Women Talkingby Miriam Toews Published 02 Apr 2019
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One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.
While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women—all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in—have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?
Based on real events and told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide.
"Women Talking" Reviews
I have done what the verse from Philippians instructed, which is to think about what is good, what is just, what is pure, and what is excellent. And I have arrived at an answer: pacifism.
I don't understand all the starred reviews for this book.
Perhaps Women Talking works better if you go into it expecting a religiophilosophical analysis, instead of a feminist novelization of a true story. There are some echoes of Plato in here, to be sure. Readers familiar with Socratic discussions will recognize the repetitive circles of conversation as the women discuss what is the best, and most moral, decision in the eyes of god.
Pretty much everything that happens can be gathered from the title and description. I was intrigued and horrified to hear that this is based on a true story of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. Over several years, hundreds of women and girls were drugged and raped in their beds by "ghosts" or "demons". These supernatural creatures were eventually discovered to be men of the colony. Bringing attention to this horrendous crime is arguably the book's strongest point.
In this book, women talk. Yes, I'm being a little facetious, but it's an accurate description of almost the entire book. This isn't a problem in itself. It's just that these discussions among the Mennonite women about whether they should leave the colony or "stay and fight" are bloodless, unbelievably rational given the circumstances, and concerned almost solely with religion and analyzing what their religion wants them to do.
They sit around, sharing cigarettes and drinking instant coffee, and weigh the pros and cons of leaving and argue about various interpretations of what their religion would ask of them. I've never heard sexual abuse approached in such a cold and emotionless way.
I also don't understand why this supposedly feminist story was given to a male narrator. I've seen some others argue that it is because the book is framed as meeting minutes, which must be kept by August Epp because the women are illiterate. This might make sense in theory, but I have no idea why the author decided to use meeting minutes at all, when this book is written in a style unlike any meeting minutes I have ever seen in my life. It doesn't read like meeting minutes; it reads like a regular first-person narration from a man's point-of-view. An odd choice.
I think this might be a book for readers who enjoy lengthy discussions about how to correctly apply religious doctrine.
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In the loft of a barn, the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia meet to talk about what they should do, how they could move forward to protect themselves and their daughters from more of the vicious rapes they have endured as they were drugged in the middle of the night. I would have found this hard to imagine if not for this opening sentence of a note by the author before the book begins:
“Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia (named the Manitoba Colony, after the province in Canada from which the colonists had emigrated in the mid-1900’s), hundreds of girls and women would wake up in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding, having been attacked in the night. The attacks were attributed to ghosts and demons. Some members of the community felt the women were being made to suffer by God or Satan as punishment for their sins; many accused the women of lying for attention or to cover up adultery; still others believed everything was the result of wild, female imagination.” (See the links to some news stories I have posted at the end.)
That this novel is based on a true story makes this such a horrific and powerful story, as we listen to the women talk to each other about their options and to the only man left at the colony, August, a teacher who takes minutes for them since these women have never been allowed to read or write. The rest of the men have gone to bail out the rapists who were taken into police custody for their safety, the safety of the men not the women. Meanwhile these women struggle with what to do to keep their daughters safe. The discussions are difficult, philosophical, religious, practical and heartbreaking as they recount their experiences. Should they do nothing? Should they stay and fight? Should they leave? The middle of the book felt a little slow, but then I thought that these discussions seemed realistic; it was not an easy decision to make. While this was their story, I was moved by August’s connection to them. This is one of those books that was so impactful and definitely a powerful telling of the awful things that happened to many of the women in the real sect. I woke up thinking about these women, wanting to know what happened after the ending. Kudos to Miriam Toews for not forgetting these women.
Thanks as always to Esil and Diane for our monthly read together. A terrific discussion!
I received an advanced copy of this book from Bloomsbury through NetGalley.
Articles on the events this was based on:
The women in this book have been dealt a hand of crappy cards.
AND I MEAN *CRAPPY*!!!!!
The women need to talk.
With only 2 days free until the men in their community return - ( its their intension to bring back the lovely rapists who have been in jail to give them back their RAPING-LEADERSHIP... cuz they are such nice wholesome decent men)...
