Astra Taylor: Hey, hello, my name is Astra Taylor. I have the great honor and privilege of being in conversation with Rebecca tonight. I’m going to give a brief introduction, but first I want to say thank you to our hosts Holly and Kate and the whole team at City Arts & Lectures for having us. Yes. Thank you. Thanks.
Okay. So who is Rebecca Solnit? Yes, I think we all know who she is. That’s why we’re here. She really needs no introduction. She’s the writer of essays and books that I know that many of us love, most recently books like “The Faraway Nearby” or “Men Explain Things to Me.” Hopefully not tonight. “The Mother of All Questions,” so many books.
She’s the namer of things that were unnamed. She’s a maker of maps and field guides. She’s a historian, someone who looks at the past, and a visionary, someone who helps us look to possible futures. She makes connections. She gives us courage. She’s a feminist. She’s an environmentalist, and she asked me to tell you that she’s on the board of Oil Change International.
She’s a lover of beauty and justice, a chronicler of social movements, and literally a chronicler of movement. Her book “Wanderlust: a History of Walking” had a huge impact on me. It actually influenced my film “Examined Life,” which is a film that is a series of walks with philosophers that I showed here 10 years ago, that brought me into the circle of City Arts & Lectures, and now I’m here interviewing Rebecca. And these are the sorts of connections that she loves–these things that happen, one thing leading to another, that we can’t see in advance.
You know, I was really lucky, I met Rebecca 20 years ago, when I was 19, and she’s made such a huge impression on me. I’ve learned so much about writing from her, about being an activist, but the book that sort of really blew my mind and I think has formed me and taken over my life in many ways is “Hope in the Dark.” Yes. And so I just I wanted to begin the night by quoting from that book at length, because we’re living in dark times again, but there’s still hope. So this is what she writes. This is one of my favorite parts.
“Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later.
Sometimes a few passionate people change the world. Sometimes they start a mass movement, or millions do. Sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage, or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope.
To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear. For to live is to risk. I say all this because hope is not like a lottery ticket that you sit on the sofa with and clutch, feeling lucky.
I say it because hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Because hope should shove you out the door. Because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war. From the annihilation of the Earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and the marginal.”
So with that I want to invite Rebecca to the stage.
Okay, yeah. We’re already breaking rules sitting in different seats than we were told so, it’s good.
Rebecca Solnit: Oh no, this was the plan, see this is why we have the mics on the insides of.
Astra Taylor: Awesome.
Rebecca Solnit: The invisible sides of our heads. Hello everyone.
Astra Taylor: Rebecca. It’s hard to see all of you, but we know you’re there. I get to ask some questions. So I interviewed you once before.
Rebecca Solnit: Twice.
Astra Taylor: Twice before! Maybe more. And you said that what you do is make the invisible and inaudible visible and audible. I really like that. Right? And this is something that was even apparent in “Savage Dreams,” like all the way back, this bringing things into focus. And so it was–.
Rebecca Solnit: Or “Secret Exhibition,” my first book about the visual artists–the invisible visual artists of–.
Astra Taylor: Yeah.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah yeah, and I guess there are other histories worth writing, but what’s always seem to be valuable to me is to try and bring forward those who aren’t seen or heard, to amplify what isn’t heard, to render visible what’s invisible, to kind of insert into the record what’s been excluded from it and thereby change it in some way. Change who matters, and to kind of change in some way and not to leave the status quo as it is.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. And all the way back, so we were talking today. It’s, you know, you’re now such a powerful voice for feminism in this world that we’re in. But you shared an email with some of us, I don’t know maybe a year ago, that was this cover story that you did for Maximum Rock’n’Roll, was that it?
Rebecca Solnit: Oh, yeah.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, 1985. And it says “The War Against Women.” So that was your first cover story.
Rebecca Solnit: Yep. Yeah.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, and this is that like, I don’t know, would you have imagined when you were writing that piece that in 2019 you were, you know, such a voice for feminism, that there was still this war waging? And I guess my one question is, you know, how does the war against women today differ from the war against woman in 1985?
Rebecca Solnit: Well I felt like somebody who kept trying to say something terrible is happening. Yeah, I said it and I just started, found a batch of letters I wrote when I was 18, 19, 20 and one of the things that really shocked me–because I didn’t realize it was this far back– a letter I wrote when I was 20, saying I’m going to try and write about kind of this rapture of the night, and wandering the night. I was very influenced by Djuna Barnes and “Nightwood,” but also about the violence against women that prevents me from having access to it. That violence that threatens women in public.
You know, there’s different kinds of violence–there’s campus rape and domestic violence and stuff. But it was street harassment, and the harassment that has an edge of menace that can turn into violence, into rape, into murder, that really impacted me and made me a feminist. To find that I was already trying to figure out how to write about it at 20 was kind of a shock.
Then I did that cover story. And I felt like I kept announcing this terrible thing was happening. And there were other people, and feminists had been talking–Susan Griffin did a great book about rape in like 1980, and the Take Back the Night movement existed and there was like lots of discourses about violence against women that were happening in all that period, but they weren’t really entering the mainstream and they weren’t making any difference. When Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered we started have a conversation about domestic violence, but somehow it got– it itself got kind of throttled. And I kept seeing it not happen, not happen, and–.
You know and then finally in the end of 2012 the amazing campus anti-rape activists reached a kind of critical momentum and the horrific rape torture murder of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi, and the Steubenville rape case all somehow reached a level of audibility, visibility, significance and it felt like we’re finally having the conversation. And I felt like I kept saying this thing is happening and then there wasn’t really a response and I was waiting for it to be a conversation and I was waiting for it to have consequences.
And the last five years–and I said in 2014, I’ve been waiting for this all my life–and I think what happened, because often we tell these–. You know, Americans like instant results guaranteed or their money back. They like things simple and they like them quick, generally. And so there’s often this–one of the things that makes me crazy–people often act like Me Too happened out of nowhere, and feminism didn’t, you know, they’re now using it in a way that denies that feminism existed for, you know, two hundred years before, and was doing all this stuff, and Me Too is just an amplification.
But also what made Me Too and this stuff that happened in 2012 and after, where finally this stuff was being talked about, finally people were connecting the dots to say there’s an epidemic and domestic violence and rape and harassment and are all connected, and it’s about misogyny and patriarchy and it needs to change–and it was happening in a way that was adequate to have consequences.
But what I think happened that doesn’t get counted, is that it wasn’t something began in that period, is that something came of age in that period. There were enough women who were television producers, who were magazine editors, who were judges, lawyers, heads of organizations, to say we’re going to determine what matters, we’re going to determine what things mean. Women and also men who got feminism, because that also has been really transformative.
So that these stories stopped being treated like a hundred million isolated incidents that had nothing to do with each other, and we’re able to finally talk about the pattern. So finally this conversation I was trying to have became a real conversation internationally.
Astra Taylor: Well it’s interesting because it’s almost like people have been saying stuff for so long. The listening aspect wasn’t there, right? That’s–.
Rebecca Solnit: There’s also something really, yeah–and we hear that around the victims of the gymnastics doctor and all these other things, like why didn’t they speak up? And they did speak up, but people told them it didn’t happen, they were imagining things, they weren’t trustworthy witnesses to their own lives. And you know, and there’s so many ways– and it’s because we really talk like you just have to make noise, and there’s so much more to it.
