When I was visiting Longfellow Books in Portland, I had missed a visit from Terry Tempest Williams by a week. I was disappointed, because I had heard nothing but good things about Williams’ nonfiction writing style, her ability to capture nature and scholarship in meditative, poetic essays. She’s been on my to-read list for a long time, and it would have been cool to hear her talk about her new book, The Hour of Land, described as “a literary celebration of our national parks.” But the good news is that she had left other books behind, and one of them was the book I had heard hailed as a beautiful, indefinable, innovative work, a staple of what we currently understand as “creative nonfiction.” And indeed, I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to adequately review When Women Were Birds. I suspect it’s going to take me several readings over the course of my life to feel like I can fully see all of the complexities and nuance of this book, to reduce it to its parts and explain how it functions. In the meantime, bear with me, because this book was so good.
When Women Were Birds opens with the death of Williams’ mother. Before she died, she told Williams about a collection of journals she was passing on to Williams, but warned not to look at them until after she had passed. Upon her mother’s death, Williams turns to the journals, expecting to find her mother’s memories, intimate thoughts, and a narrative of her life. But that isn’t what happens–instead, the journals are completely blank, every single one. This revelation shocks Williams, and the entire book is her attempt to grapple with what the blank journals mean. It becomes a meditation on what it means to have a voice, specifically as a woman, and how that voice is shaped, oppressed, and harnessed throughout one’s life. In this examination emerges a memoir, both of Williams and her mother, strung together of reflections and moments that don’t follow a linear path, but rather bubble up like natural thought–the book itself reads like a journal.
And honestly, that’s pretty much all I can say about this book. Even writing a “plot summary” was a struggle. This book is a tangle of layers, themes, and experiences. It’s threaded with moments from Williams’ life that were completely familiar to me as a woman, as well as moments from her Mormon upbringing that were completely new to me. Williams dips into mythology and folklore, making pieces of this book read like literary criticism. She also writes about the natural world and the environmental politics that have become her life’s passion. This variety feels authentic to the concept of voice, which in this book becomes a metonymy for agency, personality, passions, and, sometimes, literal words, both written and spoken. Williams writes about how her voice was shaped as well as what it wants to say (or keep silent), and all of it takes place in conversation with her mother’s voice, which speaks even through the blank pages of the journals.
In the spirit of this book, I have written this review in a similar fashion, attempting to cobble together my thoughts and memories of it as they come. I read this book over the course of two days, and it was more of an experiential process than any book I’ve read in a long time. I feel a bit incoherent trying to capture that experience; I encourage you to simply try it out for yourself.