Terry Tempest Williams: “We don’t have to be patient anymore, and we have to be present.”

Terry Tempest Williams and Ümit Şahin

In Turkish

American environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams visited Istanbul, Turkey, last week. She was among the speakers of Halki Summit II, a conference organized by Ecumenical Patriarchate and co-sponsored by Southern New Hampshire University, focused on the theme: “Theology, Ecology, and the Word: a conversation on the environment, literature and the arts.”

Terry Tempest Williams and Ümit Şahin

Terry Tempest Williams and Ümit Şahin (Photo: Burcu Arık)

I had a chance to interview with her in Heybeliada, in the Princess Islands, after her speech for Açık Radyo and Yeşil Gazete. We talked about her own story, how she became an environmental activist, as well as how can we contribute to transformation of the society by activism.

Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist and fierce advocate for freedom of speech, she has consistently shown us how environmental issues are social issues that ultimately become matters of justice. Known for her impassioned and lyrical prose, Terry Tempest Williams is the author of the environmental literature classic, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field. Her other books are Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Patience and Passion in the Desert, The Open Space of Democracy; and Finding Beauty in a Broken World. She is a columnist for the magazine The Progressive.

You can listen to the original inerwiew below:

The interview was aired in Açık Yeşil, a talk show presented by me and Ömer Madra in Açık Radyo (with Turkish translation). The recording of the show is here:


Let me start with what you said in the beginning of your speech, that you understood in a point that, “we don’t have to be patient anymore, and we have to be present.” Can you talk little bit about this and how did you realize this?

– First of all I’m so happy to be in Turkey, it’s a great privilege. I think every human being on the planet recognizes Turkey’s place in civilization, so it’s a great honor to be speaking with you today.

Thank you.

– You ask the question about at what point did I realize as an activist in America, an environmental activist, that it was no longer about being patient, but present. And not being a patient person but being a person of presence, not a person of patience. I think I came to that knowledge realizing when I realized my family was dying. Nine women in my family have all had breast cancer and seven were dead. We just lost my brother several years ago to cancer. Half of my family has been affected by cancer and the question is why. And we believe and supported by many in the medical field that the nuclear testing that was done in the Utah in Nevada Desert in the 1950’s, from 1952 to 1962 and then underground all the way to 1992 has left the soil contaminated and those of us who are “down winders”, our immune systems had been compromised, and many many deaths have occurred. So why should we be patient? We need to be present and for me that meant committing civil disobedience at the Nevada test side where they were building the nuclear bombs, the atomic bombs, the very bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki and did so much destruction in the South Pacific as well and that we needed to protest the and the testing of those bombs which we did and we were arrested. And it mattered to me.

When was that?

– It was in 1988 through 1992. I can’t count how many times I was arrested, but I was certainly not alone there were hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. There were residents, still not. In 1992 when Bill Clinton run for against George Walker Herbert Bush, that was one of the issues and George Bush who was the president stopped nuclear testing because of the political pressure. It has not resumed since.

Then you have become an activist because of your own story, right?

– Yes I do think…

You also told about the story that you witnessed one nuclear test actually, when you were a child…

Yes I did. First of all yes, I’m an activist because of my story, because of what I hold in my body. After my mother died of ovarian cancer and breast cancer, I kept having this nightmare every night that’s flash of light in the night in the desert that was illuminated, over and over every night, the same dream. And a year after my mother passed, my father and I are having dinner and he said tell me how you are and I said not good. I’m having this nightmare, this dream, this flash of light in the night in the desert every night. And he said, well you saw that. And I said saw what. And he said I thought you knew that. As a child we were coming home from California, you were sitting on your mother’s lap, she was pregnant to Steve, I remember the date it was September 7th, the day before your birthday, we were driving toward Las Vegas, it was an hour so before dawn, we saw this explosion, we thought it was an oil tanker in front of us, we pulled to the side, and then as I told you, you know, the golden stemmed cloud was raising from the desert flour, the mushroom cloud. The atomic bomb tested. It was that moment; I realized that the seat we’ve been living under. Children growing up in the American south west, drinking contaminated milk from contaminated cows, even the breast of our mothers, members, years later, of the Clan of One-Breasted Women. So, yes I became an activist and I think when you realize, you’ve nothing left to lose my family death you need to do something in their honor. And that activism continues in various forms. I think, my writing is an active resistance and insistence, and I think all of us who consider ourselves environmentalist, conservationist, climate change activist, are no longer willing to be patient, but were demanding presence from our government leaders and it’s happening all over the world.

In one point when you’re answering to one question, it was really important for me too, because the question was about giving positive messages rather than negative things, because people are frightened, because of all these stories about nuclear power or the stories about climate change, etc. But you said that, we should not separate the positive and negative and we should see it as a whole. Can you talk a little bit about that, because I think it’s also important for us. We are also giving these messages about climate change especially, and people are always saying that you are frightening people. But just talking about positive things, I think it’s also…

– It’s a lie…

… Lie, because you said that it’s all about telling the truth.

