Terry Tempest Williams is an essayist, environmentalist, author, advocate, connection maker. She’s fascinated by what divides and what connects us—to one another and to the earth. Refuge, which Williams called an unnatural history of family and place, has become a literary classic alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Her latest, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, starts with an investigation of her mother’s mysterious journals and spirals into a meditation on silence, secrets and voice. What does all of this have to do with politics, rebellion and social change? Everything. Market capitalism commodifies labor and land, splitting our work from the rest of our lives, and our land from our communities. Terry Tempest Williams refuses to choose between the personal and the political, the practical and the poetic. On behalf of us all she demands the right to be whole—and never more powerfully than in her new book.
You can see video of our entire conversation at GRITtv.org. Here’s a rough transcript of our conversation:
LF: Does that sound about right: you as connection maker?
TTW: It’s how I see the world. We are so used to fragmenting, compartmentalizing, putting things in silos and that’s not how the world is. I think it is the pattern that connects that gives us the power to see the world whole.
When Women Were Birds starts with the mystery of your mother’s journals. She left you her journals, but they weren’t what you expected.
No, and it’s taken me twenty-five years to come to terms with that. Literally, the week before my mother died, I was rubbing her back in bed and she said, “Terry I’m leaving you my journals but you have to promise you won’t look at them until I’m gone.” I gave her my word. She passed. A month later, I found myself in the family house. There they were, just where she said they’d be, all beautifully bound, cloth journals. I thought, finally now, I’ll know what my mother was thinking. I opened the first one. Empty. I opened the second one empty. The third, the fourth, the fifth, sixth—all of my mother’s journals were blank.
What did you make of that, to begin?
I think I was so stunned. I kept going through them, trying to figure out what she was trying to say to me. It was so deliberate. I think at the time I was so grief stricken by her death that I couldn’t afford to think about it. I just gathered up her journals, took them home, and for years and years I wrote in them, unceremoniously.
All these years on, you find yourself the same age your mother was when she died, and you decide to revisit this story, but instead of weaving one narrative you give us a book of “54 Variations on Voice.” Why that structure?