Men Explain Things to Me. Hope In the Dark. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Storming the Gates of Paradise. The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. These are just a few of the titles written by the writer Rebecca Solnit, a brilliant prose writer, sharp cultural critic, and vocal environmental advocate.
In addition to writing some twenty-odd books on feminism, western & indigenous history, and power & social change, among other topics, Solnit also frequently contributes essays to LitHub, a popular book industry website. Her essays are as wide-ranging as her long form prose, and lately Solnit’s LitHub pieces have focused on American political commentary and the current cultural moment. Whose country is this? she asks in one piece about the narrative of small town America. Other pieces discuss the gaslighting of America, unconscious bias, and the flawed idea of the lone hero.
I’ve read a number of Solnit’s books over the years, and am excited each time I discover a new piece of her writing, but the first time I saw her speak on her work in person just happened to be November 10th, 2016. There was an event at the Los Angeles Public Library, and she was speaking to promote the last of her trilogy of atlases of New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco—the last, Nonstop Metropolis on the city of New York, having just been published. And we’d all—author, moderator, audience—lived through the trauma of the days prior, so the talk ended up circling around conversations about atlases, history, and mapping, but also historical & systemic marginalization in cities, the things and people which are made invisible, and those that aren’t.
Listening to Solnit parse all this out was a balm of thoughtful language and carefully considered ideas, in a week in which one of the most unreliable narrators of reality was named President-elect, successor to the position commonly regarded as unofficial “Leader of the Free World” (notwithstanding the existing issues with that nomenclature, including the US’s role in disrupting Central and South American democracies throughout the twentieth century). Her arguments stood in stark contrast to the rhetoric of that lesser orator, the one who would be President—whether she’s speaking to an auditorium or writing a case for thinking critically about what we really mean by unconscious bias, or likable, or qualified, Solnit’s thesis and supporting points are not only clear, but based in reality and empathy and humanity.