Miriam Toews: ‘I needed to write about these women. I could have been one of them’ (2022)

Miriam Toews describes her latest book as an “imagined response” to crimes perpetrated against Mennonite women in Bolivia. Toews (pronounced “Taves”) grew up in a small Mennonite town called Steinbach in the prairie province of Manitoba, Canada, somewhere that wasn’t as closed to the world as the Bolivian colony but was still rigid and righteous – a place for an aspiring writer to flee, as Toews did, at 18.

She was living in Toronto, in 2011, when a trial revealed the horrific extent of these crimes: between 2005 and 2009, more than 130 women had been repeatedly anaesthetised with a sedative spray meant for animals and raped in their homes at the ultraconservative Bolivian Manitoba Colony. The women would wake bloodied and aching, but when they spoke up, they were told that perhaps the devil had attacked. Or maybe nothing had happened, and these tales were merely an invention of “wild female imagination”.

“I felt an obligation, a need, to write about these women,” says Toews who, like the Mennonites in Bolivia, is descended from the Molotschna colony in what is now Ukraine. “I’m related to them. I could easily have been one of them.”

Miriam Toews: ‘I needed to write about these women. I could have been one of them’ (1)

Toews’s eighth book, Women Talking, is a fictional account of eight women gathering in the wake of the men’s arrests to decide a course of action. It’s a dense, eerie, darkly funny novel that reads like a tightly constructed short story. The slim book drops into the cultural conversation around sexual assault like an exclamation mark: “#MennoniteMeToo” remarked one reader. Comparisons to the newly hot The Handmaid’s Tale were already likely (not just bonnets but the patriarchy) and became inevitable when Margaret Atwood tweeted: “Don’t miss this one! ...Could be right out of The Handmaid’s Tale.”

(Video) Women Talking By Miriam Toews || Audiobook Part 1

But the timing of the release is coincidence, not prescience, because the novel was a long time coming. As Women Talking sat nascent in Toews’s mind, her sister Marjorie killed herself on the railway tracks in Steinbach where her father, Melvin, had done the same 12 years earlier. The Bolivia story was set aside as Toews answered an urgent need to write All My Puny Sorrows, a tragicomic story of one sister’s life and death, told by the one left behind.

That book became a bestseller in 2013, nominated for the Folio prize and the Wellcome prize. But Toews never stopped thinking about the women of Manitoba Colony. She kept wondering: “Then what?” What do the women do after they learn the truth of these violations, this attack of body and faith? In her version, they meet secretively in a hayloft, perched on milk buckets, and talk – and talk, and talk. In a place where, as one of them puts it, “women live out their days as mute, submissive, and obedient servants. Animals”, simply gathering without permission is an act of subversion. Engaging in a two-day long Socratic dialogue on forgiveness, innocence and love is flat-out transgressive.

“I’ve always been trying to challenge the patriarchy, specifically of my Mennonite community, but I’m concerned with the suppression of girls and women especially, and any place in the world that falls under fundamentalist, authoritarian thinking,” says Toews. “I think in my work, and in my life, I’ve always been attempting to, as they used to say, stick it to the man.”

Toews is barefoot in her Victorian home in downtown Toronto, a fact born of a hot day, but which somehow feels like a reference to her book’s opening, where the women wash one another’s feet in a ritual cleansing before the debate commences.

The decision to start with this healing gesture rather than depicting the rapes was in part an effort to avoid salaciousness. “I don’t like the media phrase ‘ghost rapes’,” says Toews. “It’s not accurate, obviously, and it perpetuates the ignorance around the attacks. It echoes what the elders were saying to the women. Some of the women had begun to think that way themselves: ‘Could it be demons? Satan? Punishment? Ghosts?’ Using the term makes the whole thing sound like a cartoon.”

When she heard about the attacks, Toews says: “I was horrified but not surprised. The details were shocking but these types of crimes have always occurred in places like this. Extremist, closed communities are ripe for violence.”

