Two Readings, Three Authors: On the Pleasures of Listening to Women Talking
I haven’t attended a lecture or author reading since COVID. The pandemic was reason enough not to go anywhere crowded, and since — well, since then I’ve had to overcome certain habits of mind, as well as a tendency to prioritize tasks that invariably arise from my work as an instructor at two postsecondary institutions. As I approached the end of the Winter 2023 term and shifted to marking mostly, I decided to treat myself at last to two author readings. The first took place at York University’s Glendon campus on April 11, under the auspices of the Department of Hispanic Studies. The second reading and Q&A was held at the Keele Campus on April 17, the fruit of the Department of English and its inaugural Writer-in-Residence program. The two presentations were one week apart, and so I still had a vivid recollection of the first talk, given by Spanish philologist and novelist Irene Vallejo, when I attended the second. At the latter event, I listened to Miriam Toews read a segment from her latest novel, Fight Night (2021), and then field questions from Karen Solie, York University’s first writer-in-residence, a renowned poet and recently named recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. These were different presentations in terms of the subject matter and authorial aims: the first was delivered by a historian in the capacity of a scholar, a native of Spain; the second featured a celebrated Canadian writer of fiction, known for drawing profusely on her own lived experience as a woman who once belonged to a Steinbach Mennonite community in southern Manitoba. I’ll say right now that both readings were marvellous; they were thought-provoking and moving. They were dissimilar nearly in every way, and yet, afterwards, once I contemplated the subtler leitmotifs and implications of things said or divulged on a personal note, I was struck by how much these talks had in common.
The screen behind the podium where Dr. Vallejo spoke about her work displayed a banner to the effect that books are unique survivors. This is true enough if we contemplate just the last two decades of digital culture, never mind three millennia during which the invention and production of books hinged entirely on the development of a practicable alphabet (Ionic Greek), the discovery and “manufacture” of a durable and transferable material for storing written content (the papyrus roll), and the creation of libraries whose emergence could be assured only by individuals (at first few in number) with a learned respect for the writing they contained. Indeed, the invention and survival of books depended on a confluence of necessary conditions — civilizational achievements really, which only seem, when glossed over, not to have been largely contingent.
Irene Vallejo’s Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World (published by Penguin Random House in 2022) can be described as public or narrative history, or historiography; the latter label is appropriate because an expansive study of the evolution of the book as an object made and used to preserve, share, or enshrine ideas and laws is historiographical in essence. Can a delineation of the breakthroughs which ensured the dissemination of philosophy, religion, art — knowledge in all its forms — get more historiographical, in fact? Didn’t books create cultures, entire civilizations to be exact? And isn’t it equally the case that books were primed by their social, ideological, and aesthetic matrices? Without belabouring the point, Papyrus is a history of book making (as material artefacts). At the same time, it is a comprehensive series of highly engaging, eminently readable accounts of, among other things, the conditions that enabled and informed the writing of histories. What would our understanding of the world be like today, it prompts us to ask, if circumstances had been different: if the Bible had never been written down, let’s say, or the piercing insights of Herodotus, Thucydides, or Cicero, Livy, Josephus, Tacitus, and Plutarch had been lost to us for lack of requisite materials or the proper care and attention of archivists?
Not surprisingly, Papyrus crystallizes the role of libraries in the ancient world, as privileged spaces for learning and the conservation of scrolls. Of note is that even then libraries only existed because they were funded by enlightened rulers of kingdoms or empires in the ancient Near/Middle East. The Ptolemaic pharaohs of Egypt were persuaded by Athenian expats to finance the building of and curatorial activities of the Great Library of Alexandria (by no means the first library, though by far the largest in its time) between the last quarter of the fourth century BCE and the first quarter of the third century BCE. Vallejo’s Papyrus offers lively narratives, drawn from an array of sources (historical records, Greek plays, archeological findings, and surviving art). These help us imagine ancient Alexandria as a dynamic cultural hub. The Great Library transformed Alexandria, making the city and its environs more populous, diverse, commercialized, prosperous, and exciting, much as a modern metropolis excites us today.
The slides above the podium where Dr. Vallejo was speaking transitioned from images of cuneiform tablets, to ancient scrolls (made of papyrus or leather, the latter in use as early 8th century BCE), to wax tablets or cerae (in use as far back as the 13th century BCE), to Roman codices, some small enough to be considered pocket-sized. The codex, achieved a currency equal to that of the scroll by 300 AD, and vastly outnumbered it by the 6th century. Codices, as Dr. Vallejo explained, were compact, unlike scrolls; they could be easily hidden, read and disseminated surreptitiously. Dr. Vallejo compared this new context, which became crucial to the transmission of Christian beliefs to reading a book in the dark with the aid of a small flashlight; such reading was forbidden, but it happened nonetheless. One can easily imagine how, with their novel and appealing form, codices made it both possible and compelling to read the story of Jesus.
