Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Nora Caplan-Bricker on Rebecca Solnit: The Work Love Has to Do

Rebecca Solnit’s radiant descriptions of today’s feminism could sound laughably oblivious. Instead, they feel like a ray of hope in the dark.

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.”

Solnit’s sentences thrum with conviction, but she is not, one feels in this book, writing to persuade anyone. 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? 
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