In one of the Mennonite communities known primarily for living isolated from the rest of the world and rejecting technology; More than a hundred women and girls in a remote colony in Bolivia woke up each morning suffering, bruised and injured.
Colony men said that these women and girls, who could not remember their nocturnal sexual assaults, were punished by God or Satan for their sins; they believed that women were lying for attention, or that everything was “the result of wild female imagination”.
However, some colony men used a drug on animals to put women and girls to sleep and rape them every night, only to be discovered when two of the men were caught trying to break into a house one night.
These rapes took place in the not-too-distant past, but between 2005 and 2009. Although the perpetrators of sexual assaults received heavy prison sentences in 2011, similar attacks continued in the colony while the perpetrators were still in prison in 2013.
Canadian writer Miriam Toews, who grew up in a small Mennonite town, conveys with a striking reality the unity, separation, solidarity, courage, fear, love and anger of women fighting patriarchy, inspired by those women. who are attacked every night in Bolivia in Talking Women.
As the translator of the novel, which, in Toew’s words, is “both a fictional reaction to these facts and a product of the ‘female imagination,'” I had the opportunity to interview the author below.
– First of all, I must say that I feel very lucky to have translated such an amazing female story as “Talking Women” and that I am also a fan of your works.
Personally, I think “Talking Women” is a novel that highlights why the struggle of women today is so hot today in many ways.
I grew up in an all-female hairdresser in the 90s, and my childhood was spent in conversations where women shared everything they had experienced in life. As I have seen in my own experience, I can say that women talking to each other is a healing, life-enhancing, developed and liberating practice.
– In the book, we read the recordings of the meetings of women living in a Mennonite colony to make the decision to take control of their lives in the face of the abuse they were subjected to.
Do you think it’s a liberating power for women to speak and discuss among themselves in private spaces where men are absent, even if it’s not to make such a vital decision?
Can we say that the encounters we witness in the novel overlap with feminist consciousness-raising practices in a certain sense?
Yes, definitely! It is absolutely vital and liberating for women to get together and talk in private spaces without men. Not just for decision making or awareness; it’s also when they get together to share stories from their lives, give advice, play, tell their secrets, share the struggle, the pain, the joy, or feel less alone.
The memories of all the conversations, all the laughs that the women and girls in the community I grew up had when they got together without the men are still very vivid to me. The same women would be very different around men; quiet and obedient… As a child, it was remarkable for me to see how much women come alive when they are away from men.
– And what role do you think the humor, joy and optimism we witness in the novel play a role in the liberating power of women’s conversations with each other?
Of course, I think it has a big role to play. Without these, it is not possible to move forward and move towards change. As a child, I was always amazed and turned on by the destructive humor of the women in my community. Joy and play have always been to the detriment of the oppressors (men, the church, any authority figure) in our lives.
The women may have returned to these suffocating roles at the end of the day, but at least in the moments when they were together, they could really feel the power and freedom as they talked to each other. And as a result, in my childhood, there were women who dared to leave the community, or at least to assert their will.
– The narrator of the story is a man who keeps the meeting notes for the women because they are illiterate: August Epp.
One of the things that allows August to be present in women’s speeches is that he is not seen as a “real” man by colonial standards. Of course, at the same time, although he is the narrator, he is not one of the main characters and remains largely in the background of the story.
However, we can follow the flow of their thoughts in the women’s speeches. August is an educated man, although born in the same colony as the women, he knows his place on the world map and cannot adapt to the norms of the colony or the outside world.
How do these aspects of your character affect the reader’s perspective on these women’s lives?
August loves these women, especially Ona, and he needs them too. He feels safe with them, women encourage him and give him meaning in life. He wants to learn from them and do the right thing with them. As the narrator of the story, as you say, we see each of the women from his point of view: as human beings worthy of respect. In August’s eyes, women are smart and caring, funny and strong. And, of course, in the context of the patriarchal and fundamentalist community and the world they live in, like all women, they are vulnerable.
