Bridging the Gap: A Man Who Can Speak for Women

A Review of Miriam Toews's Women Talking

A review of Miriam Toews's Women Talking

240 pages, Knopf Canada, 2018, Bloomsbury Publishing (USA), 2019

Miriam Toews’s Women Talking is a novel, as the title page clearly announces, though it feels like a work of poetry, or poetic drama. But it is, of course, a novel, a superb novel, set during two consecutive days in June 2009. It has one narrator, August Epp. August is a bachelor who lives in a shed in Molotschna Colony, a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia, a settlement far from the everyday world of the twenty-first century. His designated role in the novel is to record the minutes of meetings organized by women of the colony. These women are illiterate, not capable of writing down their own conversation, their aural/tactile universe.

August opens the first of the two long “Minutes” sections by quoting seven simple and elegantly-put words: “We begin by washing each other’s feet.” In the context of the story overall, these words signal an act of will and imagination, an intervention in advance of the intense conversation that follows, and a recognition of the wisdom of the body. The foot-washing is suggested by Agata Friesen. She is one of the women meeting in the loft of a barn, sitting on overturned pails, talking among themselves while hidden from everyday goings-on. August concludes the opening paragraph by further quoting Agata, who is setting a sacred and sombre tone that permeates the novel: the foot-washing, she says, “would be an appropriate symbolic act representing our service to each other ... just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, knowing that his hour had come.”

Here as elsewhere, August is uncertain about his own place in the circle of women. His identity shifts and slides in the novel, this way and that. It is an identity conveyed subjectively through his voice, a voice marked by Prufrockian anxieties whenever he tries to think about himself. He seeks affirmation from the women – especially from Ona Friesen, with whom he is hopelessly in love – but to whom cannot demonstrate it. However, he is able to convey with admirable clarity to the reader the identities of the women. He depicts them vividly with a sensitive touch. He never treats them reductively, even though he is in their presence only two days.

These eight women, dramatically and emotionally powerful (recalling women in Strindberg or Ibsen), are the “women talking” of the title, and August is our entry point into their personalities and experiences. His perspective provides scaffolding and frame, as well as counterpoint, to the women’s presences. These women are meeting on behalf of all the women of the colony. They are developing a response to horrific and tragic events that have taken place. A number of their men-folk have been identified as perpetrators who have rendered unconscious and raped over 300 of the women of the colony, as well as girls, including children. After many delay tactics and equivocations by colony leaders, the abusers finally were taken into custody by civil authorities to a prison in a city some hours away. Most of the remaining men of the colony have just now gone to the city to see if they might negotiate bail for the release of those who have been charged.

The eight women – recognizing that they will be coerced into forgiving those men – must quickly decide on how they will respond to all that has happened. Along with other women of the colony, they have already determined that they cannot pursue the option of simply “doing nothing.” Rather, in keeping with a rapidly-garnered consensus, these eight must now determine to either “stay and fight” or “leave.”

The women – four Loewens and four Friesens, each group including a grandmother (Greta and Agatha) and a sixteen-year old granddaughter (Autje and Neitje) – talk and talk. All eight – with the teenagers at first a bit cool to all the fuss, but in the end prepared to play their own extraordinary roles – interact vigorously, influencing and being influenced, while they move toward a collective wisdom along with a desperate course of action. There is plenty of maneuvering between Mariche Loewen (realistic, tenacious, often nasty toward Ona) and Ona (luminous, brilliant, angelic, but considered odd by many in the colony). There are bursts of warmth expressed between Mejal Loewen (who sneaks a smoke whenever she can) and Salome Friesen (occasionally explosive, sometimes indeed “vesuvian”). And – while August dutifully records their deliberations – the women weep and pray, theologize and philosophize, sing and argue, debate and assess. They tussle over the accuracy of a word; over the content of an emerging manifesto; over the exact meaning of pacifism and heaven and forgiveness. They hold hands. And they laugh and laugh, even August at least once joining them in laughter. They are seeking a new narrative for themselves. When the time for cheering arrives, they – led by the grandmothers – cheer. Talking and listening, laughing and singing, the women move forward through the novel with an intricately layered musicality that swells to a polyphonic lyricism. Their collaboration and, finally, agreement carry them from being a kind of (Greek) chorus within the colony to being lead actors in their own drama.

The women, individually and collectively – though not without tentative moves and temporary missteps – perform a spiritual awakening that lets them realize a liberated sensibility. They are preparing for the complicated task of existing simultaneously in multiple worlds, taking with them fragments of the world they have known and moving into environments utterly foreign to them. August – who has seen something of the outside world – is their only guide, at least until the meetings are over. As they move onward in their thinking, the women draw power from each other’s insights, fears, courage, hopes, ambitions. All the while their dialogue carries with it the wounds of their everyday lives. For example, on the second day, Mariche’s cuts and bruises, her arm in a sling, and the bruises on her daughter Autje, tell us something of what these two have suffered overnight at the hands of Mariche’s husband Klaas, who has returned to the colony to pick up stock that can be sold to raise funds for bail.

