When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012)
The Man within My Head by Pico Iyer (Knopf, 2012)
My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir by Meir Shalev (Schocken, 2011)
IN WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, Terry Tempest Williams returns to the story she first took up in Refuge (1991)—the story of her mother’s death from cancer. We begin at Diane Dixon Tempest’s deathbed: “I am leaving you my journals,” she tells her daughter a week before she dies. “But you must promise me you will not look at them until after I am gone.” Williams makes the promise. “And then she told me where they were. I didn’t know my mother kept journals.”
On the first full moon of her shloshim, Williams decides “It was the right time to read” her mother’s chronicle. The journals “were exactly where she said they would be,” Williams tells us in a confiding tone, “three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves.”
The reader is poised to peer over Williams’s shoulder as the daughter reads the mother’s life. We are prepared to go back to the 1950s, say, to Diane Tempest’s early married days. We are prepared for the delicious transgression of parsing the intimate diary pages of someone we’ve never met. We are prepared for skilled juxtapositions of time and story: a few pages from Diane’s life, posed cattycorner to a thematically resonant scene about her daughter.
Both readers—Williams and Williams’s audience—are mistaken in their expectations. For what Williams finds that plenilunary night is that the journals are empty. Diane Dixon Tempest never wrote a word in any of them. “[A]ll of my mother’s journals were blank.”
This is a device that a lesser writer couldn’t carry off, but in Williams’s hands the blank pages become testimony: to the conditions that allow women to speak, to the relationship between that which is public and that which must always remain private, to the ways we keep revealing and hiding from ourselves.
From the journals, Williams moves into fifty-four short reflections on how she found her voice. Sometimes, that story is almost literal—the childhood lessons with a speech therapist who helped correct a lisp; the night she realized that the stories of her mother’s death and the flooding of a bird refuge really did add up to a book; Williams’s first forays into activism; the congressman who, during Williams’s testimony about Utah wild lands, says “I’m sorry, Ms. Williams, there is something about your voice I cannot hear.” Elsewhere, voice is a spiritual category, as when Williams names the ways that Mormon priests, perhaps willy-nilly, taught her and some of the women in her family to question Mormon orthodoxies. Her grandfather, a Mormon patriarch, called her mother “his little songbird.” And Williams finds in the patriarchal blessing she received at seventeen the words to concoct a more capacious spiritual idiom:
The line from my blessing that I still carry with me is this: “No truth will be revealed to you that will be in conflict with the truth of God.” I believed this, still do…. Who is to say this encouragement to seek questions didn’t open the door for my own religious inquiry that would include the spiritual wisdom of feathers and fur?
Then there are the lessons Williams’s own body teaches her. The young Williams refuses to report an attack, by a violent and crazed “thirty-something” man, to the police: “What is the gesture of a woman’s hand covering her mouth? What is the gesture of a woman’s hand covering her mouth with her eyes wide open?”
When Women Were Birds is not just thoughtful and thought-provoking. It is also Williams’s most narratively satisfying book. To be sure, she remains characteristically opaque and elusive, but not (as in Leap) to the point of disorientation. More consistently than in her previous memoirs, the characters here are fully realized, and indeed thoroughly likable. The childhood Terry charms, as does her grandmother; it is grandmother who gives five-year-old Terry a bird field guide, and it is grandmother who saves the day when Terry wanders off from a birthday party, because she’d rather watch a western tanager than play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. (When the birthday girl’s mother tries to draw Terry back to the group, the young birder “asked if I could call my grandmother, which I did. Mimi drove over in her gold-finned Cadillac, and she let each girl at the party see the red, yellow, and black bird through the lens of her binoculars.”)
And Williams’s marriage is, as in previous books, a character here. Without unveiling many specifics, Williams gives us just enough about how this marriage tastes—how she and her husband of nearly forty years love the wild in each other, how they steward each other as they steward the land whose conservation animates them so.
