Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia, hundreds of girls and women would wake every morning feeling bruised, abused, and battered. This was attributed for many years to ghosts, demons, or Satan himself punishing the women for their sins. The truth was much more prosaic and much more horrifying. It was found that at least eight men from the colony had been using an animal anaesthetic to knock out the women and rape them. The victims were between the ages of three and sixty-five.
Women Talking is Miriam Toews’ fictionalisation of the aftermath of these events, as a group of women from the colony debate whether or not it is possible to carry on living in the community or if their only real option is to leave the only home they have ever known.
Toews’ work is, of course, highly political. It’s interested in the ways that communities and societies tend to undervalue, dismiss, or stifle female labour and women’s voices. The women of the novel seem both utterly foreign – illiterate, deeply religious, and agrarian – and painfully familiar – angry, victimised, and made powerless by a patriarchal society.
It should come as no surprise that this wasn’t an easy read. The subject matter is dark and painful and the writing doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities. However, this darkness is exactly what makes it such an important read and I would urge anyone who wouldn’t be directly triggered by the content to seek out this novel. Regardless of whether you come from an Anabaptist community or the left-leaning inner suburbs of Melbourne, we all need to hear more women’s voices and Women Talking is an outstanding contribution to the chorus.