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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

What an amazing writer Miriam Toews is. I read A Complicated Kindness over a decade ago on the recommendation of another writer on an Arvon course, who admired the voice of the narrator. I was fascinated by the Mennonite community and the narrator’s childhood. And then there was All My Puny Sorrows. This is how I introduced that book on an earlier post.

This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her? How do you help?

I reread it earlier this year for my reading group. It had the same effect on me all over again, as if I held my breath from start to finish.

Women Talking

Women Talking takes the Mennonite community and extraordinarily difficult circumstances for its starting point. The women of the Molotshna community gather in secret to decide whether to leave or stay. Even this small act of meeting without permission is transgressive. It has not been sanctioned by the menfolk.

The events that have led to this meeting are drawn from real life and they are shocking. In 2005-9 in a Mennonite community in Bolivia it was found that many of the women and girls had been repeatedly raped at night by men within their community. The women and girls were drugged with animal anaesthetic and when they woke, sore, bloodied, bruised and confused their injuries were put down to visits from ghosts, demons, or as divine punishment for their sins. But one day a young man was caught. He confessed and implicated others. Because of the seriousness and extent of the crimes the community elders decided to hand over the matter to the police, despite usually handling matters of law and order themselves. 

Women Talking is both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination .[From A Note on the Novel by the author]

In Women Talking the women are facing the return on bail of the men, needed for the farm work on which the community depends. All the able men of Molotshna have gone to the nearby town to provide the bail money. In their absence the women meet to discuss two options, having rejected the choice of doing nothing. They can stay or they can leave.

The novel is presented as the notes of a sympathetic man, who had been invited by the women to record what they say. The women have not been allowed to learn to read or write. August Epp is something of an outsider in the community, having lived outside it. 

Eight women meet in secret in a hayloft to arrive at their decision before the men return. They have suffered from the nighttime attacks and some of them are pregnant. Together they consider their options and the implications of anything they do. The reader has some sense of the limitations placed on the lives of the women up to this point, how the community and their men determine what they can do. Now for the first time they must make decisions.

Most of the book is Epp’s report of their conversations. Miriam Toews has said that she found it hard to write, keeping track of the women and making it digestible to the reader. The two youngest girls are teenagers, and often up to mischief together

Autje and Neitje, I notice, have removed their kerchiefs and braided their long hair together, into one braid, so they are conjoined. (59).

Ona is favoured by Epp, and is playful and determined in equal measure.

[Greta] asks: What will happen if the men refuse to meet our demands?

Ona responds: We will kill them.

Autje and Neitje gasp, then smile tentatively. (58)

As the discussion goes on, exploring every possibility, the women pose themselves a question: is leaving their husbands to save their children an act of disobedience, and if so according to what authority? They come to see that, because they cannot read, they have relied upon the men to tell them what is in the Bible. It is the central point of their discussion. They discuss disobedience.

It’s a word that the men of Molotshna would use, not God.

That’s true, says Mejal. God might define it otherwise, our leaving. […]

(I am struck by a thought: Perhaps it is the first time the women of Molotshna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.) (159)

The manner of this discussion is striking. As they explore the possibilities, they reason and support each other. They do not try to score points, nor come to the discussion with their mind made up. This is a dialogue, their attempt to arrive together at a decision they could not reach on their own through their shared explorations. This is women talking.

Another aspect of their discussion is how philosophical it is. The women are in new territory, so it is not surprising that they arrive at a point of questioning the authority of the men. 

I won’t reveal what the women decide to do. The future of all members of the community is uncertain. As it always is for everybody.

Talking about her purpose in writing this book Miriam Toews said

I know the book could be viewed as me making a political statement through a fictional narrative, which wasn’t really my intent. My goal is always to tell a story and to create characters that will move the reader. But I’m of course a feminist. I have a need to challenge that status quo that I’ve experienced. [From an interview with Katrina Onstad in the Guardian 18.8.18]

You won’t be surprised that the book is endorsed on the cover by Margaret Atwood.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018) Faber and Faber216pp

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Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

‘This is a story of luminous beauty and rambunctious joy, of dark secrets and silences, revelations and, ultimately, the unknowability of those closest to us.  An in the face of the unknowable, personal history becomes fiction.’ (From the blurb on the cover of Nothing Holds Back the Night.) This is as good a description as any of this prizewinning book.

Every month I read and comment on a book by a woman in translation. Mostly they have been works of fiction. This book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, an attempt by the French writer Delphine de Vigan to explain her mother’s life and death.

