First, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit’s visit to the UK and the Tyneside Cinema was cancelled. She was going to be talking about her new memoir Recollections of My Non- Existence (Granta 2020) and I wasn’t the only one looking forward to the chance to see and hear her live. Her writing leaves a lasting impression, like the delicate print of a leaf, combining the lyrical and personal with the political and polemical in work that is reliably lucid and compelling. She’s spoken about being someone who’s always seen patterns, and in her books and essays, she’s always connecting, joining the dots to see the bigger picture, the forms and flaws and flux that reveal our humanity.
In advance of the memoir’s publication, we decided to read her latest book of essays Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters (Granta 2019) for our first Climate Reading Group choice in March. It was exciting to see the session quickly become fully booked. Then, that had to be cancelled too, like everything else at the moment involving people coming together with a risk to public health. It’s ironic that this is the context for my reporting on her book online, as the force of Solnit’s argument about where we find ourselves concentrates on the power of collective action:
Positive social change results mostly from connecting more deeply to the people around you rather than rising above them, from coordinated rather than solo action.
The essays were all written between 2017 and 2019, previously appearing in places like the Guardian, Harper’s, Literary Hub and New Republic. This book that collects them together is divided into two parts. The first, called ‘The Shouters and The Silenced’, recounts damning instances of patriarchal violence and injustice, focussing on issues such as political and cultural representation, misogyny, sexual harassment, rape, abortion, anger and honesty.
The second section, called ‘Openings’, is more upbeat and looks at positive advances in female visibility in public life and the effectiveness of solidarity and collectivity in tackling social change, and the Climate Crisis in particular:
Maybe we as a society are getting tired of heroes, and a lot of us are certainly getting tired of overconfident white men. Even the idea that the solution will be singular and dramatic and in the hands of one person erases that the solutions to problems are often complex and many-faceted and arrived at via negotiations. The solution to climate change is planting trees but also transitioning (rapidly) away from fossil fuels but also implementing energy efficiency and significant design changes but also a dozen more things about soil and agriculture and transportation and how systems work. There is no one solution, but there are many pieces that add up to a solution, or rather to a modulation of the problem of climate change.
She quotes environmentalist Bill McKibben: ‘The most effective thing you can do about climate as an individual is to stop being an individual.’ It is impossible to read this now without an awareness of the coronavirus outbreak. What Solnit calls for is ‘public love’, an emphasis on the needs of the community rather than the individual. The Climate Crisis might not have united everyone yet, but the global pandemic has the potential to be world-changing, a chance to really recognise how we are all intimately interconnected. Emerging from a state of shock and numbness, people are already starting to talk about this time opening into a change for the better, in all elements of society.
Reflecting on research for a previous book A Paradise Built in Hell, The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009), Solnit says she found that at times of crisis:
ordinary people generally behave magnificently, taking care of each other and improvising rescues and creating the conditions of survival, connecting with each other in ways they might not in everyday life and sometimes finding in that connection something so valuable and meaningful that their stories about who they were, and met, and what they did, shine with joy.
We may not be able physically to come together and connect but we are all linked by this virus that does not discriminate on grounds of race, gender, sexuality, class or even age. We have no choice now but to go more slowly, take stock, and ask the same questions as Solnit – practical and ethical – how to occupy a position of integrity in this world we all live in? How to make a society in which everyone’s story gets told? How to re-imagine our metaphors and strategies to create a fairer, kinder system?
At a time when everything is so unpredictable, it is easier to imagine anything might be possible, utopian, dystopian or a mixture of both. I remember a Women’s Press postcard I used as a bookmark in the 1980s with a quote from Gloria Steinem: ‘Everything is so dangerous, nothing is really frightening.’ Ideas and movements seeking to redress the balance of power, as Rebecca Solnit takes pains to point out, do not happen out of the blue – many small incremental changes have been taking place to result in what we are seeing building now into these ‘new chapters’.
As is her way, introducing allusions from many different disciplines, she also mentions the principle of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, a geological term ‘that proposes that life on Earth evolves not steadily but with long uneventful intervals ruptured by epochal change.’ For a long time, it looks as if nothing is happening, and then all of a sudden…
Ultimately, Solnit always comes down on the side of love, backed up by equanimity. In her essay on rage – male and female – she concludes ‘Love is essential; anger is perhaps optional’. She understands that ‘anger is something that can devour you’. Better to take time to reflect before saying what needs to be said, because ‘the power to define your own experience is one of the powers that matter most.’
She’s very good at asking ‘what if’, imagining possibilities beyond the status quo. ‘If I were a Man’ is a wonderful thought-experiment exploring all the differences that a switch in gender might initiate in a life. She employs a similar strategy but from a negative perspective elsewhere when she asks ‘what if white men weren’t in power?’ Neither is she afraid of dreaming or a necessary bluntness: ‘I just wish we were all free.’
Reading her essays, I am educated and informed – about what is happening in the US at least, much of which translates itself across the Atlantic. I am also appalled by the evidence she so painstakingly lays out before us, as if she were Portia in court, proving the double bind women are in – reviled for speaking out, ignored for staying silent. It’s still easy to agree with activist Fannie Lou Hamer, back in 1964, who said ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired’.
I am inspired by her ability to put into words trains of thought that I was vaguely aware of but not able to articulate. The essays in the second section especially are rallying and encouraging: imaginative models for thinking differently and being unreasonable when it matters. For example, she catalogues instances of a deep shift, particularly in relation to climate:
Twenty-one young people are suing the federal government over climate change in a suit that should go forward next year, and a fifteen-year-old Swedish girl was one of the most compelling voices at the 2018 climate summit in Poland. Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez’s victories were among this year’s beautiful surprises, and she brings with her momentum for a Green New Deal that is, among other things, the capacity to imagine and embrace profound change (and that, a poll shows, is embraced by 80 per cent of the population).
As we missed the chance to have her here in Newcastle, you could do what I did (if you haven’t already) and watch her marvellous YouTube interview with Emma Watson. Their lively conversation covers a lot of the ground contained in this book of essays as well as its overlap with the new memoir, revealing something of the woman behind the words – those 25 books that are ‘all secretly about feminism’, she says, that she was only able to write because she has ‘successfully avoided husbands, children and a day job’.
It’s also worth looking up an excellent interview in her local paper the San Francisco Chronicle, where she talks, amongst other things, about the fascination with change that you can trace through all her work and admits that she is ‘nostalgic for people who know where the hell they are’. Most people have a degree of caution around change but it seems like Rebecca Solnit goes out to meet it. It is her subject, which is what makes her one of the most important voices we need to be listening to right now. At the end of her ‘Letter to the March 15, 2019, Climate Strikers’, she leaves us with this timely advice: ‘Don’t ask what will happen. Be what happens.’
Stay safe and well,