(Content Warning for a brief mention of sexual assault)
I’ve talked about book structure before, but I find the structure of Miriam Toews’ Women Talking interesting because it initially made me nervous. The book is supposed to read like the minutes of a meeting of Mennonite women discussing how to react to asking to forgive a group of men that drugged and raped them. A man named August Epp, who comes from outside the colony and is struggling with his own issues that sometimes come through in his writing, takes the minutes, so what follows becomes his story as well. It felt odd at first, reading primarily about the experience of others through the voice of someone who wasn’t directly involved. Most books have narrators directly involved in the action (though, if you count the meetings as the action, I suppose August is involved directly in them, though it isn’t really his fate that’s being decided in the negotiations.
To be more specific, I was worried about is whether I would get to know all the characters, or whether I would be unable to tell much about them because I would have to see them through the eyes of somebody else. In some ways, this was a nonsensical fear, given that we see any character who isn’t the protagonist in this manner and usually manage to bond with them without issue. However, if August is an unreliable narrator, which in some ways he is – though I feel like it’s difficult for any narrator to be completely objective, then he might change the shape of the other characters to fit his perceptions of them. (I would like to note that I almost wrote that he would change the story, except that that doesn’t fit because the story is what he’s writing, and whatever it would have been with a different narrator is something different.)
Reading Women Talking is a bit like reading a play, but with a greater amount of commentary. The book even includes a list of the characters, like a cast. However, just as with plays, the women’s dialogue – as well as helpful explanations from August – gives a fairly detailed picture of the lives and personalities of each of the characters. The women’s stories weren’t ignored in a way that stood out to me, if at all. The woman August is in love with, Ona, may have been portrayed in a very positive light, but because her somewhat whimsical personality other narrators might have been especially negative.
August Epp is the narrator of this particular story, but let’s get hypothetical for a moment. The book’s explanation for August writing minutes is that the women cannot read or write, so Ona brings in August to create a record of the event. In this situation, August tells this story because, as a man, he is educated. However, the narrator of a work of fiction doesn’t have to know how to read to narrate – though this would change the book’s format – so anyone could have done it, but Toews chose August. Why? The minute format lends the book the feel of a historical document, which emphasizes that the book’s events are based on something that actually happened. I’m also sure that August’s story and status as an outsider connects to what’s happening to the women in some way my brain hasn’t yet been able to compute.
So what’s the point? Sure, you might think, Toews chose to tell Women Talking in this manner. Big deal. The way I see it, this book could have been told in many different ways with many different outcomes, and still have produced a work of art. I don’t believe there is one proper way to tell a story – though there might be one that feels especially right to some people – and that’s a relief to me, because it means that no matter how much you experiment with writing, with narrators, settings, endings, what your creating has the chance to be great. You aren’t hunting for a single ideal. You have options, choices, and they have potential. Ask questions about your work, what directions it might go in, and see what feels right to you, and not what feels right based on what you think you should write. Let someone else write that story – write yours.