When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams New York: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp.
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
“Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.”
— Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence (1967)
What do blank pages mean? Do they have a voice?
Terry Tempest Williams explores that conundrum in her latest book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice.
Williams is author of the classic Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. That thoughtful memoir of grief detailed the effects of radioactive fallout from a nuclear weapons test site in Nevada on her large Mormon family in Utah. Her mother, and many in her clan, developed cancer after the fallout drifted their way. Williams wrote of her mother’s death in Refuge.
Now, in When Women Were Birds, her mother appears again.
“I’m leaving you all my journals,” she tells Williams from her deathbed, asking her daughter not to look at them until after she’s gone. On the next full moon, a month after her mother dies, Williams decides the time is right to read the journals.
“They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors.”
As she begins to open the volumes though, Williams sees they are all blank—page after page of deafening silence. What was her mother trying to say?
Noise pollution has made it increasingly difficult to find even one square inch of silence on our planet, although a spot in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park is designed to do just that. Yet these empty journals are not quite the silence Williams expected to find in her mother’s absence.
“Silence” is defined as quietness: not speaking—either intentionally or through suppression. “Voice,” on the other hand, usually refers to a sound made using vocal organs, or to singing. It can also mean an expressed opinion, or the right to state that opinion. “Voice” is speaking.
Williams wonders whether a person needs to write in order to have a voice. Then, in fifty-four brief chapters, she mulls over the answer. Williams begins to consider the blank page almost as a glass filled halfway with water. Does one call it half full or half empty? She ponders whether her mother meant for her to fill in the blanks, so she starts to write in the journals herself.
“Empty pages become possibilities,” she realizes.
Williams has often combined thoughts on nature and writing. In another book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, Williams wrote of the significance of the desert as a landscape of minimalism.
“I want to write my way from the margins to the center,” she said there, and included an entire chapter on why she writes.
Whenever Williams contemplates the act of writing, she imparts a legacy to other writers—those who string together letters to form words and then place them alongside one another to give shape to thoughts that, when viewed en masse, cause something called a “book” to develop.
When Women Were Birds is not a book only for writers though, nor even one gender. In typical Williams fashion, the book is about so much more.
Author Margaret Atwood once said, “Powerlessness and silence go together.” As Williams contemplates voice, or the lack thereof, she offers a stellar reflection on politics, poetry, and power—as well as nature, art, music, love, creation, mother-daughter relationships, truth and imagination, birth and death . . . confrontation of mortality.
She works in Wallace Stevens, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Walser, and many other creative thinkers. She realizes “words fail us.”
Terry Tempest Williams uses her mother’s empty journals to hear her mother’s voice. What she listens to resounds far more eloquently than if each page had been filled to the margins.
“A mother speaks to her children through the generations,” she sees, and the stirring narrative Williams imagines will echo for a long time to come.
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Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.