A FINALIST FOR THE GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD: A transformative and necessary work--as completely unexpected as it is inspired--by the award-winning author of the bestselling novels All My Puny Sorrows and A Complicated Kindness.
The sun rises on a quiet June morning in 2009. August Epp sits alone in the hayloft of a barn, anxiously bent over his notebook. He writes quickly, aware that his solitude will soon be broken. Eight women--ordinary grandmothers, mothers and teenagers; yet to August, each one extraordinary-- will climb the ladder into the loft, and the day's true task will begin. This task will be both simple and subversive: August, like the women, is a traditional Mennonite, and he has been asked to record a secret conversation.
Thus begins Miriam Toews' spellbinding novel. Gradually, as we hear the women's vivid voices console, tease, admonish, regale and debate each other, we piece together the reason for the gathering: they have forty-eight hours to make a life-altering choice on behalf of all the women and children in the colony. And like a vast night sky coming into view behind the bright sparks of their voices, we learn of the devastating events that have led to this moment.
Acerbic, funny, tender, sorrowful and wise, Women Talking is composed of equal parts humane love and deep anger. It is award-winning writer Miriam Toews' most astonishing novel to date, containing within its two short days and hayloft setting an expansive, timeless universe of thinking and feeling about women--and men--in our contemporary world.
About the author
Miriam Toews is the author of two previous award-winning novels, Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding, as well as the memoir Swing Low: A Life. She contributes frequently to CBC Radio, National Public Radio, and the New York Times Magazine, and has received a gold medal in the National Magazine Awards for humour.
- Long-listed, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
- Short-listed, Trillium Book Award
- Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction
Excerpt: Women Talking: A Novel (by (author) Miriam Toews)
The meetings have been organized hastily by Agata Friesen and Greta Loewen in response to the strange attacks that have haunted the women of Molotschna for the past several years. Since 2005, nearly every girl and woman has been raped by what many in the colony believed to be ghosts, or Satan, supposedly as punishment for their sins. The attacks occurred at night. As their families slept, the girls and women were made unconscious with a spray of the anesthetic used on our farm animals, made from the belladonna plant. The next morning, they would wake up in pain, groggy and often bleeding, and not understand why. Recently, the eight demons responsible for the attacks turned out to be real men from Molotschna, many of whom are the close relatives—brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews—of the women.
I recognized one of the men, barely. He and I had played together when we were children. He knew the names of all the planets, or he made them up anyway. His nickname for me was Froag, which in our language meant “question.” I remember that I had wanted to say goodbye to this boy before I left the colony with my parents, but my mother told me that he was having difficulty with his twelve-year-old molars, and had contracted an infection and was confined to his bedroom. I’m not sure, now, if that was true. In any case, neither this boy nor anybody from the colony said goodbye before we left.
The other perpetrators are much younger than me and hadn’t been born, or were babies or toddlers, when I left with my parents, and I have no recollection of them.
Molotschna, like all our colonies, is self-policed. Initially Peters planned to lock the men in a shed (similar to the one I live in) for several decades, but it soon became apparent that the men’s lives were in danger. Ona’s younger sister, Salome, attacked one of the men with a scythe; and another man was hanged by a group of drunk and angry colonists, male relatives of the victims, from a tree branch by his hands. He died there, forgotten apparently, when the drunk and angry men passed out in the sorghum field next to the tree. After this, Peters, together with the elders, decided to call in the police and have the men arrested— for their own safety, presumably—and taken to the city.
The remaining men of the colony (except for the senile or decrepit, and myself, for humiliating reasons) have gone to the city to post bail for the imprisoned attackers in the hope that they will be able to return to Molotschna while they await trial. And when the perpetrators return, the women of Molotschna will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven. If the women don’t forgive the men, says Peters, the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know nothing. The women have very little time, only two days, to organize their response.
Yesterday, as I have been told by Ona, the women of Molotschna voted. There were three options on the ballot.
1. Do Nothing.
2. Stay and Fight.
Each option was accompanied by an illustration of its meaning, because the women do not read. (Note: It’s not my intention to constantly point out that the women do not read—only when it’s necessary to explain certain actions.)
