Women Talking (Toews)

Women Talking 
Miriam Toews, 2019
Bloomsbury USA
240 pp.

One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting.

For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins.

Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.

While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women—all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in—have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?

Based on real events and told through the "minutes" of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada
Education—B.A., University of Manitoba; B,J., University of King's College, Halifa
Awards—Governor General's Award for Fiction (more below)
Currently—lives in Toronto, Ontario

Miriam Toews ("tay-vz") OM is a prize-winning Canadian writer of novels and one non-fiction. She grew up in Steinbach, Manitoba, the second daughter of Mennonite parents, both part of the Kleine Gemeinde.

Through her father, Melvin C. Toews, she is a direct descendant of one of Steinbach's first settlers, Klaas R. Reimer (1837-1906), who arrived in Manitoba in 1874 from Ukraine. Her mother, Elvira Loewen, is a daughter of the late C.T. Loewen, a respected entrepreneur who founded a lumber business that would become Loewen Windows.

As a teenager, Toews rode horses and took part in provincial dressage and barrel-racing competitions. She left Steinbach at eighteen, living in Montreal and London before settling in Winnipeg. She has a B.A. in Film Studies from the University of Manitoba, and a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King's College, Halifax.

Life and work
Toews wrote her first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck in 1996 while working as a freelance journalist. The novel, which explores the evolving friendship of two single mothers in a Winnipeg public housing complex, evolved from a documentary Toews was preparing for CBC Radio. The novel was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. Toews won the latter prize with her second novel, A Boy of Good Breeding, released in 1998.

That same year, 1998, Toews' father, an elementary school teacher, committed suicide. Though he suffered from bipolar disorder much of his life, he was a beloved figure in the community and lobbied to establish Steinbach's first public library. After his death, the library opened the Melvin C. Toews Reading Garden in his honor.

Her father's death inspired Toews to write a memoir, using his narrative voice: Swing Low: A Life. The book, released in 2000, was greeted as an instant classic in the modern literature on mental illness; it won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award.

In 2010, almost 12 years to the day her father died, Toews' older sister and only sibling, Marjorie, also died by suicide.

In addition to her books, Toews has written for CBC's WireTap, Canadian Geographic, Geist, The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, Intelligent Life, and Saturday Night. She is the author of The X Letters, a series of personal dispatches addressed to the father of her son, which were featured on This American Life in an episode about missing parents.

All told, Toews has received some 20 awards and honors over the years.

1996 - Summer of My Amazing Luck
1998 - A Boy of Good Breeding
2000 - Swing Low: A Life (non-fiction)
2004 - A Complicated Kindness
2008 - The Flying Troutmans
2011 - Irma Voth
2014 - All My Puny Sorrows
2018 - Women Talking
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 4/17/2019.)

Book Reviews
[Toews's] celebrated novels are haunted by her upbringing, but she has never written with such heartbreak, or taken such sure aim at fundamentalism and its hypocrisies, as she does in her new book, Women Talking.… Did I mention the book is funny? Wickedly so, with Toews's brand of seditious wit…The ethical questions the women quarrel over feel strikingly contemporary: What are the differences between punishment and justice? How do we define rehabilitation; how do we enforce accountability? (To see these questions explored with such complexity and curiosity, with such open grief and that rogue Toews humor, makes me long for more novels reckoning with #MeToo and fewer op-eds.)
New York Times - Parul Sehgal

Miriam Toews's scorching sixth novel… skips over the rapes and the apprehension of the rapists, cutting straight to existential questions facing the women in the aftermath. Women Talking is a wry, freewheeling novel of ideas that touches on the nature of evil, questions of free will, collective responsibility, cultural determinism and, above all, forgiveness.… [Toews] depicts the women at the center of the novel with insight, sympathy and respect. Their conversation is loose, unpredictable, occasionally profane and surprisingly funny.… By loosening the tongues of disenfranchised women and engaging them in substantive dialogue about their lives, Toews grants them agency they haven't enjoyed in life. By refusing to focus on the crimes that launched this existential reappraisal, she treats them as dignified individuals rather than props in a voyeuristic entertainment.
Jennifer Reese - New York Times Book Review

Lean, bristling… a remarkably layered and gripping story.… The book's confined setting and its tight time frame combine to superb dramatic effect.
Wall Street Journal

A painful, thought-provoking, strangely lovely gem.… At the heart of Women Talking lies the question of how women can create a better world for themselves and for those they love amid a culture of male sexual violence, the continued power of patriarchy, their own differences, and the limits of language itself. It's a question that resonates across the globe today, and in answering it, we could do much worse than to start with the manifesto of the women of Molotschna: "We want our children to be safe.… We want to be steadfast in our faith. We want to think.
Boston Globe

Astonishing.… Toews, who has written often about her own Mennonite history, has told a riveting story that is both intensely specific and painfully resonant in the wider world. Women Talking is essential, elemental.
USA Today

This stark, masterful story takes a timely look at ideas of justice and agency (Best Books to Read This Spring).

The award-winning novelist returns with what may be her most experimental work yet, giving voice to eight women as they grapple with the trauma and power of patriarchy (50 Most Anticipated Books of 2019).
Entertainment Weekly

I would follow the Canadian author anywhere she leads—this time to a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia where the women have been subjected to brutal attacks in the night first believed to be the work of demons. When they discover the atrocities were committed by men in their community, the women—who cannot read or write and require the group's schoolteacher to write down their conversations—must decide whether they will leave, exiting the only world they've known, or remain.
Huffington Post

[O]ne of the most anticipated books of the year for a reason. The story (based on true events) focuses on eight Mennonite women who—after being repeatedly drugged and attacked by a group of men in their community—meet in secret and decide how to reclaim their lives not just for their own future, but also for their daughters (Best Fiction Books of 2019).
Woman's Day

(Starred review) [R]eaders are able to see how carefully and intentionally the women think through their life-changing decision—critically discussing their roles in society, their love for their families and religion, and their hopes and desires for the future. This is an inspiring and unforgettable novel.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) [A] sharp blade of a novel.… Toews' knowing wit and grasp of dire subjects align her with Margaret Atwood, while her novel's slicing concision and nearly Socratic dialogue has the impact of a courtroom drama or a Greek tragedy.

(Starred review) An exquisite critique of patriarchal culture.… [T]he narrator is a man, but that's of necessity. These women are illiterate and therefore incapable of recording their thoughts without his sympathetic assistance. Stunningly original and altogether arresting.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Women Talking begins with "A Note on the Novel" which explains that the story is a fictionalized account of real events. What is the difference between reading this novel versus reading a news story or nonfiction book about these events? What questions does Women Talking encourage readers to ask themselves about these events and the environment in which they occur?

2. The book is told through August Epp’s notes from the women’s meetings. Why does Toews choose Epp to narrate this story? How does his perspective, gender, and personal history affect the vantage from which the story is told?

3. The women frequently discuss the complexity of continuing to love many of the men in their community despite their fear and they contemplate the circumstances under which the men would be allowed to join them in their new society. In what ways does the novel explore questions about male experiences, perspectives, and culture?

4. Which of the options would you have taken if you were one of the women? Explain why. Consider the consequences and benefits of your choice. How would you convince the others to join you?

5. The book examines both sexual and domestic violence. How does the women’s environment and circumstances dictate how they understand, interpret, and, ultimately,deal with violence? How does this intersect with their religious faith and their beliefs about their place in the world?

6. Discuss the power of language and literacy. How would the women’s lives be changed if they could read? How does their ability to interpret the Bible for themselves change the women’s understanding of their future?

7. How does this novel engage with mainstream political and social conversations about women and their rights?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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