So.....while the men are away..., the women will play ( with one man allowed to play too).....
Eight women meet secretly- - ‘barn-style’ group-emergency-chat gathering.
What the f#~k solution can they agree upon that will protect them in the future?
A couple of the women are pregnant already - ( greetings, daddy?), and several daughters were also RAPED!!!!!
The word *violated* is just not BIG ENOUGH!!!
The year was 2011 when the two-day ‘talk-a-thon’ took place. The RAPES took place in the years 2005-2006. Over 100 women were RAPED!!!!
I wonder how many times I need to write the word RAPE - before the devastating REALITY syncs into every cell of our HEARING THIS? And what’s the plan to STOP IT?/!!!!!!
NOTE... ( this might sound trite), when talking about RAPE...( not intended), but ...
Geeeeee- we each know how hard it is to make changes in our OWN LIVES...
We are FAMILIAR with our crappy problems - to change them FOR THE BETTER - is one of the hardest things a human being does FOR THEIR OWN BENEFIT.
People resist change. Change creates upset.... it’s frightening. THINKING about change - talking about it - is a start - but even for THE MOST INDEPENDENT POWERHOUSE women today - who believes in civil rights - justice - their life working - has STRUGGLES CHANGING......their environment- diet- and habits... etc.
Yet - these 8 women - whom have ONLY KNOWN this lifestyle - are expected to clap their hands over a solid solution???
These are RELIGIOUS women!!! Their thought reasoning is specific.
God - (their faith) - is a strong force. They haven’t been raised to think freely.
The women couldn’t read or write. ( of course). Welcome to their ‘religious ‘ community!!! (Wow- even in the year 2011)
That type of ‘organized-religion’ is one I wouldn’t wish for my worse enemy.
THIS IS NOT the 1600’s.
Who knew that in the years 2000+, illiterate was desired.... in ANY community -religious or otherwise!!!!!!
It’s Religious brainwash if the women felt ‘not reading’ was being faithful to their God.
*August Ebb* - was the only man - also a part of the 2-day ‘talk-a-thon’.
He was the ‘minutes-note-taking’-guy. The women trusted August to have their best interest at heart.
God- forbid - the eight women could trust their own voices ‘together’ without the need of a MAN for help.
Yep... fitting!!! It’s the community the Mennonite women knew!
Men were always granted more power than women...
So why would this ‘women’s talking’ gathering be any different.
See the problem about solution solving?
“What if the rapists are released on bail and return to the colony and find that there are no girls and women here, and begin to use these boys, the 13 and 14-year-olds, as targets for their attack?
One of the females ( Mejal) chimes in.
“Surely we can’t be afraid of boys this age? Why couldn’t they join us?
Ona ( another woman speaks):
“August, you’re the boys teacher. What is your feeling about this? Do your boys at this age pose a threat to our girls and women?
August must stop his transcribing in order to properly answer her question.
“I’m simply not capable of containing my happiness and surprise at being asked a question by Ona, formulating my answer, communicating it in Low German, and translating it instantly in my mind to English—while almost simultaneously writing in English translation on paper”.
August’s answer: Ha... teasing... don’t expect me to give you spoilers!
However - his answer ‘is’ in two-parts.
Yet....NO ANSWER is clear- cut- and dry when it comes to looking at religious beliefs - forgiveness - repenting - education -sinners - heaven - and hell.
The women in the community talked & talked... discussing/arguing/laughing at times/ debated.... ultimately about how to take their lives back after these horrific RAPES!!!
Based on a real-life event....
Dystopian Fiction written in a unique format...(very visual to imagine)
Miriam Toews took a god-awful terrifying- subject -made it personal -offering readers the possibility for our own added interactive discussions.
Perfect book club pick!
Thank You Bloomsbury Publishing, Netgalley, and Miriam Toews
the fact that this two hundred-page book took me 2 weeks to read is basically a review in and of itself.
