At the halfway point of Miriam Toews’ novel, Women Talking, the narrator, August Epp, describes a faded photograph clipped from a London newspaper and pinned to the wall in a nearby co-op. The caption reads, Mennonites like to spend some time chatting under the stars before going to sleep, and the photo “depicts several young men and women from our colony.” Epp says he recognizes a person in this image: “One of the women in the photograph is Ona. She’s slim, young, leaning forward to hear what the other girls are saying.”
The photograph comes from life. If a reader were to search the caption, they would be led to a photo essay in the Guardian, published in 2014, where photographer Jordi Busqué notes that the unnamed Mennonite men and women he photographed are part of Maria Fehr farm, Colonia Oriente, Bolivia.
The character of Ona is, of course, created by Toews. “Ona has not seen this photograph,” Epp continues, “but some day I would like to tell her about it.” In Women Talking, Ona, eloquent and brilliant, will soon have a child. She is also one in a small group chosen to formulate a response to a horrific series of crimes.
Women Talking takes place in an ultra-orthodox Mennonite colony where more than three hundred women have been sexually assaulted—nearly every female in the community—including a three-year-old child. Entire households were sprayed with an anaesthetic used on farm animals. The perpetrators, at least eight men from the colony, raped their unconscious victims in attacks that occurred every three to four nights between 2005 and 2009. All the details above are drawn, without alteration, from life.
The horror of these real-life assaults, which took place in a colony in Bolivia, permeates—with emotional force, and sometimes with anxiety—Women Talking. The grief and rage a reader might feel in response is beyond words. Women Talking, Toews tells us, in the opening “Note on the Novel,” is “both a reaction through fiction to these real events, and an act of female imagination.”
Her act of imagination begins in Molotschna County where, on June 6 and 7, 2009, eight women—four from the Loewen family and four from the Friesen family, ranging from teenagers to grandmothers—embark on an astonishing conversation in which religion, philosophy, and pragmatism are inseparable. The women ask one another: are they animals or people, and are they owned, guided by instinct, or free? Is it true that if they fail to forgive the perpetrators, or if forgiveness is coerced, the women will no longer be worthy of heaven? Can they stop the crimes by leaving, and is leaving therefore an active pacifism, a form of faith? How can they protect their children? If they choose to go, must they leave all the men behind, including their young sons? Are leaving and fleeing the same act? What if the arrested men are not the guilty ones, and/or what if the guilty ones are still at large? What is the ultimate source of this violence?
The eight are tasked with deciding on behalf of the women of the colony what to do next. The most electric of the group are two sisters, Ona and Salome Friesen, and it is Ona who asks Epp to take the minutes of the meeting. He is one of only a handful of men present in the colony on those two days.
The blurring between real events and Women Talking cannot but exist in a morally complex space. As with any novel that depicts an atrocity, particularly one whose survivors still live, the writer’s imagination carries profound capacity as well as responsibility. The 2013 reportage referred to by Toews in her opening note, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky’s “The ghost rapes of Bolivia,” which appeared in Vice, contains other devastating aspects of this story. One of the victims, heavily anaesthetized while she was assaulted yet carrying harrowing fragments of memories, told Friedman-Rudovsky she “accepted those nights as a horrific fact of life” and another recalls waking in such pain she thought she would die. Others confided that, “though it’s never discussed and was not part of the legal case, residents privately told me that men and boys were raped, too.” In real life, some men of the colony wanted the rapists banished; initially locked inside sheds and basements, the rapists were soon handed over to the Bolivian legal system where they were sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. One man told Friedman-Rudovsky for another report that if the perpetrators return, “they will be lynched,” and an alleged perpetrator, who had not been arrested initially, was later found in a nearby colony and tortured and murdered.
In Women Talking, Epp relays that all the men have gone to the city to post bail for the attackers “in the hope that they will be able to return to Molotschna while they await trial.” The non-presence of nearly all the men is part of the scaffolding of Toews’ fictionalization, and it gives the characters something that real life did not: two days to meet clandestinely and discuss a unified response. For the majority, there are only two feasible options: stay and fight, or leave. An early option, to do nothing and leave things in the hands of God, “most of the women in the colony dismiss as ‘dummheit.’ ” The swift rejection of this option—which for many of the real life Mennonite survivors might have seemed the only livable choice—signals, perhaps, that Women Talking is both of this world and yet decisively apart from it.
In the hayloft of the barn where they meet, we come to know and care for these eight women. We learn of their victimization, by the rapists and by their own family members, and we are illuminated by their remarkable clear-sightedness, wisdom, wariness, occasional laughter, prayers and songs, and frequent clashes. No answer is safe or certain.