I’m working on a book now where I talk about that you have to have audibility, which means that people are willing to hear you. You have to have credibility, which means that people believe you, and it has have consequences. Cause one of the shocking things you see with someone like Christine Blasey Ford, is she had audibility, she testified before Congress. She had credibility for some of us, but she testified that this person who’s going to be elevated to represent the very concept of justice and reign over all of us was out of control, a liar, lacked basic empathy and self-awareness etc., and it had no consequences. And that was so grotesque and painful, that way in which, I think what she did mattered in a lot of ways and it changed things in a lot of ways, and created a lot of space, as so many of these things do, as Anita Hill’s testimony did, for other women to tell their stories, but there is that–.
And you hear from a lot of women, why should I speak up, I’ll only be punished for it? So you need, you know, it’s not–. Cause it’s often framed–because we also, not only do Americans like things quick, they like rugged individuals, and like, individual women are responsible for rescuing themselves from patriarchy, and it’s like, you need a system where if you say something it matters. And it hasn’t mattered before much in so many of these cases.
And it’s interesting seeing, even this month, R Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein, these super powerful men who have abused underage girls, are finally facing a new round of consequences, because women journalists, a documentary filmmaker, and an investigative journalist at the Miami Herald went after them, and the stories that we already knew suddenly had consequences in ways they hadn’t before. And it’s so interesting, because what changes is so ethereal and complex and impossible to measure and it matters so much too, and I don’t know. What am I trying to say, Astra? I mean she’s one of the smartest people I know.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. I mean I’m thinking about the question of you know, first you fight to have a voice, but then what’s voice without power? And so I guess that is something.
Rebecca Solnit: And what’s a voice without people yeah, where…Because it’s systemic. Your voice needs to be part of a system in which you have value and power.
Astra Taylor: Well I’ve also been thinking a lot– I’m going to be back here tomorrow showing my film, a documentary film called “What Is Democracy?” And as I was making it I was thinking so much about voice. Having diverse voices, you know, and who speaks, but then when I got to the end of the film I realized it was so much more about listening. And there’s that aspect, there’s like the receptive side too, which I think is partly denigrated because listening is more feminine or something right? I mean, you’re letting sound enter you. There’s like the sense of–but it’s like, so yes people, you know, that’s part of the equation to me that’s missing, is also the listening part. And it’s not just about someone having to repeat their story and re-traumatize themselves, or shout louder and turn up the volume. Like the being heard matters as much as the speaking.
Rebecca Solnit: Well it’s funny. I think it is part of individualism to refuse to recognize that stories were, you know, the audience is crucial to a story, and that a lot of stories don’t find their audience in their time. A lot of writers don’t, you know, find their audience in their time.
And that, you know, but we are constantly exhorted that like if, you know, you just need to tell your story, and it will, you know as though it’s magic, as though it’s entirely on you, and it’s really–I mean whether, you know, there’s so many different people whether, you know in so many categories whose stories weren’t heard and then something changed and they were. And this has been an amazing era for amplifying Native voices, Black voices talking about police killings, and you know, and bringing more voices forward. And of course the huge backlash of white supremacy, patriarchy saying, like, but we were the only voice in the room and now there’s other voices and that’s so hard for us and why can’t they all shut up?
Astra Taylor: Well it’s interesting too because this is like one of your stories about “Men Explain Things to Me,” which is now 11 years old.
Rebecca Solnit: Mhm.
Astra Taylor: Right, is that you actually wrote it for, you wrote it for a friend, right?
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah, Marina Sitrin.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, but this is the thing, that you also wrote something you felt a community needed, or someone needed.
Rebecca Solnit: Well Marina told me to, so what actually happened, and I’d been joking for years that I was going to write something called “Men Explain Things to Me,” and she was like you really need to write that because young women like my sister feel like it’s them. And it’s funny because I once had a very well-known actress come to visit me just to talk about feminism for three hours, which was so fun, and the line she remembered that she wrote on the card, that, with the huge bouquet that came the next day said, “it’s not me, it’s patriarchy.”
Yeah, and I feel like that’s one of the things–because young women are like, oh, I’m apparently–I’m incoherent. Apparently I’m unreliable. Apparently I have nothing to contribute. Apparently, you know, I don’t, I just got a PhD in physics and I don’t understand physics. I’m a doctor and I don’t understand medicine. I’m a lawyer and this drunk shlob is explaining the law to me. And you know, and it’s like hey–it’s not you, it’s patriarchy. Yeah. So yeah.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. Yeah. You know, my mantra lately is like, “deep voices are not deep.” You know, it’s just that–. But I think we have to like, train our ears, because like, we default to it, you know, we default to hearing–.
Rebecca Solnit: The voice of authority.
Astra Taylor: The voice of authority, which is why I really want somebody to voiceover a Warner Hertzog movie with a valley girl accent.
Rebecca Solnit: These bears are really scary and life is meaningless.
Astra Taylor: Exactly.
Rebecca Solnit: God that would be amazing.
Astra Taylor: It would be amazing. Someone do it. It would make me so happy. It would make us so happy.
I wanted to talk about euphemisms, because this is, you know, “Call Them By Their True Names,” right?
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah.
Astra Taylor: And the way– because I’ve been trying to do this. There’s two– in the two collections there’s two different essays. So one is 20 million missing storytellers. So it’s like the women who are not heard, or the victims who are not hard, but then also there’s the case of the missing perpetrator. So the perpetrator who gets erased, as well.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah.
Astra Taylor: Right, so there’s no agency. And the way our language, we frame things in the sort of passive voice to–.
Rebecca Solnit: Obscure responsibility.
Astra Taylor: Obscure what really happened. Yeah responsibility, and power. Or we say, you know, somebody was killed because they were black. And no, but the Blackness isn’t the cause. Right, they were killed by someone–.
Rebecca Solnit: Or like, he killed her because she left him.
Astra Taylor: Right.
Rebecca Solnit: And I just read a kind of grammar of how to talk about domestic violence homicides that looked at all the ways they suggest that it was like a love triangle, rather than she left him because he threatened to kill her, and had moved on in her life. That, you know, the weird ways in which the guy is exonerated and the woman is blamed for her own murder. And, etcetera. But yeah, there’s so many weird, sort of, habits of language.
It’s funny because those are two different things. People who–but also 20 million missing vote–is about the 2016 election, by one count from an expert I got, about 20 million people were prevented or strongly discouraged from voting. And if you think of democracy as a project of participation, you know, the results of the last election and so much else in our country has been the result of, you know, preventing that full and equal participation, preventing those voices from being heard who might say, we want Universal Health Care, we want climate action, we want. And it’s interesting, because we didn’t talk much about voter suppression. I didn’t know much about it up through that election, and I think a lot of us have learned a lot about it since. So that’s one version.
But then the case of the missing perpetrator was about this hilariously horrific guide the Center for Disease Control put out for women about drinking. And it suggested all the bad things that could happen to you if you drunk, but what they were really saying is that men will assault you and so you need to become sort of agile and alert and on your toes all the time, but they could not say that men will do this to you. It’s like if you get drunk you might get an STD. And it’s like, really do you get that from vodka? You know, if you get drunk, you might get battered. Does whiskey cause that, you know? And it was this incredibly insane exercise in refusing to say men harm women, that first blamed it on alcohol and then use these kind of grammatical things.
And you hear that–I went to San Quentin once and somebody was describing a murder as like this thing that happened, rather than I killed that person. And we do have this funny correlation between extreme violence and extreme passivity, for which the ultimate catch phrase might be “she made me do it.”
