Finding Beauty in a Broken World - The InnerView with Terry Tempest Williams by Francesca Rheannon
It’s all too easy to despair these days. War and violence, environmental, economic and human catastrophes overwhelm us. Where can we find the strength we need to face the crises? Where can we find the creativity to solve them?
Maybe art can fortify us, open a way to healing. That’s what Terry Tempest Williams tells us in her new book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Williams starts her book in Ravenna, Italy, where she took a workshop to learn the art of mosaic. She was to put that learning to use later in Rwanda, working alongside survivors of genocide to build a memorial to its victims. She links the two journeys with another journey—to Utah, to study the last wild prairie dog communities in America, communities that are a part, she says, of a critical, and critically endangered ecological mosaic.
In Finding Beauty in a Broken World, “mosaic” is her metaphor. When I asked her how her metaphor of mosaic came to her, she told me it all started after September 11, 2001, when she found her creative inspiration drying up. Shock was part of it, but even more devastating was her despair when she saw how quickly the country turned away from grief to fear and aggression. As an environmentalist, she well understood the chain that links oil-driven energy policy to environmental destruction and to the United States’ push for war.
The thing that terrified me, as much as the Bush administration’s environmental policies and that we were marching toward war, was the fact that my own rhetoric had become as hollow and brittle as those I was opposing. I really had lost my own sense of poetry. I was in Maine, it was almost a year to the date since 9/11, I went down to the waters on that beautiful rocky coast—call it a plea or a prayer—and I asked the sea for one wild word. And the word that the sea rolled back to me, the word I heard in my own heart, was “mosaic”. I’ll be honest, I was disappointed, I thought, “Great, I’m relegated to a life of crafts,” which I don’t do well. You know, I thought it was about taking your mother’s plates, shattering them, and making bad picture frames. That was my ignorance. What I would learn in Ravenna, in signing up for a mosaic workshop (I took the word literally), was that this was a very high level, sophisticated course for restorers, conservators, and I was relegated to the corner, breaking stone. What I learned in those three weeks is that mosaic is an art form and a form of integration. Mosaic is about taking that which is broken and creating something whole, and the first and last rule of mosaic is light. I could never have imagined that that one wild word would have led me to look at prairie dogs as an ecological mosaic in my own home-ground of the Colorado Plateau in the redrock desert of Utah, and I could have never have imagined that it would have ultimately led me to creating a genocide memorial with survivors, creating a mosaic even out of the rubble of war.
A mosaic, you say, is the play of light on a broken surface. And you carry this metaphor throughout your book as well. Could you say just a little bit more about that before we go on and delve into the experience that you did have with that?’
TTW: In a very practical way, when the hands of ancient mosaicists from Mesopotamia, from Byzantium, even in the town of Ravenna, placed these square glass cubes known as “tesserae” on these bejeweled ceilings—they’re irregular, they’re rough—the idea was that this surface does gather and reflect light, to create a heightened sense of worship. There is a powerful metaphor there. Another rule of mosaic is that there is perfection in imperfection. I think on some level we’re all broken. You know, how does light dance across our own surfaces? How do we find beauty in a broken world? It’s certainly a question that I’m asking myself now, as we watch the economy tumble, as we are a nation that is still at war, which we seem to forget. So, I think this whole eight-year journey was holding that question. Finding beauty in a broken world ... where? How? And for me, finding beauty in a broken world has become creating beauty in the world we find.
This is something that is always just below the surface for us, the brokenness of our world, and how do we find our way in it?