– Well, I think, excuse me with all the respect, but for the people who say we want positive messages, you know, don’t treat us like children, I mean, treat us like citizens. We can handle the truth. I likened to I don’t want to disparaging about children. But you know, what I I’m saying… My mother was diagnosed with cancer we want our doctors to tell us the truth. We can handle the truth and you can prepare for it. You become you raise to the occasion you know that your days are limited and they’re precious days and how are you going to spend them. But if they say, oh it’s fine, she’s just a little sick, you know maybe put your life in order, but there is other life beyond you know, that doesn’t help anyone and it certainly didn’t help us. When we think about big issues of drought, and war and climate change and migration and displaced people, all of these issues that are interconnected and interrelated, I think we have to be real, I think we have to tell the truth, I think we have to be honest what the facts we know but more importantly we have to speak from our heart. This what I’m seeing, are you seeing this too? This is how I feel. Do you feel this way as well? Then we enter the conversation as human beings, not politicians not a scientist, not a theologian, not a writer. But, tell me Umit, how do you feel about climate change, how are things changing in Turkey and I will tell you what drought looks like in California, in the United States, then it’s real, then we’re in a creative, honest conversation and I think action happens when we’re honest with each other and authentic stories told, then empathy rises and we want to be of use.

And only in this way we can change, right?

– And that’s what leads to transformation, that’s right. Because I think we’re only concerned about sugar code in the message or having be more palatable or more “positive”, then I think everyone loses and we’re been manipulated, we’re not being transformed. And there’s a big difference between manipulation and transformation. And I’m interested in transformation.

And especially when we are talking about climate change, of course we are also talking about also you told about oil, fracking, coal industry, and the companies, all these lies, etc…

– And they care nothing about the people, and we’re expendable, and the land is expendable, and the people are expendable, and only few people are getting rich.

Yes, that’s why you said we have confused democracy and capitalism.

– Yes…

So, how do we challenge this? What kind of messages we can carry to the society? Because it’s also not easy to make people hear about these big words, capitalism, etc. So…

– Right, I think your point is about abstractions. Abstractions don’t move people. All of us the eyes go rolling back into our head, right? I think that’s why it’s so important to have grassroots organizing. I think numbers matter. They matter in America, the matter to any democracy, and I think civil disobedience matters. I can say that from the United States, because… Well, no, it can even say that, because people are being killed in the United States. We are so-called democracy, but we all know the message of Edward Snowden, we all are seeing what’s happening with race relations and wealth disparity, not only in the United States but around the world. But I have to believe that in the world social media in the world instantaneously we know what’s happening, that numbers matter and social media matters. And I think creative actions matter. And in the US in the climate justice movement we’re seeing great deal about actions, marches, protests, real confrontations with oil. BP, we’re not impressed by their ad campaign because we know that people in the Gulf coast are sick from the oil spill, you know 5 years later. We’re not impressed by their telling us that clean-up because we’re seeing the birds are not reproducing like they’re used to. And oil spills that took place in Santa Barbara, California that thousands of people stood up hand to hand to hand to hand for miles, to show how these coast need to be protected. The oil companies are afraid of bad press because that means their stock may go down. I think that we have to put pressure to and we see…

Connecting local movements…

– That’s right. So I think local matters, I think numbers matter, and think creativity matters, and I think stamina and for long view matters.

And maybe one not last, but before the last, you also said that giving people courage. Because you can tell people the truth, you can tell people the facts, but this doesn’t mean that these people will move, will do something to change, so we have to inspire people, we have to somehow connect science and narrative and writings as you have done. So what do you propose to the activists in these terms?

– Well I think it’s this that and all of it. It’s like a mosaic. I’m so excited to see the mosaics in Istanbul on Thursday in the Hagia Sofia. And I think that the mosaics in Turkey inspire me that, each of us hold a piece of the mosaic to create this beautiful pattern. In the United States I can tell you college students actively putting pressure on their administrations in the college campuses, to their presidents, saying we want you to divest from fossil fuels. That is happening. We see in Norway that is happening, we see the Guardian that is happening, so that’s one way of protest. I think another way is how do we live more lightly on the planet and how do we confront these big changes in our own lives. That’s more difficult, I’m so aware of my own hypocrisy. But I think for me, the most important thing what is my gift, what can I do what’s my piece of the mosaic. I write. So, writing is my activism. I tell stories. I come from a culture where they say a woman’s voice does not matter. My voice matters. And if my voice matters, your voice matters. If I tell you a story, you will tell me yours. And in that we take courage from one another. I think we have to remember, that we all have the same color blood that we all live on the same kind of planet. And what we are going to do with one beautiful life. I want to protect what I love.

Ok, so last and last question that, we actually try to ask this question quite often to the people whom we are inspired. It is a quite simple and straightforward question. But I think it’s not easy to answer. Where the world is heading, do you think?

– Where is the world heading?… I think it’s yet to be determined. I don’t know. I hope that the world is heading toward a greater sense of empathy toward one another and the planet. I hope that the world is heading toward a new renaissance, a new transformation, and you and I have this conversation from America to Turkey. If we don’t find that empathy, if we don’t find that action, if we don’t find hope in action, then I fear where we’re heading is our own extinction. And the animals among us, the plants among us, and the poorest of the poor among us are showing us the future. So when we hear from the icon painter that they paint the saints with a bright sadness, that’s what I’m feeling now, is a bright sadness as a writer. We need to grieve, we need to know that there is a real world, that is really dying and we need each of us to pick our paper, our paint brush, or microphone, or classroom and do the work that is ours to do with the utmost integrity and fervor.

Terry Tempest Williams, thank you very much.

– Thank you.

Interview: Ümit Şahin – Yeşil Gazete

(Yeşil Gazete)


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