Other intriguing historical tidbits leavened Dr. Vallejo’s narrativizing, helping to make the ancient past tangible. She explained for example that the shift from papyrus to vellum or parchment for scrolls and codices became expedient when Egypt, the sole exporter of papyrus in the ancient world, made the price of papyrus exorbitant. Egypt had a monopoly on the production of writing material, and controlled its availability and cost, much as oil-producing countries today conspire to control the price per barrel of oil. The Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, some more rapacious than others, would periodically raise prices or restrict exports. Dr. Vallejo pointed out that by the start of the second century BCE, the Attalid kingdom of Pergamon (in Asia Minor or modern-day Turkey) dealt with the papyrus scarcity by introducing and manufacturing vellum or parchment as an alternative. After Dr. Vallejo’s presentation, as I researched Egypt’s long-lasting monopoly on papyrus, I discovered that the Attalid King Eumenes II (197-159 BCE) had built his own large library in Pergamon. Modelled after the Library of Alexandria, it housed some 200,000 scrolls and became a centre of learning in its own right (hence the need in Pergamon for a steady supply of ‘paper’). The Ptolemies furnished their library with papyrus for free or at a nominal price, thereby guaranteeing that the Library of Alexandria would remain the largest and most sought after by scholars. According to Gustave Glotz, Ptolemy VIII, also known as Euergetes II or Physcon (182 BCE – 116 BCE), grew jealous of the Pergamon library’s high repute, and capriciously prohibited the export of papyrus altogether. He went so far as to destroy papyrus farms to control supply. I have to assume that this was the first instance of interlibrary rivalry.
Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World complements a particular trend in scholarship related to book history. This trend reflects a “democratization” or widening of the scope of inquiry, and is associated with a more inclusive approach to studying book production. The aim is to accommodate both a broader range of texts and a larger number of actors (some previously overlooked) involved in producing them. In “Everywhere and Nowhere: The Sociology of Literature After ‘the Sociology of Literature’” (2010), James English explains this newer sociological branch and its intention to shed light on “the hidden or forgotten producers of culture.” Such scholarship addresses what John Sutherland, in “Publishing History: A Hole at the Centre of Literary Sociology” (1988), described as literary sociology’s “scholarly ignorance about book trade and publishing technicalities” (Sutherland quoted in English viii – ix). Yet Papyrus, in its orientation toward new social history and narrative history, goes considerably further. It informs and entertains. It draws on previously overlooked sources, many of them unanticipated. It highlights the socio-economic and technological transformations that altered bookmaking, writing, and readerships. It does all of this in a style (distinctly literary) and manner (nonacademic) that makes this book appealing to any reader interested in cultural history.
The titles of the two parts in Papyrus speak volumes about the extensive mesh of activity surrounding and enabling book production and consumption. No less significant are the contributions women made to the evolution of the book. Papyrus is divided into two parts. Some of the chapters in Part I are titled as follows (note that there are many more that I’m not mentioning): “Voices from the Mist, Uncertain Times,” “A Man with a Prodigious Memory and a Group of Avant-Garde Girls,” “Women, Weavers of Stories,” “The Drama of Laughter: Our Debt to Rubbish Dumps.” Part two of Papyrus has these chapters: “Poor Writers, Rich Readers,” “Public Libraries in Palaces of Water,” “What Is a Classic,” “Shards of Women’s Voices,” “Dare to Remember.” Fittingly, Papyrus ends with “Epilogue: Forgotten Men, Anonymous Women.” I hope readers will purchase Papyrus or borrow a copy from a library to see for themselves that Irene Vallejo is a vibrant weaver of stories, and furthermore, that her genealogy of the book recovers voices, thoughtfully recuperating them from the mists of bygone eras.
* * *
Miriam Toews began by reading from the opening section of her latest novel, Fight Night. The narrator, nine-year-old Swiv, is for all intents and purposes being home-schooled. Swiv is foul-mouthed, quick-witted, and too aware for her age. She stays at home, where she’s being educated by her octogenarian, irreverent Mennonite grandmother, and her smart and acerbic mother, who is pregnant and single. Swiv’s grandmother answers her inquiry about her father’s whereabouts, “Men…They come and they —.”
