Saturday 1 December 2018


Women Talking by Miriam Toews   
A group of women are meeting to make a decision that will change their lives. In Miriam Toews’s Women Talking this is no ordinary group, no ordinary situation. These women live in a remote Mennonite colony in South America, they and their children have been victims of rape and abuse, and they are deciding what their response will be. When we enter the story, the rapists (eight men of the colony) have been arrested and taken to the city at the instigation of Peters - The Elder - to ‘protect’ them from the women. For several years the women have awoken from drug-induced unconsciousness to find themselves beaten and bloodied. Peters has told them it is the work of the devil and they are being punished for their wrong-doings. Once someone is caught red-handed this story no longer stacks up and the perpetrator names others, revealing a culture of abuse, domination and depravity. Yet Toews does not give us a story of abuse and powerlessness, she heads off in the direction of survival and decision-making. The book is a two-evening record of meetings (while most of the men are in the city to pay bail and bring the arrested men back to the colony), recorded by the recently returned August, the school teacher, who has been allowed back into the colony by Peters (he had left as a child with his excommunicated parents (excommunicated for sharing illicit literature - a book of paintings)). August’s role is to record the eight women’s discussion: he is the only person who can write and read, and is empathetic to the women’s dilemma. They have come to the conclusion that they have three choices: stay and fight, leave, or do nothing. There are several women who have decided that doing nothing is their only option, and that they will not go against the rulings of their men. The others, eight women from two different families, battle out their options in a feisty exchange of words - some philosophical, others personal - and debate the merits of each option. To stay and do nothing requires them to forgive the men, absolving all from sin and allowing everyone to go to heaven. (This is what Elder Peters wants and the members (the men only) have decided is right). To stay and fight comes with more violence, and they question their will or ability to kill if needs be. Do they want to be murderers to protect themselves and, more importantly, their children? The arguments roll backwards and forwards as they consider their religious beliefs, the rules of the community, how they can leave if they leave, and where they would go (as hardly anyone has gone further than the next colony), their moral obligations and philosophical musings about their role and rights within this rigid community. The conversations go something like this: whether by leaving they are breaking any rules aside from disobedience to their menfolk, but if they (the men) are not there to disallow them to leave are they, in fact, guilty of disobedience? Add to that some banter about who already disobeys their husband, who lets their husband walk all over them, and you have lively discussions to flow in and out of personal jibes and silly jealousies. Toews, herself an ex-Mennonite, carefully and cleverly constructs this story, giving us the horror of the situation without the drama, and putting the power into the hands of the women. The men that remain in the colony are either young, senile, infirm, or ineffectual. August is the exception, seen by the women as trustworthy because of his love for Ona and his position as an outsider due to his recent return and his worldly experience and education. Toews creates a wonderful tableau of characters: the women are lively, argumentative, petty and loyal, naive yet wise. Despite the risk in meeting to make a choice, they are resolute in their self-determination for their own and their children’s survival.  Toews takes this grim story, based upona true happening in a Bolivian Mennonite community in the early 2000s, and infuses it with humour, philosophy, and respect for women who counter patriarchal and authoritarian regimes. Witty, insightful and unforgiving. 

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