In a note before the main text of Miriam Toews’ new novel,Women Talking, the author writes that the book is “a reaction through fiction of these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.” The events in question were a series of horrific rapes that occurred in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in the first decade of this century.
And the novel, apparently, imagines the women of this very colony discussing their options.
Except not really.
This book is not about Mennonites. Despite the apparent Mennonites wandering through its pages, I venture to say that this is the least Mennonite of all Toews’ Mennonite novels.
That should be obvious just based on the broad base of acclaim that the book’s received. Sure, some of the book’s success can be attributed to Menno-voyeurism but it also clearly resonates with a lot of people who have no connection whatsoever with Mennonites.
The novel takes place in a remote and isolated community – a world outside of time and place, with the community described by the narrator as a people who “don’t exist, or at least are supposed to be seen not to.” The reader might presume that we are in a Mennonite Colony in Bolivia, given the note to readers at the front but without that help, we could imagine the colony as anywhere and nowhere. There’s a certain Gulliver’s Travels feel to this place, like the narrator crosses some sort of portal to get to a place that stands as a reflection of our own world without actually being in (or of) our own world. At times, I found myself wondering if we were actually in the southern Manitoba of Toews’ birth, what with the talk of canola fields and chokecherries. But there were also alligators – and I know for a fact that there ain’t no gators in Steinbach.
The bulk of the book consists of a conversation among eight women who have been charged by the other women of the community to decide upon a course of action — whether to stay and fight the patriarchy or leave the colony. It’s easy to imagine this as monumental in the mythical isolated colony but of course this is the decision that women outside the colony world make whenever they experience sexual assault or harassment – whether to stay in the community and make change or whether to leave for the sake of self preservation.
Those who choose to stay and fight have, over the past year, become the heroes of the #MeToo movement. They are the women who press charges, publish their stories and pursue civil suits. But there are also those who have chosen to leave their communities whatever community that be – the Canlit community, the theatre community, journalism or countless other professional communities.
And Church communities. When I say that this novel is not about Mennonites, I do not mean that these dynamics never occur within Mennonite congregations. The most obvious analogue in the mainstream Mennonite world is probably the generation of female theologians who left seminary when they recognized the futility of fighting the power structures supporting John Howard Yoder. But I know the question plagues many others as well on a singular, personal level.
Some of the material in Women Speaking might seem particularly Mennonite – there’s a discussion on pacifism and a fair bit of hymn-singing – but a lot of it could be translated quite easily outside of the Mennosphere. An early and recurring plot point rests on a coerced demand that the women forgive their attackers. On the face of it, this is a damning indictment of a fundamentalist faith but – again – though the language is religious, any of a number of self-help books advise the same sort of trauma recovery. The goal might be wellness instead of entry into the Kingdom of Heaven but both call for forgiveness without accountability. Mostly because accountability is so often impossible.
Alongside the main plot of the novel – the drive for the women to come to a consensus – is a subtle subplot following the narrator, a man who loves one of the women. Having left as a child, the narrator with the auspicious name of August returns shortly before the action of the novel to the colony – the “place where life had made sense for (him), if only briefly.” August is driven by love and charged to be nothing but a scribe, but he fails over and over again, placing himself into the narrative when he doesn’t belong. The women rage and reason their way to a resolution but August — the one more accustomed to power and privilege — fumbles his own way forward.
In most stories where people traverse worlds, the ones who do the traveling are the heroes, having adventures and bringing wisdom from one world to the next. Or they might be villains of imperialism. But in this case, the traveler is pitiable, uncomfortable and consigned to the borderlands of society in both worlds, landing in jail in one world and suspecting if he is a “physical reminder of evil” in the other.
But none of this makes the novel a particularly Mennonite book. We’re all of us learning our place in whatever societies we move in and most of us do some traveling across invisible but powerful borders at some time or other in our lives.
I was gratified to see that relatively little in the press and advanced reviews spoke of Women Talking as illuminating of the Mennonite world. The novel is a relatable book and an important one. It doesn’t have to be particularly Mennonite for that. In fact, it’s quite possible that a more Mennonite book would not be as enjoyable or powerful.
I do wish that fewer people would praise it for being “based on a true story.” It’s not really. The book is “a reaction through fiction to true-life events.” And that’s not the same thing. My next post: Miriam Toews and #MennoToo (2) talks more about some of the differences between Miriam Toews’ Mennonites and the actual Old Colony Mennonites.
There’s also a cocktail recipe.