Astra Taylor: She made me do it.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah, but the fact that the CDC was, you know– it was also an interesting document because it suggested that all women are at risk of becoming pregnant if they imbibe alcohol. Which given that some women, you know, are, you know not hanging–and, you know, to get pregnant you have to be in your fertile years with proximity to a man who impregnates you. It doesn’t happen–alcohol doesn’t impregnate you. No matter how much lesbians drink together, they don’t knock each other up. And you know.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. But we have, so like, you know, this is where–but part of this attentiveness to language is your political awareness, but also, it’s your love for language, right?
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah.
Astra Taylor: I don’t know, as a writer does it pain you to see language abused in this way? I mean you love metaphor, you love simile. It’s like–.
Rebecca Solnit: And I love them and I don’t, because we use metaphors–. Like one of the metaphors I’ve been fighting since “Hope in the Dark,” is the–or long before really–is the equation of darkness with bad things and negative things. And even Martin Luther King is like “darkness cannot drive out the dark only light can,” and it’s kind of like, Martin Luther King, you’re fighting for black rights. Like, let’s love some darkness here, please.
And you know, I spent a lot of time in the desert. As you may have noticed, I’m exceptionally pale. I love shade. You spend a lot of time in a really hot desert and you think night is the best thing that ever happened. And you know, also Djuna Barnes “Nightwood,” long before I entered the desert, I love–I think, you know, kind of deep, dark, black velvety night is this beautifully erotic magical enchanting space.
And so “Hope in the Dark,” which was misinterpreted when it first came out as hope in dark times, and dark times being bad things, was really about hope that’s actually from the darkness. So that’s like–that’s one metaphor.
So, you know, there are some really ugly metaphors out there that equate, that dehumanize, that, you know. And you can see them constantly trying to construct new metaphors around immigrants–that they’re vectors of disease, that they’re, you know, that the nation is a body and this is an invasion. And the overlap between homophobia and fear of penetration by immigration is a big part of the right-wing, you know, and it always has been. This weird language where the border is like, you know, something where you’ll be penetrated, and then you won’t be your pure awesome John Wayne-like masculine shutdown self. And it’s kind of like, dude, if you don’t want to be penetrated, just stop eating, drinking, and then just don’t breathe. Yeah, and like get back to me after–.
Astra Taylor: Yeah see how that goes.
Rebecca Solnit: After 10 minutes. For the not breathing part.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, I mean, so this is like–do you want to talk about writing for a little bit?
Rebecca Solnit: Sure.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, I mean I think one thing I just so appreciate about you is the commitment to beautiful writing and formal experimentation too. I mean, so, you know, you obviously are a very political person, and social movements are there throughout your work, but you know, but you don’t write the diatribes or just like the straightforward op-eds. I mean you’ve written–.
Rebecca Solnit: Oh I do.
Astra Taylor: Well, you can, right, but you’ve also, you’ve also done, like bestiaries. And–
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah, atlases, bestiaries.
Astra Taylor: Atlases, and all these, you know, you write pieces in you know, all sorts of different styles, and just talk about the sort of mix of form and content and how those go together.
Rebecca Solnit: And it’s–.
Astra Taylor: I mean, once in a while, a good op-ed, you know, sometimes you just got to do the 800 words and.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah. Yeah, but even then, you don’t– it’s interesting because there’s kind of part–. I think one of my big formative experiences, a lot of people I know–like a lot of people who came to San Francisco as adults–they grew up in the mainstream, and the left was their refuge, and they’re very excited to be here, and they want to be in. And I kind of grew up in the left, and it’s not my–so it’s like a lot of my disgruntlement is with it. And it’s partly with the kind of– when I was growing up–the really stale language, the sort of capitalist running dog imperialist, you know, whatever, and stuff, and it’s like–. And there’s a way people shut down when the language is dead and stale.
And one of my big influences is Subcomandante Marcos and the zapatistas, who created a poetic, new, revolutionary language grounded in metaphor and experience of actual place, in myth and dream, but also in humor and things like that. That was such a sense that political writing doesn’t have to be deadly. You know, and Orwell’s a big influence with the sense of constantly trying to prick bubbles and reveal, you know, sort of the little man behind the curtain. But his writing’s beautiful too, and there’s a kind of beauty in just describing something accurately and freshly.
But the forms–and it’s funny because I don’t feel terribly prepared for this question, I’m trying to think, like, what is there to say about it? And I love books and I love what books do, and there was a really lovely thing–. When I was younger, nonfiction was really treated like the handmaiden, or they’re supposed to enter the house of literature by the servants’ quarters, you know novels and poetry and a little bit of playwriting were what was taught in creative writing programs. And nonfiction wasn’t creative nonfiction yet, and it was interesting. You know and it’s even nonfiction, it’s like non-white. If non-white is defined by whiteness, nonfiction is defined by fiction as the kind of end all and be all and measuring stick.
And then one day, way too late in life, I realized that not only is a lot of contemporary poetry a kind of essayistic nonfiction–so like poetry’s closer to what, you know, that the novel is the weird thing over there and poetry is over here with us, but also, that nonfiction was everything else. And that fiction was this particular specific thing that arose, but that manifestos and telephone directories and bestiaries and atlases and guidebooks and histories and memoirs and–like it was kind of everything. And that we got, you know fiction was okay, you get to carve out this little pinacle, but like, we get everything else. And it is all these different forms of how to convey information that don’t have to be the kind of bourgeois narrative that the novel, as it evolved in the 18th century and Western Europe is, and that’s kind of liberating.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. I mean we were talking, you know, one thing we were talking earlier a little bit about my love for “Wanderlust,” and how, it’s this history of walking, and then there’s, you know, you’re reading it, and suddenly there’s a whole chapter that’s on walking as a woman and feminism and has all of these themes that are now more almost like fully blossomed. And so I was– yeah I want to ask you a little bit about that too. You know, how–coming to things like, you know, what is a feminist book? I mean for me, with the book I just finished, there isn’t a chapter explicitly on feminism, I just tried to–I happen to like a lot of women writers and think women are human, so I quote them in the book a lot, you know. But then sometimes you just have to be really on the nose.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah.
Astra Taylor: Or you know, smash the patriarchy over the head with your manifesto. But I, yeah, those different modes, because you know, that is– those are also different tactics. Right? Like am I going to you know–for example, my book is on democracy and men think they know a lot about democracy, so they come to movies about it and read books about it. And then they’ll get this dose of feminism kind of slipped in there, right?
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah.
Astra Taylor: But then you can, but sometimes–so I’m just wondering about the different tactics and whether you think of them in that way or a different way or–?
Rebecca Solnit: And I think that’s really interesting. I think what you’re proposing is there’s things that are about feminism and why feminism matters, and then there are things that embody feminism.
Astra Taylor: Yeah.
Rebecca Solnit: And like my book “Savage Dreams,” my second book that came out in 1994, nothing in it is overtly feminist, except that everything is. That a lot of the most charismatic and heroic protagonists are the Western Shoshone, Dan’s sisters, women’s–my old, elderly cousin who is a co-founder of Women Strike for Peace and Women Strike for Peace gets a chapter, to Lise Meitner, a physicist who made one of the crucial breakthroughs in atomic physics, and stuff, and you know, the Princesses of Plutonium, who are an anti-nuclear activist group in my cohort and stuff.
And I just made, you know, and I wasn’t even really trying to like, oh, I must–because there’s that thing where it’s like, I must foreground this group. But it was just like, these people were really awesome and charismatic and, you know, and I wanted, and I was excited by them and I felt like it, you know, they were there because, you know they belonged there. So it wasn’t like, oh, I have to fit a woman in, or I have to find a woman to highlight, they belonged there. But it was really satisfying when the book was done to feel like I’d foregrounded a lot of women.
