Women Talking by Miriam Toews

women talking.jpgWomen talking consists of deep dialogues under the situation of not being perturbed and disturbed by the authority of patriarchy. The book sets its background in a Mennonite colony, in which the author responded to the true-event of a crude crime in the style of a fictitious account. Between 2005 and 2009 girls and women of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia were put into unconscious state at nights and raped by the men of their community. When the women explained the wounds and pain the next day to the elder members and bishop they were deceived that those being marks of punishment from the sins they committed throughout their lives and the women should repent their reckless and devilish acts.

The main plot of the book centers around a group of female of two families holding a secret meeting in the loft dealing with the aftermath of the crime while the men in the city are trying the bail out the perpetrators who are awaiting on trials – not long after the men’s return, the bishop will demand an answer from the women whether they publicly forgive the men, stay in the community and live as normal; otherwise women would have to face excommunication. In the case, women need to decide the future before the men’s imminent return from the city.

The meeting is recorded by August Epp, a Mennonite who was excommunicated along with his parents during childhood. He was educated in England but incarcerated in jail for what he had done during the street protest against a bill passed in the British Parliament. After the imprisonment he is convinced to return to the community and being reintroduced under the Bishop’s watch. The Mennonite women are all victims of the Incident, in front of them are three different options, (1) Do Nothing; (2) Fight or (3) Leave. Three options were each debated in the meeting conducted through the mother dialect of Plautdietsch (Low German) and translated in English on package paper by August Epp.

“Ona asks the children if they know what a sea is, and they stare at her with four enormous blue eyes, sea-like. Ona describes the sea as another world, one that is hidden from us, one that lives underwater. It is the life in the sea that she defines as the sea, and not the sea itself. She talks about fish and other living things.”

Although the context of Women Talking is based on the aftermath of a tragic and depraved incident in a community, there are some interesting conversations arising from the book. At first I am not sure if I have absorbed wholeheartedly of the meaning of the words, but somehow I gradually grasp some ideas of the dialogues. They are somewhat philosophical and thought-provoking.

At one point of conversation, the women are contending whether they should be fighting or leaving to confront the cruelty of the men, and if there are any precedents to support the argument. Women responds that animals, like horses, would evade but some would fight in return – most examples are surrounded with animals’ behaviour in the farm as these are the creatures women often see in the homeland life. Following the discussion, one woman would rebuke – if we are compared to animals like pigs, horses, dogs or raccoons, we would not enter the gate of heaven as there are not much labouring and feeding going on in the eternity.

There is also another argument regarding the option of “Leaving”, what is the appropriate age range for the boys to leave with women? Would there be possible harm unforeseen in future if boys/men who were willing to follow the women? Would all this be a pretence of the men if they follow the women under the consent set between both sexes and a lie for the women taking charge of decision in the new land? How are we assessing the best option knowing that we actually are using our intellect and peace in mind rather than driven by hunger and fear like other animals do? Varied situations and hypotheses are being discerned and discussed between women talking in the meeting, they are endless, and some unanswerable; counted clocks being a dumb catalyst to propel and urge the women back to ponder the three options again practically.

As the meeting progresses, some beautiful notions come up in the book. It is actually showing that although the women in the community might also be the sticklers of belief to other members that “outsiders”, like readers, might disapprove, but the option they finally choose is reflecting an uncultivated and unwrought notion of “love” and “faith” in humanity that is without any intervention of a third-party’s influence, and is inbred in every life. The option and the reasons for it is in a nature no way regarded by outsiders as an act of resignation, and entirely not expounding the idea of forgiveness vulgarly –  the women would not “Do Nothing” under this situation, and they would not “Fight” as both acts are flouting pacifism. They are conscientious objectors, and they need to reflect pacifism through “Leaving” – to protect the children and the weak, to be acknowledged, and to think. – Consciousness is resistance, that faith is action. (p. 214)

Another beautiful idea is the relationship between August Epp and Ona. August Epp was excommunicated during boyhood, his mother passed away while he was incarcerated in prison and father disappeared during the time in England when he was a boy. Ona, on the other hand, was impregnated by the violent incident. Both are victims of the “Mennonite experiment”. But it is the tragic past which tied August Epp with the Bishop that makes the relationship with Ona more intimate. August Epp is suicidal because he is secretly known of his indelible past that he feels guilty being born. But in Ona’s eyes and perspective, Epp is the message of goodness and hope to both the community as well as her future in a physical form.

In Epp’s conversation he has had with Ona, faith can always be restored. The rudiment of love is that it is a subject of supreme and unknown nature that God has taught individuals to reflect in lives rather than instilling strict rules for individuals to obey in solidarity to prove that you Love God. Also, the concept of “action” is important in the book, one should change other than being indulged with the past.

I think this book is not mainly written to us readers to judge whether being kept from and secluded from the patriarchal world under a religious belief, like Anabaptism, is a harmful notion to women / believers, but the focal point is that through the world of the women on this account, we should grip the idea of how to treat ourselves in our world, learn to deal, confront, and accept the past, of how to be resilient and  convert ourselves into good use.

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Wong Sarah

Making reading the essential part of my life

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