'Women Talking' is a beautifully written meditation on the power of narrative

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"In the year after I arrived, the women described dreams they’d been having, and then eventually, as the pieces fell into place, they came to understand that they were collectively dreaming one dream, and that it wasn’t a dream at all," writes August Epp, the narrator of Miriam Toews’s novel Women Talking.

This collective dream refers to the real life nightmare on which the book is based. From 2005 to 2009, women living in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia repeatedly woke up to find themselves in pain, a mystery that many members of the community attributed to devils punishing the women for their sins. In reality, eight of the community's men had been drugging and raping the women. In a prefatory note, Toews calls her novel "a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination."

Toews's choice of words is apt: in the novel, as in the real events, the women's pain is blamed not on the physical and sexual assaults that were taking place but on "wild female imagination," as the bishop of the Molotschna Colony puts it. The women's very claim to reality is contested, and their powerlessness gives their urgent grievances and pleas for safety and respect the wispy quality of dreams. As Ona, one of the women says, "We are women without a voice," "women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to, and even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are. All we women have are our dreams -- so of course we are dreamers."

Dreamers talking to one another, that is. When the men accused of the attacks are arrested and taken to the closest city, the other men of the community follow with the aim of getting the suspects out on bail. Their plan is to bring them back to the colony, so the women can forgive them, ensuring everyone's path to heaven. In the interim between the men’s departure from and return to the colony, the women of Molotschna convene to determine their course of action. To forgive the men feels impossible, and yet rejecting this option means forfeiting their place in heaven and having to leave the community.

Over two days, the women wrestle with their dilemma. They want three things: to keep their children safe, to remain devoted to their faith, and to think freely, but the system in which they live makes these desires paradoxical. They ask themselves, what should they do with the rapists? And what should they do with the other men, complicit in their violence and silencing? And how should they separate the boys and men who harm them from the ones they love, especially when they're sometimes one and the same? And, perhaps most importantly, what should they do with the world in which they live, the laws, conventions, and moral precepts that give certain people power over others, that make -- to a lesser or greater extent -- victims of them all?

Their conversations are familiar ones in this #MeToo era, taking them from considerations of individual cases to a radical re-imagining of society itself. In this respect, their talking assumes a revolutionary tenor. A boy in the community reads a poem "in which he described the sheets and garments on his mother’s washline as having voices, of speaking with one another, of sending messages to other garments on other washlines." To this, "all the boys [in his class] laughed." For them, and many of their elders, women's talk is frivolous and ineffectual, little more than rumours passed within a dubious whisper network.

The women’s talk during the meetings, though, is impassioned and nuanced. They argue, hurl insults, and rage against injustice -- and each other. Many of them feel conflicted, caught between competing desires: if the women do choose to leave, how can they possibly leave the ones they love behind? The crisis in their community calls for a decision, a united front, yet each woman has her own allegiances, motivations, dreams. There's the question, too, of their faith: how will the women express their agency within the framework of their faith? The talking is a messy, tearful, sometimes wryly funny process, and reminds us that even in a remote colony far outside mainstream feminism, a place without phones or the internet or viral hashtags, are women also grappling with the long history of gender-based oppression.

Interestingly, this novel teeming with women’s talk is narrated by a man. Excommunicated as a child, August returns to the colony many years later, after his university studies, political activism, and imprisonment in England. Thoughtful and sensitive, he is perceived as effeminate and strange, but his outsider status enables his invitation into the women’s confidence. Tasked with taking minutes for the two days of meetings, he comments on the proceedings, offers enigmatic metaphors and facts, and then shyly retreats, aware of his marginal place within that space. In August, with his unrequited love for Ona and his complicated feelings about his past (and present), the novel finds another example of an individual straining against the rigid confines of his religious and social universe.

Toews’s Women Talking is a beautifully written meditation on the power of narrative in a place where "a man’s dream becomes [...] the truth." As he passes the community washlines, "the women’s dresses flapping in the wind," August thinks: "I listened carefully but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Perhaps, I now think, because they weren’t talking to me. They were talking to each other."

Marisa Grizenko is a writing consultant, editor, and enthusiastic reader living in Vancouver.

Author image: Wikimedia Commons

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