Quantum of Solnit

Charting the landscape behind Rebecca Solnit, one of San Francisco's singular literary voices.

Rebecca Solnit (Photo by Jim Harrington)

When I arrive at The Green Arcade bookstore, I have a few minutes to browse before I sit down with author Rebecca Solnit.

The book categories at The Green Arcade defy standard catalogue conventions. The store has shelves labeled “Gay Gay Gay,” “Prison,” and “Resources: Water, Oil, and Energy.” This playful reimagining of the way most bookshops organize their products is likely why Solnit will later crown herself the store’s “official bookstore cat.”

After all, the titles contained in each section at are mostly the same ones you’d find at any other bookstore, but there is a vision here ­­— a way in which these subjects have been considered and connected ­­— that aligns with Solnit’s work and with her station as one of San Francisco’s most vital and urgent voices.

Toward the front is a display dedicated specifically to Solnit — an impressive capital city in a charmingly chaotic world of local literature. The distinction is deserved. Read any of Solnit’s work — which encompasses essays (A Field Guide to Getting Lost), biographies (River of Shadows), geographic histories (Savage Dreams), and reimagined atlases (Nonstop Metropolis) — and the spirit of the city she has called home for more than 30 years is bound to seep through, an inevitable fog drifting among the skyscrapers of her prose.

“I’ve seen a lot of San Franciscos,” she says. “I was around when it was a city of postindustrial ruins and free open space and low rent and punk rock. I saw my neighborhood in the Western Addition gentrify and the Mission gentrify. I saw a lot of things morph. If you stay in any place long enough in this country, it’s as though you’ve moved, because you end up someplace else.”

As an example, she points to the Sierra Club, which was founded in San Francisco in 1892 and moved to Oakland in May 2016.

“It was really a big piece of the city’s soul that decamped,” Solnit says. “If you look at say, Airbnb, which represents a kind of venal greed of displacement and a predation of the vulnerable, versus the Sierra Club, which has always been about protection and altruism, it says a lot about what we’ve become.”

She shares the story of a former student named Monica Mehta, who expressed her distress to Solnit over leaving New York City for San Francisco.

“She had a deep sense that centers are good and edges less so,” Solnit recalls, “and it really made me have to mount a defense of edges and realize that I actually thought that was a wonderful thing about San Francisco.”

That defense is not limited to friendly chats with students. In 2013 and 2014, she made waves with several pieces decrying the shuttle buses that take tech workers back and forth from San Francisco to Silicon Valley. From an environmental standpoint, Solnit argued, there is nothing “eco-friendly” about a system that allows commuters who would otherwise work closer to home to live in one place (in the midst of a housing crisis) and work in another.

“Apple seems to be cleaning up, but the only green that counts in much of Silicon Valley is the color of money,” she wrote in Guernica.

In her introduction to Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Solnit defines San Francisco as “the most left part of the left coast, the un-American place where America invents itself.” Later in the same book, she marvels at how “as a citizen of this city for some 30 years, I am constantly struck that no two people live in the same city.”

For Solnit, it seems this idea may ultimately be mired in a delicious paradox: a world in which we are both simultaneously one and many.

At one point in our conversation, Solnit interrupts herself to ask owner Patrick Marks if the jukebox in the corner of The Green Arcade is, in fact, the jukebox from The Gold Spike — the family-style Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue, where, for 86 years, the food was secondary to the atmosphere (and the iconic stuffed moose head).

He confirms she is correct, prompting Solnit to relate that it was at The Gold Spike where her parents ate their first meal together when they came to San Francisco in the mid-1950s. In this moment, two of Solnit’s infinite versions of San Francisco merge: the one half a century ago, where her parents shared a meal, and the one of today, where she sits in a bookstore discussing her career. The two moments are bonded by, of all things, a well-worn jukebox.

This is the essence of Rebecca Solnit — to probe for the connective tissue that binds people, places, and ideas together.

In the introduction to her latest collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions, she explains how this viewpoint might be applied to the work of feminists, writing, “There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.”

Her examination of that refusal — which winds its way from Virginia Woolf to Edward Snowden to the recent debate surrounding the legitimacy of rape jokes — encapsulates what makes her such a singular and striking voice: Rebecca Solnit writes in the language of maps. In the case of her trio of atlases — works that cleverly redefine the geography of New Orleans, New York City, and San Francisco — the maps were literal, a series of intricately illustrated broadsides examining the thematic common ground of seemingly disparate things. But Solnit is also a cartographer of ideas and movements; rejecting the “X’s” we’ve collectively decided demarcate what’s important and re-stitching boundaries back together into new, provocative shapes.

In The Mother of All Questions, she charts the oppression of silence in a series of essays that touch on subjects ranging from The Little Mermaid to environmentalist Rachel Carson to ex-NFL player Ray Rice. The seemingly far-flung connections are not arbitrary landmarks or magic tricks meant to prove the breadth of her acumen, but instead, salient paths of intersection hacked with the machete of her pen.

