In last month’s post I wrote about gossip—a Twitter thread, a book with a female narrator, and the ways in which women’s voices are classed and raced and then dismissed. We call women’s talking “gossip” when it sounds like whispers, when it passes from one woman to another, or when what spills from one woman’s mouth into another’s ear might be considered salacious (and aren’t women’s mouths already salacious?). Often, we think of gossip as untrue or exaggerated, or too true to be proper to share. A few months ago, my editor emailed me about a book she’d read, Miriam Toews’s novel-based-on-truth, Women Talking. Her email felt a little like a modern version of the note-passing I was guilty of as an adolescent. Not because the information she shared was provocative, but because she was sharing something important with me, a hint that she had discovered something lovely and wanted to let me in on the secret. (This is the way language is a gift.)
And as she passed this gift to me, I will pass it to you. Miriam Toews’s novel is a story that feels both ancient and brand new. It reveals; it fills a space. I will tell you about this story by looking backwards, at a younger me and at an older story, in order to explain how Toews’s book about modern Mennonite women brought me back to a time when I was thirteen and read Nathaniel Hawthorne for the first time. I want to think about the ways in which we learn about power and shame, how we give weight to symbols, and how we connect.
The first time I read The Scarlet Letter, I was in eighth grade—tender, self-conscious about my body, but confident in my family’s Catholicism. I have a vague memory that the novel was taught like a mystery to solve. (Am I remembering correctly? Am I telling you the truth?) We tackled it like a whodunnit, wondering who Pearl’s father was, oblivious to the fact that it was obvious. At the time, I feared sex and God. I thought little about the underlying facts of Hester Prynne’s isolation because I could not conceive of the complications of love, sex, and marriage, and because I did not yet understand the restrictions of patriarchal structures. I couldn’t imagine nuance, and I didn’t understand power.
When I reread it as an undergraduate (slightly less self-conscious about my body, Catholicism renounced), I thought about how Hawthorne describes women and their bodies; “sun shining on broad shoulders and well-developed busts, on round and ruddy cheeks.” He sounds like so many male writers describing women’s bodies. I wrote about how Hawthorne writes of veils that cover women’s heads, how he uses veiled language to write about secrets, and how religion itself is a veil for patriarchy. I thought about how the A is a symbol of shame, how the hypervisibility of Hester Prynne’s red and glittering letter burns through the coarse gray invisibility of her dress, making her too seen and yet invisible. In The Scarlet Letter, I found a story about Otherness, the unending quest for power, guilt and shame, commodities and bodies, secrets and isolation.
All of this came back to me as I read Toews’s novel, because her story, a fictionalized account of the very real rapes of Mennonite women in Bolivia, touches on some of these same concepts while also subverting that male gaze. I compare it to Hawthorne not to ground it in canonical male western tradition, but to show how Women Talking transcends where those structures fall short. Where Hawthorne covers, Toews reveals.
What she shows us, right from the start, is that she is not only telling the story of these Mennonite women, but also explaining the ways their stories, and so many women’s stories, are dismissed. In her author’s note, Toews writes, “Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these real events, and an act of female imagination.” She writes this because it is true, not just to history, but to herself. Toews grew up in a Mennonite community in Canada. These women are her people. Her story is a reclamation of power and imagination.
The narrative takes place over two days. What we learn is that the women (and a toddler) of the colony have been repeatedly drugged and brutally raped by the men of the colony. Violated by brothers, husbands, friends. The priest, a man called Peters, first tells the women the attacks are the work of the devil, and then that they are merely a product of their wild female imaginations. First they are doubted, then they are told to forgive. When the men of the colony are sent away “for their own protection,” the women come together to weigh options they are ill-equipped to carry out. Toews writes, “And when the perpetrators return, the women 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 nothing.” Each option is laden with complications, and for two days they waver between their commitments to their community, their God, their children, and their husbands. These circling debates about what to do delve into philosophical questions that feel like lakes—deep and still.
“When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are.”