Just as the novel gives us a map of the outer and inner lives of these eight women, so too it does of August. As our first-person explainer and – despite the eccentricities of his character and the strangeness of his past – a tolerably reliable guide, he projects a sense of understanding not only the women but also us, the readers. He makes attempts to bridge gaps between peculiarities of the Low German culture of the old colony Mennonites and the modern world of the English-language reader. The bigger world that he has briefly known – he lived from age 12 in London (England), there spending time in school, also in prison – has left him with at least a patchwork of life-knowledge on which to draw.

August wears many faces. Sometimes he is a self-deprecating fool, “a lunatic, a sad clown,” stammering, smiling, waving. Sometimes he is the community’s fall-guy, the peculiar school teacher, the maimed “half-man.” He is “a ‘two-bit’ failed farmer, a schinde who must resort to teaching,” a “dummkopf” out in the field. To Mariche, even his brilliant speech on the potential renewal of the culture of the Mennonite colony (76-78), he is an offense: “Why do you talk that way? You shit like any other man, why can’t you talk like one?” To her he is “an effeminate man who is unable to properly till a field or eviscerate a hog.” Repeatedly, Ona comes to his rescue, for she knows that he is also gentle and wise and humble. To us, he is so trusting and earnest, so naive and innocent, so hilariously literal-minded and excruciatingly self-conscious, that we are tempted at times to help him along with his sometimes-awkward free associations of images and thoughts and emotions.

When August has completed the minutes of the second day, Agata, Ona’s mother, challenges him to make lists, lists that someday one of the group may be able to read. “Lists of what,” he asks her. “Of good things,” she replies, “of memories, of plans. Whatever you feel goes into a good list, please write it down.” She tells him that his parents, who are no longer in his life, would be proud of him. Then, while tears stream down his face, the women start to leave the loft to begin what Ona calls their arduous and perilous journey. August desperately calls after Ona that he loves her.

Having finished his minute-taking, August, his words registering the depth of all that has transpired in the loft, asks “How will I live without these women? / My heart will stop.” Then he writes a hymn to Ona, “God’s most precious child.” As we and he come to realize, what has given him meaning and has kept him from despair and suicide, is his writing, his making of the minutes, and finally his making of a list of “good things.” Beatifically, like a poem, a blessing, it starts with “Sun. / Stars. / Pails.” and ends with “Wind. “Women.”

Throughout the novel we laugh lightly at him – for his pedantry, his fastidiousness. But we also laugh with him. His earnestness (distantly recalling that of Ernest Unger, the intermittently-present recorder of Mennonite women’s stories in Sandra Birdsell’s The Russlaender) is endearing, so filled is he with a generous and trusting spirit toward all the women. In his hesitations, equivocations, and bold or hopeful gestures, he echoes phases of other of Toews’s male figures, such as her father in Swing Low and Nomi’s father in A Complicated Kindness.

In the theatre-like space of the loft, August finally becomes the chorus to the women’s performance in a work that hints at Greek antecedents. The graphics on the novel’s end-sheets, repeated in the front matter, visually signal a Greek inspiration. Salome’s “Olympian airs” nudge us toward an awareness of ancient Greek drama, as does her deep fear in this novel (with its echoes of Aristophenes’ ancient Greek comedy, Lysistrata) that the men of the colony might trick the women by agreeing with them temporarily “only to be allowed back with the women” – or with their daughters. But this comedy – and a great deal of the choreography of playfulness and play – carries a profound seriousness, even while it playfully invites us to suspend disbelief.

When we come to the end of the story – a hilarious ending with the meek August standing guard over the two “semi-evolved” (as Salome calls them) Koop brothers, who have been rendered sexually and physically impotent by the animal anesthetic that had been used on the hundreds of women – we feel his loneliness and his stoicism. He has been left behind by the women who are fulfilling their agonized dreaming and brilliant fantasies. He watches them through a window from the loft as they undertake their massive act of leaving. They are making their way, pilgrimage-wise, into unknown worlds, and he wonders if any has waved goodbye to him. But – like a Beckett character – he now seems willing to go on alone. This “half-man” has brought us the fullness of the voices of the women talking and, along with him, we will deeply miss them. But surely we will miss, too, the voice of this sad clown.

With August – and with the eight individual women – Miriam Toews has created characters who occupy leading roles in her impressive literary landscape in works that include a memoir (of her father) and six other novels. She has placed these nine characters in a beautifully told tale punctuated by wrenching arguments that bring her determined women to a liberation of body and spirit, and to the possibility of a new home. Toews moves with ambiguity and irony and lightness of touch, all the while giving readers glimpses of a deeply comic and humanistic and Christian vision of mystery and longing. She offers a world touched by a sense of the magical and whimsical along the borders of its hard realisms. It is a world where, at least for Agata, who invoked the sacramental gesture of foot-washing at the outset, a new and altered version of their religious faith might very well be the homeland of these questing and adventurous pilgrims.

About the Author

Paul Tiessen

Paul Tiessen is Professor Emeritus in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, located in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He has published widely in the fields of modernism, cultural theory, and filmtheory. Tiessen retains special interest in the works of Malcolm Lowry: he was editor of the Malcolm Lowry Newsletter (1977-1984); founding editor of The Malcolm Lowry Review (1984 to 2002); and editor and co-editor of works by Lowry and scholarly volumes about Lowry. He has been active in the Mennonite/s Writing conferences and has a scholarly interest in the history of Mennonite literary production in Canada, particularly in the work of Rudy Wiebe and Miriam Toews.