Between 2005 and 2009, women and girls of the Manitoba Colony—an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia—would often wake to find themselves bloodied, bruised, and confused. The wounds these women and girls suffered suggested sexual assault. Some members of the community blamed demons—or, rather, they blamed women and girls who attract demons. Some suggested that the harm wasn’t real; it was just the product of overactive female imagination. Then it became clear that several men of the colony had been drugging their wives, daughters, sisters, and nieces with animal tranquilizers and raping them.
In Women Talking, acclaimed Canadian author Miriam Toews uses her own “female imagination” to give voice to characters whose experience is an echo of what happened in the Manitoba Colony. The novel is a record of two days of discussion as the women of the Molotschna Colony—Toews’ creation—consider whether they can still trust the men they have entrusted with both their bodies and their souls as they debate whether to stay in the only home they’ve ever known or set out into a world about which they know almost nothing.
The decision to create a whole novel from dialogue is a daring one. The book’s title is a literal description of the book itself, and Toews laughs as she acknowledges, “Well, just women talking….This is gonna be such a drag.” But it isn’t a drag. It’s riveting, because it makes perfect sense. “Structure, how to tell the story is so...it is difficult to figure out the entry, the way in. So, I did spend quite a lot of time just thinking about not only what I want to say, but also how to say it,” she explains. “Finally, it occurred to me that, because these women are illiterate, with a limited knowledge of the world, and they’re a collective community with shared experience…I had to figure out how to, I guess, write with those things in mind.”
What emerges is a kind of chorus—this is Toews’ word—with some voices occasionally rising above the others. At first, it’s difficult to distinguish one character from the other, but their distinct personalities gradually emerge. This is important to the author. These women have been taught from birth to conform—not just in matters of faith, but in every aspect of their lives, right down to their hairstyle. But this doesn’t mean that they are indistinguishable, nor does it mean that they have never thought for themselves. What’s happening in this story is that these women—from teenagers to grandmothers—are determining whether or not their individual thoughts and feelings should matter. The catalyst is the abuse that they’ve endured, but once they ask themselves this question, its implications don’t stop unfolding.
In giving voice to these women, Toews was ever mindful of the fact that her story was based on actual events. “It's hard, right? Because these are real women, real kids, real victims, and real perpetrators and rapists,” she points out. “They're real, and this happened….It’s paternalistic to say, ‘Listen, the way that you're living is backward and harmful and wrong.’ ” And she knew from the start that she was not interested in re-enacting the crimes against these women. She was interested in what comes after.
Ultimately, the women of the Molotschna Colony decide: “We want our children to be safe, we want to be steadfast in our faith, and we want to think.” They arrive at these principles through contemplation, conversation, and one author’s female imagination. It’s an extraordinary journey.
Jessica Jernigan is a writer and editor living in Michigan. She was a 2018 Kirkus Prize judge.