15 February 2013
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her: “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.”
Readers of Williams’s iconic and unconventional memoir, Refuge, well remember that mother. She was one of a large Mormon clan in northern Utah who developed cancer as a result of the nuclear testing in nearby Nevada. It was a shock to Williams to discover that her mother had kept journals. But not as much of a shock as what she found when the time came to read them.
“They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books . . . I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It too was empty . . . Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals were blank.” What did Williams’s mother mean by that? In fifty-four chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother's journals. When Women Were Birds is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question “What does it mean to have a voice?”
I honestly can't give a review of When Women Were Birds that is anything but OMIGODYOUMUSTBUYANDREADTHISNOWNOWNOWNOW. The description on the flap copy gave me goosebumps and I sat down to read this in one sitting. Then I read it over again. Everyone has to read this. Every. One.
The actual sentence-level writing is the absolute best I've read in a long time, a master-class in narrative non-fiction. Some of the variations are biographical (the grandmother who shared her love of birdwatching), some are autobiographical (Williams's remembrance of teaching school or developing conservation efforts), and some really defy definition. A poetic essay? Memoir? Philosophical musings on the choice her mother made to secretly break with the tradition of keeping a diary? Collected together they create beauty.
When Women Were Birds is a book I will come back to again and again at different points in my life. The paperback edition, newly released, is my staff rec and I've been chasing customers and booksellers alike, pressing it upon them. Voice, choice, and memory. Mind-blowing.
Dear FTC: This is my copy that I bought and love and in an amazing twist of fate sent with a friend to Terry Tempest Williams's reading at Prairie Lights were she inscribed it to me.