But even with “Wanderlust,” which is a history of walking, gender’s present. Like when I wrote about William Wordsworth, I wrote about his sister Dorothy a lot too, and tried to foreground it that way. But that book was about walking, and walking is about the spaces you inhabit, and women don’t get to inhabit spaces the same way men do, whether it’s urban or rural, and there’s so many different things, from the kinds of clothes we’re supposed to wear, to all the different rules, and to the fact that most of us in most places have existed under some kind of threat and, you know, of assault, rape etcetera.
And there’s this heart-rending quote by Sylvia Plath, that’s always stayed with me, where she wrote in her journal when she was 19, “dear God, I just want”–and I’m not quoting it exactly, but it’s like, “I just want to be free to, you know, travel the world, talk to everyone, sleep under the stars, but because I’m a woman I can’t do it.”
And you read that, and you think if Sylvia Plath had that freedom, if she’d been as free, as the men around her, then–and she literally died in a kitchen full of, you know, she gassed herself in the kitchen. And that sense that her life shrunk down to the kitchen, you know, is so, you know. And in a way she died of confinement, and confined in the roles that women had.
And so that book I felt like I had to explicitly address the fact that you can’t talk about walking as this generic thing that a generic we do, because there are things–there was no woman who could do what John Muir or Henry, you know, there wasn’t a woman who could do what Henry David Thoreau did. There wasn’t a, you know, there wasn’t a woman who was necessarily able to lead the salt marches the way that Gandhi did in India, for example. And that women were in 19th century New York and European cities essentially arrested for prostitution If they’re out walking by themselves. That to be a woman in public was to be a public woman, which is one of the synonyms for prostitute, to talk about the way language abuses.
And so I wrote a chapter about that, and about walking while Black, which I’ve ended up talking to my friend Garnette about a lot, who’s, Garnette Cadogan, who’s written a completely brilliant and amazing essay I teach a lot on walking while Black.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. When those are just the things you can imagine a history of walking written by a man that just leaves that out.
Rebecca Solnit: Doesn’t notice.
Astra Taylor: That just doesn’t go there, right?
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah. I don’t think they’re– I know I found sociology things and stuff, but there had been a, there’s a bunch of famous essays. There’s actually a beautiful line by Henry David Thoreau I quote in there, where he says, “how women, who are still more confined to the house than men, bear it I cannot imagine” or something like that. And although parties of women abolitionists would come and meet in his cabin in the woods and at Walden, but they weren’t, you know, her sisters were not free to roam the way he was.
Astra Taylor: Well it’s interesting, because actually, so “Wanderlust” inspired, helped inspire “Examined Life,” which is these walks with philosophers, but then my sister is the disability rights activist and scholar, Sunaura Taylor, and so through my experience with her, I was like walking also can’t be walking on two legs like an able-bodied person, I mean people use wheels to walk. So it’s also this, I’m getting at the fact that you know, we have to go beyond our personal experience, as well. And see the world through other, you know, to try to expand our vision.
So how, yeah, how do you do that in your practice? How, who do you learn from? How do you? Yeah, cause that’s the funny thing about nonfiction is like, encountering the world and then learning from it and then putting that into prose and sharing it.
Rebecca Solnit: And it’s funny, because there’s, you know we’re, you and I are introverts, and there’s something wonderfully reclusive about writing, but you do have to, you do go out there and some books come more from personal experience or from books, but there is a lot of going out there in the world to see things.
And actually like, one of the people I learned so much from– so her sister is wheelchair bound and has been all her life, and is brilliant and ferocious and fought hard to be as free and independent and adventurous as she is, and when I met her she woke me up to start looking at the world through her eyes. She had moved here from other parts of the country and loved San Francisco and the East Bay because we have a lot of curb cuts and we have a lot of wheelchair ramps and most of our public transit, Bart and a lot of other things is accessible.
And she was so free here and when she never really been before, she certainly isn’t in New York City, you know, and then like I would go to New York and be like, oh, wow, nobody is ever on the subway in a wheelchair and they don’t have elevators here and they don’t have ramps and they don’t have curb cuts and things.
And it was so interesting to look at the infrastructure and see, you can make somebody free by building a world that includes them, or you can make them unfree by a world of no curb cuts for example, and so. You know and it’s always interesting, because like, I was trying to write about that today, there’s a funny way, we think like, okay now we’re totally awesomely woke, and there’s always more waking up to do.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, exactly.
Rebecca Solnit: You know, and there’s always the people who won’t–.
Astra Taylor: But you don’t know what you don’t know.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah, but I feel like– we have to, cause sometimes you get this total arrogance of like, oh people, you know, people were total barbarians when they weren’t as hip as we are about transgender identities and racial politics and stuff, and I was like, you’re not inherently more awesome than people were 30 years ago. You’re lucky because somebody woke you the fuck up. Which, they’ll block that part out in the radio version.
And you know, there are these, I had this amazing experience a couple weeks ago. I saw Gerard Baker who’s a Mandan Hidatsa guy who started at the park service as a janitor, ended up as a superintendent, who’s the guy who’s like the top guy at a national park or national monument. The two that he became the superintendent at were Little Bighorn National Monument, which had only recently stopped being Custer Battlefield National Monument, and god, what’s the mountain they carved all our horrible presidents faces in?
Astra Taylor: Rushmore.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah, and he radically transformed who felt welcome there, how native people were visible there, and he changed the histories and stuff. And I just thought like all of us who think we’re woke, we have to thank the human alarm clocks who kind of woke us up. And to see the way he transformed the visibility and representation and presence of native people changed, you know changed our national history in these intensely public places was so amazing, and I was just so excited.
And I had maybe the single biggest formative experience of–for my hopefulness, my activism, my intellectual history–was seeing Native Americans seize hold of the Quincentennial, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival, and say, we’re not going to let it be told as discovery or triumph or celebration. We’re taking, creating this space, we’re wedging ourselves in here to create a space to talk about 500 years of genocide, to talk about the fact that it wasn’t a discovery, about the fact that we were not conquered, we did not disappear, and this history is not over and we are still here. And it was so transformative, so much so–.
It was funny I was talking to Julian NoiseCat Brave, who’s this amazing climate activist and writer, fellow writer of mine at The Guardian, and I realized afterwards like, Julian what I was trying to tell you is, it’s hard for a young person like you to know how little we knew 30 years ago–we white people–about Native people, and how much that’s changed in terms of what’s taught in the schools, what the signage is, how people are represented in movies and things like that.
And to see a profound change that begins with writing, with scholarship, with activism, with voices that are supposed to be marginal and relatively powerless, but that will change our very understandings of history, culture, nature, this continent, who has rights here, is so amazing and so to see that.
But I also feel like we always have to assume the last alarm clock has not gone off. We are not the most woke human beings can ever be. There’s going to be you know, like I’m old now, I’ve seen people think we are so damn woke, you know in the 1980s and the 1990s and etc, and I was like, hey, there’s more to come. And it’s sort of, its kind of fun knowing, it’s a little bit like being a little kid with your birthday or something. Like you don’t know what else is going to come, where we’re going to become more aware. Lake Erie just acquired personhood, like sort of legal standing, I think personhood.
Astra Taylor: Really, I didn’t know that.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah, well because you wrote about trees having.
Astra Taylor: Yeah.
