When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. Fuck around and find out.

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May 22, 2013

When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams

I picked up Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds on a whim after reading a review of it over at I Will Dare.

As Jodi says, this is a strange and lovely book. It’s not very long–just 228 pages in a small-format paperback–and I do recommend getting the paper version of this: Picador did a wonderful job, deckled edges, French flaps and a lot of care with the design in general.

The genesis of this book is Williams inheriting her mother’s journals after her death and discovering that they’re all blank. Williams starts–quite literally–from the blank pages and works her way around and through her central theme of women’s voices. She also talks about the environment, her marriage, religion, and presence and absence.

This was a hard book for me to read. My mother didn’t keep shelves of blank journals, but she was intensely private and shared very little of her past with anyone–so I really empathized with Williams and the way her mother was, in many ways, a cipher to her.

But Williams is an amazing writer, both lyrical and spare in in prose and able to convey so much meaning through the image of the blank journals and through her other extended metaphor, birds. I found myself wishing I could bring myself to write in this book, to highlight the passages that most spoke to me. Instead, I consoled myself with sticky notes (which I will be removing; I know they’re bad for the paper) and now I share some of my favorites with you:

Erasure. What every woman knows but rarely discusses. I don’t mind erasure if it is done my by own hand. My choice. Write a word. Not the right word. Turn the pencil upside down, erase. Back and forth on the page. Pencil upright. Begin again. Point on the page. Pause. Find the right word. Write the word. Word by word, the language of women so often begins with a whisper.


So moved by the author’s passion for quilts, Mother had one quilt square made by a friend of hers framed, and hung it in her bathroom, where she saw it first thing in the morning. When I asked why this mattered, she said, “It represents how women piece together their lives from the scraps left over for them.”


My mother’s journals area love story. Love and power. What she gave and what she withheld were hers to choose. Love is power. Power is not love. Both can be brutal. Both dance with control. Both can be intoxicating, leaving us out of control. But in the end, it is love, not power, that endures and shows us the consequences of our choices. My mother chose me as the recipient of her pages, empty pages. She left me her “Cartographies of Silence.” I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing.

But I can imagine.

And isn’t this the beautiful truth of love and power?

I really like Williams’s direct way with words. She doesn’t talk around her point, she just makes it with an economy of words that goes straight to the point–her words are sharp and they sometimes cut, but the authenticity and ease of Williams’s voice is inspiring and, at times, revelatory.

This was a hard book to read but it was also a book I needed to read. Maybe you need to read it, too?

You may also like…

Review: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Review: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds is one hell of a debut novel.

In my notes, I wrote that that “this is a weird book; not much of anything happens for the first two-thirds and then there is plot all over the place,” which pretty much does explain the pacing.

Review: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Review: Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

I loved this book so much. And while I tried to make it last, I read it incredibly quickly and then was very sad when there was no more book, even as I was sobbing like an actual baby at the end.

Ahem. Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is pretty stellar.


Words of Wisdom

"It's chaos, be kind."
Michelle McNamara