IN 2010, novelist Miriam Toews became aware of rumors circulating among the Mennonite community about sexual attacks in Bolivia. In the isolated Mennonite community there, women were waking groggy and bleeding, some having been sexually violated. When they finally talked to community leaders, they were told that the attacks were the work of the Devil, the product of wild female imaginations, or punishment for unspecified sins.
One woman finally caught a perpetrator entering a bedroom window one night and the truth was known: community men were using animal-grade sedative to subdue their victims and then sexually assaulting them, some of whom were children. Although Mennonite communities are usually self-policing, allowing the men to remain in the community was untenable — one man was hanged — so leaders sought the help of Bolivian police. Women Talking is a novelist’s response to these true events, a fictional conversation among some of the women while the accused are away in the city on trial.
The novel’s terrible irony is that the cost of maintaining the community’s pacifist image is the women’s silence in the face of grievous sexual violation by community members. Toews wrestles with the fundamental question of their faith and the ways it conflicts with their rights as women and as humans in a two-day conversation that is theological, philosophical, practical, and emotional. The women are at times tender toward one another and at others bitterly antagonistic, their conversation a nascent feminist movement in a Mennonite community.
In the book, the character August records the meeting for the women, who can neither read nor write. As part of an exiled family, he has suffered a different kind of injury at the hands of the community and is no longer of the community nor a true outsider. “[T]he real facts take on mythical importance, awe,” he writes, in his tender, beautiful final entry, “they are gifts, samizdat, currency, they are the Eucharist, blood, forbidden.”
Women Talking was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. Her body of work has won multiple prizes and has been translated into 19 languages.
CHRISTINE FISCHER GUY: This novel opens after the men have been taken to Bolivia by the police and the women have gathered in the barn to discuss their options. You made a daring choice with a male narrator, but August is a different kind of man, isn’t he? Called a schinda — the “king of insults” in the community because it means failed farmer — he occupies an in-between state in terms of rigid gender roles because he’s educated, a nurturing schoolteacher who reads and studies. The men think of him as effeminate: there’s not a shred of the toxic masculinity that necessitated this conversation. Do the women of Molotschna need August for any reason beyond taking the notes of their meeting?
MIRIAM TOEWS: Absolutely. They need men like August. They need men to understand, to be compassionate, they need respect from men. In terms of the story, do they need August? No. In a sense the minutes are irrelevant, they can’t read anyway, and the reason Ona has asked him to do this is out of compassion, knowing that he’s suicidal, he’s a lost soul, he’s lonely and tormented by this culture. Initially, it’s an act of kindness on her part to give him that job to do. They have better and more important things to do than document what they’re doing.
But August occupies that liminal space: he can bring outside experience to the narrative and give context. In my mind, it was important that it was a male narrator, because I was thinking, it’s time for the men to listen and to record and to stay quiet. It’s time they learn and understand what the women’s lives are, and how they need to change. In the end, the women will write their own stories.
August relates the brutal fallout of the attacks without emotion or judgment — Greta’s false teeth, her own crushed by her attacker, for instance, or the child’s request to return to diapers after the attack — and the women at the meeting display at least a veneer of equanimity. Why is Salome, who August calls “our warrior, our captain,” different?
Salome is wild with rage. She’s violent. She wants to not only kill the men who have attacked other women but specifically the one who killed her child. She wants to not only kill them but torture them and dance on their graves, but she knows she can’t. And yet she’s the kind of woman who can walk this line. Unlike Ona, her sister, who’s guileless, innocent, and loves everybody, who doesn’t really fit into the community because she’s so genuinely loving. But Salome can express that rage among the women, she knows she’s safe to do it there, she can go attack one of the men with a scythe after they’re caught. She’s filled with rage toward everything in her life: the system she’s being oppressed by, the fundamentalism, the misogyny, her role as servant. She feels like a prisoner, and yet she’s canny because she knows when and how to express it. That rage is what keeps her going, contributes to her survival.
The women need someone who doesn’t operate from a position of equanimity.
Exactly, because that equanimity is something that’s expected of them. She is their leader, the one who continues to light that fire and keeps them moving forward.
With the extended metaphor of the dragonfly that sets out on a journey but never reaches it — only its descendants do — you allude to the immediate hardships the women will face if they leave so that life will be better for their daughters. Is there any other way for change to happen?
I think about these women so much. Are the incidents of rape and incest in these communities increasing? I don’t know. How can you go into a community like this and say, “Women are being harmed here, you need to change.” Everyone has, of course, the right to practice their religion, but that doesn’t give them the right to rape and attack women. It’s a perfect cocktail for this type of abuse. I was horrified but not surprised to hear about this.
The women are illiterate, they don’t speak the language of the country they’re in. The language they do speak is unwritten. They couldn’t leave the community if they wanted to. They can only leave accompanied by men. Complicit are the governments who give them the land — because Mennonites are moving around, looking for those more remote places where they can practice their religion and not have to put their kids in ordinary public school and so on. These women don’t have citizenship; it would be terrifying to leave, even if they wanted to. These are people they also love and can’t imagine a life without. And they’ve been brainwashed into believing that this is how they must live in order to be granted eternal life.
When I do readings, Mennonites will tell me that they learned about these crimes in Bolivia and were told to pray. That’s something I understand: voices coming together in a collective way. At least it’s generating some discussion, even if it’s only with a God that I don’t quite believe in. There are aid organizations, there’s the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) that goes into war-torn places all the time offering help, who aren’t there. Why not? Have they tried and been rebuffed? It fills me with frustration.
When the truth about the attacks is known, the community elder attempts to neutralize the women’s anger by weaponizing their faith: he tells them that they must forgive their attackers to protect their souls. Should there be limits to forgiveness?
