Miriam Toews on What Forgiveness Means in the #MeToo Era
The Author of Women Talking in Conversation with Hannah Lillith Assadi
Critically hailed as one of the most tremendous #MeToo books since the movement began, Miriam Toews’ eighth book, Women Talking, revolves around the true story of a series of harrowing assaults that befell women in the Mennonite Manitoba Colony in Bolivia. Hundreds of women, in what was known as the “ghost rapes,” were drugged and raped by the men in their colony, many of whom were friends and family members. Toews’ novel takes up in the aftermath of the rapes. The women of the Molotschna colony gather in a hayloft to plot their course of action in the brief window of time that the men are away bailing the rapists out of jail. What follows is a chorus of female voices deliberating on the nature of forgiveness, goodness, love, revenge, and the way to chart a path to a new future. The minutes of the women talking are recorded by the only seemingly sympathetic man in their community, August Epp.
Toews and I discussed her novel as well the larger themes the novel addresses: suicide, rape, forgiveness, and the power of prose. Miriam speaks almost in song, and traverses the weighty and difficult territory of her books and life with precision and care and a healthy novelistic weariness of landing too strongly on any particular point. Exceptionally modest and warm, I might have spent three more lives with her discussing the first glimpse of a beloved city, revenge and forgiveness, or what is lost in leaving home behind.
Hannah Assadi: There is a quote that comes toward the end of the book: “There is no plot. We are only women talking,” which gives the novel its title but also reflects the way there is no traditional plot that happens in the hayloft where these women meet to discuss what to do. And yet, a revolution happens at the same time. Do you think women have a unique ability to enact change? Revolutions in the past have been more violent or action oriented. Do we have a more holistic, deliberate way of enacting change?
MT: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about it like that, about how women enact a revolution. But it’s true. I like to think of my own mother going through her own velvet revolution, a softer, less violent, more inclusive, though still effective at meeting the goals of revolution and radical change. I think women do approach these things differently and I think women approach just about everything in life differently, like you say, from a more holistic, inclusive and collective place. I like to think about that idea.
HA: I’m no expert in revolution but I do think that as we move into more powerful roles, how can we change things, and the book really presents a model for how we might…
MT: Collectively too. That’s what the women represent. It’s a collective community so they have all been expected to live as one and they’re uniform, even in their dress. They dress the same, they eat the same, they…which reminds me of a song. They can collectively think in a way, which sounds negative, because of course they are individuals too, and as women we are all individuals with our own ideas of revolution and what needs to be changed. But I think, women, more easily, come together, to reach consensus and move forward.
HA: There isn’t a hierarchy established during this meeting. There is no secretary, there is no president.
MT: Or if there is a hierarchy, again it’s an inversion. With the women being the planners, the philosophers, and August being the secretary.
HA: I have to address #MeToo given the nature of the novel. So much of the conversation in this novel revolves around forgiveness and a lot of is because these women have to contend with their belief system that requires of them forgiveness to enter heaven. What I wanted to ask you, and again all of these situations are so different, is do you see forgiveness playing a role for women in the larger world in the aftermath of #MeToo and what role could it play for secular women?
MT: It’s such a vast subject. This whole idea of forgiveness. I’m of two or three or four or fifteen minds about the concept of forgiveness. Within the context of the #MeToo movement, forgiveness is a religious concept and I don’t think that it is the first thing to apply to these types of things. Why is it necessary that we forgive? Forgiveness is the sort of thing that, as the forgiver, maybe it makes you feel better like I’ve taken the high road by forgiving this person who’s harmed me or my loved ones, because you don’t want to carry bitterness around. You don’t want to carry thoughts of revenge and anger and harm. You need somehow to heal and to move forward. If forgiveness is one of those things that helps one to do that then by all means. But it takes away from what is really necessary which is to examine the root causes. Why are these types of things happening in these closed, religious, fundamentalist communities but also in the broader world?
It’s happening everywhere, though perhaps not in the same way. Why? If we can take that apart and look at patriarchal violence and the misogyny of fundamentalism and authoritarianism then we can come to an understanding. So that we can understand even the people who have harmed us. The rapists. We can objectively say: we can see why this might have happened. We don’t have to hate and we don’t have to avenge but we need to educate our sons, and our men, and our boys, and women too, in terms of what they can be expected to put up with. So, forgiveness, where does forgiveness fall in all of that? It’s such a personal, subjective thing. I forgive you. Thank you. Is that really meaningful? I don’t know.
