Terry Tempest Williams' latest book examines the authenticity of women's lives and the determination needed to share them honestly.
When Terry Tempest Williams’ mother was dying, she bequeathed her personal journals to her daughter. “I didn’t know my mother kept journals,” Williams said.
Months later, on the night of a full moon, Williams found the three shelves of clothbound diaries. She took them down, opened them one at a time: They were all blank.
“What was my mother trying to say to me?” Williams said in a recent interview. “Did she want me to fill them because she could not? Or were her blank journals an act of defiance within a culture, Mormon, that valued women’s record keeping? She continues to speak to me through her silences, a longing that she passed on to me.”
In her new book, “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice,” Williams uses that strange legacy to explore women’s voices — as writers, as mothers, as thinkers, as people in this world.
“To speak from one’s heart is to touch another’s heart,” she said. “To speak honestly, truthfully and boldly shatters complacency and encourages courageous actions.
“Each of us has a voice. It is more than our personal expression in the world, it is our offering of truth born out of authentic experience.”
Williams is best known for her strong and poetic writing on women, the environment and spirituality. She’ll be at Weyerhaeuser Chapel at Macalester College (sponsored by Common Good Books) on Monday, where she’ll talk about speaking up, dreaming, and why she always writes with a bowl of water at her side.
Q: Your new book explores women’s voices — early, motherly, silent, writerly. Why do you think this is an important topic to consider?
A: Women’s voices are changing the world, now more than ever before, from Eve Ensler and One Billion Rising, a global campaign to end violence to women; to Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was recently shot for speaking out on behalf of the educational rights of girls; to the power of our own mothers’ voices within the homes where we were raised.
Women’s voices are still silenced, discredited and undermined. Women still do not possess parity within leadership positions, be it in Congress or business or religious institutions.
Q: How do you think that women’s voices differ from men’s voices?
A: A woman’s voice is a voice of empathy, interconnected and interrelated, a call and a cry that can be both fierce and compassionate at once. When a woman speaks out, her voice is usually bound by the threads of injustice, sorrow and a desire for change. A woman’s voice asks that her children might flourish. A woman’s voice demands fairness. A woman speaks out of fear and necessity. It is beyond survival, it is rooted in life.
A woman’s voice is also joyous, a song upon the desert like water. It is rooted in real time and space, the work of mothers, families, communities. I believe each time a woman speaks, no matter her power or position, it originates from the secret quiverings of her heart. When one woman speaks, she gives other women the courage to speak. The question must be asked, “Who benefits when a woman remains silent?”
Q: Where are you right now?
A: I am sitting in the living room of my cousin’s home, which was our grandparents’ home in Salt Lake City, Utah, looking out over a very white landscape as it snows and snows. The large sycamore tree that we all climbed as children is still standing in the back yard and looms large as a place of safety, even through the pane-glass windows. A fire is burning. I have a cup of coffee next to me. My cousin is sitting across the room reading the Sunday New York Times.