That’s an interesting question, and I certainly don’t have the answer to it. I think forgiveness is such a personal process and choice. Being told to forgive by the church, as we are, is empty. As a religious concept, I have trouble with it in that context. But the forgiveness we genuinely feel in our hearts for people who have wronged us or hurt us, it’s such a subjective, individual thing. I couldn’t say what those limits would be. Is forgiveness something one does to feel better about oneself? Or do we truly forgive? For myself, there are limits, but I wouldn’t want to put those limits on someone else.
There’s an Old Testament versus New Testament battle that’s part of their forgiveness debate: whether to take an eye for an eye or turn the other cheek. The embedded hypocrisy here, of course, is the sexual violence that the women endured at the hands of community men, necessitating the conversation. So now for the big theological question: does adherence to their faith mean they also must accept this built-in sexism?
No. I don’t think so. That sexism, that misogyny — the hatred and mistreatment of women — is not one of the tenets of the faith. If you’re a conservative male Mennonite interpreting the Bible, interpreting “women submit to your husbands” and “children submit to your fathers,” you can extrapolate from that any way you want and these horrific crimes can occur. But is that the correct translation of the scripture? Of course not. That’s the part of the scripture I would eliminate. I’d rewrite the scripture and give it to these Mennonite readers and say, “We’ve performed an edit and it’s better now. You can still practice your faith without this inherent misogyny as a part of it.”
There are ways of being Mennonite in the world that are about equality and have female ministers that are open to the LGBTQ+ community and are loving and tolerant. Those do exist, and my mom belongs to one of those churches. So, these pastors and leaders have choices. For me, as a Mennonite, I feel reassured and hopeful because of these progressive churches that are cropping up. But there are huge schisms within the Mennonite Conference, because there are churches that are sexist, homophobic, and unwelcoming.
Are you a practicing Mennonite?
I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore, either, though I spent 13 years in the Catholic education system. In some ways, I think you’re talking about the divide between the faith and institution. I still think the teachings of the New Testament are good moral principles, but I left the church in my 20s because I felt the institution failed me, failed all of us, with its complicity in systemic sexual abuse. At 52, I’m realizing that I feel some anger and sadness and disappointment about the fact that I can no longer be part of that faith. I’m wondering how you feel about that.
I share that sadness. When I go back to my Mennonite community, as frustrated and angry as it makes me feel, I also feel certain longing, yearning. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I think it’s more than that: it’s a sense of belonging to a community, and in addition the practice of one’s faith in the name of God. When I hear the hymns my mom plays on the piano from the Mennonite hymnal in German, I just weep. I don’t know what it is. There was a safety in that. And, of course, it’s a very unsafe place within those fundamentalist, patriarchal communities; those are very unsafe places for girls and woman and for a lot of men as well.
When you look at the New Testament, what goes on in so many of these Christian institutions is diametrically opposed to the scripture teachings. That’s where it all breaks down.
When I think of the men, stalking the stage in the church with their condemning and judging our souls … week after week, it does take its toll. You can start to believe that you are lost and you’re guilty and a sinner and you should live with shame and somehow be punished. You can really take that on. I could talk about how that affects the general mental health of Mennonites, such as my father and sister who did absorb that lesson to a much bloodier end than I did. You start to believe.
I think these women, my women in the loft, were helping me. I was trying to learn from them as I was writing, because I have a more punk attitude. I’m just filled with rage so much of the time when I see the harm that it’s done. I was learning as I wrote. My characters couldn’t all be raging at each other nonstop. I was trying to understand, through these women, how I could think about myself as a Mennonite, where I could place myself: what are the things about being a Mennonite that I could love and accept and what are the things about being a Mennonite that I can be critical of, and that I can attempt through my writing to generate some discussion. Hopefully. I wish that I were a little more like the older women in that book than like Salome, who’s more like me.
But that whole ecosystem relies on her being there. It allows them to stay in a temperament that makes them feel okay because the anger they must feel is being expressed by someone else.
That’s true. But it’s hard on the heart! The idea of anger, probably in the Catholic church too, anger is not acceptable, it’s a sin. Who are you angry with, God? That won’t do. To be meek and submissive, particularly for girls and women … that’s something, oh my God, I lived with all my life. I was the one raging against everything, and I wanted them to rage with me. Maybe that was somehow beneficial for my mom and sister and father that I was doing it.
Apart from some very brief moments of gallows humor, the tone of this novel is serious throughout, and this is a departure for you. You’ve dealt with very serious subjects before, so why was it different this time?
First of all, the urgency with which the women are attempting to formulate a decision is something that informs the tone. They don’t have a lot of time to joke around. In my other book, there’s more moving from light to dark, more shadows. There are light moments, but there’s also the fear, the profound terror they have in their hearts because they’re wounded and violated. I wanted to hold that fear and terror of it happening again and again close to me, not only to themselves but also to their children. There was also the uncertainty: what will happen to them? That didn’t allow lighter moments or comedy because of what these women are experiencing.
The writing of this book was unlike any other book I’ve written. The intensity of it affected my mind, my body, even writing from the safety of my urban, modern, secular community. One can only imagine those women and the feelings of abject terror, uncertainty, and profound despair.
Did you try the story different ways?
I had an idea of a far more vengeful story. I quickly realized that’s not true to these women, and I’m not a vengeful person so I couldn’t stay with it. Revenge doesn’t lead to anything. Revenge only leads to more killings and violence and oppression. I wanted it to be somewhat hopeful.
We can do better. That’s what so much of my writing is about, the idea that if we can expose or address these things in some way — I’m a novelist, so that’s how I’ll address them — we can change. We can become better. We can begin to understand the ways we’re harming those people we claim to love.
Banner image by Ted Eytan.