On Two Novels by Miriam Toews

Annie Adams

04/2019

Once Miriam Toews—a Canadian novelist raised in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba—heard that in an ultraconservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia, women and girls as young as three were being brutally violated in their own homes, waking with little to no memory of what had happened, she couldn’t shake the story. Men in positions of religious or civic leadership attributed these assaults to demonic retribution, or to “female imagination” run rampant. For four years, the assaults continued, until a group of several men were caught, and confessed to spraying a veterinary anesthetic into local homes and raping over one hundred women and girls.

The colony in Bolivia was named after the province of Toews’s youth, but it adhered to a more extreme rejection of the outside world than its Canadian counterpart. Its residents lived off the electrical grid, spoke only Plattdeutsch, or Low German, and resisted even the addition of rubber wheels on their buggies, sticking instead with metal. Toews, who had written two novels about Mennonites in Canada, felt compelled to depict a community based on the colony in Bolivia, both distant and familiar.

Women Talking, which published in the United States on April 2, finds August Epp, the son of excommunicated Mennonites, taking down the minutes for a meeting of the town’s women, secretly gathered in a hayloft while the men are in town trying to bail out the attackers. Faced with the urgent decision to fight, flee, or do nothing (the latter is hastily dismissed), the women hope to come to a prompt decision and plan of action. Instead, when these women, who can’t read, speak their national language, or write more than their first names—women whose community has never asked for their opinion—begin to engage in a dialogue about their spiritual, existential, and practical concerns, the impediments of this patriarchal society gravely slow down the proceedings. Despite lacking words for patriarchy, rape, and subjugation, their conversation dismantles the authoritarian, patriarchal society they inhabit. In an exchange where one woman proposes an alternative to the options fight, leave, or do nothing, asking, “Should we consider asking the men to leave?” another responds:

None of us have ever asked the men for anything. . . . Not a single thing, not even for the salt to be passed, not even for a penny or a moment alone or to take the washing in or to open a curtain or to put your hand on the small of my back as I try, again, for the twelfth or thirteenth time, to push a baby out of my body.

“Isn’t it interesting,” she says, “that the one and only request the women would make of the men would be to leave?” The women laugh. 

In making their decision, they interpret the bible for themselves for the first time, having only ever heard it read aloud by men. Enraged Salome, whose toddler is a victim of the attacks, insists:

We do not have to be forgiven by the men of God . . . for protecting our children from the depraved actions of vicious men who are often the very same men we are meant to ask for forgiveness. If God is a loving God he will forgive us Himself. If God is a vengeful God then he has created us in His image. If God is omnipotent then why has He not protected the women and girls of Molotschna? If God, in the book of Matthew, according to Peters, our wise bishop, asks: Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, then mustn’t we consider it a hindrance when our children are attacked?

To read Women Talking is to be in the hayloft with the women as they comfort and confront each other, and as they acknowledge the trauma they endure and share. Toews does not force her characters to condemn their religion; instead, their experience leads them to reject the ways their religion has harmed them while embracing, in a show of faithful solidarity, the love and community purportedly at the Mennonite faith’s core. By the time the women reach their decision, they are both uniquely rendered individuals and timeless, archetypes of any woman oppressed by her society. 

Women Talking’s publication coincides with reprints by Counterpoint Press of four earlier Toews novels, including A Complicated Kindness, the book which solidified Toews’s status as a faithful but critical commentator on Mennonite life. Toews’s third novel follows Nomi Nickel, a teenager on the verge of both high school graduation and an existential crisis. If Women Talking is an outsider’s account of several women, A Complicated Kindness is the reverse: an almost stream-of-conscious first-person account of a deeply bored, lonely, and smart young woman. Its wit is of the sharp, raucous, nearly cruel variety perfected by teenagers. Here’s a conversation between Nomi and her father:

My dad was at the kitchen table looking at his hands. You weren’t in school today? he asked.
Depends what you mean by school, I said (Oh ho, clever. God, I’m a jerk).
They say you’re failing grade twelve, he said.
No, they have it turned around, I said (I’m making myself nauseous).

This, in combination with the aching, pervasive sadness of Nomi’s family life, is what makes the novel so infectious. Here she points out the irony in the religious fundamentalism pushed by her uncle, the town’s pastor, who she’s dubbed The Mouth: 

The tourists are coming down in droves now to see how simple life can really be in Shitville. Travis has a job at the museum taking care of goats and sweeping out the windmill and erasing all the bad stuff tourist kids write on the blackboard in the fake one-room schoolhouse. He told me he wrote the word OBEY in huge letters across the length of the entire blackboard as a joke and The Mouth saw it and said he liked it.

Nomi is a great contradiction: destined for either a life slaughtering chickens in her Mennonite community of East Village, Manitoba, or one in the other East Village (palling around with Lou Reed is her go-to escapist fantasy). She’s filled with insightful and hilarious observations even as she holds back, terrified to hit too close to the truth: on the subject of her wannabe-musician boyfriend, she says, “I told him his version of "Fire and Rain" was destroying my soul. Except not out loud.” She hates the seemingly arbitrary rules that dictate her life, even as her reverence for them fills her with anxiety about the salvation of her family. Nomi skips school, chain smokes, and misses her mother and sister. She tells her reader, “It's hard to grieve in a town where everything that happens is God's will.”

Hard, indeed. Nomi’s monologue of a novel reveals a woman, reared on fear of damnation and the unconditional love of her immediate family, who suddenly finds herself without either. Similarly, the women meeting in the hayloft cling to the skeletal structure of their faith while trying to carve out a life free from the violence, shame, and oppression it brings. These characters share the choice to stay and suffer, or flee into the unknown. They share the knowledge that it might not really be a choice. Their stories are individual and universal, and by no means relegated to Mennonites. Miriam Toews ends Women Talking with a note in her Acknowledgements: “I wish . . . to acknowledge the girls and women living in patriarchal, authoritarian (Mennonite and non-Mennonite) communities across the globe. Love and solidarity.”

Annie Adams is an Assistant Editor at the Sewanee Review.

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