Neitje Friesen, age sixteen, daughter of the late Mina Friesen and now permanent ward of her aunt Salome Friesen (Neitje’s father, Balthasar, was sent by Peters to the remote southwest corner of the country some years ago to purchase twelve yearlings and still has not returned), created the illustrations:
“Do Nothing” was accompanied by an empty horizon. (Although I think, but did not say, that this could be used to illustrate the option of leaving as well.)
“Stay and Fight” was accompanied by a drawing of two colony members engaged in a bloody knife duel. (Deemed too violent by the others, but the meaning is clear.)
And the option of “Leave” was accompanied by a drawing of the rear end of a horse. (Again I thought, but did not say, that this implies the women are watching others leave.)
The vote was a deadlock between numbers two and three, bloody knife duel and back of horse. The Friesen women, predominantly, want to stay and fight. The Loewens prefer to leave, although evidence of shifting convictions exists in both camps.
There are also some women in Molotschna who voted to do nothing, to leave things in the hands of the Lord, but they will not be in attendance today. The most vocal of the Do Nothing women is Scarface Janz, a stalwart member of the colony, the resident bonesetter, and also a woman known for having an excellent eye for measuring distances. She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was convince herself that she wanted very little.
Ona has informed me that Salome Friesen, a formidable iconoclast, had indicated in yesterday’s meeting that “Do Nothing” was in reality not an option, but that allowing women to vote for “Do Nothing” would at least be empowering. Mejal (meaning “girl” in Plautdietsch) Loewen, a friendly chain-smoker with two yellow fingertips and what I suspect must be a secret life, had agreed. But, Ona told me, Mejal also pointed out that Salome Friesen had not been anointed as the person who can declare what constitutes reality or what the options are. The other Loewen women had apparently nodded their heads at this while the Friesen women had expressed impatience with quick, dismissive gestures. This type of minor conflict well illustrates the timbre of the debate between the two groups, the Friesens and the Loewens. However, because time is short and the need for a decision urgent, the women of Molotschna have agreed collectively to allow these two families to debate the pros and cons of each option—excluding the Do Nothing option, which most of the women in the colony dismiss as “dummheit”— and to decide which is suitable, and finally to choose how best to implement that option.
A translation note: The women are speaking in Plautdietsch, or Low German, the only language they know, and the language spoken by all members of the Molotschna Colony—although the boys of Molotschna are now taught rudimentary English in school, and the men also speak some Spanish. Plautdietsch is an unwritten medieval language, moribund, a mishmash of German, Dutch, Pomeranian and Frisian. Very few people in the world speak Plautdietsch, and everyone who does is Mennonite. I mention this to explain that before I can transcribe the minutes of the meetings I must translate (quickly, in my mind) what the women are saying into English, so that it may be written down.
And one more note, again irrelevant to the women’s debate, but necessary to explain in this document why I am able to read, write and understand English: I learned English in England, where my parents went to live after being excommunicated by the bishop of Molotschna at the time, Peters Senior, father of Peters, the current bishop of Molotschna.
While in my fourth year of university there, I suffered a nervous breakdown (Narfa) and became involved in certain political activities for which I was eventually expelled and imprisoned for a period of time. During my imprisonment, my mother died. My father had disappeared years before. I have no siblings because my mother’s uterus was removed following my birth. In short, I had no one and nothing in England, although I had managed, while serving time in prison, to complete my teaching degree through correspondence. In dire straits, homeless and half-mad—or fully mad—I made a decision to commit suicide.
While researching my various options at the public library nearest the park in which I made my home, I fell asleep. I slept for an extraordinarily long time and was eventually gently nudged by the librarian, who told me it was time for me to leave, the library was closing. Then the librarian, an older woman, noticed that I had been crying and that I appeared dishevelled and distraught. She asked me what was wrong. I told her the truth: I didn’t want to live anymore. She offered to buy me supper, and while we were dining at the small restaurant across the street from the library, she asked me where I had come from, what part of the world?
I replied that I came from a part of the world that had been established to be its own world, apart from the world. In a sense, I told her, my people (I remember drawing out the words “my people” ironically, and then immediately feeling ashamed and silently asking to be forgiven) don’t exist, or at least are supposed to be seen not to.
And perhaps it doesn’t take too long before you believe that you really don’t exist, she said. Or that your actual corporeal existence is a perversity.
I wasn’t sure what she meant and scratched my head furiously, like a dog with ticks.
And after that? she asked.
