Terry Tempest Williams’ Variations on Voice

At the annual Ethel L. Handley reading, activist and environmentalist writer Terry Tempest Williams read from her most recent novel, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, discussing the concept of voice in her novel and the need for others to explore their own variations on voice.

IMG_3550PROVO, Utah (Oct. 9, 2015)—When Terry Tempest Williams’ mother passed away at age 54, she left her with six empty journals. For 25 years, those empty journals left Williams asking an impossible question: what was her mother trying to say?

A Utah native, environmentalist, and activist, Williams uses the Utah landscape to examine issues from ecology to women’s health. In her most recent novel, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, Williams reconciles concepts of voice, themes of absence and presence, and her mother’s death through the blank journals she left behind.

Williams asked, “How do we find our voice? What happens when we lose our voice? What happens when our voice is silenced? How do we retrieve it? How do we use it? How do we honor it? And not just our voice, but other voices?”
These are questions Williams grapples with in her 54 variations on voice as she tries to reconcile the absence of her mother’s own voice in the journals she left behind.

Williams recalled going to retrieve her mother’s journals after her death and the shock she experienced upon finding them empty.

“It was a second death,” Williams said. “I couldn’t imagine what she was trying to say to me. I was so shattered that I just picked them all up, took them into the back of my car, drove back up Emigration Canyon, and for the next 25 years wrote in every one of them.”

Yet it wasn’t until Williams was 54 years old, the same year her mother was when she died, that she returned to the journals and asked the question she had been too afraid to ask before: what was it her mother could not say?

In a question and answer session, English major Eliza Handley asked Williams how young college students might find their own voices and use them for good.

“I wish someone had told me in my twenties that we never find our voice,” Williams responded. “Every day we make choices of if our voice will be heard or not. What I would say to you as students is that you have a very, very powerful voice now more than ever because so much is at stake with our beautiful, broken world.”

According to Williams, students play a valuable role in putting a voice to issues in the world today. From climate change, gender inequality, issues of poverty, spiritual sovereignty or free speech, each voice has a part to play, Williams said.

“You have a voice and it matters,” she continued. “Whether it’s a woman’s voice over your own reproductive health as a woman, whether it’s your voice as a mother or father or student, the things you care about need to be heard.”

She added, “My advice to you is to write.”

As a special gift, Williams played a recomposed version of German composer Max Richter’s “The Four Seasons,” suggesting that now is a time in which individuals must reimagine and recompose everything.

“I would ask you to think about what is your gift, how can you take more risks with your gift, how your voice is being suppressed, and how can you take your voice and reimagine your place in the world with the power that is yours.”

She concluded, “That is the task before us, and I think it has everything to do with imagination, with love and with courage.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers the department of Comparative Arts & Letters for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.