I really wanted to like this book, which is based on a true story so horrifying and unbelievable and real that it would be ridiculous if it were never fictionalized. but I just couldn't. for so many little, basically-me-being-nitpicky reasons (including the writing style and the structure and the fact that all the characters were introduced at once in a very similar fashion so that I could never get a real grasp of who anybody was) but mainly for One Big Reason. and that reason is this:
why the hell is a man telling this story?
quick TW before we get into the synopsis: sexual assault, drugging, domestic violence
this is about a true event in the Mennonite colony of Manitoba, in Bolivia. for years, women were being knocked unconscious with animal tranquilizers and sexually assaulted during the night. this included young children.
the book follows the Mennonite women's meetings to determine whether they should stay in the colony, or leave. this should be wrenching and gripping and gruesome and disturbing. and it is some of those things, sometimes.
but the continual distraction (and detraction) from all of that for me was this: THIS STORY IS NARRATED BY A MAN.
the women of Molotschna (the colony) are illiterate, so this story is constructed as the minutes of a meeting. which are written by a man. a man who continually interjects his stupid male gaze into the stupid narrative and reduced the whole thing. the power of these women's story was interrupted by a man who fancies himself in love with them, who must randomly consider his own masculinity, who cannot shut the f*ck up for one f*cking second about exposed ankles and uncovered hair and fashionably rolled socks.
this is a FICTIONALIZED RETELLING. and I just cannot think of a reason why the author would have to make the choice to reduce the women's power over their own story in this way.
bottom line: the fact that a book that is shorter than some of my school notebooks managed to get this far under my skin says it all.
if this book was any more visually reminiscent of The Handmaid's Tale, it'd be called, like, The Maidservant's Fable
(thanks to bloomsbury for the ARC)
Women Talking is not perfect but it is very powerful and well worth reading. Miriam Toews announces at the beginning that the book is based on true events in Bolivia, where a number of Mennonite women were raped and abused by a group of men in their community. Women Talking imagines a two day conversation amongst the women as they decide whether to stay or leave their community. The book is very short, but there is so much to the narrative that it defies easy description or critique, but here is a list of thoughts and reactions in no particular order:
-The story is narrated by August, who sits in on the women’s conversation for the purpose of taking minutes because none of the women is able to read or write. August infuses much of his own history and his own thoughts into the narrative. His point of view and personality add a lot to the texture of the story.
-The women’s conversation is varied in the way real women interact – they move seamlessly between painful recollections, philosophical debates, religious scripture, bickering, teasing and tenderness.
-Through their conversation, we get a glimpse into the unusual and vulnerable lives these women have led – it’s hard to imagine living without knowing how to read, without knowing anything about the world beyond your small community and feeling that your community will not protect you from this type of aggression. It’s hard not to feel claustrophobic.
-The end is beautiful.
-I would have loved to know what happens to these women after they make their decision.
-At times, I found it hard to keep track of the different women -- although Ona, who was August’s childhood friend, is a real standout.
-Despite the difficult topic, there were a few delightful touches of humour.
-At times, especially in the middle, the narrative felt repetitive. Mind you, many conversations involving a group of people trying to make a decision are repetitive…
The bottom line is that, despite its flaws, Women Talking is well worth reading. It is rich and potent. I am especially grateful to have read this one as a buddy read with Angela and Diane.
I don't really know how to review this book. I feel like if I try I will start crying - from sadness or rage. I wish we didn't live in a world where we need this book but oh my god how I needed to read this book. It broke my heart and made me feel like I wasn't alone in my anger.
In the last year with so much finally coming to light and so much finally being talked about in more than whispers about rape, sexual harassment, the silencing of women and the gap that still (STILL) exists between men and women a day didn't go by when I didn't feel anger at some point or another. This book was like feeding that anger through a sieve - a sieve of beautiful, intelligent, human, flawed women just sitting and talking through the implications of such evil being done to them and how they can fight back or understand it or just move past in the hopes of finding a better life - and after reading these women talk it through, I felt like I had talked it through and came out (just as angry) but more hopeful, more composed, more peaceful on the other side.
Damn this world for being one in which this book could be plausible but thank god for this world in which Toews wrote it. I can't imagine another book topping this one in 2018.