Author Solnit assesses social progress at Arts and Letters talk
By Lou Fancher
Even better than listening to two best-selling authors chat like chums at Berkeley’s Hillside Club is watching celebrated writers dislodge their literary halos and reveal their humanity.
Which was arguably independent bookstore Booksmith’s purpose in bringing together Rebecca Solnit and Jeff Chang at a sold out Berkeley Arts & Letters presentation March 16. The subjects at hand — feminism, the 2016 presidential election, pink pussy hats, revolution, hope, et al. — rose from the Bay Area-based authors’ most recent books. The series hosts national and local authors and includes an audience Q&A and book-signing.
Solnit’s “The Mother of All Questions: Further Reports from the Feminist Revolutions” is a collection of essays on subjects ranging from being silenced to breaking the gender binary story. She is the author of 16 books and a contributing editor to Harper’s.
“We Gon’ Be Alright, Notes On Race and Resegregation,” offers Chang’s essays on race. He is executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University and author of four books on race and hip-hop culture.
Down-to-earth moments had Chang bussing his own beverage; barely juggling a water pitcher and glass. Solnit in the conversation’s final minutes discovered the lure of leaning back in the slouchy wicker chair had left her mouth far from the microphone and full-volume delivery.
No matter, because dexterity prevailed: Chang deftly prodded Solnit into dazzling declarations — she was best when minimally prompted and allowed to ramble beyond rhetoric to sincerity. Solnit didn’t need volume to speak with power: high intellect and quick wit sufficed.
Solnit’s visits in 2016 to Standing Rock, North Dakota, and a get-out-the-vote effort in Reno, Nevada, placed her in the company of two supporters of President Donald Trump.
She said the encounters demonstrated that people were “voting for a man who was completely fictitious. It was their imaginary, ideal Trump. Their platonic Trump.” Instead, she said, “Come on, the guy is Wall Street.”
Postelection, she finds encouragement in people’s “ferociously, energetically, outspoken” opposition to the president’s positions on immigration, women’s and civil rights, the environment and more.
Her book, she says, centers on feminism’s intent to counter women’s enforced silence, to gain agency, to view gender issues as whole systems. “The way this book is different (from a previous book) is that it’s as much about men and children as it is about women, but it’s all feminist.”
During discussion about the Brock Turner case, rape and male violence, Solnit’s compassion for victim and perpetrator foreshadowed the conversation’s eventual turn from racism, sexism, anger, hate and social dysfunction to remedies and hope.
Turner is the former Stanford University student convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault on an unconscious woman in 2015.
“There’s a way that men’s bodies are weaponized. You feel that in the Brock Turner case,” she said. But the victim’s statement published on BuzzFeed demanded justice and was part of the wellspring from which she draws hope, Solnit said.
Similarly for people of color, she said Beyoncé is “the Virginia Woolfe of hip-hop.” Woolfe, she said, is a model of wholeness, a priestess of uncertainty and a writer whose work allows women to avoid being pigeonholed.
Examining the arc of history from 1961 to today, she said that although the Trump election is “a pretty bleak event,” progress is evident in that marital rape is no longer protected by law, sexual harassment workplace protections exist, Ivy League schools admit women, and increased social acceptance is global and irreversible for LBGTQ, women, environmentalists, people of color and others.
Rejecting the passivity of pessimism and optimism, she said that hope is expressed by operating on a sense of possibility and with acceptance of uncertainty.
“Anger will eat your insides out,” she said, but outrage and love for justice andother things of value, Solnit said sustains people personally and politically. “A deep sense that this should not be so and I will do what I can to change it,” she suggested is a worthy, revolutionary path.