Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice is a beautiful, lyrical book that wends it’s way through several intertwined themes: silence and speech; the Utah wilderness versus nuclear bomb testing; the absence and presence of her mother; the choice to keep a journal versus keeping a journal because it is imposed; birds, birding, and women; feminism through generations; and the losses and findings of love and passion.
This is one of those books that defies easy categorization. While it is a reflective biography about her mother Diane and her grandmother Mimi, When Women Were Birds also offers cogent commentary on the intersections between political practices, nuclear drift through decades, and the lives of women. Williams’ writing is eloquent, spare, and emotionally gripping.
As artful as the writing, the book’s design is also thoughtful and intriguing. The white cover features an embossed flock of birds that shift slowly and delicately into Nüshu script— an ancient Chinese women’s private script. In the Nüshu script, the characters for women and birds are interchangeable. Within the book, the endpapers are feathered and an illustrated bird flies in the border of the pages.
One of the many things I loved about this book is the strong connections that Williams draws between women and birds. The women in her family are birders, but it goes much deeper than that. Birds become both metaphor and concrete reality in her life, offering her meaning in both realms. Perhaps, that’s why in the last quarter of When Women Were Birds, it appears to me that Williams steps into a further realm of women and birds: the mythic. For Williams, this takes form as a painted bunting in Maine, the flight of her mother’s words, the Nüshu script, dreams of white birds, and an art installation by Julia Barello.
For women through the millenia, this connection has taken form in sculpture, seen in the many prehistoric bird-woman forms found in ancient Europe or in the Mesopotamian Burney Relief (adjacent). Women and birds are linked through oral and then written tales of the goddess Leda as swan, of Aphrodite as dove or riding a goose, Nekhbet and then, later, Isis as vulture, Hera and her quail, and so on. Take a look at “Lilith” here. Now close your eyes and picture an angel. Winged women still flock around us.
I highly recommend When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. Read it when you can take the time to let your mind soar, your heart settle, and your emotions take wing.