TTW: Yes, and there are days I don’t know. In those days when I can hardly get out of bed (and I don’t think I’m alone in those feelings), I’m aware of the limits of my own imagination. What I found in Rwanda, in being part of a team with Lily Yeh, an extraordinary Chinese-American artist whose medium is mosaic, is that imagination shared is collaboration, and collaboration creates community; and in community I believe anything is possible. In the most broken of landscapes, Rwanda, where, as you remember, almost a million Tutsis were murdered in 100 days, by hand, by Hutu extremists using machetes, farm-tools, hoes, there we were—Hutus, Tutsis, Americans, Rwandans, working side by side, making mosaics from the shards of war. What we saw was war re-imagined. This genocide memorial was where the mothers brought the bones of their children that they had been holding in swaths of fabric beneath their beds, to be buried properly, lovingly, and to remember, “Never again.”
So tell us, how did you get there? Actually, you were asked by Lily Yeh, tell us who she is.
TTW: I had made a pilgrimage to visit Lily Yeh, I remember, it was in March, 2003, right before our occupation of Iraq. I had read about her. It’s hard to even find the words. She is such a global citizen—she’s a change-maker, a builder, a force for good. She created with others, in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, the Village of Arts and Humanities. She was asked by a friend, an African-American dancer, if she would help create art in a very broken landscape. As Lily tells the story, there were so many vacant lots filled with glass and rubble. She took a stick and drew a circle from where she was standing and thought, “I will begin here.” She looked around and there were children. And she said to the children, “Help me create a sculpture.” And the children were picking up these broken pieces, and suddenly she realized, “We can do something with mosaic.” To make a long story shorter, there was a gentleman named Bigman, known as one of the most successful drug dealers, he became Lily’s chief mosaicist, was honored in London—before he passed away from cancer—as being a world artist. Together, they created these beautiful murals, one of which is called “An Aisle of Angels.” Angel Alley, 12-foot tall Ethiopian angels that create this safe pathway, so that if the children are ever in danger or fear, they know to go there, and there will be an adult with these mosaic angels to watch over them. A “Tree Of Life” mosaic was constructed, and any house that has a red arrow of mosaic, people know that that house is a safe harbor. Just extraordinary transformation through art. We often think art is peripheral, optional. What I have learned from Lily Yeh, and especially in Rwanda, especially in the Genocide Survivors Village of Rugerero, is that art is not optional, but a strategy for survival.
And if anywhere you would think that the choice between art and survival could be made, it would be there. Describe some of the brokenness of the land that you found.
TTW: That is part of the reason that I didn’t want to go. When Lily Yeh asked me—my own brother had very recently passed away, our own family was broken; I was broken—she said to me, “Will you come with me to Rwanda to be my scribe, I’m building a team, we’re calling ourselves ‘Barefoot Artists.’” I said no. I didn’t want to go to a country so familiar with death. I didn’t want to go to a country where I was complicit with what happened. We, as Americans turned our backs while our president Bill Clinton debated for those three months that the killing was going on whether or not those acts constituted genocide. I was afraid. Lily never took her eyes off of me. I said “No”, and then I said “Yes”. I think on some fundamental level I realized my own humanity depended on it.
We’re so isolated, we’re so removed, but to actually go to Rwanda, to witness the land there that is so beautiful —you feel like you are in the crowns of mountains, you know, these beautiful steep hillsides, green, the most beautiful of people in these exquisite markets—but then, you look into the eyes of the women, what is unspoken, the losses on such a scale it is hard for us to even imagine. I remember Lily Yeh and I and Alan Jacobson and Megan Morris, the four Barefoot Artists that went over, we were standing on the edge of a mass grave, 30,000 individuals, bones still exposed, a child’s rib by our feet ... there are no words. I think what we came away with is: We are capable of creating great acts of compassion, and tremendous acts of brutality. On one hand angels, on the other hand demons. How do we bring our two hands together in prayer?
You said “we” with that. There’s a common humanity across that entire spectrum.