Men aren’t a big part of the picture in Fight Night. The novel mostly features three women from three generations of the same family. They manage to fend for themselves by dint of their intelligence, quick wit, and unconditional trust in each other. The female protagonists in Fight Night do a great deal of talking, as well as laughing, chaffing other folks and each other. That sort of spirit — found in smart, questioning women who refuse to keep quiet about what they think and feel — is by now a familiar part of Toews’ s fiction. One might say that it’s characteristic of Toews’s oeuvre as whole.
After her reading, Toews told Solie that Fight Night was inspired by actual interactions with members of her family. Her house in Toronto is a multigenerational home she shares with her mother, Elvira, and other members of the family. Fight Night’s protagonists are outspoken and quirky. So is Toews. She confessed, when prodded at the start of the Q&A, that with age, she has become less inhibited, less hesitant about being herself with her children and grandchildren.
The author’s family never abandoned their sense of humour, despite turmoil and tragedy. According to Toews, Mennonites on the whole rely on humour, much as other cultural or ethnic groups do. Their wit tends to be wry, she explained. When asked by Solie, she conceded that she views humour as useful on a deeper level, which is something I understand fully as a Jewish woman with a penchant for self-deprecation. Later, when I read Alexandra Schwarz’s lengthy profile of Toews (published by the The New Yorker in March, 2019), I saw that Toews taps a particular brand of wit; it’s one that combines sly, quick repartee with irreverence. In “A Beloved Canadian Novelist Reckons with Her Mennonite Past: How Miriam Toews left the church and freed her voice,” Schwarz elaborates: “There is a Plautdietsch term [that is, in the Low German spoken by Mennonites], schputting, for irreverence directed at serious or sacred things….Toews is a schputter; she likes to puncture anything that has a whiff of pretension or self-importance about it.”
Karen Solie has a tremendous knack for steering conversations, without constraining them. Her next question delicately touched on religion. It was appropriate, given that Toews hails from a community whose religious practice is fundamentalist. When Toews was growing up, religion informed every dimension of its members’ lives. Consequently, faith enters into each and every one of Toews’s books, albeit often in ways that aren’t positive. With her third novel, A Complicated Kindness (2004), Toews took aim at the Mennonite community she came from, its rigidly patriarchal structure, the hypocrisy of its elders, and the intolerance shown toward anyone considered not deferential enough to its rules. Toews appears to have been writing books in part as a challenge to the entrenched authority she saw affecting every member of her family. In this respect, she has made herself part of a long tradition of book writing and publishing — one that contests institutional power. That she did this as a Mennonite woman from a community that has religiously worked to control, diminish, and silence women, makes her literary achievements that much more remarkable and important. I’ve been told by several women of Mennonite descent that Toews has helped pave the way for their writing, the kind that pulls no punches concerning their own experience of oppression.
During the Q&A, Toews denied being religious herself, but she made an interesting point about Elvira. Her mother has faith. Toews stated that she doesn’t understand how it works for her, but she admires her mother for it. She admitted that she herself is fortified by her mother’s strength, the strength Elvira derives from her personal faith and certain aspects of Mennonite culture.
Elvira takes pride in her heritage. In Schwarz’s profile, Elvira talks about her family’s line of descent, its genealogy. The Mennonites were from Friesland originally, but moved to Russia to avoid persecution, and then escaped being massacred by the Bolsheviks during the Communist Revolution. Elvira’s ancestors lived through many dangerous periods. Reading Schwarz’s profile one week after the Q&A, it occurs to me that the Steinbach community and their “book,” the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, which codified Mennonite beliefs in 1632, also represent stories of survival, the kind that animate Irene Vallejo’s Papyrus.
In Solie’s question there is an underlying reference to the human capacity to keep going, sometimes despite tragedy. Toews depicts this resolve to survive, rebuild lives over and over again in her novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Elvira appears there in the guise of the fictional narrator’s mother, Lottie. In fiction and in real life, Elvira survived her husband’s suicide, her older daughter’s repeated attempts to end her life, her sister’s unexpected death after open-heart surgery (this too appears in All My Puny Sorrows), and, ultimately, her daughter’s passing. In All My Puny Sorrows, Lottie keeps going, with her faith and humour intact. In Fight Club, Swiv’s grandmother does schputting of her own, if we are to trust the version of Elvira that appears there. Writing a pretend letter to her absent father, Swiv says of her grandmother: “She said she misses Grandpa. She said that by the time she gets to heaven he’ll probably have left.”