Nothing holds back the Night

Nothing holds back the Nightis an attempt to understand the life and death of the author’s mother, who she calls Lucile. Her mother committed suicide at the age of 62 in Paris. While a suicide often defines a life, in this case Lucile’s life appears to be shaped by her long history of mental ill health, bi-polar disorder. By setting her mother’s story within her network of relationships – family, lovers, friends, neighbours and work mates – Delphine de Vigan shows us so much more than one person’s life. We see how families and society respond and react to damaged people.

Delphine de Vigan was already a recognised writer when she decided to write this book. She drew on interviews with the surviving family members and friends, on documentary evidence including Lucile’s own writings, on a tv documentary made about the family when Lucile was a teenager, and from her own memories. That which she could not discover from these sources has been created by her. This means she is adding to the same family mythology to which she refers.

Every day that passes I see how difficult it is to write about my mother, to define her in words, how much her voice is missing. Lucile talked very little about her childhood. She didn’t tell stories. Now I tell myself that that was her way of escaping the mythology, of refusing to take part in the fabrication and narrative reconstruction which all families indulge in. (115)

She also wrote this book to get beyond the fear with which Lucile’s life infected her and makes her fear for her own family.

I am writing this book because I now have the strength to examine what troubles and sometimes assails me, because I want to know what I am passing on. I want to stop being afraid that something will happen to us, as though we were living under a curse, and to be able to make the most of my good fortune, my energy, my happiness without thinking that something terrible is going to happen to destroy us and that sadness is forever waiting in the wings. (231)

Lucile’s Life

Born to French parents in 1946, Lucile grew up with a total of 8 brothers and sisters. She was the 3rdchild. She was 8 when a younger brother died in a terrible accident by falling into a well. The family were knocked sideways by his death. As the years went by death and suicide affected other siblings and friends.

The first part of this book recounts Lucile’s life in a big family. In a large family the dynamics are always changing, always difficult, always mediated by parents. Lucile was exceptionally pretty and used as a photographic model, especially in the commercial world. The family was in the public gaze but they were dominated by an opinionated and demanding father and a lively and loveable mother. There was never enough money.

It is likely that her father abused Lucile when she was a teenager, drugging and raping her. Lucile’s revelation of this event some years later was simply ignored by the family. Soon after the incident Lucile met Gabriel, fell in love, became pregnant, married and gave birth to Delphine. She was not out of her teens. A second daughter was born and later Gabriel left and Lucile brought up the children more or less alone.

The episode in which Lucile was hospitalised is horrifying. It was witnessed by 12-year old Delphine, who retells the events of her mother’s restraint and removal as she saw them. The children were sent to live with their father and barely saw their mother for a while. They were later reunited but the fear of a relapse was always present, even when the two girls became adults. After years of psychotherapy Lucile recovered enough to retrain as a social worker and develop a new life for herself. But the fear remained and ultimately she took her own life.

Of everything in this detailed book, this quotation from her own writing, in 1979, shocked me for what it reveals about Lucile’s inner life.

This year, in November, I will be thirty-three. A rather uncertain age, I think, if one were superstitious. I am a beautiful woman except that I have rotten teeth, which in a certain way I’m very pleased about, sometimes it even makes me laugh. I wanted it to be known that death lies beneath the surface. (213)

Delphine de Vigan, in Nancy (Le Livre sur la Place 2011) Ji-Elle via Wikicommons

It is shocking, today, that Lucile’s revelations about her father, considered to be true by her daughter, were ignored, perhaps because they did not fit the family’s mythology. The book leaves the reader with a sense of sadness for Lucile, who suffered so much. And sad too for the others touched by her life, not least her two children. Yet Lucile died on her own terms, while still alive. It’s a difficult read, but one that honours its subject.

Women in translation series

Every month I review a book by a woman in translation on this blog. Here are some recent posts with links.

Notes of a Crocodileby Qiu Maojin, translated from the Chinese by Bonnie Huie.

The Winterlingsby Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Memoirs of a Polar Bearby Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Go, Went, Goneby Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Over to you

Do you have any recommendations of books by women in translation? Next month (May) I plan to read Loveby Hanne Orstavik.

Nothing holds back the Nightby Delphine de Vigan, published in English by Bloomsbury in 2013. 342pp. Winner of the Prix FNAC and the Grand Prix des lectrices de ELLE.

The French title is Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit. Translated by George Miller

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Filed under Books, Reading, Women in Translation