TTW: I think it’s very easy to hear the rhetoric of separation. You know, “It’s a civil war, it’s Hutus against Tutsis, it does not concern us.” It does concern us. These seeds of discontent and violence were sown in colonialism. We in this country could have made a difference in Rwanda by providing 2000 peacekeepers. We did nothing. It wasn’t in our “political interest.” We had just come off of “Blackhawk Down” in Mogadishu; we were in Serbia. What does Rwanda have that we need—certainly not oil. We turned our backs. Again, it is our shared humanity. I remember James Baldwin reading some of his work, and he said something to the effect, ‘Whatever my fellow human can do, so can I, in the best sense and in the worst sense.’ And so, therefore, I think we do see these acts in terms of our own humanity, what we’re capable of. And I think what we’re left with is that Rwanda is in the midst of an extraordinary reconstruction. They’re learning how to forgive, not to forget. They are learning how to reconstruct their lives, to reconstruct their cities, even a Genocide Survivors Village.
You had a translator named Louis, and he says at one point that he wants to forgive, but he says that forgiving is forgetting. So he needs to find another word. Is there another word? What did you find, how did you explore that place between forgiving and forgetting?
TTW: Louis says it so eloquently, and it is in the context of an extraordinary story that he tells.
“I want to tell you a story,” says Louis, as we sit on Mama Chakula’s porch where we met almost two years ago. (I should say that he is 22 years old, a genocide survivor, has not been to school since the third grade, and speaks six languages.)
“There is a woman who was married to a pastor. It was a happy family. Some people say they were a family of six. Others say they were 11. The woman was away, and when she returned, she saw how the Interahamwe were butchering her children on the ground along with her husband.
“After the war, the man who murdered her family came back from the Congo, and when the Gacaca Courts called him to explain what he had been accused of, he said, ‘I accept everything I have been charged with, and from the depth of my heart, I apologize.’
“The woman said, ‘I saw what you did. I saw everything happen. I know you killed my family. I loved my children and my husband. I am alone. I have nothing, but I now choose to forgive you and take you into my home. You will live with me, and I will do whatever it takes to make you feel like my own son.’
“Can you be in the same shoes with this woman?” Louis asks.
Louis then says, “Rwanda is struggling with peace, one person at a time. This is as hard as growing wheat on rock. We are finding our way toward unity and reconciliation on a walkway full of thorns, and we are walking barefoot.”
He stands up and walks over to the balcony that overlooks Gisenyi into the Congo where he was born.
“We are trying to forgive. But to forgive is to forget, and we cannot forget. Perhaps there is another word. I am searching for that word.”
That’s so powerful. I wondered when I read that, I wondered if I could do what that woman did.
TTW: I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine. And in further conversations with Louie, and with many of the women in the village who have lost everything ..... One of the women I remember in particular, Spaciosa, 70 years old, she lost five of her children. She and her husband survived, which she said is worse. You know, she said she forgave the killers because if she doesn’t then they’ve killed her too.
Louis was more to you than just a translator. In fact, he called upon you to make a commitment you had never been able to make before. Could you say something about that, and what the outcome of that was?
TTW: Now you make me weep. Louis Gakumba is now our son. I don’t even have the words. It’s a long story; I talk about some of it in the book. He was our translator; we became very close; he was my eyes, ears, heart. In whatever way I was able to get below the surface in a very foreign landscape, it was because of his translations. He wanted to go to school. We were able to find him a scholarship at the Salt Lake Community College. It was very tough getting a visa, especially with our State Department. They were saying his commitment to Rwanda wasn’t deep enough because he doesn’t own a home, he doesn’t own land, he doesn’t have money. In correspondence, we asked them to look at what he does have—courage, tenacity, hope, service. Anyway, I became very good friends with the consulate, she was an extraordinary woman. But it was Louis—ten hours he would hitchhike up to Kigali, and just sit outside her office. His visa had been denied three times. If you’re denied a fourth, that’s it. She called, she said, “Would you be willing to put your name on his passport and take responsibility should anything go awry?” Of course. We went back to Rwanda, I called and said, “Where are we on Louie Gakumba’s visa?” She said, “He picked it up yesterday.” Brooke, my husband and I went down to the village. Unbeknownst to us, we found ourselves in a transfer ceremony with his parents. His mother—such an exquisite woman!—she held my hands, looked into my eyes, and just said, “We are Louie’s biological parents, you are now his developmental parents. Please help him to find an education.” It was one of those moments in your life where you just go with it, with an open heart. And Louie has been our greatest blessing, and I know he will go back to Rwanda and do extraordinary things. Again, it’s that one wild word. I could never have imagined that that one wild word, that plea, to retrieve my poetry, would have led us to a reconfiguration of family, even a son.
