In her deeply affecting novel about her sister’s suicide, All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews writes, “Books are what save us. Books are what don’t save us.” She echoed this sentiment years later in a recent conversation with Meg Wolitzer at The Center for Fiction: “Words can save our lives… and also can’t.” The very title of her stunning new book, Women Talking, tells us this novel is about the power of words, of women’s words in particular. Toews puts them to the test, asking them to confront the most unimaginable horror: the systematic rape of women by a group of men in a small, isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia. The novel, based on true events, centers around a fictional, clandestine conversation between three generations of women in the aftermath of the violence. The purpose of the meeting is to debate their choices: should the women do nothing in response to the rapes, stay and fight the men, or leave the community altogether?
Raised in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada, Toews has an insider’s understanding of the patriarchal and authoritarian system that the women in Bolivia face. In Women Talking, she highlights how internalized the rigid rules of this society are for the Mennonite women, as well as how hard it is to speak up against them.
While Women Talking examines a small enclave of extreme gender inequality, its reach extends far beyond this pocket of Mennonites in Bolivia. It is hard not to look at the violence in Bolivia in relation to the sexual abuse that has spurred the #MeToo movement and to violence against women around the globe. By focusing not on the rapes themselves, but rather on the conversation that comes after, Toews manages to find hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. While the book does not save the women in Bolivia, it does stand in solidarity with them, it does imagine a revolutionary new future for them.
Miriam Toews now lives in Toronto and is the author of seven novels, including Summer of My Amazing Luck, A Boy of Good Breeding, and A Complicated Kindness, as well as the nonfiction book, Swing Low: A Life. She has won numerous literary prizes, including the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award, the Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
Recently, Toews and I discussed through email how she built tension in a novel about a single conversation, the concept of “restorative justice” in the Mennonite community, and the way her own mother’s resilience helped her write Women Talking.
The Rumpus: At The Center for Fiction, you mentioned that hearing about the rapes in Bolivia raised a lot of questions for you. You talked about “get[ting] into that deep place where you have the questions.” It seems that questions, the act of questioning, of answering and not answering, of call and response, became the very architecture of your novel. There’s the big question of whether the women will stay or leave their community. But also dozens of others: Are women merely animals in their community? Should the men be asked to leave? Can the women bear to live without their loved ones? I am wondering whether you yourself view question/answer as forming the structure and heartbeat of Women Talking? Could you explain how questions function in it?
Miriam Toews: Yes, I do think of questions as forming the structure of the book. I feel like every novel I write has one or maybe two central questions at the heart of it, and that it circles around and around these questions, without necessarily answering them. The central questions at the heart of Women Talking are being asked, by the women, in the context of three desires: they want to protect their children, think (for themselves), and keep their faith. How will they be able to achieve all three of these things?
Rumpus: I love that you don’t think books necessarily have to answer the questions they raise. When I first heard that your book was essentially the minutes to a single meeting, I worried about its pacing. How could one discussion sustain a plot of over two hundred pages? The women are in the moment of stasis before making their move. They are on that metaphorical stationary bike you so poignantly mention from the Turin bomb shelter, generating energy for their survival. Going nowhere. But, in fact, I found Women Talking to be a page-turner. The book has intense tension, even though you very consciously leave the rapes off the page. How did you achieve this tension? Did you find it more difficult to build tension here than in your other books?
Toews: I think the tension comes from the urgency of their situation, that they don’t have very much time to make a decision, and also from the very real danger and threat of harm if they are found out and somehow prevented from carrying out their plans. I tried to hold that tension and trauma inside of me while I wrote the book, and to constantly remain aware of the passing of time, and the possibility of betrayal or capture, and the incredible pain that the women were in.
There was an urgency to my writing as well because I wanted it to end. I’ve never felt as physically and mentally depleted after writing a book as I did with this one, so in that sense, yes, it was more difficult but at the same time the story itself has an inherent tension to it. And the tension is created just by the reader knowing what these women experienced; how they were violated repeatedly over such a long period of time, then disbelieved and blamed and shamed for it, combined with the high stakes and desperate uncertainty of their future.
Rumpus: Our readers will relate to your feelings of depletion, since many of them also write about violence and human cruelty, about patriarchy and inequality. How did you stay motivated during the writing process? Do you have any wisdom to offer on how to write about dark subjects without becoming paralyzed by them?
