The forward to Miriam Toews’s eighth novel, Women Talking, begins with a punch of horrific reality: “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,” Toews writes, continuing, “[...] eventually, it was revealed that eight men from the colony had been using an animal anesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them.”
Toews’s novel explores what the women in these colonies would have talked about after the rapes happened, and more importantly, what imagined action they would take: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave the colony for good. Toews was raised in a small, conservative Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada, and much of her work focuses on the lives of Mennonites, from the ultraconservative to the secular (Toews herself is a secular Mennonite). “Even if I’m not directly writing about Mennonites, even if that’s not evident in the text, there are still Mennonites in my mind,” she told me by phone last month. Women Talking is the most direct reflection—and by extent, carefully considered condemnation—on the fundamentalist, patriarchal foundations of the religious sect in which she was raised.
Women Talking illuminates Toews’s many talents in tandem: she presents women in a dire and tragic situation but affords them solemnity and introspection. But as she does in her books (she may be the only living writer to write a novel about assisted suicide that will make you sob and laugh), Toews allows generous humor and lightness to pour in. After all, they’re only women talking.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Women Talking has been out in Canada for seven months now. How does it feel to finally have it come out in the States?
MIRIAM TOEWS: There are just so many more Americans than there are Canadians! So in some ways, it’s a similar process, but it’s just amped up a bit. And it’s exciting because it’s an opportunity to connect with more readers.
You’ve been wanting to write this book for a while—the incidents happened in 2009. But you ended up publishing two different books in between (Irma Voth in 2011 and All My Puny Sorrows in 2014). How did you know you were actually ready to write Women Talking?
I had been thinking about these crimes in Bolivia since 2009. Like everybody else, I was horrified but not necessarily shocked, and I felt that I wanted to write about it somehow—I didn’t know how or what exactly. But then my sister got quite sick and in 2010, she committed suicide. I was devastated and I didn’t think that I was ever going to write anything again. But when I did finally want to write again, I wanted to write about my sister and I ended up writing All My Puny Sorrows about her. Irma Voth was already edited and ready to go, and that book came out shortly after my sister died.
When I was touring on Irma Voth in 2011, I was talking to a lot of people about Bolivia again and what had happened there. First of all, a lot of Mennonites come to my readings, whenever I go on tour, I’m always talking to a lot of Mennonites. I’m talking to a lot of Mennonites regardless [laughs]. People were saying, “You should write about it.” Certainly, I wasn’t alone in thinking about it, especially women within the Mennonite community. We were all—so many of us, men too, of course—trying to come to terms with it, trying to understand it. What on earth could we possibly do? I’m a novelist, so writing a novel seemed to be the thing that I could do, the thing that I needed to do and wanted to do. I felt a moral obligation to do it as well, a duty to express solidarity with these women.
You said that you weren’t necessarily shocked by these crimes. Why do you think that is?
The colony where this happened is a closed colony. It’s ultraconservative. The leaders of the church, and therefore the leaders of the community, are male, and rules are set according to their interpretation of the scriptures, which is a misogynistic take. Men in these communities become more and more entitled, and women are voiceless and silent and serve the needs of the men. After the perpetrators were caught, they called the cops, but that was mostly to—from what I understand—protect the men from revenge violence from the women. All of these conditions [led to these incidents happening]—the remoteness, the isolation, the male entitlement, the fact that women are second class citizens with no rights, no voice, they don’t even speak the language of the country these colonies are in, they’re illiterate, they have no way of getting help or escaping. A lot of times, their experience of the outside world is so limited, they can’t even leave the colony without a male escort. For all of those reasons, it wasn’t a shock.
In the book, you’re imagining conversations between the women after the rapes have happened. How do you do this real-life tragedy justice while also acknowledging that you’re a novelist and that these conversations are fictionalized?