The longtime San Franciscan has made a career out of finding the narrative threads that connect us, be it the allure of walking (Wanderlust, 2000), the human nature of altruism in times of disaster (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009), the existence of hope in the promise of the unknown (Hope in the Dark, 2004), or perhaps most famously, how the normality of patriarchal binaries leads to systemic violence against women.

In “Men Explain Things to Me” — arguably her best-known essay to date — Solnit begins by relating the story of how she was once forced to listen to a man tell her about a critically acclaimed book on the photographer Eadweard Muybridge that she, in fact, had written. Solnit recalls the incident with a bit of humor, but by the essay’s end, she extrapolates how this man’s behavior is indicative of an “archipelago of arrogance.” The essay would go on to inspire the popular portmanteau “mansplaining” and bring Solnit, who has written more than 15 books since the early 1990s, into the spotlight.

By using place as a prism for the world, Solnit’s work has strived to connect isolated ideas into a nexus of context that ultimately resembles a planet covered in thumbtacks and red strings. At the center of it all is San Francisco, the edge of the world that has long served as her home and muse.

Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area Since World War II. (Design – Lia Tjandra , Cartography – Shuzue Seigel | Copyright the University of California Press.)

 

Solnit was born in Bridgeport, Conn., and moved several times before arriving in Novato in Marin County. She passed the GED after completing 10th grade, and at 17, left to study abroad in Paris. Eventually, she returned to complete her studies at San Francisco State. She went on to receive a Masters in Journalism from University of California, Berkeley in 1984, and has lived in San Francisco ever since.

In her time here, Solnit has seen the city and the world change in countless and surprising ways (“The Bay Area is good at containing contradictions,” she notes in Infinite City.) Arguably, one of the most immediate examples is the advent of social media.

Where once the search to link the disparate elements of our world often required lots of academic heavy lifting, now we have things like Twitter, where hashtags spread like wildfire. It is a moment when the planet has never been more connected, and many of the key players responsible for this transformation are housed in our own backyard. Solnit has written several times about the duality of platforms like Twitter: how they can exist both as a fertile breeding ground for trolls and bigoted vitriol but also as one of the world’s most powerful tools for social change.

“Technologies aren’t neutral,” she says. “I think that Google and Facebook and Twitter should be treated as a kind of public commons and governed in some other way — but there it is down the street, and it could be really different.”

In her essay “A Short History of Silence,” Solnit recounts the horrible abuse and threats leveled against Saturday Night Live cast member Leslie Jones and the rampant misogyny of the Gamergate campaign to show how any platform that has the potential to amplify marginal voices will invariably also give rise to a vicious demand for their silence.

“Twitter has become the world’s most efficient delivery system for rape and death threats aimed at silencing and intimidating women,” she writes in The Mother of All Questions, “but at its best, social media is what its users make of it, and from the Arab Spring to this feminist insurgency, activists have created a sort of Greek chorus to the dramas of our lives and world.”

Here, the ink of the particular map Solnit is drawing begins to dry and reveal itself. However, it is not a map of usernames and IP addresses, but one that traces the indirect and unexpected ways in which change most often occurs.

Solnit’s 2014 essay, “#YesAllWomen,” encapsulates how this change often manifests itself. The #YesAllWomen movement was started by a woman who felt compelled to rebuke the narrative of men claiming they were not like the deranged individual who opened fire on a sorority at Isla Vista near the UC Santa Barbara campus in 2014. An anonymous female Twitter user with the handle @gildedspine responded to the cries of “not all men” with #YesAllWomen, which inspired legions of women on the platform to share their stories.

The idea was simple: Not all men are compelled to commit violence against women, but all women are affected by the constant possibility of it occurring. In writing about this spontaneous movement, Solnit notes that while a hashtag can hardly defeat misogyny, it does reflect a change in the discourse that shouldn’t be discounted.

“You could see once-radical ideas blooming in the mainstream media,” she writes. “You could see our arguments and whole new ways of framing the world gaining ground and adherents.” Later, she concludes that while “the struggle has been and will be long and harsh and sometimes ugly, and the backlash against feminism remains savage, strong, and omnipresent, it is not winning.”

These indirect changes — the way a tragic shooting may become the impetus that brings awareness to the idea that many women must dedicate time in their daily lives to concerns of survival — is also one of the cornerstones of her 2004 book, Hope in the Dark.

Originally written during the height of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the title continues to resonate. The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, Solnit and her publisher made the book available for free. In a matter of days, more than 31,000 people downloaded it.

“People were hungry,” Solnit explains, “and we had something they wanted to eat. It was kind of amazing.” She says her publisher, Haymarket, came up with the idea, but that once they had made the suggestion, she was all for it.

“I wrote the original essay for pretty much nothing. I didn’t make a lot of money off the book. I really wrote it to try and put out this other framework,” she says. “As I always joke about that book, I was snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left.”

Despair, Solnit argues, is a luxury good.

“For the desperate, it’s legitimate,” she says, but despair should not be embraced by the comfortable as a means to stop trying.

One of the core tenets of Hope in the Dark is the idea that we must accept that, sometimes, victories manifest themselves in invisible ways. The work put into a lost battle may ultimately prevent a future war.

