When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice: A Memoir by Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams’s new memoir begins with this stark, bleached declaration: “I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died.” The mother had bequeathed to the daughter six journals that all turned out to be blank. Not a shadow of a word on any of those pages — pages that Williams describes as “paper tombstones.” Pages that also signal an act of defiance in Mormon culture where “women are expected to do two things: keep a journal and bear children. Both gestures are a participatory bow to the past and future.”

This poetic memoir continues the work Williams, a naturalist and Utah writer, began in “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,’’ which interweaved the story of her mother’s unsuccessful battle with cancer with a record-shattering rise of the Great Salt Lake and its destructive effect on a nearby bird refuge.

In “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice,’’ Williams explores her mother’s identity — woman, wife, mother, and Mormon — as she continues to honor her memory along with that of the string of women in her family who were stricken by breast cancer. In its 54 sections, one for each year of Williams’s and her mother’s lives, she recounts tales from her mother’s life and from her own in a lyrical and elliptical meditation on women, nature, family, and history.

It’s tempting to think of her mother’s legacy, the untouched journals, as tabulae rasae, blank slates. But Williams brings the literal translation of the Latin phrase to the forefront by inferring that her mother’s unwritten journals are erased slates — there are traces of feelings and dreams and wishes emphasized by William’s italics and capitalization of the word journal. “My Mother’s Journals are words wafting above the page.’’

Williams’s writing pays careful, crisp homage to her family who are “loyal citizens known as ‘downwinders’ ” — people who lived down wind of the Nevada nuclear test site, thus exposed to the radiation that resulted in her mother’s cancer. A year after her mother’s death in 1987, Williams protested at the site where atomic bombs were still being detonated in the desert. Her act of civil disobedience parallels her mother’s subversive act of leaving blank pages behind. The silences, the truths of women’s lives carry the power of an atom, she suggests. Williams quotes the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s famous lines: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

Williams traces the personal and artistic influences in her life. “My Mother’s Journals are a creation myth,” declares Williams. Diane Tempest’s empty diaries inspire her daughter to metaphorically fill them with a creation story of her own voice. Her mother’s blank pages offer wide-open spaces for an “unruly imagination” — an imagination that continuously invents stories and shapes memory. She considers her mother’s originality and the work of artists like John Cage and Gustave Courbet and activists like Wangari Maathai. Blank pages beckon Williams to reflect on her life as a daughter, a wife, an activist, and a teacher.

Toward the end of her memoir, Williams makes an exhaustive list of wondrous, exciting possibilities for the blank pages that include clean sheets, white flags of surrender, a white tablecloth not yet set, a scrim, a stage, reviews never written.

The blank pages of Diane Tempest’s journals are full of tacit praise and gleaming admiration for her daughter’s literary gifts — gifts that Williams further understands when she opens her mother’s journals and reads “emptiness, [that] translated to longing, that same hunger and thirst, Mother translated to me. I will rewrite this story, create my own story on the pages of my mother’s journals.”

And so she has written her story, her mother’s story, the story of her clan of one-breasted women by triumphing over the empty page every day.

This review was published in the April 12, 2012 edition of the Boston Globe

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