Writers, the future is still yours

On a long sojourn in Iceland during the strange year that was 2008, I was talking to the writer Andri Magnason who took seriously my quip that after Barack Obama became president, I’d write nothing but haiku. Six months later, Obama’s on the cusp of assuming the mantle of most powerful man on Earth, and I’m definitely not going to write haiku. But like billions of others, I feel a yoke lifting and my mission broadening.

After Sept. 11, the editor Tom Engelhardt started sending around non-mainstream news with commentary that grew into the website In a way, Sept. 11 made Tom, or located for him a powerful editorial mission. When the Iraq war broke out, something similar happened to me: I wrote an essay on hope and history to counter the despair I encountered and got it on and thus began a new writing life.

Obama illustration: An illustration of Barack Obama that accompanied an essay by Rebecca Solnit last Sunday was incorrectly credited to Zack Trenholm. It was by Jacob Thomas. —

I found in this first venture onto the Web an ability to speak directly to the emotions and possibilities of a given moment, and I found in the Internet an amazing way to circulate my ideas. It was a new kind of writing, more potent and direct in many ways than the more historical/reflective stuff I’ve mostly done.

Thus began a friendship and collaboration with Tom. My most recent piece appeared in late December, on white vigilante murders in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Certainly, the institutional panic and brutality of that 2005 catastrophe epitomized an era that in some ways made the coming one possible. Obama was all but unimaginable six years ago when the Iraq war started, or 3 1/2 years ago when 30,000 people, mostly black, were stranded and abandoned in New Orleans.

The coming era doesn’t mean that anyone can quit being political. After all, Obama, who is merely impressive as an individual, is unstoppable as a phenomenon created out of the collective hopes and desires of the public, which must continue dreaming and prodding him forward to make the world we want to see.

But the work is now broader and deeper. We have the opportunity to push forward, and perhaps that’s what writers always do in relatively good times: make a culture and its possibilities, move forward the collective imagination, draw out fugitive meanings and desires. We are moving into not only an Obama era, but also one in which the engines of reckless consumption have been acknowledged to be ruinous, and we have to imagine what else wealth and pleasure can consist of, what else societies can be, who else each and all of us can be.

That’s a political task, but one that can be answered only with something akin to poetry.

Solnit is the author of many books, including “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West” and “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.”