|A remarkably hideous cover IMO|
Whoof, this is a difficult one, folks, so you have been warned. First a very short background, then the novel, then some information about the reality.
For a few years in the mid-2000s, women in a particular Old Order Mennonite colony in Bolivia suffered from mysterious night-time violence. In 2009, nine men were arrested and charged with drugging entire households with an anesthetic spray in order to rape girls and women. They were convicted in a mass trial and are in jail.
Miriam Toews, who grew up in a more liberal Mennonite family in Canada, wrote Women Talking as a sort of novelistic response to the events in Bolivia. I don't know that she's actually trying to portray the people and events; the characters are based on people she knew, and she doesn't seem to have gone to Bolivia. I really get the feeling that she tidied everything up a lot for her narrative, which may have been necessary, I don't know.
In the novel, eight women are gathering in a hayloft to discuss what they should do in response to the mass rapes. The perpetrators are arrested, all the men have gone to town to post bail for them, and these few women are taking this chance to be together and formulate a response to the demand put upon them: that they either forgive the perpetrators, or be excommunicated. The colony's schoolteacher, August Epp, is taking minutes since the women are illiterate, and he's the narrator. They have three possible routes open to them: they can stay and fight, do nothing, or leave.
As the women discuss their options, they also work through their relationships with each other and the implications of leaving or staying. They want to be true to their beliefs, and they don't think they can just stay and pretend nothing happened. But they know almost nothing about the world outside their colony; they don't even speak Spanish.
This is a gripping novel. It's pretty short and not at all a difficult read, so it's fast and compelling. That said, I have some problems with it. Even before reading anything about the real-life case, I wasn't sure I should buy the idea that all the women are completely illiterate, never having gone to school at all. (I don't know that much about Mennonites, but in my limited experience they're big on literacy.) I'm not sure I love the idea of using a man as the narrator for this story, even if he's as sympathetic as August is, and widely considered to be not actually a Man.
After reading the novel, which I did without ever having heard of the Manitoba colony, I found a couple of articles about it. This article from Vice is the fruit of a months-long project that included stays with a Manitoban family. I learned from it that these are Old Order Mennonites, somewhat more radical than the Mennonites I have met, but the girls still go to school and learn to read, though they don't get as much math and accounting as the boys do. I also learned that far from trying to bail out the perpetrating men, colony leaders were the ones who turned them in, deeming the case too difficult for them to deal with on their own as they normally would. As far as I can tell, Toews both neatened up the story and also made it worse in several ways, which you would think would be quite difficult to do. I'm not sure we needed it to be made worse.
After that, I found a fascinating series of articles written in a Canadian Mennonite publication. I link to the first one, but I would recommend that if you start, you stay with it through at least all four installments -- they aren't that long -- and perhaps the two 'extras' as well. From this, I learned quite a lot, including that the jailed men may not have been the actual problem; they may have been scapegoats to cover for a much deeper and more widespread issue (the Vice article touches on some aspects of this, but doesn't go into it much). On the other hand, it's hard to know for sure and we can't just castigate all the men of the colony. It's much more complex than that. And this series has some very insightful things to say about the ways in which we tend to assume that we have all the answers and can speak for a group of people we see as backward and primitive. Commenting both on Toews' novel and the actual colony, the author says:
...I wanted to better understand those women. Instead, I feel I read what a literature-steeped, progressive, Torontonian might have colony women think.So. I'm ambivalent about this novel. While it's good to bring these issues into the light, and there was much that I appreciated about the story as it was written, I also feel like it might be a disservice to tidy up the story so much. And I think it's really strange to take an utterly horrific real-life event and make it worse for a novel, as if it needed...help? Sensation? A clearer message?
But to the extent that the book views colony Mennonites through a North American lens, it contradicts what seems essential in supporting colony women. In the context of interviews and Toews’s earlier writings—including a 2016 non-fiction essay for Granta entitled “Peace shall destroy many”—it is hard not to see in Women Talking a bias towards formal education, literature, and urban western society. That is, a bias towards the narrative of civilization, progress and progressiveness.
Our adoption of progress and civilization—including its rampant individualization, materialism and inherent sense of superiority—is largely why colony Mennonites consider us devoid of moral authority and see us as unwelcome intervenors. It’s a shortcoming as glaring to them as their patriarchy and closedness is to us. We see ourselves as better; they see themselves as better. And the women remain isolated behind a wall of men, beyond the reach of concerned North Americans.