Let’s put in the last piece of this, which we haven’t talked about, and that is the ecological mosaic. You alluded to it; you have a large part of the book that joins the two human parts, which is about the prairie dogs. In some ways, I found it the most difficult part of the book to read because of the pain of extinctions that is unbearable for me to think about. And it’s something that you have lived with, really, for years, the prairie dogs. Talk about them, talk about their place in this mosaic.
TTW: You know, I think back to when I worked on the Navajo Reservation years ago, the Diné. Barre Toelken is a folklorist and a dear friend. I remember he told me a story about how, in 1950, the Army Corps of Engineers, government agents, went down to Chilchinbito, Arizona, met with the Navajo elders, and basically said, “We are initiating a new grazing program, we are introducing cows, different kinds of grasses, and we are going to eradicate the prairie dogs because of the holes they create, the burrows, that will complicate this process, and perhaps break the legs of the cattle.” The elders listened and, as Barry said, one of the elders stood up and said, “If you take away all the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for the rain.” Well, you can imagine how this was met by the Army Corps of Engineers. They proceeded with their plan. Within a few months, without the prairie dogs to aerate the soil, so that when the rains came the water could percolate down and nourish those roots of the grasses, the desert became hardpan. No give to the sand. “If you take away all the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for the rain.” So the question becomes, Who cares? Who cares that we’re in the midst of a sixth extinction? Who cares that prairie dogs create a varied world? Destroy prairie dogs and you destroy the diversity of an ecological mosaic.
I think that we do care. I think it’s just that prairie dogs are considered the lowliest of the creatures; call them the Untouchables. And I just keep thinking, if we can begin to empathize with prairie dogs, if we can begin to see them as both individual and species, then perhaps we’ll be able to see the world whole—even holy. You know, I know that this is a landmine. Now, how can you talk about the plight of prairie dogs and a Rwandan village, the Rwandan genocide? And my feeling is this: the extermination of a species, the extermination of a people, is predicated on the same impulses: prejudice, cruelty, ignorance and arrogance, circling around issues of power and justice. And I think if we continue to fragment our world, to only see it in human compartments, at the expense of the rest of life, then it will ultimately be at our expense. So again, it’s putting together these different pieces to create this whole. Taking that which is broken and seeing it as something exquisite in its own design.
And there’s something else that the prairie dogs teach us, and that’s community.
TTW: It was astonishing to me. I was able to work with John Hoogland, who is really the world’s expert on prairie dogs. He has been working for the last 10 years in Bryce Canyon National Park on one of the last wild Utah prairie dog populations. It was a revelation. They have a highly sophisticated language. They can determine Man with gun, Man with dog, Man with gun that was here last week, Woman with red shirt, Woman with green shirt—you know, we have no idea. One of the things that I think is interesting is, if you remove prairie dogs from their home-ground, from their original villages, and put them somewhere else (they call it translocation), the prairie dogs cease to speak. And if a prairie dog ceases to speak, it ceases to live. Because prairie dogs are a keystone species to ferrets, to owls, to red-tailed hawks, to pronghorns, to badgers, they have to be able to communicate. Otherwise, they’ll simply be taken. And so you have these sentinel dogs that create warning calls that alert the rest of the community so they can go underground. The Utah prairie dog was one of the original listees on the 1973 Endangered Species Act. They were de-listed because of political pressure, due to ranchers and developers. There is a lawsuit now, with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, where we are trying to get them reinstated as endangered. There are 10,000 individuals, that sounds like a lot, but that’s misleading. There are only nine communities left. And out of those nine communities, six of them are on private lands. So they’re extremely vulnerable. And when the New York Times listed six species that would most likely not make it to the next millennium, the Utah prairie dog was among those six.
