If it hadn’t been picked for August by the book club, I would never have read Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds. The memoir is poetry masquerading as prose. I felt lost during most of it, to be honest. I’m not used to diving that deeply into a real person’s psyche.
In 1987, before she passed away, Tempest Williams’ mother gave her the journals she’d kept all her life on the condition that they wouldn’t be read until she died. When Tempest Williams’ finally opened them, she found that every single one of them was blank. Journaling is part of Mormon culture, expected of women. But Diane Tempest never wrote a word. She would always remain a mystery. The shelves of empty journals challenged Tempest Williams to think about voice: what it is, what it means, what it means to be silenced, how to harness a voice.
In her 54 variations on voice, Tempest Williams’ words transition from poetry to prose and back. She is, by turns, spiritual, lonely, happy, curious, enthralled, pedantic, mystical, and crusading. My favorite parts were the pedantic ones. I enjoyed learning about birds and Nǚshū. The sections involving Tempest Williams’ spirituality and mystical relationship to the wild lost me because I am not that spiritual a person. It’s hard to understand those passages when you’ve never had a mystical experience.
I had hoped I would connect with the parts in which Tempest Williams’ shares parts of her relationship with her mother. I have a similar relationship with my own; we’re very good friends and have a lot in common. But Tempest Williams’ digs more deeply into the relationship linking mothers to daughters much more deeply than I ever have (or probably ever will). I don’t always agree with her conclusions. I suspect that I would understand this book better if I had more life behind me. Or maybe I would understand more if I were part of Tempest Williams’ generation or put myself up against the challenges she’s faced.
It’s going to be very hard to talk about this book when the club gets together on Friday.