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March 10, 2013

A Book Review: What Does It Mean to Give Voice?

Judith Miller

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Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds; Fifty-four Variations on Voice. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. ISBN 978-0-374-28897-6

Terry Tempest Williams, an American, is not an author I know, although she has published several books, which I will now seek out.

When Women Were Birds; Fifty-four Variations on Voice is the recent book from Williams which caught my attention.  Williams explains that Mormon women have two duties: to bear children and to keep a journal. During a final illness, Williams’ mother told her where to find her journal but asked her not to look at it until after her passing. Williams honoured her wishes, and it was a month after her mother’s death that she tracked down the volumes of journal, all carefully shelved.

As Williams settled in to read, she was astonished to discover that the first book was blank. So was the next one on the shelf.  And the next. There was not a word written in any of the lovely cloth-bound books neatly lined up on their shelves.

This book, then, becomes a series of lyrical meditations--54 meditations--about issues of silence, voice, mothering and writing.

Williams has lived her life as a writer, and so the blank pages of her mother’s journal, her silence, are a challenge to everything she has thought and done. Williams has always cared about “giving voice.” In the early sections of this book, she muses about the kind of dreadful, imposed, silence which Tillie Olsen documents in her classic work on the silences of women not heard from, for reasons which kept them from writing or forbade them to speak.

Williams’ ruminations address that kind of silence, thwarted voice, but through the book, they work toward a nuanced idea of silence, a different understanding of what it might mean to not write or to not speak.

Along the way, Williams reflects on voice. What is it? How is it to be used? In the private sphere but also in the public. She tells the story of the struggle to voice political opposition, to have an effect in a democracy, where voice is of utmost importance and can be so summarily, even rudely, dismissed in public gatherings or hearings--even those designed to gather information and attitudes.

Williams celebrates the idea of voices raised together, spoken or in writing, as she recounts the decision to gather writings about the wilderness of her part of America and the citizens’ wish to protect it. Together, a group of writers created a document which could not be ignored, which has become a part of the public discourse.  The project gave Williams a belief in the “collective power of a chorus of voices.”

What does it mean to be a writer? Williams explores that question, returning to it again and again in this delightful book.  This is a book for any reader who values language, who struggles with issues of expression. What does it mean to speak? to write? to keep silent? Why does it matter? One of the conclusions Williams comes to is that it is not necessary to be a writer to have voice.

Nevertheless, voice remains important to Terry Tempest Williams, even as she realises that voice requires a listener.

Nushu, the women’s script of Old China, intrigues Williams, with its suggestion of secrets, shared between friends, passed on to daughters.  She suggests that it resembles bird tracks, linear and elegant. It links to her idea of women as birds, flying free in the night, when there is no sun to cast a shadow. It makes her think of her mother’s journals as a kind of code.

The world is already split open, and it is in our destiny to heal it, each in our own way, and each in our own time, with the gifts that are ours.

This is a wonderfully rich book, filled with honest exploration, surprising insight, wide-ranging intelligence and the wonderful gifts of words, spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten.

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