March 23, 2017
The Mother of All Questions, by Rebecca Solnit
“There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” —Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions
Do you remember where you were when you discovered Rebecca Solnit? I do—I was listening to The Sunday Edition on CBC and she was talking about her book, The Faraway Nearby, a book that had a line of prose running throughout the bottom of every page. I read The Faraway Nearby, and fell in love with it, writing this effusive response. This was in 2013. In 2013, we still didn’t know that the world would fall apart and that I’d come to rely on Rebecca Solnit so much to put the pieces back together.
Solnit started particularly steeping in the zeitgeist with her 2012 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” which lead to the term “mansplaining” although she’s far too elegant a writer to have invented it. The essay was part of a collection of the same name on feminism that was published in 2014, which was the same year that many of the essays in her latest, The Mother of All Questions, were written. “I’ve been waiting all my life forget what 2014 has brought,” her essay, “An Insurrectionary Year” begins, about that “watershed year” in which conversations about rape and sexual violence started changing. It seems like a long time ago now.
There is a Rebecca Solnit book for every moment—and sometimes for two of them. Her collection of essays Hope in the Dark was first published 2004 in light of George Bush’s re-election and the American invasion in Iraq in spite of global demonstrations for peace the likes of which had never been seen before. After the 2016 US election, the book was reprinted and I read it with such gratitude—it gave me comfort. I was reading it as we marched on January 21, and it made me feel buoyant for the first time in months. It indeed brought me hope, and perspective. There have been hard times before, activism is always a process, it’s always too soon to go home, and that you never know what effects your actions will achieve. There are grounds for hope. It’s a reason to bother.
The Mother of All Questions is another book about feminism, although it reads less triumphantly than such a book might have a short time ago. Before the patriarchy saw fit to elect an incompetent sexual predator to its highest office, because the alternative was a smart and qualified woman who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. They sure showed her though, and all of us, where we’re at in terms of gender politics and equality. It is true that with the elections all my illusions about feminism and progress went kaput, and I’ve been functioning in a state of perpetual heartbreak ever since then. To think I’ve been raising my daughters to have a voice and to take for granted that their ideas and input would be valued by the world—what was I even thinking?
The ideas Solnit takes on here involve silences: “Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.” She writes about the people who weren’t permitted to speak, and the tales that weren’t allowed to be told. She writes about the men who are silenced by patriarchal forces, from being themselves, telling their own stories. She writes about rape, consent, domestic violence. She writes about the silence that occurs because no one is listening. About new and difficult conversations that have started to happen in the last twenty years or so, attempts to reconcile the unreconcilable (and the backlash). Most of these essays have appeared elsewhere and I’ve read a few of them, but it does me good to read them here assembled all together. There are many ways that I process the world, but reading Rebecca Solnit is a very important one of them. It’s true, I don’t read for her interrogation. I read her for comfort. Wanting comfort is not such a terrible thing.
However. “All your faves are problematic,” somebody tweeted last week, possibly in response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments about transwomen. And it’s true, and Adichie’s comments were ignorant and she’s not the spokesperson for every single living thing, but I’m not sure there is anybody who isn’t problematic. Remember the year we had to keep quiet about our admiration for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton because she too had failed to be perfect? And I went along with that. It was a silence. To admit one’s lack of socialist principles, and her Iraq war vote. She was the establishment, and there was Wall Street. She wasn’t even cool. Similarly, I had go to keep my excitement about Caitlin Moran’s new book on the downlow because she was racist and ignorant in a tweet in 2011. Which was problematic. But everybody is problematic. (It also seems that there is nothing more problematic than a woman being popular. Or in particular being popular with other woman. If too many women like you, then you’ve suddenly lost all your cred.)
I think we need to give women the space to be problematic though. I think we have let our feminist heroes cause trouble, and be wrong, and not even to atone if they don’t want to. We need to let people complicate things. We need to let others rail against it. That’s how progress happens. That’s how truth emerges. Uncertainty is okay, containers are porous. And I keep returning to the quote I started this essay with, “There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” Rebecca Solnit keeps refusing it admirably.