I like Rebecca Solnit. Her monthly column alone is a reason to subscribe to Harper’s. I read it even before Findings or the Index. I follow her on Facebook because her hot takes are inevitably smart takes. Besides, I like the way she uses language. Whether she is talking about the environment, feminism, her own life, or a current story in the news, there is no carelessness with her words. She thinks about meaning and it shows.
So I was eager to read The Mother of All Questions, her newest book of essays. The title essay addresses the expectation that women must have children to be fully realized. She was surprised when discussing Virginia Woolf how many people wondered whether she should have had children–children whose needs might have kept her from writing. Solnit wrote, “Many people make babies; only one made To the Lighthouse and Three Guineas.” I think I was twelve when I declared my intention to never have children. I have never wavered, never daydreamed about children. I think kids are adorable, funny, fascinating, and I like them very much, but not for me. This essay was such a pleasure to read because she challenges the many foolish ideas that sustain this ludicrous idea that only through parenthood can someone have a full life.
The rest of the book is divided into two sections. The first is about silence, silencing the voices of those who are on the downside of power and most specifically silencing women. She notes there has been a shift–”a shift in power that is partly a shift in whose story gets told and believed, and who does the telling.” She talks about rape, domestic violence, sexual assault and how the narrative is driven by men silence women and how social media is challenging that. She is enthusiastic about more men speaking up against rape and sexual assault. The second section is about changing the narrative, challenging the prehistoric assumptions about women and women’s role. She includes essays about books, men explaining things to her, even the movie Giant.
I was reading the essay “The Pigeonholes When the Doves Have Flown” the day after three people were stabbed on the Portland MAX at 42nd. Two died, one is in the hospital with a broken jaw and stitches from his ear to his Adam’s apple. The first news story, before there were any specifics, the police were suggesting mental illness or drinking as some mitigating excuse. They had not questioned anyone or taken statements, but they had a reason to minimize the role of white supremacy in his actions. The ensuing silence of the national media, the utter disregard of national politicians, and the reluctance of those in power to name this white supremacist’s murder and attempted murder as domestic terrorism was reflected in her essay.
“We don’t hear a lot of generalizations about whiteness, and Roof or Charles Manson is not considered a disgrace to his race or gender. Being treated as beyond or outside category may be a kind of privilege, a status as an individual rather than a specimen…For example, the thing that until very recently was almost never said about modern mass shootings is that almost all of them have been by men, and most of the men have been white. Instead, such incidents are usually framed either as mysterious and terribly surprising, or about mental illness and other specifics that make each shooting unique, like snowflakes.”
Many of the essays were familiar. Since I follow her and she often shares the links to her columns, I have read many of them already, but they have a different kind of substance when they are gathered together. Although many touch on salient news stories such as especially ignorant CDC health advisory about drinking, these are not essays with a sell-by date. Solnit goes beyond the individual event to reveal the framework of systemic oppression and unconsidered, unexamined and habituated misogyny and racism. Of course, one reason these essays won’t age is because these awful categorizations will continue.
What amazes me with Solnit’s ability to analyze and dissect what is happening, to reveal the outrageous with a calm certainty. I know she must feel anger, but her writing is like the eye of the storm, calm and clear. This does not mean she is dispassionate. Her passion is everywhere, but she is in control. This makes her an effective communicator and a treasure for our times.