“There’s this total fear of complacency, like it was public enemy No. 1,” Solnit says. “There’s a sense that if we celebrate our victories, then we must think we’re at the finish line. What I’ve seen a lot more is people who feel that since we never win, since we have no power, since this is going nowhere that we might as well give up. There’s a deep lack of awareness of how power works and how change works.”

Solnit cites the recent struggles at Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline as an example of her argument, making reference to a point raised by the writer of The Chronology of Water.

Lidia Yuknavitch said this beautiful thing on social media that Standing Rock is no longer ‘limited by linear time,’ ” Solnit says. “When you look at Standing Rock, did they stop one pipeline? Almost certainly not, but what did they do? It changed the terms of the game.”

She recalls an anecdote that also appears in the foreword to Hope in the Dark.

“There was a Chinese bureaucrat who was asked in the 1970s what he thought of the French Revolution,” she says. “Some people say that the question referred to the 1968 revolution, but others think it was the 1789 revolution. Either way, his answer was: ‘Too soon to tell.’ I love that, that sense that the stone was thrown into the water a while ago but the ripples are still spreading out and we don’t know for sure.”

Those ripples, which perhaps reflect future pipelines that will not be built, future activists emboldened by what they’ve seen at Standing Rock, and so on, are the crux of Solnit’s vision for hope. It is not a vision that dismisses the pain and horrors caused by something like the Dakota Access Pipeline, but one that pushes further to ask: If victories don’t last forever, then why should defeats?

A map from Solnit’s 2010 Infinite City showing the location of butterfly habitats and queer public spaces in San Francisco. (Monarchs and Queens – Cartography – Ben Pease; Artwork – Mona Caron; Design – Lia Tjandra | Copyright the University of California Press.)

 

 

Unlike some of her peers, Solnit has eagerly embraced the potential of young people in her surveys of movements and recipes for change. One example is former Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, whose work Solnit highlights in The Mother of All Questions.

Sulkowicz, unsatisfied with the ambivalent response of school officials and law enforcement after reporting her rape by a fellow student in 2013, turned her experience into a performance piece during her senior year. She carried a 50-pound mattress with her every time she appeared publicly on university property.

“Emma’s work was such an amazing performance for making trauma visible in a way that allowed people to actually be in solidarity with her,” she says

For Solnit, part of the importance of Sulkowicz’s performance involves her choice to “un-tell” a story — in this case, the story being the fallacy that there is not an epidemic of sexual assault occurring on college campuses across the country. While Solnit concedes that it will take a “moon launch” against gender violence to bring about systemic change, she feels Sulkowicz and others have chipped away at the prevailing narrative.

One group that continually appears in her writing is Women Strike for Peace, an activist organization focused on banning nuclear testing. The group has been credited as a leading force in bringing down the House Un-American Activities Committee and was cited by President John F. Kennedy for being part of the reason the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963. Solnit’s work is in some ways an extension of that movement — an appeal for the generation in power to rethink its convictions and re-center its worldview.

On a more personal scale, Solnit speaks with pride about the time she was asked by scholar Susan Sontag to come to her New York City apartment and give her thoughts on a lecture Sontag was working on.

“She was saying we should do noble things whether or not they have any effect on principle,” Solnit recalls.

The moment is captured in Solnit’s 2009 essay, “Woolf’s Darkness,” as she discusses the impact the Nevada Test Site — “where more than a thousand nuclear bombs were detonated” — made on her.

“The Test Site as a place of great convergence and collision — and the example of authors like Sontag and Woolf — taught me to write,” she says. “And then, years later, Sontag leavened her argument about acting on principle with my examples from that kitchen conversation and some details I wrote down. It was a small impact I could never have imagined.”

Now, it is Solnit who continues to look for the unheard voices, to spy the jukeboxes in the corner, to have her narratives challenged and enlightened. As always, she continues the work of updating her own map, a landscape of essays, wanderlust, histories, refined anger, and natural splendor overlaid atop a small coastal city where the possibilities are frightening, but infinite.

 

“Every map is a guide to finding the desirable and navigating the dangerous,” Solnit writes in Infinite City. “California was imagined as the island at the end of the world, because that’s how the stories went and because they needed an island. Every map is a treasure map, every island a Treasure Island.”

San Francisco has several islands, but none quite like Solnit’s. She has the solace of Angel Island, the hard truths of Alcatraz, and something entirely her own as well. As the waters rise and tides shift, we can only hope her cloister is joined into an archipelago — not of arrogance, but of knowledge. During the course of our conversation, we are interrupted several times by young women who politely ask Solnit to sign their books.

“You’re one of my favorite authors,” says one.

“Hell yes, I will!” Solnit says, after a second customer asks if she’ll autograph her books.

When the fan has left, Solnit’s gaze returns to the modest display created in her honor, a shelf of spines that bear her name with a fading map excerpted from her San Francisco atlas framed above.

“Without young women, I’m nothing,” she observes, “or at least, I’d be a lot less in circulation.”

View Comments