HA: Toward the end of the novel, Salome uses the belladonna spray on her son to get him to come with them. She says of this: “It’s just as though I’d picked up a sleeping a child in the night and carried him away from a house that was on fire.” This community is a pacifist community and this is an act of violence, though minimal. Do you think sometimes violence is necessary? Is there a way to avoid it in the quest for justice?
MT: I don’t believe in violence. I don’t believe that violence is necessary. But I also don’t think that we can avoid it. In Salome’s case, I wanted to show too that it’s complicated. It is violent to knock out your own kid and somehow justify that. Keeping a person ignorant to what is going on, which is being done to the women of course, it’s a fine line. Is this safety? Is this protection? As Salome herself says, I’m rescuing him. But are you? I don’t know. That violence that is perpetrated against the soul in these types of communities and elsewhere… that’s a type of violence too, its violence with words, with thought. Violence is not only killing or harming physically. Does it even make sense to say that I believe in revolutionary change and overthrowing the patriarchy but I don’t believe in violence? Is that even an honest thing to say?
HA: Right I mean nature is violent.
MT: Yes, nature is violent. We harbor violence. Would I not be violent if I were protecting my loved ones? Of course, I would be. It’s something to think about. I’d like to think I don’t believe in violence.
HA: Me too. Moving on to more personal questions, in a recent New York Times profile, and probably elsewhere, you’ve described yourself as a secular Mennonite. I was wondering if you could expand on that and also tell me, if there is anything you’ve lost about yourself by being in self-imposed exile from it? Was there anything about being in an isolated world that you couldn’t retrieve elsewhere?
MT: Yes. I didn’t actually leave the church. I was baptized as an adult, at 15 which is the Mennonite way. They are Anabaptists so adult baptism. I never officially, formally took my name off the church membership, but one of my uncles did. He took my name off when it was apparent I had left the community. I wasn’t attending the church. So, he did that which was sort of like being excommunicated. Not that I couldn’t go back to the church. But just in terms of membership, I had no voice in that. That was a strange feeling. At the time, when I was in my 20s, I thought alright, fuck you, fine. I don’t care. I’m in the world. I’ve left. I’m fully elsewhere and a different person. But now as I get older it grates on me. It bugs me. My uncle died a long time ago. But I would like to say, why did you do that? How could you do that?
I don’t believe in the religiosity and the hierarchy and all that, and the incredible damage that its done and the guilt and the shame and the condemnation and all that and the intolerance but there’s a part of the faith, if the church represents that faith… I don’t know. It’s just a thing that’s on paper. I do feel that I’ve lost something. More so, as I get older. And I can’t really retrieve it. And I also feel that when my mother dies, and my mother lives with me and my partner, and my mother is a very devout believer, and attends a very liberal, very progressive Mennonite church in the city, not at all like these colonies. And I love her church, her place in it, and their nurturing of her, and I envy it. So, when she’s gone, I wonder, am I going to go to that church? And then I think no! What are you doing? You’ve come this far. So, I don’t have any easy answers.
HA: It’s sort of like losing knowledge of a language but still keeping the spirit of the language with you.
MT: Yes, and then the people, too. Mennonites are kind of like anybody else. When I’m with Mennonites, even conservative Mennonites, there is something. There is that bond…It feels good. That shorthand when we are talking to each other. That shared experience. Yeah, that’s gone.
HA: Related, but different, and I know that you didn’t grew up in a community as isolated as Molotschna, but one of the things that is so fascinating to me is that these women in the book have no sense of place. They have no map. They’ve never seen the ocean. I was wondering for you when you left, and I know again, that perhaps you were more in tune with the larger world, what natural landmark or city struck you the most? The ocean, the desert? What was the thing you remember most after leaving?
