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.
But 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.”
Dora, I too had to take a break from reading Miriam’s book and after having read 3/4 of the book, picked it up again today, after a week or so. It was starting to wear me out, and I got frustrated with all the different names and who they all were. Unfortunately I could only get a few pages read as we were at our church retreat at Camp Assiniboia. I get hung up on the fact that these are all uneducated women who have not even learned to read, but are making statements only women in touch with the modern world could possibly make. They have their folk wisdom and experience but the words coming from them sound more like they are women who have at least a high school education!
Thanks for the comment, Elfrieda, and I hope your “picking up again” will be better. I felt the last part of the book was very strong. It was funny in some ways but also powerful.
Great review. I must get a copy.
Thanks Dora, for your amazing & deeply honest (as well as appropriately confessional), review of “Women Talking,” by Miriam Toews. Your words, like Toews’ book, show courage, given the Mennonite sensitivities around this tragic story and I applaud you for that. Like you, when I heard Toews’ novel was coming out, I couldn’t wait to read it given how deeply you & I & others, entered into their plight soon after the news of their plight first came out & our male friend (like August in the novel) became not only an observer and minute-taker, but the instigator for us in creating the lament service in February in 2010. P. S. I’m about half-way through reading the novel, and love it, thanks to an earlier tip from you read it as fiction, instead of literally/factually/historically. — Leona Dueck Penner
Thank you! Those memories come back, don’t they, how we sat around your table, drinking tea, puzzling and planning. — I’m in awe of the book, its effect lingers.
The latter part of the book redeems it for me. Powerful!
Thanks for letting me/us know!
Hi Dora. Thanks for these comments. It was very hard to hear the news reports back in 2009-2010 when they started to appear. I hope to recommend this book for the next time its my turn – for our book club. Margaret
Ah, if so, would love to join you for the discussion. It certainly lends itself to that!
Dora, thank you for your review, and Elfrieda for your comments. As the Program Coordinator for the Low German Mennonite services Program with MCC Manitoba, I am planning my annual Sam”s Place event. My idea was to have a panel discussion about this book.
Dora, I thought of you right away, but then discovered that you are no longer in Winnipeg. Too bad, unless you are coming for the first week of November???
I was thinking of having someone with experience in and/or have intimate knowledge of colony life to be on the panel as well as someone who studies Mennonite literature.
What do you all think of this idea, and do you have any suggestions?
I must say, I was initially upset when I read an interview with Miriam and when I heard an interview with her. Her knowledge and understanding of Colony Mennonites, I felt, was woefully inadequate to be able to give voice to or speak for the women of the colonies. This is how she came across in the interviews. I picked up the book with great trepidation. After a few chapters, I too had to remind myself to read it as a novel and not “historical fiction.” I agree with Elfrieda that the words the women use are “put into their mouths.” I take exception to the fact that Colony Mennonites are used, again, as a backdrop for someone else’s story. I am concerned that though this is obviously a novel, a work of fiction, that it will simply breed continued misunderstandings. The Coliny world is nuanced and rich and can not be understood from a Western individualistic paradigm.
As a novel, once I put my annoyance aside, it was quite good. She has the ability to write humor into the darkest space and in so doing illuminate the human soul. It also beautifully portrays the universality of women’s lives irregardless of the specifities of culture and religion (I am quite aware that I may have contracted myself there😏).
Anyway, who’s up for a panel discussion?
Tina Fehr Kehler
Hi Tina, Thanks for the note. Nice to hear from you. I’d love to participate in a discussion like this but no, I won’t be in Winnipeg at that time. Elfrieda would be a great person, and I would also suggest Mary Friesen. She would be excellent both from the knowledge of colony life and literary perspectives. — Regarding the factual blurriness, or whatever one wants to call it, which I mentioned in my review, the lovely thing is that, in my opinion at least, the women actually come off as “nuanced and rich” and also communally oriented, so if there are misunderstandings, they may be positive ones. I felt that Miriam Toews both liked and respected her characters. But all that would be for further discussion. I found the “mennofasto” itself perfectly summed up what I as a woman in a very different setting also “want.” Again, my thanks, and best wishes to you!
Those are great suggestions for potential panelists.
And thanks for you further insights.
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Read it. Loved it. Your review too. I enjoyed the author’s imagination as she explores the minds and feelings of the violated in that distant, strange place, from the perspective of a man. He is an innocent—detached and suffering from abuse of his own—with hardly a recognizable trace of Klaas or Peters in him, but still a man. And yet, August is disliked and not trusted by the other men—a schinda. Is he the men’s conscience? That which they lack or choose to disregard? Or is he just a flawed man, but one capable of empathy? Maybe, but I can also see him as a neutral, genderless element—the voice of reason and equality. “Yoma leid ekhai!” As usual, I have more questions than answers!
Thanks Mitchell, and for your response to and comments about August. A fascinating character indeed.
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