(Video) Women are talking about “Women Talking: A Novel” by Miriam Toews. Available April 2, 2019.

The women in her novel talk of a three-year-old with a sexually transmitted infection who is denied medical treatment. They talk also of her mother, who retaliates with a scythe (and then must ask the men for forgiveness). One woman defends these conversations: “There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.” It’s a brilliant meta-line that functions as a pre-emptive strike against critics. And the “only” is sharply ironic: in this place – as has often been the case throughout history – women talking is not a small thing, but is in itself action and hence plot.

Miriam Toews: ‘I needed to write about these women. I could have been one of them’ (2)

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Mennonite women, and there’s a certain kind of natural, inherent, storytelling capacity,” says Toews. “Not to the point where they’re being disobedient. They know their roles and they play them. But when they get together, there’s a lot of laughter and their own kind of coded, rebellious exchange. I wanted to get that into the book.”

She does. Funny tangents include one about how to get a cherry stone out of a child’s nose (suck it out). But mostly the women debate their options: do nothing, stay and fight or leave. Their choices are tragically curtailed by illiteracy and limited understanding of the larger world – they literally don’t know where they are in it. None of them can read a map, leading to a radical idea: “Perhaps the women can create their own map as they go.”

This optimism comes from Ona, the book’s axis, a middle-aged woman with a poet-philosopher’s mind, unmarried and impregnated by a rapist. She is also the object of infatuation for the narrator, a teacher named August Epp, appointed by the women to take minutes. August is their sole male ally, profoundly respectful and locked in a lasting, hopeless love for Ona. When her skirt grazes his leg, he’s sent into rapture. August has lived, briefly and disastrously, outside the colony. Because of this, and his erudition, he is barely tolerated, set apart from the men. The impossible love story between these two misfits is the tiny fire that warms the novel.

'The work of the devil': crime in a remote religious communityRead more
(Video) Miriam Toews Literary Luncheon - April 29th 2014 HD

“August is inspired by my own father, especially his gentleness. My dad was a teacher, too,” says Toews. “[To others], there was always something suspect about him. He was considered effeminate, or demasculinised. Men’s options are so limited, too.” As August puts it, they are all together “trapped in the crucible of this crushing experiment”.

Growing up in Steinbach, Toews recalls, one of the worst things a young woman could be was “wild” – a word used for the kind of girl who dared to buy a Led Zeppelin record or wear short shorts. In Women Talking, and in news reports of the trial, the phrase “wild female imagination” is deployed to erase the rapes, reminiscent of other he-said-she-said dismissals of female experience, such as “hysteria”. “Wild is a word used to discount and discredit what women do and say,” Toews says. “But the wild female imagination is also the stuff of art.”

Toews never thought of herself as wild: “I was just feisty.” Her parents were both well educated and unusually progressive. Her mother, Elvira, once decided to run for mayor (her father begged her not to, and she didn’t), and later in life became a family therapist. At 18, Toews skipped her high school graduation and left on a train for Montreal.

In her 20s, she had a son and a daughter and worked in journalism, publishing her first novel in 1996. With Summer of My Amazing Luck, a gambolling story of a single teen mom in a Winnipeg housing project, Toews debuted a career-defining light touch with the darkest of subjects. Her breakthrough novel was 2004’s A Complicated Kindness, where she cast her gaze on the repression that props up a world of buggies and butter churning; any romantic notions of ye olde ways are undercut with a machete. In the novel, another teen girl protagonist, 16-year-old Nomi Nickel, roils with hormonal fury at a dangerously finger-wagging town that looks a lot like Steinbach. Familial death – characters grapple with ghosts of mothers, sisters, fathers – hangs over Toews’s books; but she can be laugh-out-loud funny, too.

The early novels were composed mostly in Winnipeg. Toews’s husband was a street performer, and the family often followed him in a 1969 VW van across Canada while he ate fire in front of crowds. They split up a few years ago, and Toews, at 54, has an eight-month-old granddaughter, another grandchild on the way and lives with her partner, the writer Erik Rutherford.