I definitely didn’t want to reenact these crimes. I do use the details of the attack in that first page of the book, but those are details that have been reported since 2009 in different media. In the fictional response that these women have, I wanted to show somehow that these women, although they are isolated, not educated, and lacking worldly experience, they are intelligent women. These are women who have ideas about who they are and how they want to live, and that they have relationships with other women and that they argue and they love and they care and they joke and laugh. The danger is, when you hear about these types of stories, it’s pretty easy for a lot of people to say this is some strange messed-up cult in the middle of nowhere. They’re just freaks and weirdos. When you do that, that’s a type of dehumanization that exists already in the colony itself. The men dehumanize the women and then basically give themselves permission to attack them. These are real women who have been violated, who are traumatized, who are in danger, and with no recourse. One of my goals was to attempt to show that these women are full, whole human beings like the rest of us.
Despite the fact that the book is about women talking, August, the character who is taking the minutes for their meeting, is a man. What was behind your decision to make the narrator a male character?
There were different reasons for why I chose a male narrator. Pragmatically, when I decided that the content of the book would be the minutes of the meeting, there would be no way that these women could do it because they couldn’t read or write. I’ve spoken to a lot of women who have direct ties and connections to some of the women in these colonies and they’ve told me that some of them can write their names and that’s about it. Most importantly, though, I chose him because historically it’s been men who have told women’s stories. August represents all men in that now it’s his turn to sit and to listen, and the women will talk and the women will decide and the women will act. He can sit and listen and learn. In the end, the minutes are irrelevant, anyway. The women have far more important things to do than deal with these minutes. They don’t need them, they can’t read them, and they have to act.
It was also so significant that the women didn’t even have a map. They have no idea where they are.
I was so struck by that, too. That detail was given to me by a relative of one of the colonists. Even in the school where the boys are educated, there is no world map. The teachers have begged for one. Canadian Mennonites will bring things like that when they cross the border into Latin America—maps, books, textbooks, pencils. The teachers in these closed colonies really have very little because the Mennonite credo is “In the world, but not of the world.” So the outside world doesn’t matter, or at least the thought is that it shouldn’t matter. But when you’re attempting to leave the colony, it really does.
To your knowledge, are things improving for women in colonies like these? You mention in the forward of the book that there were reports of attacks still taking place.
What I’ve heard is that the patriarchal violence, the misogyny, the silence around these things, all of that is continuing, it’s not getting any better. It’s difficult to know what to do. The Mennonite Central Committee is an aid organization that goes all around the world providing aid to people who need it, but they haven’t been active on the ground in Bolivia in that colony. The rumors are that they were not allowed in the colony, the same way that I would not be allowed into the colony. There is so much effort made to cover this stuff up by certain Mennonites because they don’t want public perception of Mennonites to be that they’re barbaric animals. They’re embarrassed by that. It’s shut down, it’s swept under the carpet. There’s more effort made in keeping things hush-hush than in solving the problem or attempting to find out what can be done.
It’s difficult to go into these communities as a Secular Mennonite or even as a less conservative Mennonite and say you need to change. Everyone has the right to practice their religion, but no one has the right to attack women. In the meantime, people talk about it and wonder about it and pray about it, which I respect, and I write about it.
What do you wish people understood about Mennonites that the general public gets wrong?
There is this misconception that Mennonites all live kind of that way—not necessarily in this extreme, ultra-conservative way—but apart within the country. That they have a certain way of dressing, and a simple, collective, agricultural faith-based community. That’s not the case. Those are the most visible Mennonites and the most unusual, perhaps, to the general public. But there are something like two million Mennonites all over the world and many of them live like I do, in a secular way in cities. We all consider ourselves to be a part of the Mennonite community. People have asked me if I’m an ex-Mennonite. Of course not. I can’t even imagine myself as an ex-Mennonite because then I just don’t know what I would be. The idea of being a secular Mennonite, it’s like being Jewish. There are different ways to be a secular Jew or to be Orthodox or Hasidic. And there are so many different ways of being Mennonite in the world.
Dayna Evans is a freelance writer in New York.