University, briefly, and then prison, I told her.
Ah, she said, perhaps the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
I smiled stupidly. My foray into the world resulted in my removal from the world, I said.
Almost as though you were brought into existence not to exist, she said, laughing.
Singled out to conform. Yes, I said, trying to laugh with her. Born not to be.
I imagined my squalling infant self being removed from my mother’s womb and then the womb itself hastily yanked away from her and thrown out a window to prevent any other abominations from occurring—this birth, this boy, his nakedness, her shame, his shame, their shame.
I told the librarian that it was difficult to explain where I was from.
I met a traveller from an antique land, said the librarian, apparently quoting a poet she knew and loved.
Again I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I nodded. I explained that I was originally a Mennonite from the Molotschna Colony, and that when I was twelve years old my parents were excommunicated and we moved away, to England. Nobody said goodbye to us, I told the librarian (I live forever with the shame of having said such a piteous thing). For years I believed we were forced to leave Molotschna because I had been caught stealing pears from a farm in the neighbouring colony of Chortiza. In England, where I learned how to read and write, I spelled my name with rocks in a large green field so that God would find me quickly and my punishment would be complete. I also tried to spell the word “confession” with rocks from our garden fence but my mother, Monica, had noticed that the stone wall between our garden and the neighbours’ was disappearing. One day she followed me to my green field, along the narrow rut that the wheelbarrow had made in the dirt, and caught me in the act of surrendering myself to God, using the stones from the fence to signal my location, with huge letters. She sat me down on the ground and put her arms around me, and said nothing. After a while, she told me that the fence had to be put back. I asked if I could put the stones back after God had found me and punished me. I was so exhausted from anticipating punishment and I wanted to get it over with. She asked me what I thought God intended to punish me for, and I told her about the pears, and about my thoughts regarding girls, about my drawings, and my desire to win in sports and be strong. How I was vain and competitive and lustful. My mother laughed then, and hugged me again and apologized for laughing. She said that I was a normal boy, I was a child of God—a loving God, in spite of what anybody said—but that the neighbours were perturbed about the disappearing fence and I would have to return the stones.
All this I told to the librarian.
She responded that she could understand why my mother had said what she did, but that if she had been there, if she had been my mother, she would have said something else. She would have told me that I wasn’t normal—that I was innocent, yes, but that I had an unusually deep need to be forgiven, even though I had done nothing wrong. Most of us, she said, absolve ourselves of responsibility for change by sentimentalizing our pasts. And then we live freely, happily, or if not altogether happily, without tremendous anguish. The librarian laughed. She said that if she had been in that green field with me, she would have helped me to have that feeling of somehow being forgiven.
Forgiven for what, though, exactly? I asked her. Stealing pears, drawing pictures of naked girls?
No, no, said the librarian, forgiven for being alive, for being in the world. For the arrogance and the futility of remaining alive, the ridiculousness of it, the stench of it, the unreasonableness of it. That’s your feeling, she added, your internal logic. You’ve just explained that to me.
She went on to say that, in her opinion, doubt and uncertainty and questioning are inextricably bound together with faith. A rich existence, she said, a way of being in the world, wouldn’t you say?
I smiled. I scratched. The world, I said.
What do you remember of Molotschna?
Ona, I said. Ona Friesen.
And I began to tell her about Ona Friesen, a girl my age, the same woman who has now asked me to record the minutes of the meeting.
After a long conversation with the librarian, during which I talked mostly, though not entirely, about Ona— how we had played, how we had clocked the seasons by the tiny lengthening of light, how we had pretended to be rebellious disciples at first misunderstood by our leader, Jesus, and then posthumously hailed as heroes, how we had jousted on horses with fence posts (running full tilt, like knights, like Ona’s squirrel and rabbit), how we had kissed, how we’d fought—the librarian suggested that I return to Molotschna, to the place where life had made sense to me, even briefly, even in imaginary play in dying sunlight, and that I ask the bishop (Peters, the younger, who was the same age as my mother) to accept me into the colony as a member. (I did not tell the librarian that this would also mean asking Peters to forgive me the sins of my parents, sins pertaining to the storage of intellectual materials and to the dissemination and propagation of said materials, even though the materials were art books, photographs of paintings that my father had found in the garbage behind a school in the city, and even though he was guilty only of sharing the images with other colony members, as he was unable to read the text.) She also suggested that I offer to teach the Molotschnan boys English, a language they would need in order to conduct business outside the colony. And she said that I should become friends, once again, with Ona Friesen.
