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.

'Women Talking' Gives A Human Voice To Horror

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This is how the book "Women Talking" opens. Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia, many girls and women would wake in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, having been attacked in the night. Miriam Toews' latest novel is fictional. But "Women Talking" is based on that horrific true story. Eventually, news reports revealed that men from the colony were drugging and raping the women while they slept. Toews, who grew up in a Mennonite community in Canada, takes that true story and imagines what happened next. And a warning to our listeners; our conversation involves sexual violence. She joins us now from the CBC in Toronto.


MIRIAM TOEWS: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This book begins after these horrific rapes have been uncovered. And this group of Mennonite women have 48 hours to decide how to respond in your novel. They're in a hayloft talking. Who are these women?

TOEWS: There are eight women - two families, different generations - teenagers and then their mothers and their grandmothers. And all of the women have been attacked - have been raped, including the young children of the women there. And the men in the colony have gone to the city to attempt to post bail for the rapists so that they can bring them back to the colony and, basically, have the women forgive them. The thinking is they'll all then be able to go on and to, of course, secure their place in heaven. And they have two days - 48 hours - to figure out what they're going to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So explain the options that they're considering.

TOEWS: Well, the options that they're considering are - there are three - to stay and fight, to leave and to do nothing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like you to read a passage. Ona, one of the women, speaks about what she feels is at stake.

TOEWS: OK. (Reading) We are women without a voice, Ona states calmly. We are women out of time and place, without even the language of the country we reside in. We are Mennonites without a homeland. We have nothing to return to. And even the animals of Molotschna are safer in their homes than we women are. All we women have are our dreams. So, of course, we are dreamers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These women are finding their voices. They are women who are illiterate. They don't speak the language of the surrounding country. They can't read a map. And yet, you write them as so rich and nuanced as characters. Tell me about that disconnect, about who they are as the outside world might perceive them and who they are internally.

TOEWS: It's easy to think of these people in these closed colonies, in these remote places - isolated - as, you know, sort of freaks and, you know, practicing their religion in a way that seems so bizarre. But the reality is, too, of course, that, you know, they're human beings. And like human beings everywhere, they argue. They laugh. They joke. They contradict themselves. They nurture each other, care for each other. I wanted to convey that because I feel that, you know, as long as we think of them as freaks and outsiders, we can then very easily say, well, you know, that's happening there. But it's so alien. Maybe it's not really happening. And if you don't think it's not really happening, at least not in the society that you're familiar with, it's easy not to do anything about it and not to even, really, think about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The meeting minutes that make up the book are taken by a man. Why did you write this man, August Epps (ph), into the story about women's conversations among themselves?

TOEWS: Yeah, for several reasons. First of all, just on a very pragmatic level, the women in these colonies aren't educated. Maybe they're able to write their name - maybe. But given that the content of the book is the minutes of these meetings, it was necessary that there was somebody who could read and write - write especially. But more importantly, for me, I felt, you know, the - it was a kind of inversion of roles or role reversal in that August is a secretary, really, to the women. And the women are the philosophers. The women are the ones who are making an important decision.

And in the end, of course, that document - the minutes - are irrelevant to the women. They can't read them. They have far more important things to do. The implication is that the women will go on to write their own story. But August is there kind of representing all men, in a sense, in that he's there to listen and to learn. But now it will be time for the women to write their own story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit about the violence that is at the center of the book. You never describe any of the assaults in detail. You sort of see the story with little bombshells of the true scope and horror of what happened, like a 3-year-old who was repeatedly raped and was given a venereal disease. Why did you choose not to put the violence at the heart of the novel?

TOEWS: Yeah. It was important to me. I didn't want to reenact these crimes - the rapes. When I heard about what had happened in the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia, I was, you know, horrified like everybody else. But I also had so many questions - questions that I've had all of my life, you know, having been born and raised and grown up in a conservative Mennonite community. And I wanted these women to ask each other these questions and to have that conversation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, you've just mentioned you grew up in a Mennonite community in Canada. And it's the one that the community in Bolivia is named after, right?

TOEWS: Yeah, that's right. The colony in Bolivia - it's called the Manitoba Colony. And Manitoba is the name of the province that I'm from. We share the same lineage. These are Russian Mennonites, originally, that are living in Bolivia in these closed colonies. And that's the group of Mennonites that I come from.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did this world feel familiar to you - the world that you were describing? I mean, was it similar to, in a way - to how you grew up?

TOEWS: It's similar in that the rules are very much the same - certainly the misogyny within the culture - the culture of control, discipline, guilt et cetera. But some of the details were very different. My - the community that I grew up in was a very conservative - is a very conservative Mennonite community. But we, for instance, drove cars. We left the community from time to time. Whereas in these closed colonies - for instance, this one at the heart of the book - the women, in my opinion, are prisoners in a sense. They don't speak the language of the country that they're in. They don't read or write. They don't leave the colony if - without being accompanied by a man. Even at the trial, the real trial of these men - the rapists, the women weren't allowed to testify themselves. They - men did it.

And even if these crimes, even if these types of rapes aren't still happening - even though the rumor is that they are still happening - you know, the number of incidents of sexual - male sexual violence, of domestic assault, of incest are so high in these closed colonies. And it doesn't take a lot to to see why.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And entering into that world again - because, of course, you left - did it help you understand, you know, your own upbringing in the community in which you'd lived?

TOEWS: Yes, it did. I mean, you know, I've written about the Mennonite community before. And every time I do - and particularly, with this story, it enraged me all over again. I had so many questions. How could this have happened? But also at the same time, a renewed feeling of solidarity with these women and that these are - this is my community. This is my family, my broader Mennonite family. It's funny as I get older how those two things kind of go hand in hand - first of all, my despair, really, that I have, you know, when I think of this community. And how can we change? I mean, how can it become a better place for women? But at the same time, my closeness - you know, my feeling of being connected to the community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Miriam Toews - her new book is "Women Talking."

Thank you very much.

TOEWS: Thank you very much for having me.


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