I was paid $25 to review Miriam Toews’ novel The Flying Troutmans when I was a snotty twenty-something, and I said the book was well-written and entertaining, but didn’t seem to have anything important to say. As a cocksure creative writing grad I was obsessed with books that “needed to be written” and I gave a great book by a Canadian treasure the 2008 equivalent of a shrug emoji.
Oh, to return to those simpler times.
2008-me probably would have struggled with the subtlety of Women Talking, but there’s no doubt that it “needed to be written.” It’s a novel of female empowerment in the #MeToo era, it’s an inspiring, delicate discussion of feminism and community and patriarchy and morals and faith. It’s a story that raises the voices of suppressed women and refuses to give clear answers. If Toews ever read my review of Troutmans (which I’m sure she didn’t), Women Talking is the roundhouse retort.
In the real world, our world, the men of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia raped the women of their colony. They did it at night, using drugs to keep the women and girls asleep, and for a long time the women thought the rapes were ghosts or hysteria. In the fictional world, Toews’ world, the women gather in the hayloft to decide what to do: nothing, fight, or leave. The novel is the minutes of that meeting, written by a young man who’s invited because the women weren’t taught to read or write. He’s trusted, somewhat, because he was excommunicated at the time of the rapes, and is an “unmanly” man.
Meetings are hard at the best of times. The number of people who want to speak, the challenge of staying on task and collaborating to consensus; it’s grating and difficult to stay patient. Then bring in heavy topics like personal safety, your children’s safety, your moral duty to God, and the prospect of leaving the only community you’ve ever been allowed to see. Then put it all to paper for readers who’ve never met these characters, don’t know their backstories and can’t see their faces. Toews does an impressive job carrying all these voices and honing their character traits for the reader. She does an impressive job allowing the meeting to meander and reach consensus through osmosis — more than once I wondered when the women had made a decision, because all of a sudden they were talking as if they’d voted. She does an impressive job too, of writing a form of English that feels like it’s been translated from Plautdietsch.
“That’s true, says Mejal. God might define it otherwise, our leaving.
And how do you think God would define our leaving? asks Ona.
As a time for love, a time for peace, says Mejal.
Aha! says Ona. She claps her hands joyfully.
Mejal is radiant. Agata moves her upper body to the left, then to the right.
(I am struck by a thought: Perhaps this is the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.)
We will feel anguish and we will feel sorry and we will feel uncertainty and we will feel sadness, but not guilt, says Agata.
Mariche amends: We may feel guilty but we will know we are not guilty.
The other women nod, eagerly. Mejal says, We may feel homicidal but we know we are not killers.
Ona says, We may feel vengeful but we will know we are not raccoons.
Salome is laughing. We may feel lost, she says, but we will know we are not losers.
Speak for yourself, says Mejal.
I always do, says Salome. You should try it too.”
Toews is a fantastic storyteller, but in Women Talking her options are severely restricted by her chosen form: the meeting minutes. Yet she still finds ways to slip in metaphor and other poetics. Two teenagers play with each other’s hair to pass the time — a slightly rebellious act in itself because the Mennonite women typically hide their hair under kerchiefs. When they opt to braid their hair together they forge a physical bond, all while listening to the women in the hayloft forging a bond to respond to the rapes. Sometimes the women speak in ornate language too — still rooted in Plautdietch and their rural experience, but rich in metaphor:
“We are wasting time, pleads Greta, by passing this burden, this sack of stones, from one to the next, by pushing our pain away. We mustn’t do this. We mustn’t play Hot Potato with our pain. Let’s absorb it ourselves, each of us, she says. Let’s inhale it, let’s digest it, let’s process it into fuel.”
Women Talking opens the most painful scars and digs around to find the fragments still causing infection. Women Talking hurts, but it’s worth it.