Miriam Toews heard the rumours going around in the Mennonite community before the story broke.
Between 2005 and 2009, more than 130 Mennonite women in an isolated Bolivian community were repeatedly drugged with a sedative and raped in their homes. As their families slept, the women, and girls as young as nine, were rendered unconscious with a spray of an animal anesthetic made from the belladonna plant.
The next morning, they would wake in pain, groggy and often bleeding, and not understand why.
Many believed they had been raped by ghosts or by Satan. But the demons responsible turned out to be eight men from the community, many of whom were close relatives of the women — brothers, cousins, uncles and nephews.
“I was horrified like everyone else and also angry and obviously saddened and devastated,” Toews said this week in a phone interview from her home in Toronto.
“Basically, I’ve done a lot of thinking about Mennonite communities and what it is to be a Mennonite, especially a Mennonite girl or woman. I wasn’t particularly surprised that this had happened given the nature of these ultra-conservative, isolated, authoritarian, patriarchal colonies.”
On Sunday evening, Toews will present her eighth and latest novel, Women Talking, at Bolen Books. She is perhaps best known for A Complicated Kindness, which received the Governor General’s award in 2004. The novel is about a 16-year-old girl trapped in a Mennonite community who longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village.
Toews, who grew up in a small Mennonite town in Manitoba, thought about the Bolivia story for a long time. She had questions and wanted to at least attempt to ask or answer them in her work.
Then her sister, Marjorie, became sick. In 2010, she killed herself on the railway tracks where Toews’ father had taken his own life. Toews didn’t think she’d ever write again.
“It was especially acute when my sister died,” she said. “It was hard to get out of bed in the morning, let alone focus my thoughts and energy on writing. Just the idea of writing seemed irrelevant. It was a devastating time.”
Toews put the story of the Mennonite women on the backburner. When she did write again, it was about her sister. All My Puny Sorrows was published in 2014 and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize that same year.
But Toews didn’t forget about the women in Bolivia. She spent more time thinking, taking notes, ruminating, figuring out how to write the book and what she would hang the story on.
“The actual writing is kind of a difficult process. I try and get through it with a kind of urgency and hunkering down and really doing it. It’s hard to keep these stories with the pain and suffering and trauma. The reality of the way these women have been violated, to hold that in my head and heart for any length of time was not easy. This one especially, I needed to do quickly.”
Women Talking takes place over a 48-hour period, when the men in the community go to the city for the court case and the women have the freedom to talk among themselves. They have two days until the men return. They meet in a hayloft, sitting on milk churns and discussing their three options — whether to leave, stay and fight, or do nothing.
Toews said she didn’t want to write directly about the rapes. Indeed, the women begin their discussions by washing each other’s feet, a symbolic act representing their service to each other, “just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.”
“My questions were — how did these women live after the attack? How do they go on? How do they keep their faith? How do they trust again? How do they forgive? Do they forgive? I built the story around the central idea that there would be a group of women discussing and narrowing down their choices.”
All the options are high stakes, said Toews. “This is a very difficult decision and each choice is accompanied obviously by the expectation of pain and suffering and profound change in their lives and loss. So none of these choices is easy.”
One of her challenges in writing Women Talking was keeping the eight voices distinct and separate in her mind. Toews said the characters are all “kind of based” on people she knows.
“Even though I’m not living in that community, this is my community. My mother is a Mennonite. My closest friends, my sister who is no longer with us, the lives of Mennonite women are the lives I know because I am one. I can draw from that.”
Narrator August Tepp, in a sense, represents all men, said Toews. He takes the minutes at the women’s meeting because he can read and write. The women from these ultra-conservative colonies are essentially illiterate, she explains. He’s there to listen and record.
Tepp, who was excommunicated but allowed to return, inhabits that liminal space between the closed colony and the outside world, said Toews. He’s also there because the heroine, Ona, in an act of love and compassion, understands he needs to be kept safe and gives him this task.
Eventually, the women will write their own story.
Ona, middle-aged, unmarried and impregnated by a rapist, is an unusual character. She is written off, basically ignored, because she suffers from nerves.
“What she says and what she does is ignored by everybody, which gives her the freedom to live and to exist is a pure way outside of the rules of that society.”
Toews said she enjoyed writing about the antics of the two teenage girls in the women’s group. They bring a momentary lightness to the novel, giggling when their feet are washed, braiding their long hair together in a single braid.
In Bolivia in 2011, seven of the convicted rapists were sentenced to 25 years in prison. An eighth man was sentenced to 12 for providing the anesthetic.
In 2013, it was reported that similar assaults were continuing to take place in the community.