Toews: Well, I guess it depends on the individual. It’s a balancing act. Writing about these dark subjects, for me, actually functions as a type of release from that kind of paralysis. Putting words or language to fear and trauma is mitigating and necessary, for me, and a way of connecting, a kind of solidarity. But then, yeah, it’s important—when I stop writing around noon or 1 p.m.—to mentally and physically move away from that particular darkness and connect to people in a more literal way. I spend time with my kids and my grandkids. They’re babies, pure joy. I go outside and walk around and see my friends. I read the newspaper and see movies. I willfully and deliberately try to move away from that kind of interiority that’s necessary to write, and to connect with people and other issues, politics, art. I take care of my mother, who has mobility issues and lives with me. We spend a LOT of time together! Her resilience and strength and wisdom and laughter teach me, every day, how to live, how to write, how to organize and make manageable the pain and the joy of being alive.
Rumpus: The #MeToo movement, which you have said evolved after you wrote your book, is concerned with abusers facing consequences—that they lose power/jobs or, in the case of rape, go to jail. But, as you mentioned, the women in your novel have only three goals: their children’s safety, to be steadfast in their faith, and to think. The lawyer in me is curious why the women do not also want the men to be punished. The matriarch, Agata, mentions that in heaven “there will be justice,” but she seems to be referring to a different kind of justice. The women struggle with concepts of forgiveness and revenge, yet they seem almost disinterested in the legal actions against their attackers. I assume this is because they are guided by religious principles, but can you tell us about the role of justice in your novel?
Toews: Yes, the women are guided by religious principles and practices that keep them “outside” of any criminal justice system. These closed colonies are self-governed and the elders and bishop of the colony are the ultimate authority, authorized, of course, by God, according to their thinking—police, courts, trials, and incarceration are not thought of by traditional Mennonites as the right way to achieve justice. Justice is God’s responsibility and, by proxy, the colony elders’ responsibility. In these communities, they practice a kind of “restorative justice,” in which the onus is on the men to ask for forgiveness and the women to grant forgiveness, thereby repairing the community and, more importantly, ensuring eternal life for all of them in Heaven. Which means the most severe punishment practiced would be for the elders to excommunicate the rapists from the colony.
This self-governance and adherence to religious principles of non-resistance and forgiveness are among the reasons these crimes are allowed to continue, and why the women have no recourse when they do happen. The women in my novel understand their predicament implicitly.
In any case, simply punishing and incarcerating the perpetrators of violence in these communities wouldn’t fundamentally change anything or solve the problem. The root causes of patriarchal violence need to be understood. These are authoritarian, fundamentalist, and misogynistic cultures, where small, daily entitlements can transform, over time, into sexual and physical violence. They operate in extreme isolation, away from society and the world and it makes the girls and the women, especially, extremely vulnerable.
Rumpus: In Women Talking, the men in the community are away in the city to pay bail for the accused rapists. Instead of asking why you mostly leave male characters off the page, I’m curious why you include any in the book at all. What role did the male characters serve for you? For example, why did you choose to tell the story from the point of view of August, the male note-taker at the women’s meeting? Or why did you bring Klaas—the husband whose presence is so menacing and violent—into the action of the story?
Toews: August is the narrator for a number of reasons. The first among them is that he is literate, unlike the women, and so is able carry out the task that Ona assigns to him, which is to take the minutes of the women’s meetings. He has lived away from the colony and been educated in England, which makes him an insider and outsider, and a perfect guide and interpreter for the reader. Especially because he loves Ona (and the women). He is an ally and friend to them, and he takes his role of minute-taker seriously. Of course, it turns out the minutes are not needed, and Ona has only invited him into the loft as an act of compassion towards him; she saw that he was suffering and possibly suicidal. And I liked that dynamic—the women engaged in urgent discussion with so much at stake, and the man in the role of secretary, listening and recording and learning.
I wanted to include Klaas because I thought it was interesting to see how the women react to his presence there in the loft, and how they react to him as a colony male/elder in general. His appearance is a surprise, and a possible impediment to the women’s plans. He is also such a contrast to August in his demeanor and attitudes. He is the man the women’s sons are destined to become. How will they protect their sons? How will they influence their sons? How will their sons create a safer, freer, healthier community for the women they marry and the daughters they raise?
Rumpus: Oh, this is so haunting—that Klaas is what the women’s sons might themselves become! And yet you’ve balanced him with the sweet August. I’m intrigued by your decision to develop a kind of romantic love between August and Ona. I adore their relationship. It is so tender and true. I think my interest in their friendship is wrapped up in the larger question of the future of male/female relationships that your book imagines. Do you view Women Talking as hopeful or despairing about those relationships?
Toews: Definitely hopeful.
Photograph of Miriam Toews © Carol Loewen.