We do know that the conditions of Molotschna have been created by man, that these attacks have been made possible, even the conception of these acts, the planning of these attacks, the rationale for these attacks within the minds of men, because of the circumstances of Molotschna. And these circumstances have been created and ordained by the men….”
Kick starting my September reviews (yep pretty poor that I am only just getting to reviewing my September reads) with Women Talking. This book inspired my whole reading theme for the month so it seems only right that I start with it.
So confession time – I knew nothing about this book before I bought it. In fact, I bought this when I happened to be in Waterstones on a day off. I always go and look at their reduced section because they have some great bargains there. I saw Women Talking and was instantly drawn to its title.
Then I came to the premise of the book. In the mid-late 00s women and girls of a Mennonite community in Bolivia were repeatedly drugged and raped by the men of their community. The attackers initially evaded capture as the rapes were blamed on “demons”. This is no female dystopian novel, but a story about real life events.
In recent months I have read much more non-fiction. This was a little different as the events have been fictionalised, but that does not make the book any less shocking or impactful. The book is narrated by August, a male observer, who has been asked to transcribe events as the women cannot write in English (how often is language used as a barrier for women in both fiction and non-fiction). I thought this was an interesting choice but August brings some lightness, humour and breathing space to what could have otherwise been a heavy read.
And there is humour aplenty in this book. That singular humour which belongs to groups of women in difficult situations. The focus isn’t on the trauma and scarring these women have suffered, though it is alluded to, but on their survival. The women who are made pregnant by their attackers and who have seen loved ones commit sucide are asked to forgive their rapists in order to ensure their place in heaven. The decision they make will affect not only their lives but that of their daughters, and sons, long into the future.
Coming from a Mennonite community herself Toews she manages to perfectly capture the nativity and restricted world view of the women. With the action of the novel taking place, predominantly, over two days and one location, we the reader are similarly hemmed in.
Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.”
How often have women’s experiences of harassment been put down to mere female imagination. Women Talking is so powerful because it does use that fact of female imagination to shine a light on the subjugation faced by women in minority communities. The evils these women faced, put down to that same female imagination or the devil, where frankly more terrifying than anything a writer could dream up.
Finally this has been labelled a #metoo novel which I think does not do it justice. Instead I think this shows how far feminism has to go, how deeply ingrained the belief that women are somehow “lesser” and how dangerous the views of the conservative religious right can be. It is all the more thought provoking for me as I read this in the month that The Testaments came out. This plot could be something out of an Atwood dystopian novel.