Telling It Straight in Essays
By Lou Fancher
Diving into Rebecca Solnit’s collection of feminist essays in The Mother of All Questions is a brave, watery affair. The Bay Area writer’s follow-up to the best-selling Men Explain Things to Me is chilling, like the ocean off coastal Alaska. At other times, Solnit’s inferno of brilliant writing boils hotter than the hottest geyser at Yellowstone Park—or is oddly soothing, like a warm bath that removes not just joint pain but the soreness of a soul aching for a sister to “tell it straight.”
Addressing oppressive silence, misogynistic and violent societies, gender binary, the idea of women as people who “must marry, must breed, must let men in and babies out, like some elevator for the species” and other social schisms, Solnit cautions a reader that “categories are leaky.”
The essays aren’t a blame game directed merely at men, who gain the author’s sympathy for having to stifle their sensitive selves to acquire power. Solnit describes women’s cultural history that includes an inclination to “tend-and-befriend,” instead of practicing the art of refusal when asked to answer show- and thought-stopper questions. The most common “bad question” she encounters or is asked about accomplished female authors like Virginia Woolf who chose not to reproduce, is a variation on, “Why don’t you/why didn’t she have children?” Never mind the exquisite intellect and artistry of the novels, essays, and books a female writer might have produced or be able to create.
Solnit is the author of 17 books, a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, and writes in the essay’s introduction that writing is for her a “fairly consuming vocation.”
Climbing out of the womb, the essays investigate the obstacles and opportunities for women and other marginalized people who are intent on life’s meaningful pursuits. For Solnit, that means work, literature, travel, adventures, uprisings against the plight of oppressed black men and people who try to justify rape and domestic violence, feminist and civil rights activism, meditation both secular and spiritual on literature, politics, history, and more. With social media’s movement from the fringes to center stage, truth is more elusive than ever before, she suggests.
Which means discernment is a vital survival skill, regardless of gender, race, sexual, or ethnic identity. As is empathy, love, the giving up of control, the washing clean of self-deception that says, “I alone am special,” instead of “I’m but one of all of these other special people.” Not every word Solnit says is to be taken verbatim. Not every forceful opinion will be shared. But an underlying idea—that imagination is a fountain of diversity and well-written words and deep thinking provide buoyant hope for a more accepting world—is Solnit’s surprising and arguably best answer to the mother of all questions.