When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams

Title: When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
Author: Terry Tempest Williams
Pages: 208
Originally Published: 2012
Format I Read: Hardback
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Rating: [rating:4]

As I mentioned in my review of Refuge, I have the privilege of interviewing Terry Tempest Williams as part of Utah Book Month. In preparation for the interview, I read Refuge and Ms. Williams’s latest work, When Women Were Birds. Reading the two books together worked really well for me. Many of the themes are similar, as are some of the narrative threads.

But, of course, When Women Were Birds is its very own book. It starts out with this intriguing premise:

“I am leaving you all my journals,” she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. “But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.”
. . .
They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth – shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother’s journals were blank. (3-4)

Intriguing, heart-breaking, fascinating, right? The entire book is Williams trying to understand the message her mother left her – in fifty-four variations on voice. It is painfully exquisite. It’s broad and global and personal and small. I really just loved it. But I’ll let it speak for itself:

A mother and daughter are an edge. Edges are ecotones, transitional zones, places of danger or opportunity. House-dwelling tension. When I stand on the edge of land and sea, I feel this tension, this fluid line of transition. (20)

When silence is a choice, it is an unnerving presence. When silence is imposed, it is censorship. (25)

When my period came for the first time, I called Mother from school. I was in the eighth grade.
“It’s here,” I said.
“I’ll be right there,” she replied.
Once home, she made me a bath of rose petals. (49-50)

Democracy demands we speak and act outrageously. (144)

I am not Louis’s mother, but I have become a mother, which is an unspoken agreement to be forever vulnerable. (170)

Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated. (205)

It’s a beautiful book.

When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams [rating:4]

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