Rebecca Solnit: You know, standing. But the people of Akron, Ohio voted to give Lake Erie legal rights and legal standing.
Astra Taylor: Wow, I love that.
Rebecca Solnit: And it’s like, you know, like, maybe that’s the beginning of this tremendous thing, that we’ll regard, you know, the climate and the atmosphere and the glaciers as having standing in 10 years. Maybe that will be part of the ten years of climate transformation we need to do. Yeah, and that’s, you know.
Astra Taylor: Right and from, right, you can imagine a future where, you know, right, It’s not just corporations that have personhood, it is lakes or ecosystems or trees. We’re living in, yeah, we’re living in the dark ages effectively.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah. Yeah.
Astra Taylor: To give it, only humans count.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah, or maybe the glorious age where corporations don’t have personhood. Which really begins with Stanford, and with Southern Pacific Railroad’s lawsuit in 1887 just down the coast.
Like that is one of the funny things, San Francisco, about being here. There’s so many beautiful, magnificent, liberatory things that have come from here, from the Sierra Club to Harvey Milk, and but, you know, we’ve also–the robber barons who kind of invented the modern corporation for whom the Indian wars were fought to build the Transcontinental Railroad across the Great Plains, and you know who are kind of the grand–well, through Leland Stanford, the grandfathers of Silicon Valley, which has become this kind of monstrous global capital of surveillance capitalism. It’s a very strange place to be right now. Yeah, and that our ugly side is really, you know, Supernova-ing with.
And it is weird. I felt, well most of my life like we were kind of a charming edge of the continent and sort of an alternative and etcetera, even though we had Wells Fargo and Bechtel and Chevron and some other scary companies here. But still, like the bohemian and queer and radical and anti-capitalist things felt really powerful. And now we are the global power center for a vicious and destructive form of hyper capitalism that includes Airbnb and Uber and Google and Facebook and you know, and it’s kind of– in the same way that you can feel kind of embarrassed about being an American–being a Bay Area person is kind of like. You know, you go to some other part of the world and they’re being destroyed by Airbnb and you know, you look at genocide in Burma, Myanmar that Facebook helped foment. And it’s like, that evil came from here, which gives us more responsibility to try and do things about it.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it’s interesting, because one of the consequences of these digital platforms too, is like an erasure of place, because it’s placeless power, but it is, there is a place. You know, a lot of them are Silicon Valley or California companies, but they do–. I guess I was even thinking about, you know, your writing is so informed by being a Californian and in being here and being committed to San Francisco. But one thing about these digital channels is actually it’s–there has been, because local media outlets and the way media is structured is changing, there’s more and more emphasis on things that are national or can spread, that aren’t as connected to a place.
Rebecca Solnit: Well, and they’ve done a beautiful job of destroying local media, particularly newspapers. And I just saw that Craig Newmark of Craigslist now has some sort of journalism fund in his name. And it’s, which is just so weird, because his money–he made a huge amount of money off, like probably hundreds of millions, off Craigslist, which sucked all the advertising, the classified advertising dollars, out of newspapers, which, you know, provided incredibly valuable services that, you know, so many newsrooms have been so–. I mean almost every newsroom, except for a few of the really big ones, the newspapers have been gutted, and a lot of small newspapers have folded or withered.
And the placelessness also, I think, is psychic. That, and I find the way people use their phones and the map and navigation apps and stuff–and that’s part of what our atlases were about, is to celebrate what maps do and, you know, I had a really profound–. I started, I spent a lot of time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and I went there the first several times armed with a gas station map and a Garmin device which, before smartphones was kind of how you got around, and I realized pretty soon, that using the paper map, I learned things until essentially the map–because we always think if you twiddle with something it’s interactive, which is a very low standard.
And you know that the more I contemplated the paper map, the more I understood the lay of the land in New Orleans, the more the map was within me, and I knew what to do. And now, like I can get around New Orleans pretty well, as you know, because we did, we hung out together after the gulf, the BP explosion and stuff. But that every time I use the Garmin device I was not the–I’m the boss of the map but the Garmin device was the boss of me. I blindly obeyed it, and the 50th time it told me how to get from, you know, St. Claude to Uptown, I didn’t know any more than the first, you know, the first time. And there’s a, you know, there’s–.
And it’s interesting just, I kind of wonder, when we have the big one, will a lot of people who spend their whole lives just moving through the world staring at their devices, not looking around them, you know, when their batteries run out, or the, you know–will they know how to go anywhere?
Will they know–but also there’s this thing where if you rely on the phones you don’t really pay attention to, you know, much else. So like, you know, there’s this, even when people are going places, there’s a withdrawal from place for an observation that I find a little bit sad and a little bit scary.
Astra Taylor: But it’s also– it is the depressing way– it’s the place in between disappears, which is like where you are, and the destination, and not the whole ecosystem, not the neighborhood’s, and not the broader context that make a city and make life possible in it. And it definitely, I think, has political consequences. If you just only think of a space in terms of, you know, where you’re going to get your next cup of coffee, not everything that’s around it–.
Rebecca Solnit: Even better you can get a Task Rabbit.
Astra Taylor: To go and get that for you.
Rebecca Solnit: That person to like go deliver it and like if you’re really, you know, kind of exemplary tech user, you’ll have him leave it on the doorstep, so you don’t have to actually have human contact, which I’ve heard from some of the Task Rabbit people is common.
Astra Taylor: But I think in the spirit of “Hope in the Dark,” though, you know even a few years ago when I was writing much more regularly around tech issues, I never would have thought that tech workers would be challenging their employers and saying we don’t want to work for the military, we don’t want to build surveillance. We don’t want to work with ICE, or, you know, or engaging in a walkout of 20,000 people at Google inspired by Me Too. So I think there’s, you know, we are in a moment of political awakening in that community too, and that is a positive thing that the Bay Area is a part of.
Rebecca Solnit: You know that has been really exciting to see, is that there is some conscience. And there’s also a lot of former workers, people–there’s a guy who developed the algorithm at YouTube who’s been very, you know, and these people coming out who have worked at these companies. The guy who just wrote the book about Facebook, who was one of the early–was he an engineer for it?–and stuff, and saying like, these are immensely destructive institutions. We’re making choices that are both profitable and vicious. And it’s great to hear them. It would be really nice if we could respond to them enough to actually regulate these unregulated entities that are doing so many sordid and bizarre things to, you know economically, but also to consciousness itself.
Astra Taylor: So our time is getting close to the end, before we open it up, but I don’t want us to finish without talking about environmental issues.
You asked me to mention Oil Change International, which you’re on the board of, but you know climate is another–there’s so many themes that are just, you know, in your work from the beginning, and ecology, the environment is one of them. And you know, this is also where it’s such an interesting moment with people, now that we, what, we have 12 years?
Rebecca Solnit: Well, that was last year. I think we have eleven now.
Astra Taylor: We’re like maybe we should pay attention now. A Green New Deal might be a very good idea. But yeah, we’re you know, it feels like in this moment, right exactly when the clock is ticking and we’re running out of time, that finally some solutions–at least we’re like imagining things on something approaching the necessary scale. But yeah, what does it look like from where you are?
Rebecca Solnit: And there is a lot of “Hope in the Dark” stuff in that–and one of the things I found most profoundly amazing, I didn’t really even fully understand because I don’t hear it talked about much, is that–and it came from reading a book about coal that was published around 2000, and which is a great history, and at the very end it says–“but we don’t have the ability to leave fossil fuel behind because we do not have alternative technologies that are adequate to the task.”