And here is Williams’s mother, so different, it seems, from Williams herself; so besotted by and appreciative of her daughter; such a reliable source, years after her death, of revelation and sustenance.
It is as though Williams is willing to come closer to us, her readers, than she has in her earlier books. As though she is willing to let herself generate more empathy.
Remarkably, Williams gives us this closeness while persistently naming that which she is not willing to disclose. So she calls attention to the unstated secrets of her marriage: “A marriage is the most private of landscapes”—meaning, the most shielded from anyone other than the married couple themselves, but also the space where one’s private self is best known: “I have never been as lonely as I have been in my marriage. I have also never been more seen or more protected.” And she announces just how little she is willing to say about her close, maternal relationship with the young man who served as her translator in Rwanda. Just before telling us how little she will say, Williams writes, “Everything about my relationship with Louis has surprised me,” and just after telling us that she will not spell out the terms of that surprise, she quotes Roland Barthes: “That which cannot be named is a disturbance.” And the announcement itself reads like this: “Here is what I will tell you:” followed by a page and a half of empty space (and yes, we think back to the blank pages of her mother’s journals, and yes, we think back to page 59, where Williams described Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings). If I were to pull a stunt like that, the book would fire me. But there on page 170, the reader keeps loving Williams and cheering her on and is not in the slightest annoyed that she has shined a spotlight on her own reticence. By this point we will go anywhere with Williams, anywhere she wants to go in this territory of voice, of what can be voiced and what cannot be.
Throughout, there are Diane Tempest’s empty pages. Williams names, over and over, what those pages might mean, what kind of sacred they are, and what kind of disturbance: My mother’s journals are a creation myth. My mother’s journals are an act of aggression. My mother’s journals are a collection of white handkerchiefs.
If you ever wonder why you write, if you wonder what you are doing and what you are evading by writing, just ponder Williams’s list of all that her mother’s journals are: the list will tell you.
One imagines Marilynne Robinson curdles at the phrase “finding her voice.” Yet When I Was a Child I Read Books is, from a different vantage, also about the conditions of authentic speech. These dense essays (and I mean the density of a cake, not the density of an ideologue) explore ownership, Moses, preaching, the virtues of community, and the misuse of the word “American.” They are Robinson’s reflections on how human beings might pursue the good life. This is also a book about narrative, about telling a good story. “There is something about being human that makes us love and crave grand narratives,” Robinson writes. And so When I Was a Child I Read Books is also, perforce, a book about Christianity and the church. The church has not always well served its own grand narrative (which is, of course, humanity’s grand narrative). Sometimes we have submerged our story in mistaken gestures toward relevance; at other times we have choked the story with earnestness. But the story proclaims itself despite us, in the pages of scripture, and in pews and pulpits, and in the actual lives of actual Christians, sorting out each day how now to live. “I have a theory that the churches fill on Easter and Christmas because it is on those days that the two most startling moments in the Christian narrative can be heard again,” Robinson writes.
Religion, Robinson argues, is necessary for true speech. Consider Thomas Jefferson. We will never really know what Jefferson believed, what shape his theological commitments and doubts took. “But we do know that he had recourse to the language and assumptions of Judeo-Christianity to articulate a vision of human nature.” Hence We know these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “What would a secular paraphrase of this sentence look like?” asks Robinson. “In what non-religious terms is human equality self-evident?…[L]acking the terms of religion, certain things cannot be said.”
One of the things Robinson uses “the terms of religion” to describe is sin. “Christian theology has spoken of human limitation, fallen-ness, an individually and collectively disastrous bias toward error,” she writes. But even in our bias toward error, sin has not so blinded us that we cannot sometimes see things as they are. To wit, “I think we all know that the earth might be reaching the end of this tolerance for our presumptions.” Indeed Robinson, for all her tartness, is ultimately generous, even gracious, in her interpretation of humanity, of what we are and what we know. “The Christian narrative tells us that we individually and we as a world turn our backs on what is true, essential, wholly to be desired. And it tells us that we can both know this about ourselves and forgive it in ourselves and one another, within the limits of our mortal capacities.” That is the naming of reality, and the forgiving it (and here I mean forgiving as in sin, debt, enemy, but also as in fabric), that, Robinson relentlessly insists, are possible in Christian speech.
