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Southwest Book Review: ‘When Women Were Birds’ by Terry Tempest Williams

What does it mean to have a voice? That’s the question Terry Tempest Williams tries to answer in her illuminating book, ‘When Women Were Birds’. It begins with the shock of discovering that the journals her mother kept until her death were completely empty. Williams had to find her own voice to deal with the loss. In KNAU’s latest Southwest Book Review, Mary Sojourner reflects on process of finding one’s authentic voice.

It was 1991 and I’d lived in Flagstaff for five years, but from the first moment I’d stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon,  and the first year I walked and re-walked the forest near my cabin till I knew the limestone outcroppings and Ponderosa as intimately as the backs of my hands, I knew I’d been taken in by the natural earth. I wondered if there were other women who felt the way I did.

Later, as I finished reading Terry Tempest-Williams’ “When Women Were Birds” and reflected on so many of her other deeply written books: “Refuge, Desert Quartet; The Open Space of Democracy,” I knew I was not alone in feeling myself a child of the earth—not just a daughter ideologically, but cellularly.

Terry Tempest-Williams and I have been marked by our lives, both nourished and diminished by the environmental battles we have fought—and the knowledge the western earth is still too often scarred by greed. Nonetheless, much survives:  deep questions, deep answers and the kind of deep sisterhood that transcends time.  She and I talked about “When Women Were Birds,” a book that emerged from a painful bequeathal from her dead mother. Terry was left three shelves full of her mother's journals. When she opened each one, the pages were blank. The writer did that which would revive her—she took up a pencil and wrote. “The blow of her blank journals became a second death." Terry wrote memories of intricate family and marriage ties; of enduring unimaginable terrors; of immersing herself in crazy love and, always, fighting for the earth. When I finished the book, I felt as though I had been taken into a rich and complex weaving—not of threads—but a braided river. I asked Terry how she felt when she had risen from that river at the end of the writing.

She told me that she believed that any book worth writing is the book that threatens to kill you, in other words, transformation must occur within the writer. If the writer is changed in the process, the reader will be, also. "I entered the waters agitated with questions," she said. “My mother left me her journals and all her journals were blank … Why? When I stepped out of the writing river, I left the waters with a sense of peace and calm, still carrying the questions in my heart, but this time as a prayer, “May I begin each day with the wisdom and terror of the empty page.”

"You speak of velocity," I said. "A fierce desert wind blows through ‘When Women Were Birds.’ Blank pages rise from the sand like scraps of ash. How did your mother's daughter step into the maelstrom and collect those fragile pages?"

Terry answered,  "Honestly, I don’t know.  I just followed them, piece by piece, page by page, one foot in front of the other.   With faith.  With hunger.  And with longing."

Mary Sojourner is the author of three novels: Sisters of the Dream Northland Publishers, 1989; Going Through Ghosts, University of Nevada Press, 2010 and 29, Torrey House Press, 2014; the short story collection, Delicate, Nevermore Press, 2001 and Scribner, 2004; essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest University of Nevada Press, 2002 and 2004; memoir, Solace: rituals of loss and desire, Scribner, 2004; and memoir/self-help guide, She Bets Her Life, Seal Press, 2010. She has been a ten-year NPR commentator and now reviews books for KNAU’s Southwest Book Reviews. She’s the author of op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network and dozens of other publications. She was chosen as a Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2007 by the Virginia C. Piper Center for Creative Writing, ASU.
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