Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Men Explain Things to Me’, without a doubt her most popular essay, is partially responsible for the entry of the word ‘mansplaining’ into popular discourse. In an introduction she wrote in 2012, Solnit gives her two cents on the feminist portmanteau: ‘mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.’ The essay is a lighthearted yet firm meditation on the ways in which men don’t listen to women, and too often feel the need to make women listen to them. As well as mansplaining, we find a pretty succinct definition of another term that’s become more visible in feminist discourse – gaslighting. ‘On two occasions around that time, I objected to the behavior of a man, only to be told that the incidents hadn’t happened at all as I said, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest – in a nutshell, female.’ For anyone who’s ever been mansplained to, for anyone still mansplaining in 2019, for anyone with parents or friends who ‘just don’t get’ the contemporary feminist conversation: Rebecca Solnit’s got you covered.
New Yorker, 2014
Like any good journalist, Solnit credits her sources, and the same is true for her inspirations. This particular essay is an eloquent and effusive exploration of Virginia Woolf’s decision not to have children, a theme she expands on in ‘The Mother of All Questions’, the titular essay of a later book. In, ‘Woolf’s Darkness’, Solnit moves through the Romantic idea of ‘negative capability’, to her and Woolf’s shared love of walking, to musing on those unseen and half-seen realms of feeling about which Woolf could write better than anyone.
‘The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism.’
New Yorker, 2016
She’s not a New Yorker, but given her knowledge of the city, you’d think Solnit was a native of America’s most iconic metropolis, like her idol Susan Sontag. In ‘City of Women’, she takes a whistle-stop tour through the history of New York City by way of its nomenclature, which is – no surprises here – nigh on exclusively male. There are a few exceptions, but they hardly go acknowledged; the long stretch of Fulton Street that is co-named Harriet Ross Tubman Avenue is not recognised as such by Google Maps. For all the statues in New York, only five of them are named after women. Having made it inescapably clear that New York City, at least by name, is shaped to reflect a male reality, Solnit conjectures what it would be like if the city had been born and grown in a non-patriarchal world.
With help from the cartographer Molly Roy, she draws a subway map where every stop is the name of a famous woman who at one time lived thereabouts. 68th-Street Hunter College station becomes Audre Lorde; Riverside is Assata Shakur; Rector Street on the 1 train gives way to Toni Morrison, and a few stops north is Susan B. Anthony; Lady Gaga, Letitia James and Lola Rodriguez de Tío puncutate the J and L trains’ movement into Queens and Brooklyn. As you pore over the map, overwhelmed by the sheer density of the feminist pantheon that at one time or another lived in New York, you see an essential theme of Solnit’s work writ large: there is so often power and knowledge to be gained or redistributed in the fair and thoughtful naming of things.
Solnit puts her deft cultural and demographic analysis of San Francisco in the ‘technocratic’ era of Google, Facebook and Twitter alongside a moment-to-moment breakdown of what happened to Alex Nieto up to and after the night of his brutal killing by four police officers. She misses none of the facts and highlights the essential details: from biased and racist descriptions of Nieto by white passers-by to the 911 dispatch, to wicked and deceitful invocations of his ‘mental health’ issues by police retrospectively looking to cover their tracks. The version you can read online at the Guardian website is shorter than the one that appears in her book Call Them by Their True Names, followed there by a short essay on another at-risk San Francisco demographic: the homeless. Nevertheless, ‘Death by Gentrification’ is Solnit at her best, a writer who knows when to hold forth, and when to bring other voices into the conversation, like the lawyer Adriana Camarena, who worked pro bono on Nieto’s case: ‘One of the most important changes in my path being involved in the Alex Nieto case has been to learn more about restorative practices, because as someone trained in legal systems, I know that the pain and fear that we are not safe from police in our communities will not go away until there is personal accountability by those who harm us.’
Given Solnit’s deep interest in American social history, it’s no surprise that she came to write about Detroit. Once the fourth-largest city in America, it is now a byword for urban collapse in the minds of many Americans. As she puts it, Detroit ‘made a complete arc in a single century.’ Her 2007 essay in Harper’s includes a brief history of the city, from its race riots, to Ford’s ultimately doomed mass-industrialisation, to the slow, ‘post-American’ efforts at regeneration, equal parts eerie and utopian. Solnit is the inquisitive walker in Detroit, almost the flâneur, and her inquisition yields compelling fruit. A high point of the essay is her description of efforts made by Detroit citizens to use vacant space in the city:
‘I also saw the lush three-acre Earth Works Garden, launched by Capuchin monks in 1999 and now growing organic produce for a local soup kitchen. I saw a 4-H garden in a fairly ravaged east-side neighborhood, and amid the utter abandonment of the west side, I saw the handsome tiled buildings of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a school for teenage mothers that opens on to a working farm, complete with apple orchard, horses, ducks, long rows of cauliflower and broccoli, and a red barn the girls built themselves. I met Ashley Atkinson, the young project manager for The Greening of Detroit, and heard about the hundred community gardens they support, and the thousands more food gardens that are not part of any network. The food they produce, Atkinson told me, provides food security for many Detroiters. “Urban farming, dollar for dollar, is the most effective change agent you can ever have in a community,” she said.’
‘He was supposed to be a great maker of things, but he was mostly a breaker. He acquired buildings and women and enterprises and treated them all alike, promoting and deserting them, running into bankruptcies and divorces, treading on lawsuits the way a lumberjack of old walked across the logs floating on their way to the mill, but as long as he moved in his underworld of dealmakers the rules were wobbly and the enforcement was wobblier and he could stay afloat. But his appetite was endless, and he wanted more, and he gambled to become the most powerful man in the world, and won, careless of what he wished for.’
It will come as no surprise that Rebecca Solnit has written numerous essays decrying the current president of the USA. Written almost like a parable, drawing on fairytales, Alexander Pushkin and Hannah Arendt, this critique of Trump is a poetic interrogation of power – how it corrupts, how it isolates. Not merely a political broadside of a cartoon villain, Solnit’s insights on privilege are subtle and empathetic enough that they might just make you rethink your own life.
While there are many more peerless essays on feminism, it wouldn’t be fair to make a Rebecca Solnit Reader without including her environmental writing. A lifelong nature lover and hiker, throughout her career she has been a strong voice on the violence done to the planet. In this column for the Guardian, now five years old but still just as relevant, she argues that climate change is violence – and should be described as such. Again showing her attention to the power of language, she writes, ‘the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality’. Written in response to a press release which claimed that ‘ordinary people will behave badly in an era of intensified climate change’, she notes that the conflict that arises in response to climate change arises because climate change is itself a form of violence. Solnit writes, ‘Rather than worrying about whether ordinary human beings will react turbulently to the destruction of the very means of their survival, let’s worry about that destruction – and their survival.’ As the term ‘ecocide’ enters common parlance more and more, this essay is a stirring call to arms to see climate change as ‘violence from above’. Indeed, this is perhaps what Rebecca Solnit’s essays can do so piercingly: to notice and name everyday violence, and to inspire us to fight it.
Rebecca Solnit’s new collection Whose Story Is This? is available now from Granta Books.
Photograph © Jim Herrington