Women Talking might be the most literal title of a novel I’ve read in years. Miriam Toews based the book on events that happened in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia from around 2005 to 2009. Women and girls woke up with evidence they’d been raped, but it was explained that the sexual assaults were made by demons as a result of the women’s sins–until one of the perpetrators, a member of the community, was caught and admitted he and a group of men had been anesthetizing families with drugs meant for farm animals and raping women for years.
In Toews’ version of events, the colony had planned to discipline the men itself, as it did for other offenses, but one of the women, mother to a three-year-old who was raped and contracted an infection, attacked the men in their temporary cell with a scythe. For the men’s protection, the bishop and elders of the community turned them over to the local police (though local in this case is hours away). However, the leaders of the colony decided to raise bail for the rapists and bring them home so that the women could forgive them and everyone go to heaven.
The men’s effort to raise bail required a lengthy trip to the city and auctioning off the community’s animals, so the women were left with only the children, the infirm, and August Epps, the schoolteacher, only half a man since he didn’t know how to farm.
While the men were away, the women voted on what they could do: nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The women of two families, the Friesen women, representing the stay and fight contingent, and the Loewen women, who wanted to leave the colony, met in a hay loft to debate these two options with August taking minutes since the women are illiterate.
Women Talking is without a doubt interesting. Through the women’s conversations, their individual natures emerge, including vices like smoking and cursing, belying the homogeneity that many people might assign to women in such communities. Until this point, the bible and religious doctrine had been interpreted by the bishop and the men in the community, but as the women debated, they articulated the tenets of their faith and how their actions would reflect those beliefs. During the discussions, the absolutely horrific details of only some of the attacks emerged showing the various ways the women coped with the assaults.
Because the rapists were all members of the community, the women knew them, and, if they left the colony, they would be leaving men they loved. The women wrestled with difficult issues of faith regarding forgiveness and mercy as well as the feelings of anger towards the attackers and the men who allowed the attacks when their religion preached pacifism. I don’t think my own awareness of religious theology is advanced enough to have caught all the nuances present.
That the women’s voices and their moment of empowerment is captured by a man, by August, is an irony, but he barely merits the title given his past, and his role in the women’s convention is pivotal for his own growth. Since the women weren’t taught to read or write, the compassionate, sympathetic, and thoughtful August was a good choice for a secretary for the meetings, and I suppose it also kept all the women as participants, none as observers. Still, I’m sure there is more to unpack regarding these gender issues.
The themes and issues discussed definitely felt weighty and intellectually engaging, but in terms of prose, I found the narrative a bit dull. The women often repeated ideas, such as comparing themselves to the animals of the colony, and while I know this reflected the process of their self-awakening, I found it wearisome. However, this was punctuated with close calls with men of the colony learning about the unsanctioned council, and this underlying fear created a tension that lasted throughout the book until the conclusion which I did find incredibly satisfying.
While there are many, many good reasons to read Women Talking, particularly learning about the Mennonite colony and engaging with the themes discussed by the women, it’s not a book that I would categorize as an “enjoyable read.”