“…perhaps my mother is a conceptual artist…”—Terry Tempest Williams
The night I planned to attend a fundraiser for feminist bookstores in Canada and the US at the now defunct Toronto Women’s Bookstore, I gave up, which is a shame because I wanted to blog about the event. Once I heard the performer—already half an hour late—would be at least another half hour late, I walked to a different independent bookstore in frustration. Cheekily, I found myself drawn to a book there whose theme is the absence of content.
Terry Tempest Williams’ memoir, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (Sarah Crichton Books, 2012) is the author’s heartfelt attempt to extract meaning from three shelves’ worth of empty journals bequeathed to her by her mother. Even more curious is the fact that on her deathbed, Diane Dixon Tempest made her daughter promise not to read them while Diane was alive.
At first, I wondered if the empty journals were too simple a metaphor for the female experience. The day I started reading When Women Were Birds, I caught the holiday classic, The Sound of Music, on television. My ears perked up when Rolf—the dashing but dastardly suitor of 16-year-old Liesl—sang, “Your life, little girl, is an empty page that men will want to write on.” I stand corrected: the metaphor is indeed apropos.
The premise is introduced immediately, with Diane dying right away, so the reader doesn’t get a chance to become attached to Diane or to feel Terry’s loss. It works because on the surface, the book is a tribute to her mother, but ultimately it is an autobiography, not a biography. Williams portrays her mother not as a solitary character but as a partner. Their bond is touching but arguably idealized with memories like her mother drawing a rose petal bath for Terry at the onset of menstruation.
A feminist memoir, When Women Were Birds is about finding a voice—as a Morman woman, as a near victim of a male strangler, and as a former teacher who was almost fired for being an environmentalist.
Art provides a backdrop for her musings, from having a meaningful conversation while walking along Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty to contemplating the act of confession in an Italian church with Domenico Ghirlandaio paintings. Works like Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings and Kazimir Malevich’s White on White function as a more direct vehicle for interpretation too. She concludes, “…perhaps my mother is a conceptual artist…” (p. 60).
The central motif is not art, but birds. As much as the book is a tribute to Terry’s mother, it is a tribute to ornithology. The characters in ancient Nushu (translated from Chinese as ‘women’s writing’) she describes, in which a bird’s head and a woman’s head share the same symbol, make Terry’s contemporary symbolism seem somehow predestined. In the book, birds take on a mystical role: Terry meets her husband at a bookstore because of their shared love of field guides, and she sees a hummingbird—her African friend’s favourite bird—when she learns of her death. When she quotes Jenny Holzer’s truism, “Myths make reality more intelligible,” it’s fitting.
It is beautifully written: the prose morphs into poetry and stream of consciousness with confidence. Its design is also noteworthy. The front and back inside cover feature an image of overlaid feathers in greyscale, with a mock label at the front that beckons the reader with, “THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO ____________________.” Additionally, 12 empty pages follow the author’s discovery of the enigmatic journals totaling 54, the age at which her mother died.
With the New Year upon us, I’d like to close by quoting a friend of the author. Stephen Trimble co-published Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness, a chapbook designed for Congress, with Terry. Not knowing Bill Clinton would single it out for its significance, a member of the press told Trimble that the book was a waste of time. He responded, “Writing is always an act of faith” (p. 143).
Image: reproduced in 2019 via fair use/dealing. Source: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250024114