A rather different rumination on the kinds of forgiveness Christianity makes possible may be found in Pico Iyer’s bookishly delightful The Man within My Head. In this memoir-cum-homage, Iyer examines the hold Graham Greene has on his imagination. Large and small autobiographical coincidences link the two men (each lost a house to fire; Iyer often finds himself staying at hotels Greene had patronized decades before). But what really connects Iyer and Greene is a shared set of concerns. As Iyer puts it, he undertook a five-year study of the Dalai Lama “to address Graham Greene’s questions under a different cover: how to act with conscience and clarity in the midst of the world’s confusions and how to see them as they really are and still have faith in them?”
Even in places and postures where Iyer least expected to encounter Greene, Greene’s shade haunted him: Iyer began regularly visiting a monastery in California not “because of Greene…if anything it was in spite of him.” Greene had taught Iyer—or so Iyer thought—that real meaning was to be found in the tumult and complexity of the world, not in the quiet withdrawal of a monastery. “No one had written more pitilessly of the hollowness of mere piety and the difference between a good act and a good man; no one had shown more sharply how rarely one leads to the other.” Yet the monastery beckoned. Iyer found that the silence helped him see more clearly what he desired and what he valued; the silence helped him “leave behind the self that usually smothered and entrapped you like a winter coat.” Never mind the specific doctrines that underpinned the monks’ quietude and chant: it was the silence itself that purged. And at the monastery, Iyer encountered Greene again—in the “furious doubts” that Iyer came to understand the monks lived with; and in the words of a “troubled friend” who came to visit Iyer there. The friend spoke with longing about the sense of protectedness she felt at the monastery. “She might have been speaking with Greene’s voice…so ambivalent about a peace that he could see, but from which he would always be excluded, usually by himself.”
Like Robinson, Iyer is clear about what faith allows one to say. Writing about a school friend who had experienced a conversion shortly before university, Iyer noted how much conversion can cost: in this case, the friend’s new faith commitments set him apart from his family. “But the faith he slipped into his life, like a secret business card, meant that he could be wilder and more uninhibited than ever in his explorations because, deep down, he knew precisely where he stood.” Although Iyer was unpersuaded by his friend’s evangelicalism, “there was no doubt that faith provided a frame for him to act with…more clarity and kindness than he might have done otherwise.”
How we choose the stories we tell is an overtone of Meir Shalev’s My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner. Novelist Shalev (start with The Blue Mountain if you’ve not yet read him) here recreates his idiosyncratic, fascinating grandmother Tonia. She came to Palestine from Ukraine in the twenties, and moved to Nahalal, where she threw herself with vigor into the life of an agricultural collective (moshav). Specifically, she threw herself into cleaning. Cleaning was her passion; it was her obsession; it was what got her up in the morning and what inspired her to get any rest at night. She scrubbed and scoured and dusted, and indeed allowed the whole rhythm of her household—where guests were allowed to sit (the porch, so that they didn’t bring dirt into the house); when the girls were allowed to go to school (only after several hours of housework)—to be dictated by her fervent cleaning.
The main character of this “family memoir” is, according to Shalev, the eponymous vacuum cleaner. Sent to Tonia by her brother-in-law in America, it was the first vacuum anyone in Nahalal had ever seen. After a week or two, Tonia begins to worry about the vacuum cleaner’s propensity to dirty rather than to clean—after use, the appliance itself needs a thorough cleaning, and, even more alarming, it seems just possible that one day the sealing ring might loosen, sending a bit of dust back into the living room. In the grip of these fears, Tonia decides to lock the vacuum cleaner away in a bathroom—forever. Shalev imagines his protagonist standing in the locked bathroom, with “three pristine china services and elegant tablecloths with lace edges that had never been spread on a table.” The vacuum felt a sort of despair: “Why hadn’t it stayed in America? it asked itself. Why wasn’t it sent to some normal American housewife in a polka-dot dress with red lips and manicured nails?”