MT: It was always the city. The idea of the city. As a kid growing up, whenever my parents said, “We’ve gotta go to the city or we have shopping in the city or we have an appointment in the city,” I’d always wanna go. And this was a small city: Winnipeg. Winnipeg was the first city. Just the lights, and the energy, and the people. It was fascinating and exotic. I wanted to be there. I eventually did. Now I live in Toronto, an even bigger city and coming to New York for the first time when I was 19 or something like that. It just blew my mind. It was everything that I had imagined and fantasized about. This is where Patti Smith is! The mythology of it all seemed to be real. I got to get to the Chelsea Hotel. It’s always the city. And now I live in the center of a large city and I love it. To go back to the small, small, religious community… I’m always happy to leave it, though I don’t go back that often. I just imagine myself growing up there and thinking… this is so…
MT: Yeah, claustrophobic.
HA: I feel like that is true for anyone leaving a small place. Suddenly the return, everything feels smaller. That life path that could have closed in. So you still love being in the city?
MT: I still love being in the city. And I can’t imagine leaving unless I would move back to Winnipeg where I have a kid there and a grandkid there if I left Toronto. Even now being in New York… it’s life, it’s energy. It makes me feel safe. Like the women in the book, when you are in a small community, and there is a perception of small communities, not just closed colonies, but small towns, that here you are safe. It’s a better place to raise children. People know you. They’re going to help you out. But that’s not necessarily the case. It can be a prison and terrifying.
HA: Yeah. There were so many gorgeous allusions in this novel that August makes from Michelangelo to John Cage to the Bible, passengers of the Titanic singing “Nearer My God to Thee”, and that last allusion is so appropriate given the women and children leave the colony, and so I was wondering if there were other texts, books, paintings, films that didn’t make it into the book but that were compasses for you in writing this?
MT: I’m sure there were. In the writing of the book, there is this constant search for inspiration and for resource. There would have been a lot of music… music that I had listened to.
HA: And you took a lot of walks, right? I read that in the New Yorker profile.
MT: Yeah, and I think too, reading a lot… my mother has a large library of Mennonite history, and slightly more academic stuff about the migration of Mennonites through history. I was reading a lot about Mennonites actually, not so much about outside art, and classical art. The stories of the persecution of the Molotschna colony and Molotschna which is the actual real place in Russia where the Mennonites came from. I was reading a lot about Molotschna… and also St. Augustine who August is kind of an homage to.
HA: In the New Yorker profile, there is this really heartbreaking passage about your father’s death and having the blank yellow note cards in his pockets. And that reverberated for me when August is reckoning with the fact that his notes are futile, that nobody would read them, and that the whole point was that he just had to bear witness to life. Personal, writerly question then: is this why we write? Is it only for ourselves in the end? For writers ourselves to bear witness or is it for our readers?
MT: I think ultimately it begins with that initial impetus, that need to write. To take experience, feeling, and craft narrative. To shape it into something that makes sense. That’s a personal need. But then, there is the loneliness of that or the fact that loneliness inspires that. You feel like you have a need to do this because the hope is that, there is a hope, that it will connect you with other people, your readers, even if you don’t necessarily meet them. It’s just that knowledge, that knowing, that people out there are reading what you’ve written, and relating to it so that you are reaching across these vast divides and connecting in some way. That is a necessary feeling, for me, when feeling alone though I’m not alone… To get through life, it’s hard. It’s difficult. And that constant struggle to find meaning in life… Why live? For me as a writer, and as a human being, it is through the act of writing, that it makes sense, that life makes sense. It makes thing worthwhile. In a way it’s kind of a selfish thing, that you’ve given expression to your own need and it’s been met, listened to, or heard, or acknowledged. In a way it’s almost a childish thing. But on the other hand, it’s a very necessary thing.
In a lot of my writing, there is that whole sense of the futility of words. With my own father’s death, with the blank cards, with August, the futility of the minutes, the irrelevance of the minutes. In All My Puny Sorrows, there was a stack of library books that were supposedly, oh this would be great, this is what she wants, this would keep her going, but that doesn’t work. There is always that hope… In Irma Voth, too… Or in A Complicated Kindness, there is an assignment the character is writing and at the end it’s like yeah I don’t need this anymore. Feed it to the chickens. Always in my work, and I guess in life, I’m grappling with that. Yes, writing words gets to that expression…But then is it enough? Maybe not. It is and it isn’t.
HA: Yeah. You also said somewhere that maybe this book was a form of prayer and maybe writing is also?
MT: Yes, a form of prayer, a form of solidarity.