"I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won't look at them until after I'm gone." What author Terry Tempest Williams (Crossing to Safety; Refuge) found in those three bookshelves of beautifully-bound journals would dramatically reshape her own life. When Women Were Birds unfolds its inspiriting lessons in fifty-four self-contained chapters.
Williams, the sensitive author of Refuge, is shocked to discover her deceased mother’s unwritten memoirs—shelves worth of blank pages. Under such unpromising circumstances commences a kaleidoscopic celebration and palimpsest—all metaphorical clichés but apt—on finding a voice and woman’s identity beyond the silenced, selfless existence informed by children and a husband—even a family brimming with love. The empty pages of a journal manifest a hermeneutics of suspicion: the white upon which to project a lifelong journey of self-discovery. In 54 meditations (one for each year of her mother’s life, and of Williams’s life to date), we learn about an unusual (patriarchal) Mormon background and an upbringing that included a season of homeschooling in Hawaii, encounters with a husband-and-wife team of John Birchers while teaching high school biology , a job at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the meeting of her future mate over a discussion of books and birds. Among deep influences are Nobel Peace Prize–winner and environmentalist Wangari Maathai; Hélène Cixous; Clarice Lispector; the secret-women’s language of China, Nüshu; and the soaring operas of Richard Strauss. “If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently,” Williams declares in her bighearted, deliberative hymn: old themes newly warbled. Agent: Carl Brandt, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents. (Apr.)
An elegiac exploration of nature, creativity and Mormon female family relationships. After her mother's death from cancer, Williams (Finding Beauty in a Broken World, 2008, etc.) discovered that the journals she had left behind did not contain what she expected. This prompted the author to conduct a reflective search. In numbered sections of varying lengths, memories intersperse with mentions of the journals, whose "harmony of silence" haunt her as a poetic refrain. Williams recalls her bird-watching grandmother, Mimi, her mother's originality, and events that would guide her toward becoming a writer and a naturalist. Declaring that "Mormon women write. This is what we do, we write for posterity, noting the daily happenings of our lives," Williams considers the work of, among others, Gustave Courbet, Robert Walser, John Cage and Wangari Maathai ("People like Wangari don't die, that's how irretractable and resilient she was to me"); music and birdsong; poetry; creation myths; birth; personal accounts of marriage and work; and the importance of empowerment both as a woman and as a wildlife advocate. She draws intelligent connections between varied subjects, with emphasis on voice and silence and how the two richly inform one's inner life. Over the course of several decades, the ability "to speak through our vulnerability with strength" became a hard-won realization. A graceful examination of how grief inspires a writer to merge private and public interests.
From the Publisher
“Williams displays a Whitmanesque embrace of the world and its contradictions....As the pages accumulate, her voice grows in majesty and power until it become a full-fledged aria.” San Francisco Chronicle
“This poetic memoir continues the work Williams began in Refuge....Williams explores her mother's identity--woman, wife, mother, and Mormon--as she continues to honor her memory....A lyrical and elliptical meditation on women, nature, family, and history.” The Boston Globe
“Williams is the kind of writer who makes a reader feel that [her] voice might also, one day, be heard….She cancels out isolation: Connections are woven as you sit in your chair reading---between you and the place you live, between you and other readers, you and the writer. Without knowing how it happened, your sense of home is deepened.” Susan Salter Reynolds, The Daily Beast
“Time, experience, and uncanny coincidence spiral through these pages….When Women Were Birds is an extraordinary echo chamber in which lessons about voice--passed along from mother, to daughter, and now to us--will reverberate differently in each inner ear.” The Seattle Times
“A beautiful, powerful, important book….Nothing I've ever read has done this to me. Is this what religious people feel when they pray, I wonder? ...Terry Tempest Williams has written something that has revealed me and affirmed me and changed me. In sharing her voice, she has summoned mine.” Rebecca Joines Schinsky, Book Riot
“In some ways When Women Were Birds functions as a detective story, an attempt to solve a mystery. But it's also a realization that often there are no answers…there's only the present.” The Salt Lake Tribune
“A lyrical, timeless book that rewards quiet, attentive reading--a rare thing.” The Huffington Post
“At some point I realized I was reading every page twice trying to memorize each insight, each bit of hard-won wisdom. Then I realized I could keep it on my bedside table and read it every night.” Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted
Read an Excerpt
When Women Were Birds Fifty-four Variations on Voice
By Terry Tempest Williams
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2012 Terry Tempest Williams
All right reserved.
WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS (Chapter 1)
I AM FIFTY-FOUR YEARS OLD, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mother's tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in thesame way she was living, consciously.
"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."
I gave her my word. And then she told me where theywere. I didn't know my mother kept journals.
A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.
On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. 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.
WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS Copyright 2012 by Terry Tempest Williams
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