Miriam Toews on How Fiction Helps to Expose the Truth
The Author of Women Talking
on Reading Women
This week, Kendra Winchester and Autumn Privett talk to Miriam Toews, the author of Women Talking, out now from Bloomsbury.
From the episode:
Kendra: I fell fast and hard for this novel, and I read it in one day. Another co-host, Jacqueline, she and I buddy-read it together. We just sat there in a book coma. And we were like, “Now what do we do with our lives now that the book is over?”
Miriam: I appreciate hearing that. I’m glad that it’s had that impact or effect on you. I’ve never heard the expression “book coma” before. But I think I might start using that.
Kendra: In the introduction, you have an author’s note, and it says it’s based on true events. We started out the book, and these women in the community have to respond to a series of violence that’s happened in their community. So who are these women? And what is the decision that they’re having to make?
Miriam: Well, I mean, the true story—the real women are women who are from the Manitoba colony, actually. In my book, I call it that Molochna Colony. And Molochna was the name of the first Mennonite community in Russia, where all of us Mennonites—I grew up with Mennonites anyway, came from—and that includes Mennonites in Bolivia. But so the women in the book are living in a very—as they are in real life—in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony, a closed colony in Bolivia. In the book, it’s not stated specifically where the colony is, but in real life, as I say, it’s in Bolivia, the Manitoba colony and Bolivia.
It’s named after Manitoba, the province here in Canada, where I’m from and where the Mennonites who are there originally migrated from. It’s a very isolated, remote colony. These are, like I said, very conservative, ultra-conservative, fundamentalist, authoritarian, patriarchal cultures where where the roles for men and women are very clear. Essentially, the women are prisoners really within these communities. They don’t speak the language of the country that they’re in. They only speak the Mennonite language, which is an unwritten language. They’re not educated. They’re illiterate. They don’t leave the colonies unless they’re accompanied by men. They’re virtual prisoners within these communities, and these communities are self-governed, self-policed.
So when these sorts of attacks, these rapes or whatever it is, any type of violence, then when they occur, there is no recourse for the women, for anybody. In this case, the women weren’t believed. Then when it finally was revealed, and the elders understood what had happened to them and believed them or claim to, they were simply told to forget about it, to forgive and to, you know. . . . And that, of course, that they had been responsible for the attacks, which I guess is something that we women hear often in every type of society.
Autumn: That’s so true, and there are so many things about this story that are unfortunately very relevant to today’s culture or modern society. Instead of telling a nonfiction story, you chose to fictionalize this story. So what made you decide to tell the story in that particular way? And what does fiction bring to it that a nonfiction account of this might not have?
Miriam: Yeah, it’s an imagined response to the rape. I thought about different ways of getting into the story or telling the story. I realized that I didn’t want to be reenact or recreate the rape. That seemed to me like a sort of extension of the violence, re-violating the women in a sense. What I was more interested in was their response, their collective response and what they would do.I wanted to create the urgency of that decision-making process and just the various questions.
I had so many questions about this. How could this have happened? I mean, this is my community. I’m a Mennonite. I’m familiar with these patriarchal, authoritarian communities having grown up in one. So I had questions. I had some vague—I wouldn’t say answers because that’s not the job of a novelist. But, you know, I mean, I could kind of see it. I wasn’t surprised when I heard about the rapes. I was horrified like everybody, but I wasn’t surprised, and I don’t think any Mennonites growing up in these types of communities would be too surprised either. I mean, I am a fiction writer, so, you know, for me to fictionalize something is a kind of natural thing for me to do, where I’m most comfortable. I also feel that, you know, fiction lends itself to a certain kind of truth telling that maybe nonfiction doesn’t necessarily. I wanted to have this kind of philosophical conversation, discussion between the women. I guess in order to do that, I needed to fictionalize it.
Kendra: When I think about this book and when I pitch it to people, I often think, have you ever seen Twelve Angry Men? The play or the movie or whatever. It’s, you know, a room and a bunch of dudes and they’re talking, and they have to make a decision. So I think about Women Talking. In a lot of ways, it’s similar. They’re in this room, and they’re having to make this choice and how they’re going to respond to these events while the men are off in town and they have this opportunity. You just mentioned that they talk about philosophy and they also talk about theology. Did you plan to structure this book this way as an extended conversation over the course of a few days? How did that structure kind of come to be?
Miriam: Yeah, I did plan eventually when I started seriously thinking about how I was going to do it. I did. I loved the idea of a conversation. You know, again, I didn’t want to reenact the crime, and I liked the idea of women talking, basically. Especially since, you know, these women are so silenced and so without a voice, without agency, without any ability to control their own lives, and being from birth fed the scripture and so-called wisdom being handed down to them by the elders who were all male, et cetera, et cetera.
To give these women a type of voice within the kind of structure, our conversation was something that appealed to me in terms of it being a sort of subversion of what these women were used to. Also, the idea of the women being being the philosophers and the planners and giving them that type of agency. It was a form that I’ve never used before in any of my books, and it was challenging to keep the voices of the women distinct, one from the other.
I think that sometimes, you know, it’s hard to maybe, or a little bit difficult, to know who’s talking now.In a sense, that was okay with me, and a little bit intentional, because this is a collective community. They kind of function as one voice. I mean, certainly there’s a divide between the men and the women, but the women themselves, their lives are so similar. They’re expected to have babies, take care of babies, take care of the men, cook, clean, et cetera, and farm too. So collectively, for them to kind of have one voice, sort of like as a chorus within this conversation made sense to me, and then, of course, I tried to to distinguish the characters so that the readers would know who was talking.
Having the different generations of women helped with that too: the teenagers, and then the younger women, mothers, and then the grandmothers.
Autumn: One of my favorite things about the story was how we see these women’s thought processes and how they kind of unfold in this conversation and how their different voices clash, and they’re part of their discussion. Kendra and I were talking after we read this book: we both come from conservative, religious communities ourselves. We definitely understand some of the arguments that these women were making or the things that they were talking about or some of the things you just mentioned about expectations and gender roles and things like that. Was this something that just kind of came out of the discussion as the women were talking? Or were these topics things that you wanted to specifically address before you set out to write the novel?
Miriam: I think it was kind of more of an organic thing. You know, I think at the beginning I knew who the women would be. That’s kind of very important to me when I start writing a book to just really, really know who my characters are and what the situation is, basically, and then try to be as true to that as I can and dialog and their motivation and how they feel, how they express themselves, and what they ultimately do.
You know, given the circumstances or what they were thinking that they were planning, they have three options, I guess: to leave the community, stay and fight, or to do nothing. All three of those, you know, there are high stakes attached to each of those decisions, and none of them come lightly, of course. So just given that, that kind of acted as a touchstone that I could go back to in terms of then what their conversation would be. So it’s a little bit organic at the beginning. But then, you know, as I got further and further into their discussion, it became a little bit more clear, you know, in terms of what I needed to have them talk about and what things they needed to mention or to think about in their process of making a decision. Like, for instance, what about boys of a certain age, their sons and brothers of a certain age, young teenage males. Do they pose a threat, and how could that possibly be? How could they leave them behind? Like I said, I mean, high-stake decisions are heartbreaking and terrifying. They don’t know the world outside the colony. So all of those types of things, the kind of circumstances of their life, I knew that I had to bring into their discussion.
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