When silence speaks volumes

Words off the Page  
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 3, 2013


LUMINARY Terry Tempest Williams is in town this week.

On her deathbed, Terry Tempest Williams's mother left her daughter three shelves of cloth-bound journals. When Williams opened them, hoping to find solace as well as perhaps some insight into her mother's soul, all she found was blank pages. Volumes of empty journals, bestowed as a final, inscrutable gift that Williams came to interpret in many ways — as an act of aggression, as a vessel for her own truths, as a mirror, and as a void.

In her latest book, released earlier this year in paperback, Williams (who speaks at Longfellow Books on May 2) dives from those stark white journal pages into the stories and revelations they call to mind. Woven together, these meditations comprise When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (Picador; $15), a surging and lyrical memoir of womanhood as influenced by nature and nurture.

A woman hears many voices over the course of her life: Her own, one hopes, and that of her mother, also those of her grandmother and great-grandmother and all the women who came before. Like birdsongs in a forest, these can be difficult to discern unless you truly listen. And here, Williams shows us how. Carried on waves of prose, we get to know Williams as a writer, an activist, a wife, a daughter, and an adopted mother; she asks us to join her on a journey of self-discovery and we do so, finding our own questions reflected in hers. In this book, even what is soundless has voice: silence, sorrow, intuition, death. These intangibles speak loudly, in fact — beseeching the women for whom this book is written to heed, to pay attention. "In a voiced community, we all flourish," she writes.

While much of Williams's book treats voice as a personal and internal concept, she doesn't neglect the global context, which is unsurprising given her status as a renowned thinker on social justice and environmental issues.

"We are engaged in two wars, big wars with big costs," she reminds us. "The only thing quiet about them is that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have remained largely hidden, denied except to those who are fighting them. This is our national lie, that somehow these wars exist outside of us. America's War on Terror has silenced us, turned us into sleepwalkers, not only unable to speak, but afraid to speak out. In times of war we can use our voices as a stay against those who are suffering. In times of war, survival depends on listening to that suffering."

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS | Thursday, May 2 @ 7 pm | Longfellow Books, One Monument Way, Portland | 207.772.4045 | longfellowbooks.com | coyoteclan.com

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