“Sometimes Revolutionary”: Miriam Toews, Women Talking

toews

Ona’s eyes have become big. She appears to be in a reverie, or enraptured. This is the beginning of a new era, she says. This is our manifesto . . .

What’s a manifesto? asks Autje again.

The other women frown. They look at Ona, who smiles. I’m not entirely sure, she says, but I believe it is a statement of some kind. A guide.

Then Ona looks at me and asks, Well?

Yes, I agree, it’s a statement. A statement of intent. Sometimes revolutionary.

Agata and Greta exchange alarmed glances.

No, no August, says Agata, it cannot be revolutionary. We are not revolutionaries. We are simple women. We are mothers. Grandmothers.

Women Talking is itself a kind of manifesto, I suppose, though it does not read like a statement of intent so much as an inquiry, almost an autopsy. The book is at once ruthlessly specific (what should these women, who have been abused, tortured, raped, silenced, rendered extraneous to the meaning of ther own community, do?) and almost shockingly expansive: what should (or can) we all do, once we recognize how deep and entangling the world’s systemic injustices are? In this respect Women Talking reminded me (as it did Dorian) of Woolf’s Three Guineas as I read it, especially as the possible outcomes the women have been debating coalesce into a plan. “We can best help you to prevent war,” Woolf concludes, “not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society but in cooperation with its aim.”

For Toews’s women, the choice is more literal, but the problem they seek to solve is very much the same: how is it possible to belong to a corrupt society without being complicit? “How can we enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings,” asks Woolf. How can we stay with these men and remain safe and true to our faith, wonder the women:

Imagine the response of the men, upon being asked to leave the colony. What reason would be given them?

Everything  we’ve discussed, says Ona. That to uphold the charter of our faith we must engage in pacifism, in love and forgiveness. That to be near these men hardens our hearts towards them and generates feelings of hatred and violence. That if we are to continue (or return to) being Good Mennonites, we must separate the men from the women until we can discover (or rediscover) our righteous path.

There are important differences, of course. For Woolf, for instance, freedom, not faith, is the measure of what is right. But Peters, the bishop of Toews’s semi-fictional Molotschna colony, matches up well to Woolf’s “figure of a man”:

some say, others deny, that he is Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations. He is a man certainly. His eyes are glazed; his eyes glare. His body, which is braced in an unnatural position, is tightly cased in a uniform. Upon the breast of that uniform are sewn several medals and other mystic symbols. His hand is upon a sword. He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our own language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him like ruined houses and dead bodies–men, women and children.

toews2“We’re not members of Molotschna,” Salome bursts out at one point, challenged to consider whether the women owe the imprisoned men any loyalty because they belong to the same colony.

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 ‘patriarchy’ . . . ) where the women live out their days as mute, submissive, and obedient servants. Animals. Fourteen-year-old boys are expected to give us orders, to determine our fates . . .

Ona makes this analysis more abstract:

Peters said these men are evil, the perpetrators, but that’s not true. It’s the quest for power, on the part of Peters and the elders and on the part of the founders of Molotschna, that is responsible for these attacks, because in their quest for power, they needed to have those they’d have power over, and those people are us.

I thought it was interesting that Toews kept Peters basically off stage: he lurks in the margins of the novel’s (in)action, though the evil he perpetrates and perpetuates through his perversion of religious leadership is at the center of the novel’s biggest moral questions–as well as being the source of August’s own personal tragedy. This strategy keeps the women centered, and also keeps their resistance impersonal: they seek a solution to what Peters represents and enforces, not to take action against him individually.

toews3Peters’s literal absence, and the absence of most of the other men of the colony, is what creates the space in which these women can talk, and that itself is one of the novel’s critical interventions. For most of their lives these women have not been in control of their own stories; their illiteracy has also prevented them from knowing first-hand the terms on which they have understood and lived their lives. “My point, says Salome,”

is that by leaving, we are not necessarily disobeying the men according to the Bible, because we, the women, do now know exactly what is in the Bible, being unable to read it. Furthermore, the only reason why we feel we need to submit to our husbands is because our husbands have told us that the Bible decrees it. . . .

