What does it mean to be hopeful right now, when we have a president who is openly hostile to many Americans and hope can feel like a privilege reserved for those who aren’t targets? The day after Trump won the election, the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, always an exacting observer of language and its uses, defined hope on Facebook as “not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine,” but rather the acknowledgement that “when you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.” She also posted a link where her treatise on the topic, Hope in the Dark, could be downloaded for free.
That book was a call to action published during the difficult Bush years, in 2004, while the essays collected in Solnit’s new book, The Mother of All Questions, were composed between 2014 and 2016—years that Solnit credits with a revitalization of the American women’s movement. Of course, the 2016 election has since made a mockery of that narrative in the minds of many. It would be easy for Solnit’s radiant descriptions of this decade’s “gorgeously transformative” feminism to land, in today’s atmosphere, with the thud of an inadvertent joke. Instead, these essays make the case for placing one’s faith, and pouring one’s energy, into channels that can irrigate our culture under any regime: art, activism, and the telling of stories that animate both. The resulting collection provides, to borrow the author’s phrase, a bit of much-needed hope in the dark.
The book’s title, from an essay in Harper’s—where Solnit is a columnist—helps to frame Solnit’s exploration of the shapes women’s lives take, with or without the traditional linchpin of motherhood: She is interested in writing books and raising movements more than she is interested in changing diapers. In that titular essay, she lambastes interviewers who can’t seem to stop asking why doesn’t she have children. It’s a line of inquiry rife with assumptions about women’s role in the world, “a closed question,” Solnit says, intended to “push you into the herd or nip at you for diverging from it.” To Solnit, the open question—the motherlode—isn’t why a life fails to look a certain way, but how it can succeed in being meaningful, whether through parenthood or through “so much other work love has to do in the world.”
For Solnit, some of that other work entails playing the matriarch to a generation of younger feminists with refreshing generosity. While she was working on these essays, Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler was accusing feminism of selling out completely, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz was complaining about young women’s “complacency.” Solnit, though, celebrates what others have dismissed as “hashtag feminism.” Social media, she writes, is “like a barn raising for ideas: innumerable people bring their experiences, insights, analysis, new terms, and frameworks. These then become part of the fabric of everyday life, and when that happens, the world has changed.” Not changed completely, perhaps, but changed enough to make room near the center for the voices that once clung for dear life to the edges.
Solnit also grapples eloquently with a challenge that dogs all feminist writing: How does one write about the oppression women suffer at the hands of men without reinforcing the atavistic idea that woman and man are inelastic designations, with little in common and nothing in between? Solnit argues for the importance of categories, the power of naming things, as a tool for confronting the problems we face. As a potent example, she points out that “we don’t even have a word, let alone a conversation, for the most common kind of mass homicide,” proposing the term familicide:
[T]he furious man who takes out children and other family members or sometimes coworkers or bystanders, as well as the woman who’s the main focus of his ire, and sometimes himself. The lack of a category means the lack of terms to describe a common phenomenon and thus to recognize its parameters and their commonness. If categories cage, this is a phenomenon overdue for containment.
At the same time, all categories are “leaky,” she writes, none more so than the ones that seek to capture our identities. “Really, what I’m arguing for is the possibility of an art of using and not using category,” she writes, “of being deft and supple and imaginative or maybe just fully awake in how we imagine and describe the world and our experience of it.” This is Solnit’s prose at its best: luminous with confidence that we can learn, that we may already be learning.
Solnit’s sentences thrum with conviction, but she is not, one feels in this book, writing to persuade anyone. The titular essay of her previous collection, Men Explain Things to Me—which opens with a man seeking to enlighten Solnit about the contents of her own book—is cracklingly funny, and perhaps for some readers, disarmingly so. This new book’s essays traverse similar territory without quite as much nimble variation in tone. In the newest essay in the book, “A Short History of Silence,” Solnit quotes the poet Adrienne Rich’s cutting critique of Virginia Woolf’s venerated “A Room of One’s Own”: “Virginia Woolf is addressing an audience of women, but she is acutely conscious—as she always was—of being overheard by men.” Solnit seems to have banished that consciousness from some of these essays, and if the resulting prose occasionally wields her vast knowledge like a blunt object, it also serves up a heady feeling of liberation, rushing forward unimpeded by the effort to charm, to play it cool.
Feminism, Solnit writes, is “remaking the world” through the telling of women’s stories—an effort she deems both “wildly successful” and “extremely incomplete.” “A Short History of Silence” weaves together many of her primary threads: how telling one’s story affirms one’s personhood; how silence is imposed, especially on women; how the means of that silencing can range from snide interruption (or, as fans of Men Explain Things to Me labeled it, “mansplaining”) to physical violence. She writes: “Silence is forever being broken, and then like waves lapping over the footprints, the sandcastles and washed-up shells and seaweed, silence rises again.” Solnit’s voice shows us what it means to refuse to be drowned out, and how doing so creates the hope that you, along with many others, can change the world. “A free person tells her own story,” Solnit writes. “A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit. Haymarket Books.
Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.