– Do you draw a similarity, albeit formally, between the patriarchal dynamics of the Mennonites and the patriarchal dynamics of the urban communities that we can define as the modern world?
Definitely. We can call it the war on women. Just look at how women’s rights are attacked in America, especially in relation to abortion! The root of it all is patriarchy: men’s rights behavior, men’s power, men’s control over women and their bodies.
– The attacks on women in the novel are not portrayed and highlighted. I read in another interview that you did this on purpose. Could you explain why to us?
We can already imagine the horrors these women went through. The truths of the true story are briefly stated at the beginning of the book, and the book is a fictionalized response to these facts.
There are a few small details in the book that allow us to understand the horror of the attacks; For example, a girl takes antibiotics for a venereal infection, an elderly woman needs to wear dentures because her own teeth are broken, one of the women is pregnant as a result of her attacks, another commits suicide, and two teenage girls have rope cuts on their wrists and ankles.
I was determined not to describe the attacks in too much detail because it sounded like a repeat of the rapes. I think our imagination is enough to feel the horror without being explained in detail.
– From the outside, those who live in such closed colonies/communities are seen as “outcasts”, especially in western and urban cultures. Mainly, women who live in such communities are evaluated in the same category in which they chose this life.
Based on the reactions you’ve received, can you say that this novel has changed that view?
Yup. The truth is that many, if not all, of these women are trapped in these closed societies. These colonies are ruled by male church officers with an emphasis on worship and forgiveness, not true justice.
The women are not educated and do not speak the language of the countries where these colonies are located, such as Mexico, Bolivia and Belize. They cannot leave the colony unless accompanied by a man, and they cannot seek lawyers, police, or any help outside the colony. Of course, in these circumstances, men can get away with it, and girls and women (as well as some men) live in agony.
Also, according to church teachings in these communities, women must forgive men and submit to them if they want to spend eternal life in heaven. And so nothing changes. Of course, this sounds very strange to outsiders and the secular world, but that’s the reality around here.
– What about the feedback you get from women who live in similar closed communities or who lived in a period of their lives?
I’ve talked to a lot of women, and they really react differently. They are all happy and comfortable not living in these closed colonies anymore, but the situation is more complicated than that. These good feelings taste a little bitter and bitter because these communities were all they knew about life and they realize that their return would not be welcome.
I often meet women who leave these communities at book signings. Usually their husbands are waiting for them outside in cars. They speak to me hurriedly and in low voices; they tell me about their own experiences, how they are not “free” yet, but at least they are not in the colonies anymore.
They express concern for their sisters, mother and other women in the family who still live in the colonies. And, of course, there’s the language barrier, because most of these women only speak Low German, the unwritten Mennonite language, which I’m not very fluent in.
But I can tell you that they often feel a lot of sadness, regret and anger because they are actually women who were forced, in a way, to leave the only world they knew, to be safe, protect their children and be a bit of an affair of their own. own lives. Then, of course, they also explore their own “outside” world problems.
All these feelings are really about feeling unable to adapt to the colony world or the outside world; I remember all this vividly when I left my own Mennonite community for Montreal.
– In the book, we also read many philosophical discussions about female virtue, about life, beliefs, love, hate, forgiveness, etc. What do you think deprives us of the disappearance of this form of dialectic in contemporary academic philosophy?
And do you think that philosophy being done in the form of dialogue better reflects the umbilical cord of philosophy with everyday and political issues?
I think so. When we think about our lives, political issues or society, I think we forget or ignore the importance of philosophy. I think this is the Socratic method that takes the dialogue further through questioning. Of course it takes time and attention. We need to listen, articulate and shape our arguments.
All this means a lot of trouble; probably a lot of people are not willing or think they don’t have the time to do this. But it’s a fun learning method for philosophizing in dialogue form; I think connecting with other people is the way to create solidarity and then real change.