‘When Women Were Birds’ “I am my mother but I am not. I am my grandmother but I am not.”

Terry Tempest Williams (Courtesy Photo)

Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist, writer and environmental advocate. 

Rooted in the American West, her family has lived in Utah for generations. She is the author of 14 books. She speaks and writes often about the consequences of nuclear testing on humans, wildlife and the environment. In her 1991 book “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” she wrote about being a member of the “Clan of One-breasted Women.” Seven of the nine women in her family have died from cancer.

In her latest book, “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice,” Tempest Williams writes again about her mother and grandmother. When her mother, Diane Dixon Tempest, died in 1987, she left Tempest Williams her journals with a request not to look at them until after she was gone. When she did sit down with her mother’s journals, she found they were all blank. 

When Tempest Williams was in Minnesota recently she spoke with the Women’s Press about generations-daughters, mothers, grandmothers-and finding voice. 

Minnesota Women’s Press: In “When Women Were Birds,” you write about memories of your mother, Diane, and grandmother, Mimi. Tell us about these recurring lines in your book.
Terry Tempest Williams: Our mothers are with us always. I feel my mother’s hand on my shoulder, I feel her taking my hand, walking with me. The same with my grandmothers. 

They are in our DNA, I am my mother, I am my grandmother, I am my great-grandmother. But we’re not, because we live now, here at this moment in time with our own individuality, our own choices, our own voice. 

MWP: Talk about the title of your book, “When Women Were Birds.”
TTW: The title came to me in a dream. That simple, that profound. I cannot tell you what it means, only that I trust it. Birds, for me, are mediators between heaven and earth. 

Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten: that the world is meant to be celebrated. If bird song is, in fact, voice in rehearsal, what is our voice now? 

I wanted to explore my mother’s journals. I wanted to try and come to some semblance of understanding as to why she left me her journals and all of her journals were blank. I wanted to, once again, honor my mother and grandmother, Mimi-not as daughter or granddaughter, but as a woman. 

MWP: Your mother’s journals were blank and you are a writer. What is the irony of that?
TTW: “When Women Were Birds” is a book full of paradoxes. My mother left me her journals and all of her journals were blank. Mormon women write. We are asked to do two things: keep a journal and bear children. My mother did both, but she did it on her terms. 

It is a paradox. I’ve come to think of my mother’s journals not as a mystery to be solved, but rather, something mysterious, something to appreciate and to be embraced. 

When she left me her journals, I can’t say that I was a writer. I was 30 years old. I had written two books, but I was a naturalist. Writing is what I do to express my love, my anger, a way of answering the questions that keep me up at night. 

What my mother did know about me is that I did keep journals. So, it becomes all the more poignant, confusing, perplexing. Was she saying fill them? Was it an act of defiance? “Yes, I’ll keep my journals, but I will not write one word in them.” Or was this my mother’s ongoing attempt through the years to find her voice? 

MWP: You make a statement through your book about having to “speak or die.” What caused you to use your voice, rather than be silent?
TTW: Nine women in my family have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead from nuclear testing that occurred from 1952 through the 1960s in Utah; below-ground nuclear testing continued until 1992. My family’s story is one in an anthology of thousands throughout Utah and the atomic West. 

I think about the violence and abuse that I have caused other women by not speaking. For example, I never told anyone about the experience when a man in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho tried to murder me with a double-edged axe. I did not want to harm his character. I thought maybe it was my fault. When one woman refuses to speak about that kind of violence, other women get hurt. There are many nights I wake up and think, “I wonder what other women were harmed because I refused to tell the truth by not telling my story?” 

I did tell my story about belonging to “The Clan of One-breasted Women.” The price of obedience had become too high. I chose to speak because the women in my family died as a result of being downwind from the nuclear test site. 

These are the conversations we are not having at our own expense. What is the cost? What are we afraid of?

MWP: What are the legacies your mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers have left to you?
TTW: The legacies of the women in my family are legacies of strength, legacies of intellect, legacies of pain, legacies of silence and a legacy of voice-alongside a deep legacy of a love of the land. I also think they left me a legacy of service and of giving. That was a really important ethic of my mother and grandmothers. They were great listeners. They gave me the gift of listening and paying attention. 

They also left a great legacy of humor. They were wickedly funny and irreverent. And I appreciate that. That is another aspect of mother leaving me her blank journals, a direct lineage and legacy of Coyote. She knew it would drive me mad for the rest of my life. And it has! 

MWP: You write about your mom being a sister, that kind of connection. ?
TTW: When you write there are always those surprises, revelations. There’s a line in “When Women Were Birds” that says if only my mother had known that I was her sister, instead of her daughter. It references the fact that I, too, withhold words, at times. I, too, write in the name of disclosure to protect those I love, including myself. Sisters in silence as well as in voice. This is what I discovered. 

I don’t care who we are as women; we all struggle with our voice. Each of us struggles to speak. My mother wasn’t alone in that. 

To question, stand, speak, act. This is what my mother and grandmothers gave me. Even though they could be perceived as conservative, Mormon women, they were so much more. Within their own homes, within the confines of their families, they were absolutely strong, radical women in a conservative culture. 

MWP: In your book you talk about the sin that women commit against each other by their lack of support. What does that mean to you?
TTW: Some of the most painful encounters we have in our lives are with other women, when we’re not communicating, where we’re not supporting one another. I think it is important for women to be able to respect each other enough to disagree. How do we support each other without judgment? I am aware of my own judgments and the pain it has caused women that I deeply love. And vice versa. Sin is a really powerful word and I use that almost as a knife edge. I think what we can do is say “Tell me how you are feeling; How can I support you?; How can I be of use?” to stop long enough to connect as women. What happens is that when we don’t speak to each other, … it’s the projections, the assumptions, that cut so deep. 

MWP: What has surprised you about your book, “When Women Were Birds?”
TTW: One of the things that has surprised me is the letters I have been receiving from [people of] all backgrounds. These letters have just broken my heart, expanded my heart and touched me deeply. What has surprised me is how much pain there is around our inability or reticence to speak, our fear of speaking or our desire to have a voice in the world, yet not knowing how to bring it forward. 

I think that as writers we are always exposing ourselves. I wrote this book about my mother, again, about my grandmother, again, but from a very different point of view. It’s a kaleidoscope that we just keep turning. What I have learned as I have read from this book is that the audiences are not thinking about my mother, my voice; they are thinking about their relationship to their mother and to their grandmothers and their voice. This is the alchemy of writing. 

I think it is really important as writers and as women who are telling our stories-and with your beautiful tagline, “Changing the universe through women’s stories”- to remember that which is most personal, ultimately, is the most universal. I think that can give us tremendous courage. What feels like exposing our very soul is actually opening the door to the souls of other women, so it becomes a mirror, a reflection of not only what is possible but necessary. 

FFI: coyoteclan.com