Review

Rebecca Solnit tries to answer 'The Mother of All Questions'

“I have been waiting all my life for what 2014 has brought,” Rebecca Solnit writes in “The Mother of All Questions,” a new collection of feminist essays that follows her 2014 hit “Men Explain Things to Me.” That year, she celebrated a thunderous wave of women’s empowerment, “an enormous change in the collective consciousness,” which played out in, for example, the outpouring of stories from survivors of harassment and sexual violence under the hashtag #yesallwomen after the Isla Vista killings, the arrest of Jian Ghomeshi and public conversations about Dylan Farrow, Ray Rice and kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. “It was a watershed year for women, and for feminism,” she writes, “as we refused to accept the pandemic of violence against women — the rape, the murder, the beatings, the harassment on the streets and the threats online.”

In 2017, as we contend with a president elected by 52% of white female voters, even after a recording of him boasting about groping women surfaced during the campaign, this sticks in the throat somewhat. Yet Solnit’s own work provides a remedy to the sometimes jarring experience of reading, in 2017, these essays from the last few tumultuous years in the women’s movement. Her vision of progress holds that history is neither linear nor predictable; that trying matters and often yields results, even if they’re not exactly the ones you wanted or expected; and, crucially, that as progressives face such uncertainty, they must celebrate their victories. This is an invaluable vision for activists wishing to avoid burnout in the current climate, and many have flocked to it: Solnit’s manifesto “Hope in the Dark” sold out after the election. In its content, “The Mother of All Questions” reinforces Solnit’s gift of hope; in the circumstances of its publication in this bleak year, it obliges readers to put it to use.

Solnit is the author of 17 books, and in the variety of their topics you see the connective nature of her imagination: They focus on landscape, politics, empathy, hope, art and feminism, among other subjects. She’s often described as a writer, historian and activist, but you could equally think of her as a poet of the ineffable. In her best moments, she takes readers to dark, unmapped places, where she doesn’t turn on the light so much as rejoice in the darkness, the potential of the as-yet unknown.

For instance: “The Mother of All Questions” begins with a long meditation on silence. “Who has been unheard?” Solnit asks. The sea of the unheard, she answers, “is vast, and the surface of the ocean unmappable.” The drops in this sea of silence are overwhelmingly women’s stories, though there are men in there too, because under patriarchy, everybody loses somehow. Many of those silenced narratives are now lost to history, but Solnit wades into the waters to celebrate the stories that are beginning to emerge; Bill Cosby  recurs, as does the #yesallwomen phenomenon.

In the second half of the collection, Solnit turns her attention from the sea of silence to some of the narratives that have successfully emerged from it: There’s the “man the hunter” myth, which falsely holds that the role of woman-as-homemaker is hardwired into humanity; there’s “80 Books No Woman Should Read,” which riffs on an odious Esquire article to prod at the misogyny of Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, William S. Burroughs and others; there’s the story with no protagonist: the way in which society pins rape on women, rather than rapists.

Solnit’s connective imagination often functions by boiling things down to essences, and in “The Mother of All Questions,” the key essence is silence, “the universal condition of oppression.” There are the silences that spring readily to mind — those imposed by social norms and by law — but in Solnit’s reckoning, shame, humiliation, politeness, trauma and discrediting, as well as violence, rape, and the threat of them, work by the same mechanism. Solnit brings everyday aggressions into new focus, and outlines a cohesive phenomenon where we might have seen a series of isolated events.

Notably absent, however, are the silences perpetrated by women against other women: the ways in which privileged women — often straight, white and cisgender (identifying with the sex they were born with)  — silence gay, bisexual and trans women and women of color, even and sometimes especially within the feminist movement. In 2014, while Solnit celebrated that “enormous change in the collective consciousness,” women of color repeatedly pointed out that mainstream feminism often failed to recognize their experiences. In August 2013, writer Mikki Kendall launched the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, partly out of frustration with some of the feminists Solnit had championed. It trended worldwide. 

This kind of privileged feminism is sometimes at play in “The Mother of All Questions.” For instance, Solnit writes: “Women who are assaulted by celebrities matter. So do the Native women in the United States and Canada who face exceptionally high rates of sexual assault, rape, and murder.” In a book that focuses heavily on sexual violence, this is the only reference to the disproportionate dangers faced by Native women. 

Celebrating victories is important, but it must be balanced by a strong sense of all that remains to be done, and all those who have yet to benefit. Solnit often notes the importance of an intersectional view, yet she rarely centers the experiences of women dealing with multiple forms of oppression. This is important: If you happen to be privileged, the fear and hatred others face sit in your blind spot, which can cause celebrating victories to stall into the sort of liberal complacency  that made Nov. 8 a terrible shock to so many.

As described in “Men Explain Things to Me,” Solnit subscribes to a Pandora’s box vision of progress, in which an idea, once released, can never be put back in its box.  She works to bear witness to what comes out of the box, naming ideas and linking events into stories of progress. The project champions narrative, and the narrative she claims in “The Mother of All Questions” is one of some progress amid limitations and setbacks. It would benefit from a more vivid sense of those who will be most gravely affected by those limitations and setbacks — namely immigrant women, women of color, trans women, gay women and others frequently neglected by mainstream feminism — for whom those in positions of relative privilege and safety must take Solnit’s gift of hope and keep pushing.

Robins is a writer and translator who lives in Los Angeles. 

The Mother of All Questions

Rebecca Solnit

Haymarket Books: 180pp., $14.95 paper

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