A year after 9/11, author and activist Terry Tempest Williams went to Maine and stood at the ocean’s edge. She had made it a point that year, she says, to write and lecture about oil and gas exploration in the West, species extinction and, of course, war.
“I was speaking out very openly and honestly about these issues,” she says, “but I think what I realized is that my rhetoric had become as brittle as those I was opposing.”
While on the shore, she decided to pray for fresh language.
“[I was] desperate to retrieve the poetry that I had lost,” she says, “and I remember just thinking, ‘Give me one wild word.’ The word that was rolled back to me from the sea was ‘mosaic.’ And I took that literally.”
Williams’ literal interpretation led her to enroll in a mosaic class in Ravenna, Italy. But in the following years it would also lead her to other places: back to her home state of Utah, where she wrote about prairie dogs, and to Rwanda, where she cataloged the bodies of genocide victims and documented genocide trials. Those seemingly disparate travels ultimately resulted in a new book just released by Pantheon, Finding Beauty in a Broken World.
Williams is known for being an unconventional naturalist writer. Her most famous book, Refuge, published in 1992, ties the disastrous flooding of a bird refuge together with the death of her mother (and numerous other women in her family) from ovarian cancer. Like Refuge, Finding Beauty in a Broken World tested Williams’ relationships with her Mormon family and community, and she found that her writing travels were never what she expected.
In Italy, for instance, the mosaic class turned out to be an advanced class for already established artists. Williams figured out she was in over her head right about the time her teacher did.
“She realized I was a total dunce and relegated me to the corner,” she says. “[She] gave me a hammer...and I basically for three weeks broke stones for the artisans and restorers. I loved it.”
When she returned to Utah, Williams went to Bryce Canyon National Park and began writing about the social networks of endangered prairie dogs—another example of a mosaic, she says. Williams incorporated data from a biology professor in Flagstaff, Ariz., Con Slobodchikoff, who is studying prairie dog grammar.
“In one experiment he’s been able to deduce that prairie dogs know to articulate ‘man with gun,’ ‘man with dog,’ and ‘man with dog who was here last week,’” Williams says.
In 2006, Lily Yeh, founder of the activist group Barefoot Artists, asked Williams to accompany her to Rwanda to document genocide. Williams said no. Her brother had just died and she didn’t want to “go back into that landscape of death.” But Yeh kept asking, and finally Williams went with her.
“Suddenly [we] found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with Hutus and Tutsis creating a mosaic from the rubble of war,” she says, “building this genocide memorial.”
Her work in Rwanda also provided a frightening experience. Williams took an opportunity to document a genocide trial in a gachacha court in which a community decides the outcome of genocide crimes. The trial she witnessed was for two men—one presumed innocent, the other guilty. A man dressed in a prisoner’s outfit walked into the court completely unshackled. Williams says that as he walked in “women fainted and old men put their heads between their legs.” The court judges addressed the man, whose name was Kawawa, and asked him what he thought about the men on trial, if they were innocent or guilty. According to Williams, Kawawa pointed to the man who had been presumed guilty and confirmed his guilt, saying he himself had been with the man when he murdered someone. And Kawawa pointed to the other man and said, “This man was framed. I framed him. No he did not kill, he’s innocent.”
As it turns out, Kawawa was a genocide perpetrator himself, believed to have killed tens of thousands of people, cutting out their hearts and eating them. But in his community he was also known to tell the truth, a reliable source for the courts.
At the end of the trial, Williams began writing down the names of those present in the court as part of her documentation. She asked, “How do you spell ‘Kawawa’?” She heard someone spell it and when she looked up, saw it was Kawawa himself. Then, Kawawa grabbed a gun from the guard and pointed it around trying to shoot, but he was immediately tackled and the jammed gun never fired. Later he would admit to plotting an international spectacle in which he planned to kill the Americans, “including the journalist.”
In Finding Beauty, Williams ties together all these experiences, particularly the plight of prairie dogs and genocide. She’s aware of the land mines.
“I’ve already had a very well respected friend say to me, ‘You cannot talk about the extinction of a species and the extinction of a group of people in the same book…It’s an insult to equate the two,’” she says. “My response is, I’m not equating the two. I’m saying that the demise of a species and the demise of a people come from the same impulse, which is cruelty, arrogance, ignorance, prejudice and issues of power.”
The form of the book is experimental, as well. After first calling it Mosaic, she scrapped the title, scrapped chapters and headings, and tried to make it more like a collage of images.
“I love that we can’t know where we’re going,” she says. “If this was a novel, people would say it’s too sentimental. But it’s not sentimental; it’s what happens.”
Williams is currently taking a break from writing and focusing on teaching; she’s the visiting writer at UM’s Environmental Studies program this semester. She and her husband, Brooke, are also in the process of adopting Louis, their 24-year-old guide in Rwanda. They agreed, along with Louis’ birth parents, that he could benefit from a college education in the United States.
Williams says finding Louis was the most surprising part of writing her latest book. And the book brought her to other conclusions about her activism.
“What I came to was finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find,” she says. “Someone said to me, “You know, you’re married to sorrow.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not. I just choose not to look away.”
Terry Tempest Williams speaks as part of the President’s Lecture Series Thursday, Sept. 25, at the University Theatre at 8 PM. She will also sign copies of Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Free.