(Video) Miriam Toews with Lydia Kiesling — Fight Night: A Novel

This expansion of Toews’s family brings palpable joy – “I love being a grandmother,” she beams – but it brings other absences into relief, too. After her sister killed herself, she says, “I didn’t think I’d ever write anything again. I didn’t even know how I was going to get out of bed in the morning.”

Eventually, All My Puny Sorrows emerged from the grief, but Women Talking was written in a different kind of anguish. The weight of responsibility to get it right, combined with the book’s unusual structure and chorus of voices (“Oh God, all those names!”) made it one of the most difficult works she’s written. “I don’t know if a brain can explode in one’s head but I really thought it was going to happen. I had to finish it just so it wouldn’t kill me.”

She is aware that Women Talking has landed in a politically charged climate. “I know the book could be viewed as me making a political statement through a fictional narrative, which wasn’t really my intent. My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced,” says Toews.

Miriam Toews: ‘I worried people would think, what is wrong with this family?’Read more

The men who were charged were convicted, but there have been reports of other alleged assaults in the colony. “I’ve seen the warmth and love the Mennonite community can provide,” she says, “but there are deep problems. I feel that I can be, I have to be, self-critical.”

(Video) Rogers Writers Trust winner Miriam Toews

In her 2000 memoir, Swing Low, Toews writes her father’s story in his voice, a poignant interior exploration of an honourable man’s struggle with manic depression in a community at once absurdly restrictive and demonstrably kind. Over two decades, she has been fiction’s most renowned gatekeeper of a world that remains, to most readers, mysteriously curtained. Her young female characters are our guides therein, such as Irma Voth, the eponymous 19-year-old heroine of Toews’s 2011 novel who is expelled from a Mexican colony. “I thought I could get the Mennonite thing out of my system earlier on, but now I feel like, ‘Oh no. I was wrong. It’s even more in my system than ever.’ I don’t really know how to stop.”

This article was amended on 19 November 2018. A picture caption was changed to make clear it was taken in a museum.

FAQs

What is the book Women Talking about? ›

Toews was raised Mennonite in Manitoba, Canada, and has written multiple books about her background. Women Talking, her 7th novel, uses the horrific rapes as the basis for an explanation of how women speak when they are living in a place that denies them that right.

Is Miriam Toews a Mennonite? ›

She grew up in Steinbach, a town founded by Mennonites in the province of Manitoba, for which the colony in Bolivia was named. (“Toews,” which rhymes with “saves,” is as recognizably Mennonite as “Cohen” is Jewish.)

Is Women Talking based on a true story? ›

Interview: Miriam Toews, Author Of 'Women Talking' Miriam Toews' new novel is based on an awful true story: The drugging and rape of women in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. Toews says she wanted to show the women as real humans, not isolated cultists.

How old is Miriam Toews? ›

How many books has Miriam Toews written? ›

Miriam Toews

Can Mennonites cut their hair? ›

So, while there are many people asking the question, the answer is quite simple — yes, Mennonites are allowed to shave. But let's take a closer look at why this question is asked.

How old is Miriam Toews mother? ›

This night, her Mennonite conscience had found something far more mundane to worry over: Toews had promised the department store saleswoman who so kindly helped her pick out the right pants for her 83-year-old mother, Elvira, that she would send a complimentary email to her boss, and she'd forgotten.

Is Georgia Toews Miriam Toews daughter? ›

Born in 1990, Georgia is the daughter of internationally feted Canadian novelist Miriam Toews, author of A Complicated Kindness, All My Puny Sorrows and, most recently, the Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated Fight Night.

How do you pronounce Miriam Toews last name? ›

Toews (pronounced “Taves”) grew up in a small Mennonite town called Steinbach in the prairie province of Manitoba, Canada, somewhere that wasn't as closed to the world as the Bolivian colony but was still rigid and righteous – a place for an aspiring writer to flee, as Toews did, at 18.

