All I knew about Miriam Toews prior to the wonderful night I met her, was that she wrote “the chicken book” (more commonly known to people as A Complicated Kindness). However, upon hearing about the content of her latest novel, Women Talking, there was no way I wasn’t going to attend the first stop on her wonderful book tour, hosted by my absolute favourite bookstore, Ben McNally Books.
The evening was a pleasant one as people lined up outside the small Toronto theatre, so many had arrive that the line stretched past not one but two subway stops around the block. People of all varieties were there to hear one of many In Her Voice talks hosted by Ben McNally Books showcasing female authors and giving them a larger platform for their voices. Of course, I bought my copy of Women Talking the moment I got through the doors and found a seat with the lovely librarians I had been chatting with in line.
Upon introductions of the two authors present, Toews herself came out to give a brief background on the Mennonite community mentioned in the novel before reading an excerpt not quiet at the beginning of the novel. The excerpt was surprisingly funny and the audience all laughed more than once, showing that despite the heavy content of the novel, it would still be lighthearted and hopeful. Miriam finished the reading and was then joined on stage by Canadian journalist and non-fiction author, Rachel Giese.
Although I was not familiar with Giese’s work, she was a phenomenal – for lack of a better term – interviewer and was on top of the poignant questions regarding how we as “outsiders” see the Mennonite communities and their seemingly backwards ways. Toews had insightful answers about how there are these hyper conservative communities where women are no better than the animals they look after all day, where they are basically slaves to the community they are held by, but not all of them are like that. The discussion went in depth about how sexual assault cases aren’t always black and white, even to the victims of such crimes.
The phrase that rung out hardest with me was when Toews was discussing the death of her sister and how she never thought she would write again. “Sometimes words can save us,” Toews said, “and sometimes they can’t.” Given the loss of my cousin only a few months ago, this hit home for me and is relevant to my life in more ways than I can say.
At the end of the discussion, Giese asked what was going to be coming next from Toews and her answer had us all in stitches. “I feel like a retired cop who’s finally gotten out of the game. But then the phone rings and I’m drawn back in saying, ‘What did the Mennonites do this time?'”* The theatre promptly cleared out as everyone got in line to have their books – new and old – signed and it was a lovely evening all around.
My book has “Keep Talking” written in the front cover now and thanks to Miriam Toews, that’s what I plan to do.
* this has been paraphrased for clarity
In Her Voice with Miriam Toews was held at the The Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto on August 20th, 2018 with many thanks to the theatre, Ben McNally Books, and Penguin Publishing Canada/Knopf Canada.
And now for the review.
I knew a little bit about Mennonites going into this book, as in my old neighbourhood there were often many wandering about while their children were in the local hospital (I volunteered at a Ronald McDonald House across the street where most of them stayed). Any interactions I had with them were brief, but always delightful. Of course, out of fear of offending anyone, I never asked any questions but was always curious about how their communities worked.
Given the times, and the #MeToo movement, it’s the perfect time for this book to be published. It’s also an incredible way to frame the question of addressing sexual assault. Given that the women in the book – based on the very real people these terrible abuses happened to – are in this kind of hyper conservative, almost anti-woman, community, it brings out how things are far more complicated to the victims than someone may believe.
These women have three options: forgive their rapists and continue their lives in fear, stay in the community and fight for their rights, or leave. These women don’t speak English. These women don’t know where they exist in the world. These women have nothing to their names but the clothing on their backs. It’s not an easy decision to make and that’s what the book is about. The two days they have to make their decision before their rapists return to the village.
As mentioned above, Women Talking is an incredibly real and serious book tackling a very difficult topic for anyone to talk about openly. But it is a book about perseverance, hope, laughter, and love. It gives these women a voice and a way to be angry and scared. It is a story about being strong for those you care about and stay true to what you believe in with all your heart and soul.
I loved this book and am proud to have read it. You don’t need to be religious for this book to speak to you. If any part of you believes in equality, feminism, and justice for the victims of hateful crimes, you need to read this book.
Author: Miriam Toews
Published: August 21, 2018
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Synopsis:Based on actual events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in a remote Mennonite community where more than 100 girls and women were drugged unconscious and assaulted in the night by what they were told (by the men of the colony) were “ghosts” or “demons,” Miriam Toews’ bold and affecting novel Women Talking is an imagined response to these real events. The novel takes place over forty-eight hours, as eight women gather in secret in a neighbour’s barn while the men are in a nearby town posting bail for the attackers. They have come together to debate, on behalf of all the women and children in the community, whether to stay or leave before the men return. Taking minutes is the one man trusted and invited by the women to witness the conversation–a former outcast whose own surprising story is revealed as the women speak. By turns poignant, witty, acerbic, bitter, tender, devastating, and heartbreaking, the voices in this extraordinary novel are unforgettable. Toews has chosen to focus the novel tightly on a particular time and place, and yet it contains within its 48 hours and setting inside a hayloft an entire vast universe of thinking and feeling about the experience of women (and therefore men, too) in our contemporary world. In a word: astonishing.