Somehow we’ve had an engineering revolution at least comparable to the Industrial Revolution in this millennium, you know, in this this short 20, 19 years of this millennium, 18? And that has made it possible to actually leave fossil fuel behind, which we absolutely and urgently need to do. And that is so astounding, that somehow, quietly, these unsung heroes who are engineers and designers etc, have made solar and wind and questions of battery storage and stuff, so effective that we actually could power our world on them, is amazing.
So you see these things like arising and that’s so exciting. And then this– and it feels like there’s always three things happening around climate. There’s the scientists whose news is almost always that actually it’s worse than we thought it was last time we assessed this. The engineers saying we have better solutions than we did last year–solar is cheaper, wind is more effective, storage is more possible, we’ve got these. And then you have activists saying we’re thinking, we’re dreaming bigger, we’re demanding more, we’re organizing more profoundly, we’re more intersectional around justice issues and things like that.
Years ago I asked my friend Jamie Henn, who is the communications director for 350.org, how he felt about this moment and he said this beautiful thing that became the title of something I wrote. He said “everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart.” But also talking about the unanticipated–and in the last year we’ve seen the Sunrise Movement, this youth-led climate movement arise, as well as Extinction Rebellion, the UK thing that’s a little more grim, but also kind of a new energy. We’ve seen the Green New Deal, which emerged from young activists and then has been championed by you know, our young, everybody’s–almost everybody’s–okay, not everybody’s beloved young Congressman, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who did not originate it, but has done miraculous things to promote it and you know which is–but is also co-sponsored by 90 people in Congress and most of the Democratic presidential candidates.
So we’ve seen Greta, is it, Thunberg, this wonderful kid out of Sweden and stuff. And like, you never see these things coming, because there is a weird way people talk with confidence about what is visible now is all that will ever be visible.
And you don’t see a Martin Luther King before he emerges, you don’t see an Ella Baker before she emerges, you didn’t, you know, the people who made Black Lives Matter happen, the woman who started Standing Rock weren’t visible to us, and the ways that they transformed how we see the world weren’t visible to us. So I feel with the–I feel like there’s a tremendous new surge of energy with the climate movement that’s super exciting and this willingness and a lot of people across the world saying this is real and urgent and we’re ready for really dramatic and profound action.
And I feel like there’s a kind of momentum happening around so many things. My friend Marty is in the audience who’s a lawyer working on a lawsuit for a bunch of cities and states suing for sea level rise as an impact against the fossil fuel companies. There’s somebody– there’s, you know, and there’s so many pieces that if you put them together, I don’t know if it’s– it is not yet adequate to the crisis we face, but it’s gathering momentum and energy and power and vision and it’s really exciting and it’s sort of like we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we know it’s on all of us to do everything we can to make it happen.
And I’m just so happy because I’ve been trying to be a better climate activist for 20 years, that Oil Change International invited me to join their board and do what board members do, which is to raise money and help with internal dynamics and things like that. We’re a little organization that’s not as well known as it should be, but we’re kind of like the connective tissue for a lot of the muscles of the movement. We’re a bunch of policy wonks who also orchestrate actions, but a lot of times oil change’s analysis is the catalyst for legislators and bigger groups and etc to start doing policy advocacy and policy changes and things like that.
Astra Taylor: I mean, maybe my last thought before I open it up is just you know, these, the stakes seem so high, right? And I think for me, why reading “Hope in the Dark” in 2004 was such a– it was a tonic, but it was also, there was something strategic I gleaned from it, which was it you, you know, there’s no guarantees in your action, right? And in other words, like you can have your strategy, you can think that what you’re investing your time in as an activist is the best most useful thing to do, but you don’t know. You don’t know if you’re going to see results. The– you know, and I think that was so helpful for me because I had sort of imbibed this idea that otherwise, you know, it was– activism was sort of a waste of time, right, like it was–.
Rebecca Solnit: You mean that if you don’t get the results you intend.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, then you’re just like out there protesting and you’re kind of impotent, or it’s just a, you know, self-expression. It’s not really doing something bigger and more important. And then I was just like well, hold on. We don’t know. We don’t know what it is.
Rebecca Solnit: But also, you know, my lovely partner who’s here will only quote one thing from Foucault in all his life which goes.
Astra Taylor: That’s all you need.
Rebecca Solnit: But it’s the right–it’s the magic one that I end up quoting all the time and it’s like, you know what you do, but–like it’s a little bit more elaborate than this, but–“you know what you do, but you don’t know what you do does.”
And so, for example, Standing Rock is what made Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decide to run for office and so you can see– because I remember when Standing Rock was kind of, the camp was kind of shut down, a lot of bad things were happening. I see so often with movements like that, people saying, they tried to stop a pipeline and they didn’t stop a pipeline, and therefore they didn’t do anything, but you know, a friend of mine who’s an activist in Utah talked about how all these young Native activists were doing all these other things, cause, they said, Standing Rock gave us a completely different sense of possibility and hope that we didn’t have before–it raised the visibility of Native Americans, like the great work done around the Keystone XL pipeline, it raised the issues of pipelines for a lot of people of the tar– you know of the, you know, the role they play in continuing to push fossil fuel into the world and destroy the climate, and made Ocascio-Cortez decide to run for office and win, and then become the great advocate of the New Green Deal, which, you know, be a huge catalyst for so many things.
And so I’ve seen so many things like that. What–the same thing happened with Occupy Wall Street, which you were so involved with, you know, it begat Strike Debt, which was some of the beautiful work you did afterwards, but it also kind of begat Elizabeth Warren as a voice who had room to talk about economic–you know, it begat a conversation about economic inequality, it begat the phrase “the one percent” that everyone uses all the time without knowing.
And I just heard all these people like in the first week saying Occupy Wall Street has failed, and it’s like saying the one-year-old has not yet become president. And it’s like hey, wait till she’s five. Yeah, and you know, but there were so many, there’s so many things.
And I actually did, I asked a bunch of people on social media, what did your local occupy do? And they’re like, we still have a police accountability program. We’re still feeding the homeless five years later. We’re still meet– we still have these connections. We have you know, we permanently changed–.
Astra Taylor: We’ve abolished a billion dollars with a b. A billion dollars worth of debt for our members since the debt strike we started in 2015. Yeah. Yeah.
Rebecca Solnit: That is so amazing.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, but I think that that–and it’s a very you know, that message to me was just really really vital. I mean, I think then, you know, then the critic is like, but with climate the stakes are so high, right? We have to be our most strategic selves. We have to figure out–.
Rebecca Solnit: You have to be strategic, but you have to not assume you know exactly how this strategy will work or, you know, there’s a–people want a kind of simple arithmetic of consequence, and you need some kind of open-ended poetic algebra of it, or I don’t know what.
Astra Taylor: And also you need to try lots of things. Right, like there’s not, you know, so part of that is an electoral strategy and part of that is figuring out how to push for public control of your, you know, energy supplier or whatever local thing that you can do, that’s part of the piece, but it’s like the more. We need more.
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah. Yeah. I know and a lot of it is like–and it’s interesting cause there’s often a kind of grumpy left who says we lose or we’re starting from scratch, and I often feel it’s like, we actually have all these good things. We just need to scale them up. We have solar and wind, we just have to scale them up. You know, we have some democratic institutions. We just have to scale up the democraticness of them, which I think there’s a movie about tomorrow here?
Astra Taylor: Okay with that we’re going to open it up to the audience and have some democracy actually. But we can’t yeah, hopefully there’s lights.
