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Terry Tempest Williams is the kind of reader who writes "Yes!" in the margins of her favorite books. She is a writer who has made a career out of observing and disclosing. She has kept hundreds of journals, each one full of a life lived on the page.
It's important to know that bit of history before you know this: A week before dying, Williams' mother offered up a surprise. I'm leaving you all my journals, Diane Tempest told her daughter. But promise me you won't look at them until after I'm gone.
Williams didn't even know her mother kept journals and was thrilled at the prospect of reading them.
So, a few weeks after the funeral, under a full moon, she gathered all the volumes three shelves of clothbound books and opened them. And discovered that every page of every journal was blank.
The journals' empty pages were a blow almost as if her mother had died twice, Williams says but they were also a riddle. What was her mother saying by saying nothing?
That question is the backdrop and the essence of "When Women Were Birds," published in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It's Williams' 13th book, a memoir that in a sense takes off where her most famous book, "Refuge," ends.
Dreaming of silence • Williams grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a culture where keeping journals is as de rigueur as procreating. She and her husband, Brooke, chose not to have any children, but she has diligently kept journals since she was 8. Early on, she says, she realized the dilemma posed by such an enterprise: "Do I tell the truth on the page or disguise my feelings in words that will be understood only by me?"
By the time she was 13, her journals had become a way to wax poetic about nature. She remembers once reading a passage to her father, after an outing in the Uintahs with her grandmother that she duly and ecstatically recorded. Her father's succinct verdict: "A bit flowery."
He was similarly pragmatic when Williams initially wondered aloud about her mother's reasons for buying so many journals but never writing in them. "I think she was just lazy," John Tempest concluded. He has since come to appreciate, Williams says, how complex his wife's reasons might have been.
Diane Tempest died in 1987, when Williams was 31 and Tempest was 54. It was when Williams herself was 54 that she began exploring what the blank journals might mean, although "When Women Were Birds" began with a different goal, as she explained in a recent phone interview from her home in the Utah desert of Castle Valley.
As things are wont to do in Williams' life, the book's title came to her, unbidden and unexplained, in a dream.
Speaking her mind, discreetly • The dream inspired her to begin a bibliography of the books that, as she says, "allowed me to have a voice," from the "Peterson Field Guide to Birds" to Carole Maso's "Ava." "And then I realized that the books that influenced me as much as any were the ones I'd never really read, the blank journals my mother left me."
"When Women Were Birds" is, in part, an exploration of her mother's approach to life but in large measure is a reflection of the ways in which Williams herself has tried to walk the thin line between saying enough and saying too much.
Before she became a writer, she was a teacher at The Carden School in Salt Lake City. The school was run at the time by a conservative couple who blanched when Williams, hired when she was just 21, cut green construction paper into a banner that read "Biology: The Study of Life." Biology, the headmistress instructed her, "denotes sexual reproduction, and we will have none of that here at Carden." They were even more appalled when they thought she might be, shudder, an environmentalist.
Williams kept that job for five years, and in the process learned something about how to effectively, discreetly speak her mind. "The challenge was to impart large ecological concepts to young burgeoning minds in a language that wasn't a polemic, but woven into a compelling story."
The lesson has served her well, making her, along with Wendell Berry, "the most influential environmental essayists, from an artistic standpoint, that we have today," says Matt Rothschild, editor of "The Progressive,"the 103-year-old magazine where Williams now writes a monthly column.
And to hear her speak, says Rothschild, is equally arresting. A lot of people with deep convictions "want to scream at you," he says. "She does just the opposite. She almost whispers. She has incredible power with her quiet voice."
Memoir: A form of betrayal • Williams' style was reinforced while trying to live in a church where she had too many questions. Writing, she says, let her experiment with what she could say "and still be heard in an atmosphere of prescribed truths." And reading, she says, was her way of finding a philosophy that comforted her "when church did not."
Even at 56, she worries about offending her culture and her family. Of all the interviews to follow about her new book, it was this first one, in her hometown paper, that made her the most nervous, she said. As a memoirist, she notes, "Every time you pick up your pencil, you betray someone."
Williams is typically categorized as a feminist and an environmentalist. But that's only the beginning of her essence, says her longtime agent Carl Brandt. "What she really reflects is an openness to the human spirit and soul. And she is not afraid."
Not afraid but, as it turns out, perhaps not as willing to reveal everything as she might have supposed. As she began writing "When Women Were Birds," Williams says, she thought "it was going to be a manifesto about voice," about the need for women to "speak the truth of our lives at all costs."
As it turned out, she says, "I ended up writing a book about silences" not just her mother's but her own. Because writing for her is a process of discovery, she says she didn't really reach this epiphany until the final pages.
When words fail • "When Women Were Birds" explores the nuances of voice and silence, whiteness and numbness, revelation and code. Her mother's empty pages were "a kaleidoscope I kept turning and turning," she says.
In 2007, two years after an initial trip to Rwanda to research her 12th book, "Finding Beauty in a Broken World," Williams and her husband returned to central Africa to unofficially adopt her translator, 24-year-old Louis Gakumba. It has been Louis who has taught her the most about silence, she says.
"I ask a thousand questions, but from a Rwandan perspective you don't ask questions, because you don't want to bring up wounds." To have Louis in her life, she says, has meant that "the entire genocide is at the table, spoken or unspoken."
Louis graduated from the University of Utah last spring with a double major in political science and international relations. He returned to Rwanda for six months and is now living in Washington, D.C., where he is investigating graduate schools in international diplomacy. He's also writing a memoir.
At the conclusion of "When Women Were Birds," Williams writes about her realization "that I will never be able to say what is in my heart, because words fail us, because it is our nature to protect, because there are times when what is public and what is private must be discerned."
To describe the trajectory of "When Women Were Birds" requires one to give away the beginning, with its empty journals. It's also tempting to give away a crucial episode at the end of the book one that deals directly with Williams' ability to write, to think in metaphor.
Honoring the dead among the living • If words are Williams' currency, it has always been metaphor, in particular, that she uses to make her most treasured transactions. Her 1991 breakout memoir, "Refuge," is an extended metaphor about her mother's death and the flooding of the Great Salt Lake. Mosaics are a running metaphor in "Finding Beauty in a Broken World."
Rather than give away what happens to Williams near the end of "When Women Were Birds," suffice it to say that the book is also a treatise about uncertainty.
In some ways the book functions as a detective story, an attempt to solve a mystery. But it's also a realization that often there are no answers and no assurances, there's only the present.
Instead of giving away everything, perhaps it's best to quote from an email Williams sent a few weeks after our interview. In it, she described walking through a Paris park on a recent afternoon.
"Suddenly, this smell of perfume reached us like an embrace. Cherry blossoms. A slight breeze began to blow the delicate petals off the branches like a spring blizzard. Brooke and I were covered in cherry blossoms. I wept. I wept at the unexpected beauty of being alive, here, now always and I realized, too, it was the anniversary of the tsunami in Japan and cherry blossoms around the world must be honoring the dead among the living."
Terry Tempest Williams reading
The King's English Bookshop will host Terry Tempest Williams, reading from her newest book, When Women Were Birds, at 10:30 a.m. June 12 at the Annette P. Cumming College of Nursing, 10 S. 2000 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City. For more information, call the bookstore at 801-484-9100.
Other area readings:
Where • Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, Colo.
When • Wednesday, June 13, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Tattered Cover, 1628 16th St., Denver
When • Thursday, June 14, 7: 30 p.m.
Where • Back of Beyond Books, 83 N. Main St., Moab
When • Friday, June 15, 7 p.m.