There is what they call The Red Mist Society, rifle recreationists that will shoot 300 prairie dogs in an afternoon, for sport. You know, these are families, these prairie dog communities. And what in us as human beings can just create that kind of violence without thought? I think it’s a fine line between calling a prairie dog a varmint, a vermin, and calling a human being a cockroach.
As they did in Rwanda, as those who did the genocide called the Tutsis.
TTW: That’s right. And I think about the hate-radio in our own country, here in the United States. I’ve heard Michael Savage talk about liberals as vermin. Language has consequences. I think about Robert Frost when he says, ‘If you were to pin me down, what is my definition of poetry? Words that become deeds.’ That’s in the most powerful sense. As a writer you hope your words become deeds. But the shadow side of that is that when you call another human being a derogatory term, as the Hutu extremists did with Tutsi, “cockroaches”, then that means they’re expendable. But if we back up on the logic, what’s wrong with a cockroach? What’s wrong with a prairie dog?
During the presidential campaign, Colin Powell said that the charge that Barack Obama is a Muslim is, well, for one thing, it’s not true, but for another thing, what’s wrong with being a Muslim?
TTW: I think that’s precisely the point. And it’s this interconnectivity, this relatedness that to me takes us back to that powerful metaphor of mosaic, the mosaic of language, the mosaic of images, the mosaic of our actions. You know, in many ways, this book is about witnessing. We think, to bear witness is a passive act. I don’t believe that. I think that when we witness a prairie dog community, when we witness the grief of women who have lost everything in a country like Rwanda, through war, when we witness the bejeweled ceilings of Byzantium, in Ravenna, it changes our consciousness. It changes the way we see things, the way we think about things. And if we change our consciousness, we change our actions.
How did the work that you did in Rwanda change that village?
TTW: You know it’s so interesting. Just Friday, President Paul Kagami visited the Genocide Survivors Village in Rugerero. And I cannot imagine what that must have meant for the men and women in that village, and the children. You know, here is Paul Kagami, their president, ultimately their liberator, who led the Rwandan Patriotic Front, he visited them, he saw the murals of the children that brought such color and vitality to a very dreary place. He saw that these were not members of a community, but refugees who did not know each other, did not have a common history, other than war. And now he saw that they were a community, that they were planting sunflower seeds, that these sunflower seeds were growing into sunflowers, the sunflowers were harvested, and the seeds were now creating sunflower oil—and they presented him with this beautiful golden bottle of oil. This work is now part of their cooperative. He visited the sewing cooperative. He talked to the young women who now have a support group, who are willing to be tested for AIDS, want to be tested for AIDS.
Art is the spark for social change. It is not optional, but a strategy for survival. I did not know that, but Lily Yeh did, Jean Bosco who is head of the Red Cross in Rugerero understood this. And this village came alive, together.
Well Terry Tempest Williams, thanks for talking with us, and thanks so much for writing this beautiful book.
TTW: Thank you so much Francesca. I think we are now at a point in time when we’re all feeling hopeful that each of us in our own way can contribute to this mosaic of social change.
Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist and writer. She is the author of “Finding Beauty in Broken World;” “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place;” “The Open Space of Democracy;” “Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert;” and “An Unspoken Hunger,” among other works.
This interview comes from Writers Voice, a weekly radio show airing on Community Radio stations across the country, streaming on the web at WMUA.org, and podcasting at writersvoice.net.
Francesca Rheannon is producer and host of the radio show “Writers Voice”.