Rebecca Solnit: When the lights come up. Let there be light!
Astra Taylor: We cannot see anything. We have been in– we’ve been having some hope in the dark up here.
City Arts & Lectures: We have a question from the front of the orchestra.
Astra Taylor: Yeah.
Audience Member 1: Hi there, first I want to say thank you so much to both of you and Rebecca. Hashtag goals. I would like to ask you a little bit about your practice, but it’s not going to be the typical question about your practice. I have interacted with you on social media and you’re extremely generous with your time and with information there and even your posts are like beautifully written, and I’m curious about how you manage to do that, because I know you’ve mentioned there being a lot of demands on your time. So I’m curious about, do you have a routine, are you time-chunking? Do you write some of your social media posts in advance? I just don’t know how you managed it, but I really admire it and I appreciate it.
Rebecca Solnit: It’s really, you know, I always feel like I should become more like Maxine Waters and be reclaiming my time.
Astra Taylor: Yeah, we would forgive you, you could do that.
Rebecca Solnit: And we should all be more like Maxine Waters anyway, but you know. And it’s such a double-edged sword. I hate Facebook the corporation and Mark Zuckerberg with a pure ferocious loathing, but a lot of really wonderful and brilliant people are on Facebook that I’m connected to. People like Dahlia Lithwick who writes about the law and the Supreme Court, and you know Siva Vaidhyanathan who’s one of the great tech critics, who wrote the one of the most scathing books about Facebook.
But a lot of what happens is I read the news and then I decide– you know, I read a lot of news because there’s this, I think particularly in the Trump era, there’s a sense of like–well I remember the first few months of the presidency, journalists were joking, I went out to lunch– “what happened?” And you know, there’s a sense that like everything’s going haywire all the time. But so I read the news and then I decide to share it and that will sometimes beget– or I’ll start to notice a pattern and I want to talk about it.
And sometimes, like the piece about the CDC thing, the thing that told women that alcohol could batter them and make them pregnant, and–because men don’t exist as culprits in either of those things– and, like that probably came from social media, but there’s also ways in which you know, it can be–. I think that a lot of what keeps us on the Internet is that we’re kind of rats in a maze and it’s not because it’s so rewarding because it’s not, and you often feel like as soon as I get my reward, as soon as I pull this little rat lever enough times that they give me the pellet, and in a certain way the pellet is never going to come and you just have to leave. And so I have very mixed feelings about it. But there I am. So thanks.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back of the balcony to your left.
Rebecca Solnit: Can you turn our stage lights down a little bit it still–we don’t–still can’t see anybody. I always want to wear sunglasses in these things, but.
Audience Member 2: Hi Rebecca, I’m really fascinated by your discussion of this contorted grammar in places like that CDC missive, and I’m curious if you think that civility has anything to do with this sort of eradication. And especially when we talk about sexual violence.
Rebecca Solnit: What do you mean by civility?
Audience Member 2: Just like there–this ability of sort of the primness, right, of us not being able to say like he raped her or that a physical sexual thing happened to a woman’s body.
Rebecca Solnit: And there used to be all this shame in euphemism, but we don’t even have that now, and it’s more about who gets protected. And you still see, like, the Kavanaugh hearing is an example, you know a young man does something terrible to a young woman and everybody worries about how this will affect the young man. And you know, like a lot of campus rape victims were told like, you’re ruining his bright future. And I’ve heard them say like, what about my bright future?
And there’s actually, you know, there are–Taylor Swift is not one of my main idols, but she has had this extraordinary moment when she– this guy groped her and she told his bosses and they fired him and he sued her and she, I think she countersued. And she just said like, I did not do this to you, you did this to yourself, and I’m not going to take responsibility for it.
So it’s not civility. It’s really a kind of incivility, and there’s–because we’re a culture that officially is against violence against women, but we’re not nearly as against violence against women as we are against discomfort for men. And so you see huge and elaborate things happening to buffer even men who are abusers.
There was just– what is the newest university where forty-five percent of the women undergraduates–it’s is it Duke? Yeah, like 45% you know, and so, I keep trying to talk about this– all of our finest universities are graduating huge crops of rapists every year and it doesn’t really stop. I mean Tulane last year found out, you know, that a high percentage of their women, and a fair number of their men students and stuff and it’s like, there is this weird way in which we don’t really do what we could do about it. And so I think that there’s a veneer of civility that covers over a lot of utter viciousness.
And it’s funny, It’s kind of like Southern gentility where it’s like I have very good manners and I have a bed sheet and I lynch people, you know, and I know which fork to use for my salad. Which is not to smear all southerners, but you do get this, I don’t know. One of Jessica Mitford’s sisters, who was a fascist, brought her mother to have tea with the Fuhrer and her mother came back and said, Mr. Hitler had beautiful manners. Beautiful table manners, and there is a way where we get really caught up in the beautiful table manners instead of the genocide and that’s too often what civility means so, you know.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the orchestra all the way to your right.
Audience Member 3: Hi Rebecca. I, your books changed my life, especially how you talk about everyone being given a single story, which I think is from “The Mother of all Questions.” And you talk about how we should ask ourselves different questions, like are we living our values? What do we want our legacy to be? And do you have any other questions do you think we could be asking ourselves?
Rebecca Solnit: I, you know, I think it… God there’s, I mean there’s so many. And they arise all the time. And yeah, but that was about the fact that we get asked really simple, mostly in this country, it’s like are you happy? Did you get everything you wanted? Which is really about being a consumer and not a producer, so it’s sort of passive and and selfish in a way, but with a selfishness that I don’t think even is very rewarding, because I don’t think you get happy by pursuing happiness.
But the other questions–and I was just in Columbia and there’s such a quality of a kind of romantic ideals and sense of dignity in other parts of the world. Of, what does your life mean? Why are you here? And, you know, and I think there are questions that arise from religious traditions and Judaism is a, in some ways can be a question-based religion, and Zen Buddhism has a lot of koans that are kind of not quite answerable questions.
There’s like, but I think that you know, it’s not really that I have questions other people should try on it. It’s sort of what questions would arise from an experience looked at from other perspectives than the most standard ones. And I think everybody kind of has their own questions. But thank you.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back and center of the balcony.
Audience Member 4: Hi, your book Middle School–“Men Explain Things to Me–meant so much to me when I was 14. So much so that I wrote an essay for school called “Middle School Boys Explain Things to Me” after I saw you speak the last time you were here. And I’m a student of writing at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, and I’m wondering how you got into writing and what your process looks like.
Rebecca Solnit: I learned I loved stories even before I learned how to read and then I learned how to read very fast in the beginning of first grade. And then I wanted to be a librarian because they spend all day with books, which are the best things in the world. And then I realized somebody actually got to write them and I made my final career decision in first grade, which–and it’s super easy to decide to be a writer, but then you have to write. And it’s a lot like playing the guitar, you get, you just have to do it a lot.
And my process–and I always wish I had some beautiful, coherent, disciplined, organized, process to relate but I feel like I get up in the morning and I get distracted and I scrabble around and, you know, until bedtime, and then I do the same thing the next day. And somehow out of this process that feels undisciplined and incoherent, books appear and deadlines are met so you know, that’s all I can say is that, you know, a writer is somebody who writes.
Astra Taylor: But I have to say, but one of the biggest things I learned from you that is that a writer isn’t someone who just writes. Right, that writing is a process, encompasses all the research and reading that is a huge–.
Rebecca Solnit: Oh there is that.