Who these women are emerges slowly, and, because the women are illiterate, Toews writes them through the eyes of a narrator named August. He, like the women of the colony, like Hester Prynne and Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, like Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, is both an insider and an outsider. He is a failed farmer, therefore effeminate in the eyes of the Mennonite men, yet an educated man, a teacher, who had been ostracized but has returned. When a woman named Ona, a woman whom August loves and who plays a prominent role in the story, asks him to take the minutes for the meetings, he complies. By taking notes, he creates a record of the women’s stories. He makes their talking tangible. (With her book, Toews gives us August. This is how language is archival.)
At first, I held Women Talking in my mind alongside The Scarlet Letter for practical reasons. Both books are historically accurate in that they are fictional accounts of real places, with real touchstones, real historical significance. Both communities rest on patriarchal structures, are devoted to God, celebrate the purity of mind and body, and dedicate their lives to labor. In the Mennonite community, those who do not fit these standards are ostracized, much like how Hester Prynne was shunned. There is a feeling of isolation permeating both stories, a feeling of stuck-ness, and an understanding that women cannot escape shame because it is placed on them.
“She had everything she wanted,
all she had to do was convince herself she wanted little.”
But these aren’t the only similarities. Despite the centuries between these books, and in addition to the correlations between Puritans, Mennonites, and isolation, there is a sense that the characters are kindred. Ona’s stoic embrace of her pregnancy reminds me of Hester’s brave mothering. August’s love for Ona is a bit like Dimmesdale’s love for Hester—though I think one might also compare August to Pearl. Lines can be drawn between Peters and Chillingworth, and in these threads, the similarities between Women Talking and The Scarlet Letter underpin a centuries-old conversation about power.
What’s different is violence. Yet Toews writes about the brutality these women survive without graphic description, without violent language, because it is ultimately a story of strength, not a story of destruction.
“Soft tissue is defined by what it’s not.”
The language in Women Talking is meditative. The women’s conversations sometimes drift into metaphors, or interpretations of dreams and memories, while at other times they are more practical, grounded. In the quiet, cyclical ways they debate whether to stay in the colony or leave it behind is the space to think about how we use language and symbols to make sense of thoughts. How things can be literal and figurative simultaneously. In the same way we see the A on Hester Prynne as a signifier, we must see the notes that August take as a literal truth. When Hawthorne veils his language and covers his women, Toews takes off their scarves and braids their hair together. We understand these women in both the practical and the symbolic.
Furthermore, because she writes the novel using present tense, she transcends the physical gap between the reader and the Bolivian colony, reminding us that men’s ability to silence and isolate is as current as it is ancient.
“There must be satisfaction gained in accurately naming
the thing that torments you”
What torments these women is men, seclusion, and power. In a community closed off from the rest of the country they live in, they are further isolated by language—they only speak a low German not used anywhere else, although the men of the colony learn some Spanish and English. It is like concentric circles pushing them closer to each other and further away from the world. Their conversations in the barn are more than talking, they are a necessity.
Because, to the rest of the world, they are ghosts. The women of the Mennonite community make quilts that are sold to tourists who never see them. (And here again I am reminded of Hester Prynne, who, though forced to live in solitude on the outskirts of town, was expected to embroider fine clothing for the same wealthy people who publicly shamed and imprisoned her.) The making and selling of quilts, the taking and abusing of their bodies—in a world full of taking, the women come together in the old barn to see each other and speak freely, equally. Here, the only exchange is ideas.
And the free exchange of ideas is how changes are made, both big and small. Following the rules can be harmful, breaking them can be dangerous.
“You’re confusing love and obedience”
Whichever action they decide to take, to stay or to leave—for even staying requires an action of some kind—the women must weigh the consequences. Their conversations, whispered and hidden, are about survival. In my post about gossip, the core conversation was about how women tell their stories and the problematic ways their voices are categorized, isolated, othered. Women Talking is about how Mennonite women are categorized, isolated, and othered, and how their conversations dismantle’ these restrictions and create unity.
From Toews’s experience, from these women’s experiences, we learn about others and ourselves, and through awareness we create change. (This is the way language is revolutionary.)