Does Miriam Toews have a sister? ›

How many children does Miriam Toews have? ›

PERSONAL: Surname pronounced "Taves"; born 1964, in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada; daughter of Melvin C. Toews (a teacher); married; children: two.

What is the secret language in fight night? ›

More family togetherness, less family history; although Swiv enjoys Elvira's “secret language” phrases — bits of the traditional Mennonite Plattdeutsch, or Low German — she gets upset when she can't understand longer conversations.

HOW DOES A Complicated Kindness end? ›

At the conclusion of the novel, Nomi is excommunicated from the church because of her lack of attendance as well as the act of setting Travis' truck on fire. After her excommunication, Nomi's father leaves town, leaving her the family car and ownership of the house.

What is Miriam Toews best book? ›

Miriam Toews

What happens at the end of all my puny sorrows? ›

Eventually, after her mother confronts her, she moves on. Nic comes for Christmas and they celebrate Elf's life. The book ends with Yoli dreaming she and Elf are in Switzerland.

How old is SWIV in fight night? ›

Fight Night is told in the unforgettable voice of Swiv, a nine-year-old living in Toronto with her pregnant mother, who is raising.

Can Mennonites wear pants? ›

Under Mennonite beliefs, modesty includes covering one's body and treating it as sacred. For that reason, Mennonite women may wear pants, slacks, or shorts, but they will generally be long and loose. The standards of conservative Mennonites may differ.

Can Amish girls wear their hair down? ›

As far as hair, Amish women generally do not cut their hair, pinning it up in a bun under the prayer covering (citing, for example, passages from 1 Corinthians). Women in some communities wear an apron to church. A large black cape may also be worn when out.

Why do Mennonites wear skirts? ›

According to men, the cape dress signifies a women's submission to God, her desire to be modest and not serve as a temptation or snare to men, her glad embrace of her place in the order of creation, as well as identification with the other members of her church.

What books did Miriam Toews write? ›

Miriam Toews

What nationality is Toews? ›

Jonathan Toews, (born April 29, 1988, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), Canadian professional ice hockey player who, with the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League (NHL), won three Stanley Cup championships (2010, 2013, and 2015).

Who wrote all my puny sorrows? ›

Miriam Toews is the author of seven bestselling novels: Women Talking, All My Puny Sorrows, Irma Voth, The Flying Troutmans, A Complicated Kindness, A Boy of Good Breeding, and Summer of My Amazing Luck, and one work of non-fiction, Swing Low: A Life.

Who is Willit Braun? ›

Their nemesis is Willit Braun, the sanctimonious, tyrannical leader of the church they belonged to, one of many men who “robbed us blind,” Elvira says. “They stole our souls … they hung out their shingles as soul-savers even as they were destroying them … they took our life force.

What type of name is Toews? ›

Toews is a surname of Russian Mennonite origin, an abbreviation of Matthäus (Matthews). Notable people with this name include: Brian Toews (1941-2019), Canadian curler, 1984 Brier champion. David Toews (born 1990), Canadian hockey player.

What does Toews mean? ›

Family Crest Download (JPG) Heritage Series - 600 DPI

The name Toews can be traced to the ancient Celtic culture of Wales. The surname Toews is derived from the Welsh word "tew," which means "portly" or "plump," and was most likely originally a nickname for a heavy-set person.

How do you pronounce Toews? ›

How to Pronounce Jonathan Toews - YouTube

What is Miriam Toews new book called? ›

Miriam Toews' novel Fight Night puts the spotlight on faith, love and family — read an excerpt now. Fight Night is a witty look at faith, love and perseverance in an unconventional family. Fight Night is a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Does Nomi leave East Village? ›

Nomi quietly thanks Ray for knowing that, in order for Nomi to break away from East Village, he had to leave first. Nomi sends the neighbor girl home. It's fitting that Nomi says goodbye to her community through a final interaction with the neighbor girl.