Astra Taylor: Right? Like that is a huge–and the thinking and the staring at the walls. Like I think for me I have this idea–.
Rebecca Solnit: This is not writing. This is typing.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. I mean does, I think when you’re younger, like this is writing.
Rebecca Solnit: And in movies that’s all, like writers they occasionally smite their brow and then they have inspiration and then they pound the typewriter and it’s kind of just ridiculous, because most of writing is thinking and most of thinking–and that’s part of what inspired my book about walking is that I would walk a lot to think through something so I could go home and write it.
And it’s, I think we’re in a culture that values productivity and efficiency,and writing requires all this time that looks like doing nothing which is thinking. And if you just go, you know, I remember with my first book I didn’t want to be one of those slackers who talks about the book they’re writing for the next 20 years at parties and without actually producing anything. And so I thought I should really, once I’d gathered all my information I should be writing and I thought writing was typing and I like typed for three days and then, and it was sort of gibberish.
And I think it’s part of why some writers hate their first drafts is because they just pounded out anyhow, and then it has you know, it’s like you nailed all the wood together before you decided what the structure was going to look like. And then you get, then the second draft means you can pull all the nails out and start over.
So then I was like, okay if writing is not typing then what is it, and it’s like, mostly thinking and you know, but it’s the research before and it’s thoughtfully engaging with the material, and the thinking about what it means. And then it’s the revision which is thinking about what you’ve written.
And so there’s, it always feels to me like writing is the narrow waist of a kind of hourglass of time that goes into it, that there is this actual process of getting the words on paper, but then you’re going to erase some and change some and so much has to happen before and after, so thank you for reminding me of that.
Astra Taylor: I’ve learned a lot from Rebecca, watching her.
Rebecca Solnit: I’ve learned a lot from Astra.
Astra Taylor: Oh thank you. I was like, this is what a writer does. Okay, let’s go.
Rebecca Solnit: Okay other
Astra Taylor: questions?
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the orchestra all the way to your left.
Audience Member 5: Hi, thank you. This conversation has been amazing. And so wonderful to witness. One of my favorite things you’ve written is the line from “Mother of all Questions”: “if libraries hold all the stories that have ever been told, there are ghost libraries of stories that have gone untold.” And I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about those ghost libraries, or at least give some reading suggestions of books you’ve loved that have gone under-represented or under-noticed.
Rebecca Solnit: I, God, where do you start with that? There’s so much and there’s like. And we know the official versions of history have been kind of great white men histories. And then there’s so many alternatives. Astra and I were just talking about a book we both really love, called “Other Powers,” about women, feminism, and spiritualism in the 19th century.
There’s so many Native American histories that have emerged recently that are the stories that weren’t told, and in a way those stories have been here. We have slave narratives, we have Native American autobiographies and memoirs, we have–you know, two days ago, Tommy Orange was on this stage with his book “There There,” about Urban Indians and it was so exciting to see this local guy and you know, right, an incredibly successful best-seller about being poor, native and Oakland-based.
So, God, what else I’m– but I think there’s also in the same way that you have to assume that you don’t know–that what you don’t know greatly outweighs what you know, you have to assume what you’re not–the stories that aren’t being told greatly outweigh the stories that are being told, and that there’s often dynamics of power in whose story gets told. And sometimes it’s just talking to the person next to you on the bus or something that you find out these other stories of who else is out there, who else matters, who else has a perspective on what this is.
And it’s interesting seeing those moments where farm workers’ stories are amplified by something like the Coalition of Immokalee workers or you know, these other processes in which stories become, you know, kind of are invited in for the first time, and how, when another voice is heard, the overall story, you know, it’s like, you add a new ingredient to the soup and it’s a different soup. You add another voice to the record and it becomes a different record.
And that process has happened in such a intense way that has so greatly leveled out participation, not that we’re all perfectly, you know, not that we’re finished with this process or everything’s fine now, but it’s been so transformative in my lifetime and it’s so exciting and it’s like, and I feel like the generation that’s coming, it’s so much more natural to them and they’re so different. And the fact that we’re going to be a white minority country in 2044, which doesn’t bode well for the Republican party, which is telling a kind of Confederate story, you know.
Like there’s so many that– so I feel like there’s all these untold stories but there’s also these stories emerging and then just sort of incumbent on all of us to try and hear who’s not being invited. I hear we are in school district property– I heard a teacher say, there are people who are confident, who are well nurtured, who will come up and ask you for help, and maybe you should help them, but what we should really do is look for the people who never even thought anybody would want to help them, or they deserved help, and you should help them.
And there’s something similar with stories. There are people who haven’t been invited to tell their story before and it’s like, how does their story–how do we issue invitations to their stories? How do we, you know, and that’s this ongoing process that I think has gotten better and is so far from being finished.
Astra Taylor: Yeah. And would you like to take one more? That was a beautiful–
Rebecca Solnit: Yeah let’s take one more. This is a lovely people with lovely questions.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the center of the balcony.
Audience Member 6: Could you talk about what we can learn from the Kavanaugh hearing? How–now that that happened the way it did and maybe it was predictable, but it sure was horrifying– how would you counsel the next Blasey? How do we get the people to hear? Is it with more facts? What strategy, what can we bring to conversations that people aren’t really welcoming?
Rebecca Solnit: You know, I have a friend who’s an organizer, was part of the demonstrations that were occupying the Senate building during the hearings, who said, I think they’re about 3,000 people. She said if we had 5,000 people we could have prevented the nomination. So, and that was kind of shocking to me. If she had said that to me during the process I would have blown–and I was busy. Well, no, like you think you’re busy and then history is being made in your world, it’s like you can’t even remember what you’re busy with and you shouldn’t have been.
But so I think it’s actually public participation could have changed the outcome, but I also think that it did, even more than the Anita Hill hearing, show that the justification for white, Ivy league, elite men ruling the world has been that they’re more rational, more reasonable, more in control, more coherent, more smarter Etc. And we saw Kavanaugh’s this red-faced, histrionic ,out of control, I love beer idiot. You know, he completely discredited himself in the eyes of a huge number of people. And so I feel like something was achieved in putting the absolute illegitimacy of that sector of the culture on display, and a lot of other stuff came out around that that I think was valuable.
So I don’t know and I think– I wrote her a thank-you letter. I think a lot of other people came forward. That the illegitimacy of the people at the center of elite prep schools and Ivy League schools and things who end up being our rulers was made more clear. And so that accomplished some things.
But it wasn’t really– what could have Christine Blasey Ford have done differently? I think she did an amazing job and deserves all honor and respect for what she did. I think she didn’t fail us in any way. We failed to show up in this crucial moment for the fate of our country to say this guy has proven himself to be a liar, proven himself to be a partisan, proven himself to be incoherent, proven himself to be undisciplined, proven himself to be irresponsible, proven himself to be incapable of empathy, and imagination, and we didn’t, you know, and so I think really the lesson is organize better.
Thank you all so much. I’m going to be here tomorrow because Astra’s amazing movie “What is Democracy?” is screening. And I had wanted this to–I originally thought we were just gonna have a conversation because I love her and her work. I’ve known her– it’s kind of fun– I’ve known her half her life now. I like that. Yeah and it’s been really fun watching someone who used to be 19 grow into a completely amazing, brilliant–and she was amazing and brilliant then, but now she’s a powerhouse, which she wasn’t quite yet at 19. So like, check out her work too and I’ll see a bunch of you here tomorrow.
Thank you all. Thanks for letting me do this, Rebecca.