The illness and death Toews lived through after losing her older sister Marjorie, was crushing. She mentioned this during the Q&A. Yet she also acknowledged that her resolve to send letters to Marjorie was one of the reasons she started writing in the first place. She hoped to bolster her ailing sister. Marjorie Toews, as many Canadian readers know by now, ended her life in 2010, in the same way her father did 12 years earlier. Melvin C. Toews was bipolar. Both Mel and Marjorie spent decades battling depression. Miriam Toews wants to foster a better understanding of mental illness. She dedicated her one book of non-fiction to Mel. Swing Low: A Life is a memoir Toews wrote in her father’s voice.
There were other factors motivating Toews to write, however. In 2010, she read about the serial rape of more than 130 women, some of them mere children, in a Plautdietsch Mennonite community in Bolivia. These rapes occurred over the course of five years. Nine men were eventually arrested, and later received lengthy jail sentences, including the man who supplied the anesthetic gas (used by farmers on large livestock) that knocked out their victims, preventing them from knowing what had happened and who was responsible. The novel, Women Talking, uses findings from the police investigation. Its film adaptation, the intense, impassioned movie made by Sarah Polley, won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay on March 12. When the Q&A veered toward the recognition the film and Polley received, Toews said that she was very pleased for Polley. She was also happy that as a consequence of the Oscar these women’s story was getting public attention. As for the writing of Women Talking — a fictionalized account of women who were violated in the worst way, and, afterwards, pressured by the men in their community to not duly punish the perpetrators — that, Toews confessed, nearly killed her.
Women Talking is a novel about actual victims of mass rape. The novel imagines the Bolivian Mennonite women’s predicament, their terror, pain, and fury. Toews said that writing it was extremely hard on her; it caused heart pains. She kept writing because she felt she had to give these women voices, to speak their rage for them. That was something she knew didn’t happen in the real ultraconservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia. Women Talking is a kind of testimony, then, written by an author who has seen enough to know that crimes of this nature could be perpetrated against women in Mennonite communities and later swept under the proverbial rug. Toews mentioned that after completing Women Talking, she craved a project with some levity. That’s how Fight Club with its young and funny protagonist was conceived. It was an antidote of sorts to the exhaustion that came with writing Women Talking.
After the Q&A, someone in the audience asked Toews how she felt about the screen adaptations of her novels. Toews responded by pointing out that Women Talking and All My Puny Sorrows are very different productions, budget-wise, directorially and thematically. She added that she grasps fully that the texts of novels and films shouldn’t be compared, and that she has kept herself open-minded. In fact, she added that she’s often pleasantly surprised by the new meanings the film versions generate.
Several nights after Solie and Toews’s Q&A, I set down to watch All My Puny Sorrows. The film, available on Crave, turned out to be wonderful — intelligently scripted and superbly acted. Toward the end of film, we see Yoli (Alison Pill) and Lottie (Mare Winningham) in the home the now deceased Elf or Elfrieda (Sarah Gadon) shared with her husband. They’re speaking with Nic to try and understand how it happened. He explains that he left Elf alone because she had asked him to go to the library for her. Lottie responds, “Libraries and civilization….She believed Libraries were the bedrock of civilization.”
Later still, after Elf’s funeral, Yoli and Lottie recollect that Jake, Lottie’s husband and Yoli’s and Elf’s father, had tried to start a library in their town. The Mennonite elders objected. “But he persisted,” Lottie recounts, and “completely out of character, refused to back down, insist[ing] that it was important to the community.” Ultimately, he founded the East Village Public Library. “He was so proud,” Yoli remembers. “It makes me want to cry even now just thinking about it.”
English, James F. “Everywhere and Nowhere: The Sociology of Literature After ‘the Sociology of Literature.’” New Literary History, vol. 41, no. 2, 2010, pp. v–xxiii, https://doi.org/10.1353/nlh.2010.0005.
Glotz, Gustave. “The Price of Papyrus in Ancient Antiquity.” Translated by Mitchell Abidor. Annales d’histore économique et sociale. 1929, Vol 1, no. 1. Marxists.org 2009. https://www.marxists.org/history/france/annales/1929/price-papyrus.htm#n6
Schwarz, Alexandra. “A Beloved Canadian Novelist Reckons with Her Mennonite Past: How Miriam Toews left the church and freed her voice.” The New Yorker. 18 Mar. 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/25/a-beloved-canadian-novelist-reckons-with-her-mennonite-past
Sutherland, John. “Publishing History: A Hole at the Centre of Literary Sociology.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 14, no. 3, 1988, pp. 574–89. https://doi.org/10.1086/448457.
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Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
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