The Socratic dialogue at work demands slow and careful reading. Moreover, conversation and meta-conversations are cross-hatched. We learn, for instance, that Epp has been instructed by Ona to transcribe the women talking, and to simultaneously translate their words from Plautdietsch into English (while the men speak some Spanish and rudimentary English, we are told that the women are unilingual and illiterate; they have no obvious need for Epp’s translation). He refers to his writings as “minutes” though really they are narrative—replete with Epp’s backstory, commentary and related thoughts (on butterflies, Michelangelo, John Cage, and the Korean poet Ko Un, among other subjects). Transcribing the following impassioned speech by Salome, he inhabits both his voice and hers,
Salome interrupts. We’re not members! she repeats. We are the women of Molotschna. The entire colony of Molotschna is built on the foundation of patriarchy (translator’s note: Salome didn’t use the word—I inserted it in the place of Salome’s curse, of mysterious origin, loosely translated as “talking through the flowers”), where the women live out their days as mute, submissive and obedient servants …We are not members, Mariche, we are commodities. (Again, translator’s note about the word commodities: similar situation to above.)
The women, Ona says, are not “allowed to think,” and have been forbidden maps, books, and literacy, and almost all contact with the surrounding Spanish-speaking world. Thus when Salome says,
We will be doing the work of re-education organically—(Oh for fuck’s sake, organically, says Mejal)—while we raise our young male children to be compassionate and respectful,
I, like Mejal, paused to consider the register of the women. Salome’s mother, Agata, says, “Our animal instincts have joined forces with our intellects, which have lurked and languished in the shadows long enough…” How to understand the transcription-translation-narration filter that occurs via Epp? If we are hearing the ideas of the women through multiple veils, to what degree does this impact the answers—the political and spiritual action—the women eventually choose? (Also, I asked myself, do these questions matter? Are they tangential or are they the essential work of the novel?) “This is the beginning of a new era,” Ona says. “This is our manifesto.”
As the conversations continue, examining the patriarchal structure enclosing the lives of Mennonite women, the novel’s structure (the minutes that enclose the women’s voices) begins to feel increasingly significant. The form of Women Talking is argument, dialectic, and discourse; the struggle of these eight women to find a way forward, and to a large extent re-imagine themselves, occurs through language—through the accumulative meaning of words. In a conversation about how dragonflies plan their migration route, Salome says,
I’m not sure that’s what you would call perspective.
Why shouldn’t I? asks Mariche.
Because it may not be the correct word, says Salome.
What difference does that make? asks Mariche.
Every difference, says Salome.
Of the fictional Ona in the real photograph, Epp writes, “Ona has not seen this photograph, of course, but someday I would like to tell her about it.” His desire to describe to Ona her own image circulating in the world—a representation of herself she may never see—is both disquieting and moving. Through Epp, Women Talking confronts us with an immensely complex question: What kind of language draws us nearer to the living, unnamed, and unspeaking woman in the photograph—and when does this love or solidarity risk obscuring her? To what extent do the specific words make “every difference”? Epp notes, at different times, phrases that “don’t translate well” or “This, I must confess, is a very loose translation.” He records the women but also at times overwrites their specific language with a more recognizable global feminism. What happens when an act of imagination, of changing one way of speaking for another, is both a feminist act and an erasure?
The novel grapples with an ambiguous space: the freedom of thought we can describe but which we do not know how to live. Epp paraphrases Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Little is taught by contest or dispute, everything by sympathy and love.” The women and (we come to learn) August Epp share the devastating loneliness of not fully belonging to their community, which is the only home they know. The non-belonging comes in different forms, but several characters fear their very existence is a residue of sin and evil, and they have no right to live. Overcome by grief, they wish to be “forgiven for being alive, for being in the world.”
For two days, the women attempt to save something from despair. To stay, to fight, to leave—all these constitute a choice. To choose is also to live.
If at moments the specific voices of the women feel erased beneath our habitual ways of articulating feminism—patriarchy, commodity, manifesto, revolution—perhaps this rupture becomes the meaning. Throughout Women Talking a refrain occurs: There is no more time. Epp writes, near the end, that the fading light “has suddenly become the central character in our story.” After I finished reading the novel, I learned from news reports that the incest and abuse of women and girls in the community whose suffering inspired the novel continue to occur at shocking levels. Women Talking wants another world to be possible, and in the re-scripting of reality into fiction, attempts to imagine it where it has not yet grown of its own volition.
The eight women find themselves in the impossible position of choosing a future on behalf of others. The majority of women in the colony, Epp tells us, “are content (and many ecstatic) not to attend the meetings about how to respond.” The novel reminds us how difficult it is to know how to live, forgive others or ourselves, seek justice, or know freedom. No matter the depth of their solidarity, we can imagine that each individual will undoubtedly spend a lifetime coming to their own answers, seeking knowledge with their own hard-won words.
But we can hope that the common questions asked by women talking, by Women Talking—their listening, their anger and love, their sometimes vastly differing conclusions—might offer a further way of seeing and finally choosing. We are only able to see the women through the mind of August Epp, the complex and loving man who keeps the records. He is the one character whose unspoken thoughts, whose interiority, form part of the minutes of the novel. But at some point, after Women Talking, there may exist a woman speaking to herself, without the necessity of transcription or revision. A person who must strike their own path to knowledge, with a community to hold and love them—but without that community if need be.