I had nothing to lose. I took this advice to heart.
The librarian asked her husband to give me a job driving for his airport limousine service, and although I didn’t have a valid driver’s licence, I worked for him for three months to make enough money to purchase a ticket to Molotschna. During this time, I slept in the attic of a youth hostel. At night, when it felt as though my head was about to explode, I would will myself to lie as still as possible. Every night, in that hostel, as I lay motionless in my bed, I closed my eyes and heard very faint strains of piano music, heavy chords unaccompanied by voices. One morning I asked the man who cleaned the hostel, and who also slept there, if he had ever heard faint piano music with heavy chords at night. He said no, never. Eventually, I understood that the song I heard at night, when it felt as though my head was about to explode, was the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” and that I was listening to my own funeral.
Peters, who wears the same tall black boots his own father once wore, or at least similar ones, considered my request for re-admittance into the colony. He finally said he would allow me membership providing I renounced my parents (in spite of one being dead and the other missing) before the elders and was baptized into the church and agreed to teach the boys basic English and simple math in return for shelter (the aforementioned shed) and three meals a day.
I told Peters I would be baptized and I would teach the boys, but that I wouldn’t renounce my parents. Peters, unhappy, but desperate to have the boys learn accounting, or perhaps because my appearance unsettled him, as I looked so much like my father, agreed.
#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
FINALIST FOR THE 2018 GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD FOR FICTION
FINALIST FOR THE 2019 TRILLIUM BOOK AWARD
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2020 INTERNATIONAL DUBLIN LITERARY AWARD
“Women Talking is an astonishment, a volcano of a novel with slowly and furiously mounting pressures of anguish and love and rage. No other book I’ve read in the past year has spoken so lucidly about our current moment, and yet none has felt as timeless; the always-wondrous Miriam Toews has written a book as close to a Greek tragedy as a contemporary Western novelist can come.” —Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies and Florida
“Miriam Toews’s Women Talking is a flawless, ferocious work of art . . . [An] illuminating quest to comprehend the most vital contours of the human experience: what is agency, what is meaning, what is justice, what is love. This is the kind of novel that changes you. Get ready.” —Laura van den Berg, author of The Third Hotel
“Miriam Toews has written a modern classic . . . real and warm and terrifying . . . It’s a perfect work of art.” —Catherine Lacey, author of The Answers and Nobody is Ever Missing
“I am in awe of this novel. In Toews’s brilliant design, eight women in a Mennonite hayloft tell a story that is terrifying, joyful, gruesome, and magnetic. What a reckoning—and what a gift.” —Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks
“Women Talking is not an easy book. Toews doesn’t hold back from presenting readers with the bloody truth of the abuse the women suffered, or . . . their enshrined acceptance of it. . . . As the women work through their options and ultimately reach a consensus, readers bear witness to their enlightenment and self-actualization. And that, when it happens, is a beautiful, hopeful thing to behold.” — Quill & Quire (starred review)
“[A] sharp blade of a novel. . . . Toews’s eviscerating fictionalization of this incendiary reality focuses not on the violence but, rather, on the keen, subversive intelligence of the Mennonite women, their philosophical casts of mind, clashing personalities, and deep concerns about family and faith.” —Booklist (starred review)
“[A]n inspiring and unforgettable novel.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An exquisite critique of patriarchal culture. . . . Stunningly original and altogether arresting.” —Kirkus Review (starred review)
“Toews proves brilliant at conveying character and relationships through dialogue, delineating each woman with loving precision. . . . The book’s language is Faulknerian. It has a timeless, universal quality.” —The Guardian
“Women Talking expands a small true story into a discussion of significance to all womankind. . . . Understated, insistent . . . Toews’s talents have never been showy. They lie in creating tiny, believable moments that make precise incisions in the centre of the human heart.” —The Globe and Mail
“Compelling. . . . Women Talking is no ordinary book, and even before hitting the shelves it’s got people talking. Some who received advance copies, including Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, have placed it firmly in the camp of feminist books that will become part of a canon that questions the patriarchy.” —Deborah Dundas, Toronto Star