Ottawa Writers Festival: When women talk, men should listen, Miriam Toews says

Miriam Toews. Photo: Carol Loewen

For four years in the first decade of the 21st century, men in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia called Manitoba used an anaesthetic to invade homes where they raped and assaulted more than 100 girls and women from three to 83, some repeatedly. The women would wake up with the physical scars of such attacks but no memory of them.

In the colony, elders blamed demons or the women themselves saying it was God’s punishment. It would have gone on but eventually the abusers made a mistake and were caught. Seven men were tried.

It is a staggering story. But for the Canadian writer Miriam Toews it was something to understand and to discuss. And so she does in a brilliant new book, her eighth, called Women Talking.

Toews is a Mennonite. She was raised in a colony in Manitoba but she left and now lives in Toronto. The author of A Complicated Kindness knows about the life inside these closed societies.

“There are many of these colonies dotted all over, not so many in North America but in Latin America and Central America they are everywhere,” she said in an interview before her appearance in Ottawa on Sept. 10.

“This case is an extreme series of events but the incidence of sexual and physical abuse in these isolated colonies is high.

“That is a fact. There are reasons for that: male entitlement, power, self-policed communities that are left to their own devices. A lot of beautiful, good things happen in them too, these are human beings after all, but the conditions are right for abuse of power. And the women bear the brunt of that.”

Toews has been haunted by this story.

“It horrified me, enraged me, saddened me but it didn’t, to be honest, surprise me in a big way. There were rumours circulating in the Mennonite community.”

She planned to write something about incident several years ago but life intervened. Her sister Marjorie became ill and later killed herself.

“I didn’t write for awhile and when I did, I wanted to write about her (in the novel All My Puny Sorrows). But I have been addressing stories about Mennonite patriarchy and misogyny in my work forever.

“I felt that I wanted to know about these women. I had questions: How are they going to survive? What are they going to do and what are their choices? I needed to ask myself those questions and I felt compelled to write (the novel).”

The release of the novel in 2018 has landed it in the midst of the #MeToo era when stories of abuse from inside the Catholic Church, Hollywood and other halls of power, are flooding the media.

“My book is one tiny, tiny little piece of that conversation. But women have always been talking about it and men have not necessarily been listening. They have a long way to go.”

Toews’ book is set in a colony called Molotschna. The name is significant. It is the name of a colony, which was located in what is now Ukraine. Many Mennonites left Molotschna and emigrated to the western hemisphere in the 19th and 20th centuries including Toews’ ancestors.

“It is where my people came from. These are the people who broke away from the larger group who emigrated to North America in the late 1800s and into 1900s as well. They went to places such as Bolivia and the Manitoba colony.”

The name, she said, speaks to idea that culture travels, including a culture of abuse.

“These kinds of issues and problems are not confined to one group or one place. To name it Molotschna is to say that there are beautiful aspects of the Mennonite faith that I have gone to lengths to explain and defend but at the same time if you are going to take a group of people and isolate them and interpret the Bible in a fundamentalist way it will create problems and it has.”

This is very personal to Toews.

“I have spent time in closed Mennonite colonies in Mexico and these are women who are related to me. We look the same, we have the same names. My grandparents could have gone to the Manitoba colony. I have basically modelled all of the characters in the book after Mennonite women I know.”

The novel is very theatrical. It features a “cast” of characters and it is set in one place where the women discuss what to do after the arrest of the abusers. Their stories, their dilemmas, their fears and their anger are powerfully laid out for the reader.

“I wanted the women to ask themselves, and each other, these questions and decide what they are going to do. For me it seems logical that they would be sitting and talking” as a community of women who reveal a great deal and who debate the stark choices they face: stay and fight, acquiesce or leave.

Leaving is not the easy choice one might think. The outside world is an unknown and scary.

“The women are trying to make decisions in the context of their faith. The questions they are asking themselves about forgiveness and what it says in the Bible and what has been expected of them and what they are able to do based on faith and beliefs adds another layer to their thinking.”

The book revolves around two figures, a man named August Epp and a woman named Ona Friesen.

“August and Ona love each other in a pure way. I’m not sure they are in love with each other but they love each other. They were friends when they were children.

“August exists for certain reasons. I chose him to be the narrator. He left the community (and came back) and he can read and write. For the most part, the women are illiterate. I wanted the content of the book to be the minutes of the women’s dialogue, so somebody needed to be able to take down those minutes.

“Ona asks August to take the minutes out of compassion. She sees that he is suffering and suicidal.” It was a way to keep him safe, Toews added.

August also represents all men in the author’s mind. He sits in the loft listening and recording. Women are doing the planning, the talking and the defining, she said.

“That is what is required at this point: Men need to sit, be quiet and take note of what women are saying. August also represents that liminal space between the inside world and the outside world.”

He is also close to Toews in another way. August is inspired by her dad.

“My father was a teacher who suffered deeply. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager and he suffered all his life. He still managed to raise a family and teach school. He was a loving father but he was fearful and the world was a terrifying, unknown place to him.

“He believed in power of the written word and reading and writing and logic. He was respected in our town, our Mennonite community. But at the same time education was suspect (in the colony) and considered kind of effeminate. It wasn’t what a real man would do.”

Her father’s name was Melvin and his name makes an appearance in the book when one of the women who is very damaged and traumatized by multiple rapes decides that she doesn’t want to be a woman anymore and wants to be called Melvin.

Toews is not hopeful that her women would ever heal.

“I don’t believe that people who experience that kind of trauma fully heal heal. You move towards healing and forgiveness to trust. You want to and need to but can that ever fully happen?” Still her characters try to make changes.

Ona is equally important. In creating her, Toews said she was thinking about her sister Marjorie.

“In Ona and in my sister there is a wonderment and curiosity and love for all. There is a guilelessness to Ona. She is a woman who would be considered mentally ill and unable to participate in society. Instead she is wise, the most loving and the strongest of them all. She keeps love in her heart. Despite the rage and bitterness, although they have impacted her, she has this incredible capacity to see outside of that and to spread that love.”

As she plumbs the depths of these stories Toews too has had a revelation about herself.

She has tried in the past to, as she says, “get the Mennonite thing” out of her system. Today, she looks at that and “you just laugh at yourself hopefully with some affection but what was I thinking? This is me. This is my community. This is a community that I care deeply for, that I wish could be better in so many ways. The older I get the more I realize my tiny little place in the history of the Mennonites. These are my people.

She is not an “ex-Mennonite” as some have said.

“More than anything I was shocked by that. It’s not true. I am a secular Mennonite or I am a Mennonite outside of the traditional world, but I am a Mennonite. Over time I have realized how deeply involved I am and I have no choice. It’s who I am.”

Because her books are very close to the bone, Toews does open herself up.

“I feel a little bit exposed but I have made my peace. I am so supported. I have such a loving, caring, nurturing group of friends and family. There are Mennonites who are church-going (and) very conservative, who have told me that, even though they might have issues with some of the stuff I say and how I say it, they understand. They know these are problems in our community and that to write about them is necessary to drag them into the light.”

She feels very rewarded by that and relieved.

“Obviously there are some, usually men, who say ‘Who do you think you are?’ They don’t like it. They would prefer things remain the same. That’s something I grew up with, that certain disapproval from men and certainly from the leaders.

Airing dirty laundry is always controversial but, Toews believes, not to talk about these things, not to write about them, continues the bigger betrayal.

Women Talking
Miriam Toews (Knopf Canada)
In town: The author will be in town at Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave. at 7 p.m. Sept, 10. Tickets and information

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.