Where is A Complicated Kindness set? ›

Such is the plight of Nomi, the 16-year-old narrator of Miriam Toews's brilliant third novel, "A Complicated Kindness," a coming-of-age story that takes place in the late 1970's and early 1980's in East Village, a claustrophobic Mennonite community in rural Manitoba.

Who wrote A Complicated Kindness? ›

Miriam Toews is the author of seven bestselling novels: Women Talking, All My Puny Sorrows, Irma Voth, The Flying Troutmans, A Complicated Kindness, A Boy of Good Breeding, and Summer of My Amazing Luck, and one work of non-fiction, Swing Low: A Life.

What nationality is Toews? ›

Jonathan Toews, (born April 29, 1988, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), Canadian professional ice hockey player who, with the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League (NHL), won three Stanley Cup championships (2010, 2013, and 2015).

How do you pronounce Miriam Toews last name? ›

Toews (pronounced “Taves”) grew up in a small Mennonite town called Steinbach in the prairie province of Manitoba, Canada, somewhere that wasn't as closed to the world as the Bolivian colony but was still rigid and righteous – a place for an aspiring writer to flee, as Toews did, at 18.

What is Miriam Toews best book? ›

Miriam Toews

Who is Willit Braun? ›

Their nemesis is Willit Braun, the sanctimonious, tyrannical leader of the church they belonged to, one of many men who “robbed us blind,” Elvira says. “They stole our souls … they hung out their shingles as soul-savers even as they were destroying them … they took our life force.

What does the last name Toews mean? ›

The name Toews can be traced to the ancient Celtic culture of Wales. The surname Toews is derived from the Welsh word "tew," which means "portly" or "plump," and was most likely originally a nickname for a heavy-set person.

How do you pronounce Toews? ›

How to Pronounce Jonathan Toews - YouTube

What was Jonathan Toews illness? ›

“So what they're calling it was chronic immune response syndrome where I just couldn't quite recover and my immune system was reacting to everything that I did, any kind of stress. Anything that I would do throughout the day.”

What type of name is Toews? ›

Toews is a surname of Russian Mennonite origin, an abbreviation of Matthäus (Matthews). Notable people with this name include: Brian Toews (1941-2019), Canadian curler, 1984 Brier champion. David Toews (born 1990), Canadian hockey player.

How many children does Miriam Toews have? ›

PERSONAL: Surname pronounced "Taves"; born 1964, in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada; daughter of Melvin C. Toews (a teacher); married; children: two.

What books did Miriam Toews write? ›

Miriam Toews

HOW DOES A Complicated Kindness end? ›

At the conclusion of the novel, Nomi is excommunicated from the church because of her lack of attendance as well as the act of setting Travis' truck on fire. After her excommunication, Nomi's father leaves town, leaving her the family car and ownership of the house.

How does all my puny sorrows end? ›

Eventually, after her mother confronts her, she moves on. Nic comes for Christmas and they celebrate Elf's life. The book ends with Yoli dreaming she and Elf are in Switzerland.

Who wrote all my puny sorrows? ›

Miriam Toews is the author of seven bestselling novels: Women Talking, All My Puny Sorrows, Irma Voth, The Flying Troutmans, A Complicated Kindness, A Boy of Good Breeding, and Summer of My Amazing Luck, and one work of non-fiction, Swing Low: A Life.

How old is SWIV in fight night? ›

Fight Night is told in the unforgettable voice of Swiv, a nine-year-old living in Toronto with her pregnant mother, who is raising.

Videos

1. Miriam Toews on her new novel Fight Night, her mother and the Mennonite community
(q on cbc)
2. To Leave or Stay & Fight: Miriam Toew‪s‬
(Freedom Reads (formerly the Million Book Project))
3. WILD BOOKS, Ep.05 – Women Talking, The Collected Schizophrenias, The Source of Self-Regard
(The Wild Detectives)
4. Book Review: Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
(Thelittlereadinglamb)
5. Mennonite #MeToo in Molotschna: Women Talking by Miriam Toews
(ThePoptimist)
6. What are you working on? Miriam Toews
(The University of British Columbia)

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