The issue, continues Salome . . . is the male interpretation of the Bible and how that has been ‘handed down’ to us.

Here, I was reminded of Anne Elliot’s trenchant comments in Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

As the women debate what they think they know about their faith, August remarks “Perhaps it is the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves” — one of many moments in the novel when his own role as scribe and interpreter is highlighted. That they need and trust him to write down their talk marks him initially as an ally. Over the course of the debates, however, we see that this assumption is too simple, both about how the women perceive him and about the purpose of his presence in the hayloft, which turns out to be less about what he can do for the women and more about what they (and Ona in particular) can do for him. “I asked her what good the minutes would do her and the other women if they were unable to read them,” August recalls; “Maybe there was no reason for the women to have minutes they couldn’t read. The purpose, all along, was for me to take them.” He is not the women’s savior; they do not actually need him to make sense of either their traumatic experiences or the dilemma they face in choosing between leaving for the unknown and remaining in a community which has failed them but is nonetheless made up of people they love.

toews-kings
Photo credit: King’s Coop Bookstore, Twitter

There’s a lot more that could be said about Women Talking; the best discussion I’ve read of its political and thematic implications is Lili Loofbourow’s in the New York Review of Books. Thought-provoking as the novel definitely is (and I know I will keep thinking about it), though, I’m uncertain at this point whether it is as artistically successful as it is conceptually rich. I found it an oddly flat book, stylistically: not just plain, in a way suited to the blunt and often awkward discourse of the characters, but lacking emotion in a way that I find (usually disappointingly) typical of a lot of contemporary fiction. There’s some reason for it here, because of August’s self-consciousness as a narrator and maybe also because the traumas that necessitate the women’s conversation are themselves almost intolerable to contemplate. There are emotional outbursts, and they do add some welcome drama–but having said that, there was ultimately something impressive about the women’s desire to act out of reason and principle rather than anger, hate, or sorrow. At the end, too, after pages of so little actually seeming to happen, there’s a surprising sense of loss when we are left behind with August. “There’s no plot,” Agata says when they are interrupted by the suspicious (but fortunately senile and thus unthreatening) Ernie Thiessen, whose hayloft they have appropriated for their meetings; “we’re only women talking.” That describes the novel perfectly, and it doesn’t sound like much–but it turns out to be a lot. Maybe it’s even revolutionary.

6 thoughts on ““Sometimes Revolutionary”: Miriam Toews, Women Talking

  1. banff1972 April 12, 2020 / 4:32 pm

    Such a good piece, Rohan! (Thank you for linking to my note, BTW.) You get at what makes the novel so fascinating–specifically its subdued (but for that reason all the more powerful) revolutionary qualities. I’m wondering about the style. That flatness made me think about the cultural/religious tradition it’s coming out of–I know nothing about Mennonites, but I have a hunch that there is a sparseness to their ethic/aesthetic. Could the prose be mimicking that quality?

    • Rohan Maitzen April 15, 2020 / 8:24 am

      I would be more convinced by that if it weren’t such a familiar style in current fiction. The women in the novel, too, are actually pretty emotional, but the prose didn’t seem to convey that intensity very often, at least not on a first read.

      • banff1972 April 15, 2020 / 11:22 am

        Yes, fair point. I know what you mean about the style feeling familiar–and yet Toews seems to put it to unfamiliar ends.

  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) April 12, 2020 / 6:10 pm

    I wouldn’t want to push this too far, but get yourself invited to a Mennonite dinner, or I just have lunch at one of the increasing number of Mennonite cafes, and you are not going to find any “sparseness.” Quite the opposite.

    Similarly, check out those Mennonite quilts.

    • Rohan Maitzen April 14, 2020 / 5:01 pm

      Thank you, Kerry. I agree it is a complicated book. I’ve been brooding about whether it would be a good one to work through with a class – it seems to do such interesting things.

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