A Time to Speak

In Miriam Toews’s new novel, women in an iso­lated Men­non­ite colony de­bate how to move for­ward in the af­ter­math of sex­ual as­sault

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Casey Plett

In Miriam Toews’s new novel, women in an iso­lated Men­non­ite colony de­bate how to move for­ward in the af­ter­math of sex­ual as­sault

In the open­ing note to her new novel, Miriam Toews in­forms us that about a decade ago, in a re­mote Bo­li­vian com­mu­nity of Men­non­ites who’d im­mi­grated from Man­i­toba, “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, which went on for years, were ini­tially at­trib­uted to demons. “Even­tu­ally, it was re­vealed that eight men from the colony had been us­ing an an­i­mal anes­thetic to knock their vic­tims un­con­scious and rape them.” The men were later jailed, but re­ports of at­tacks and sex­ual as­saults have con­tin­ued. Her book, Toews ex­plains, is an imag­ined reaction to these real-world events. Women Talk­ing takes place in a fic­tion­al­ized colony called Molotschna, an ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Men­non­ite com­mu­nity that ex­ists apart from its un­named coun­try. The girls and women of Molotschna were vic­tims of nightly at­tacks, like the real women in Bo­livia, and the per­pe­tra­tors have been ar­rested. At the start of the book, the women of the colony have gath­ered alone, the able-bod­ied men hav­ing trav­elled to the city to bail out the rapists. The women know that, when the men re­turn in two days’ time, they will be told by their church leader to for­give their at­tack­ers — to ab­solve the men so they will be al­lowed into heaven and also to save their own souls, as be­stow­ing for­give­ness is a man­date of their faith. This is the break­ing point for most of the women, and they vote on how to re­spond: they can do noth­ing, they can stay and fight, or they can leave. Some choose the first op­tion, but the rest dead­lock. Eight women from two fam­i­lies, the Friesens and the Loewens, are then se­lected to meet in a hayloft and de­cide the group’s col­lec­tive fu­ture. These eight women, who range across three gen­er­a­tions, are il­lit­er­ate (as are all women in Molotschna), and so they turn to one of the re­main­ing men to record the min­utes of their clan­des­tine meet­ing: a teacher named Au­gust Epp. Au­gust, who nar­rates the novel, is a kind, ef­fem­i­nate man with anx­i­ety — “Narfa,” as his peo­ple say, or ner­vous­ness. It is heav­ily im­plied that he is the only man the women trust, though many say that he’s not much of a man at all. Au­gust records the women’s en­su­ing con­ver­sa­tions, which in­ter­weave ques­tions of jus­tice, re­li­gion, au­ton­omy, and obli­ga­tion. While he oc­ca­sion­ally notes his own ob­ser­va­tions or gives back­ground in­for­ma­tion, the bulk of the novel is Au­gust’s tran­scrip­tion of the women talk­ing. Take a speech by Greta Loewen, one of the el­ders, who

com­pares the plight of the women to that of her favourite horses: Greta ex­plains that these horses, upon be­ing star­tled by Dueck’s stupid dog, don’t or­ga­nize meet­ings to de­ter­mine their next course of ac­tion. They run. And by so do­ing, evade the dog and po­ten­tial harm. Agata Friesen, the el­dest of the Friesen women (al­though born a Loewen) laughs, as she does fre­quently and charm­ingly, and agrees. But Greta, she states, we are not an­i­mals. Greta replies that we have been preyed upon like an­i­mals; per­haps we should re­spond in kind. Do you mean we should run away? asks Ona. Or kill our at­tack­ers? asks Salome. The con­ver­sa­tion un­furls within the un­ques­tioned con­text that the lead­ers of the com­mu­nity will bring no fur­ther con­se­quences to the at­tack­ers. Even though they were ar­rested, and a group of drunk and an­gry Molotsch­nian men even hanged one of the rapists, the at­tack­ers still seem to be sup­ported by the pa­tri­archs. When Salome Friesen tried to kill the at­tack­ers with a scythe upon learn­ing that her three-year-old daugh­ter had been re­peat­edly vi­o­lated, Molotschna’s bishop — a dour, ruth­less hyp­ocrite named Peters — stopped her and fi­nally called the po­lice to re­port the crimes. It seems clear that he did so to pro­tect the men, how­ever, rather than to get jus­tice for the women. A trial will come even­tu­ally, but there is no rea­son to be­lieve that the at­tack­ers will be found guilty. Now, as the women talk, they find that both fight­ing and leav­ing present enor­mous dif­fi­cul­ties — they don’t know how to fight against the men and win, and since they all speak only Low Ger­man and lack knowl­edge of the world, they do not know how they would leave Molotschna and sur­vive on their own. It seems in­evitable that Women Talk­ing will be dis­cussed within the con­text of con­tem­po­rary con­ver­sa­tions about sex­ual as­sault. Com­par­isons to #Metoo will be apt but only partly so. The novel cer­tainly reck­ons with the trauma of sur­vivors. But, in con­trast to cur­rent de­mands of con­se­quences for vi­o­lent men, the idea that fur­ther con­se­quences might come to Molotschna’s at­tack­ers seems im­pos­si­ble. Women Talk­ing is not a book about hold­ing men to ac­count for their crimes; it is a story about how women move for­ward in the face of few vi­able op­tions.

Miriam Toews was raised a Men­non­ite in Stein­bach, Man­i­toba. She gained lit­er­ary fame in part for her in­ci­sive cri­tiques of Men­non­ite ways and ru­ral Chris­tian fun­da­men­tal­ism. Yet, in con­trast to the apos­tates that pop­u­late her pre­vi­ous nov­els, the char­ac­ters in Women Talk­ing are com­mit­ted Chris­tians. As the hayloft women talk about their op­tions, faith re­mains their guide. How­ever, their sit­u­a­tion poses con­tra­dic­tions: any ac­tion, in­clud­ing no ac­tion, pits their re­li­gion against it­self. Agata tells the group: By stay­ing we would know­ingly be plac­ing our­selves in a direct col­li­sion course with vi­o­lence, per­pe­trated by us or against us. We would be invit­ing harm. We would be in a state of war. We would turn Molotschna into a bat­tle­field. By stay­ing in Molotschna we would be bad Men­non­ites. We would be sin­ners, ac­cord­ing to our faith, and we would be de­nied en­try to heaven. Me­jal takes a long haul off her cig­a­rette. She ex­hales, and nods. Agata is right. Let’s shake a leg, then, Me­jal says. But by stay­ing and fight­ing, Mariche ob­jects, we will hope­fully achieve peace for our chil­dren. Even­tu­ally. And our colony will re­main in­tact and we will re­main apart from the world, not in the world, which is an­other cen­tral tenet of our Men­non­ite faith. These ide­o­log­i­cal di­gres­sions are the novel’s heart: If you have un­fet­tered be­lief in some­thing but your ad­her­ence to it comes with abuse and pain, what are you to do? How do you shel­ter good­ness in your life when that good­ness is in­ter­meshed with vi­o­lence and suf­fer­ing?

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