Terry Tempest Williams on the Power of Community, the Need for Diversity, and Local First Initiatives

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Terry Tempest Williams

As Bookselling This Week arrives in your inbox, ABA's pre-Winter Institute Conference on Local First/Shop Local Initiatives is underway in Salt Lake City. The full-day program includes a lunch, beginning at noon on Thursday, featuring author Terry Tempest Williams, whose books -- including Refuge and Finding Beauty in a Broken World (Pantheon) -- often center on environmental concerns and community. At the pre-Wi4 conference, Williams will share insights on how environmentalism and localism dovetail, and how supporting community creates an "ethic of place."

Williams' writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Orion Magazine, and various anthologies as a voice for ecological awareness. She splits her time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Moose, Wyoming.

Bookselling This Week: What will be the main theme of your talk at the pre-Winter Institute conference?

Terry Tempest Williams: I plan on discussing the power of community, of what it means to come together in a common cause. This is what "Local First" exemplifies as it works to strengthen independent businesses and foster sustainable solutions specific to place. And this is what independent bookstores inspire, local voices responding to local issues through ideas expressed through fiction, nonfiction, poetry or prose. We change the world through ideas and ideals. Independent bookstores support and sustain ideas that enhance community building. Reflection is key to our own evolutionary growth as both individuals and citizens. I fear we are losing time to ponder, think, imagine, and create. Local First creates time for collaborative endeavors that heighten the collective imagination.

BTW: Can you describe your work in Salt Lake as it applies to local businesses?

TTW: I no longer live in Salt Lake City, but I will always view the Wasatch Front as my home. I was raised by the mountains to the east and Great Salt Lake to the west. It is where my family still resides and where I have come to understand the intersection between culture and landscape. The King's English is my home ground as a writer, my local bookstore. I still teach at the University of Utah twice a year in the Environmental Humanities Programs. Part of our work in the College of Humanities is to partner with various organizations and businesses from The Nature Conservancy to the Salt Lake Film Center to the Utah Museum of Natural History to companies like Colorado River and Trail Expeditions, which is sponsoring a trip honoring the centennial of Wallace Stegner's birth. We will be taking students who have read Beyond the Hundredth Meridian [Wallace Stegner, Penguin] down Cataract Canyon. This is one example of collaborative endeavors.

Salt Lake City is my north star that radiates outward. Castle Valley is south. Jackson Hole is north. Draw a line and these are my trajectory points of habitation in the Interior West: Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, Northern Rockies.

BTW: Do you see an overlap of green/ecology issues with support for local businesses?

TTW: A sense of place creates an ethic of place. Diversity is essential to sustainability. This is true in "steps to an ecology of mind" as well as sustaining local healthy economies. Local foods, farmer's markets, green business practices, and businesses supporting green initiatives alongside wilderness issues surrounding public lands -- all contribute to an ethic of place. I see these joint efforts of sustainability as a mosaic, taking the various pieces and creating something whole and beautiful.

BTW: How does your community work tie into your writing? Are these separate projects or all of a piece?

TTW: My life as a writer is a life engaged. I write out of my passions and obsessions, which try to see "the pattern that connects." I write out of a politics of place as one deeply rooted to place. I see economic issues as environmental issues as issues of social justice, no separation. So often, we compartmentalize our lives, put our various roles and concerns in boxes. I cannot do this. My life is a gesture toward wholeness, an expression on the page and in the world of beauty, democracy, and surrounding the questions that will not allow me to sleep. I believe in conversation that opens hearts rather than closes them. I believe in engagement and participation. As a writer, I try not to avert my gaze from those issues that are at the center of a compassionate society, even if they are painful ones, be it cancer caused as a result of nuclear testing or oil and gas leases put up for sale on fragile desert lands. For me, writing is a process of exposure and discovery. It is an open letter to my community. It is a mirror that can reflect both the injustices and graces of the world we live in.

BTW: How would you describe your most recent book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World (Pantheon)?

Terry Tempest Williams: Finding Beauty in a Broken World is a meditation on mosaics as both an art form and a form of integration. From the bejeweled ceilings of Ravenna, Italy, to the ecological mosaic of Utah Prairie Dogs in Bryce Canyon National Park to the literal making of mosaics out of the rubble of war for a genocide memorial in Rwanda, this is an exploration on fragmentation and wholeness. Beauty is not optional. Art is not peripheral, but a strategy for survival. Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.

Some may ask how can you write about prairie dogs and the Rwandan genocide in one book? My response is this: the extermination of a species and the extermination of a people are predicated on the same impulses -- prejudice, cruelty, ignorance, and arrogance that center around issues of power and justice. If we cannot begin to see the world whole, then I fear we will continue to live fractured and fragmented lives that continue to create the seedbed of war.

Finding Beauty in a Broken World is a book of witnessing. I used to believe that to bear witness was a passive act. I don't believe that anymore. Empathy is at the heart of what I discovered as a witness to both beauty and pain, fragmentation and wholeness. Empathy leads us to a change of consciousness and a shift in consciousness leads us to action. The section on prairie dogs is a meditation on presence, field notes are meant to slow the reader down and witness what goes on day after day in a prairie dog colony. The section on Rwanda is built on both the landscape of genocide and the hope held within the human spirit. Resiliency is at the heart of our humanity, alongside faith in what we can accomplish together. This book was written from the heart of three communities. Call it a triptych of engagement. I wanted to create a mosaic out of words. There are no chapters or headings, rather a continuum made of fragments that create something larger than the individual parts. I begin the book with a prayer and a plea, "Give me one wild word and I promise I will follow." That word is mosaic.

BTW: What is your next project?

TTW: I have no idea. I am looking forward to laying low and listening, walking, being. Our Rwandan son, Louis Gakumba, and I just returned home from the inauguration. To stand with the masses on the Mall in Washington was deeply transformative. This is a time of great hope where each of us can contribute to this new era of change with the gifts that are ours. The irony of writing to create community is that you are removed from it in the process. One writes in solitude. I now look forward to returning to my community.

BTW: Anything else you'd like to add?

TTW: Yes, two words: Thank you. Thank you to all the independent booksellers who support and sustain us as independent writers with independent voices. We would not have a voice without yours. I am deeply grateful for the vision, sacrifices, and hard work that are at the heart of what you do, day after day. May we recognize the synergetic relationship that is ours to cultivate together. --Interviewed by Karen Schechner