twists galore, and the reminder to “choose love” was a great fit for those hours in the air. Like Kerry, I was charmed by the items from the “list” of the title that open each chapter. (Her review here.)

Discussing the recent Mennonites and the Holocaust Conference at Bethel College with a writer friend, we reminded each other of the importance–the necessity really–of fiction and poetry to flesh out the complexities, human stories, and nuances of difficult pasts. I can’t think of a better example of this than Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter. While seeming at first a “typical” Holocaust story — sad, tense, cruel — the characters and their response to the historical situation in which they find themselves is both what we might expect but also either more or less. Particular, that is, and thus recognizable. And, even the best or worst intentions can have their unexpected consequence. And bravery, Seiffert commented in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, often looks like fear.

What have you been reading lately?