Not unlike Williams, Shalev throughout the book flags the stories he is not going to tell. For example, he is not going to tell the story of the wing of the house that Grandma and Grandpa closed off and sealed up once their children were grown. Perhaps one day I will write the fuller family chronicle, Shalev allows us. “Perhaps…at another time…I will rouse my pen to the duels of love, the ideological power struggles, the champions of affliction, the fights for control over the wells of memory. I will name the well-known lunatics and the unknown lunatics. I will write about the abducted daughter and the deposed sons—and all this, ladies and gentlemen, as part and parcel of the Zionist revolution. If I do write that book it will not be today or tomorrow or in the coming years. I will write it when I am older and bolder, forgiving and more temperate.” For now, “the story I am trying to tell here [is] the story of a vacuum cleaner sent to [Tonia] by her brother-in-law from America.” Admittedly, the abducted daughter and deposed sons tease. But My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner is such an entertaining yarn that the reader will quickly forget Shalev’s flirtation.
Finally, Shalev’s family memoir is a story about how to tell stories. The history of the vacuum cleaner itself—or really, histories, for there are competing family accounts—unfold in the cadences of orality, of storytelling; kudos to translator Evan Fallenberg for capturing Shalev’s loping tempi. “This is how it was,” he says over and over again, a phrase he credits to Tonia herself: those “were the words she always used for beginning any story she told,” and “To this very day,” everyone in Shalev’s family uses Tonia’s formulation “when we want to say ‘This is the truth. What I am about to tell is precisely what happened.’” Of course the locution “to this very day” tells us that we are in the land of the folktale, the Jack tale, that the story is true, but hardly precisely what happened. In the end, Tonia is converted from an OCD moshavnik into metaphor: finally, Shalev writes, “this is what is important: to be loyal to the truth, even if it is not loyal to you; to wring it out wisely, not like a man but like a woman; to tell it in stories and to examine them…in the light, again and again, until they are as they should be—clear and truly, truly clean.”
And so it is fair to read all four of these books as investigations of how to catch a tale. That is not all they are but, in varying degrees, each book holds a mirror up to itself and ponders its own speech. Writing is at once an act of gazing attentively and avoiding, of clearing and covering up. Williams tells us that “When I want to see the furthest into my soul, I will write a sentence by hand and then write another sentence over it, followed by another. An entire paragraph will live in one line, and no one else can read it. That is the point…. My own hand, with pen in place, bushwhacks through my psyche, cutting through the dense understory of random thoughts. As my black pen circles back on itself, destroying as it creates, hiding what has just been written as another sentence walks across the newly exposed words, I am freed.” There is much invisible ink here, asking us to ponder what hides in the guise of prose. Williams again: “It was Mother who showed us how to write secret messages with lemon juice. She would pick a lemon, roll it on the counter with her hands, then slice it in half and squeeze the juice into a bowl. With paintbrushes in hand, we would write our words on parchment paper. A match was lit, the flame burned beneath the paper, what was hidden magically appeared.”
In The Man within My Head, Pico Iyer tells of a season in which he “began writing Greene stories instead of reading them…. I couldn’t begin to tell where any of these stories came from; I sat at my desk every morning and transcribed them, as if taking dictation…. I came to think [that Greene] became the way I could unlock something in the imagination; he was the way I could get into places in myself that were otherwise well-defended.” These Greene stories reminded Iyer “how, in every book there is another text, written in invisible ink between the lines, that may be telling the real story, of what the words evade.”
This is why Iyer loves Greene so. “He had the gift of seeming at last to set aside his evasions and false selves as soon as he began writing.” As do these four writers, even as they tell us that it isn’t so.
—Reviewed by Lauren F. Winner