The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit writes reflective, thought-provoking essays, which often connect her intellectual curiosity with where she is in her life now. In an earlier work Wanderlust, she ponders the history of walking as a cultural and political experience; facing the unknown, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost; her mother’s Alzheimer’s, regression and how she spent that final year in The Faraway Nearby.

Now a new collection of essays, the title The Mother of All Questions, from an introductory piece on one of her pet frustrations, that all time irrelevant question that many professional women, whether they are writer’s, politicians or humble employees too often get asked.

But it is the timely and questioning opening essay ‘A Short History on Silence’ that  binds the collection together and should be the question being asked. It is an attempt at a history of silence, in particular the silencing of women, the effect of patriarchal power, the culpability of institutions, universities, the court system, the police, even families, their roles in continuing to ensure women’s silence over the continual transgressions of men.

Rebecca Solnit has been writing about this issue for many years, trying to create a public conversation on a subject that many continued to insist was a personal problem – yet another form of silencing.

As she wrote in Wanderlust (2000)

“It was the most devastating discovery of my life that I had no real right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness out of doors, that the world was full of strangers who seemed to hate me and wished to harm me for no reason other than my gender, that sex so readily became violence, and that hardly anyone else considered it a public issue rather than a private problem.”

She makes a distinction between silence being that which is imposed and quiet being that which is sought.

What is left unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought is as different from what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great as swimming is from drowning. Quiet is to noise as silence is to communication. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in the words on the page…Silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished. If our voices are essential aspects of our humanity, to be rendered voiceless is to be dehumanized or excluded from one’s humanity. And the history of silence is central to women’s history’

The list of who has been silenced goes right back to the dawn of literature, it goes back millennia, classics scholar Mary Beard noted that silencing women begins almost as soon as Western literature does, in the Odyssey, with Telemachus telling his mother to shut up.

It continues through the years with the woman’s exclusion from education, from the right to vote, to making or being acknowledged for making scientific discoveries to campus rape and the introduction of sexual harassment guidelines as law and the unleashing of stories and the wave of voices coming out of silence that sharing on social media has spawned, generating a fiercely lively and unprecedented conversation.

80 Books No Woman Should Read is her response to a list published by Esquire magazine of a list they created of 80 books every man should read, a list of books, seventy-nine of which were written by men, with one by Flannery O’Connor. It speaks of the reader’s tendency to identify with the protagonist, only the books she mentions from this list that she has read, she often identifies, not with the protagonist but with the woman, noticing that some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty.

Not surprisingly, her essay (first published at Lithub.com) elicited a significant online response, prompting a reply from Esquire, admitting they’d messed up, saying their article had rightfully been called out for its lack of diversity, and proactively inviting eight female literary powerhouses, from Michiko Kakutani to Anna Holmes to Roxanne Gay, to help them create a new list. You can see the list here.

And in the essay In Men Explain Lolita to Me she expounds further on empathy:

‘This paying attention is the foundational act of empathy, of listening, of seeing, of imagining experiences other than one’s own, of getting out of the boundaries of one’s own experience. There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not. Or to go deeper within ourselves, to be more aware of what it means to be heartbroken, or ill, or ninety-six, or completely lost. Not just versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance to cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.’

I haven’t read Men Explain Things to Me, although I heard Rebecca Solnit speak about the leading and infamous anecdote it retells when I went to listen to her at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

That talk coincided with the publication of  The Faraway Nearby (link to review) the book that traverses her uneasy relationship with her mother and how the approach of death forces her to contemplate it, how it may have shaped her. I liked the book, but I loved listening to the author in person, she has such an engaging presence, is a captivating speaker, a performer of the reflective and spontaneous.

The Mother of All Questions is a culmination of Solnit’s and many women’s frustrations in the world today, where being a woman living in a patriarchal culture, no matter which part of the world, brings challenges that must reach a breaking point. It is a conversation that is happening everywhere that hopefully will bring change for the better, as many voices come together in solidarity. It is an acknowledgement both of how far we have come and how much we have still to do, to change the culture of silence we have inhabited for too long, to safely be ourselves.

I highly recommend picking up one of her works, if you haven’t yet read her.

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

After spending a few months with me in London some years ago, a very good friend was about to return to New Zealand and was making some major changes in her life, both personal and in her career. She wasn’t entirely sure what job she wanted to do, but knew it would be in the great outdoors. She loved to travel and she loved nature. I organised a subscription to Wanderlust Travel magazine for her, an inspiration of amazing photography, fabulous ideas for out-of-the-way places to visit and best of all, a link to exciting jobs for those who love to travel across cultures, to be outdoors and meet people.

Milford-Track2

Life on the Milford Track

She completed a diploma, training in the skills required to become an outdoor guide and now works for the Department of Conversation as a guide on the Milford Track, this last season she was based in a lodge, only accessible by helicopter or a few days walk in. She is now living her dream job and it is indeed just like those jobs offered in the pages of that inspiring magazine.

Fast forward a few years and I come across a book called Wanderlust : A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. I was interested in it, though stronger was the feeling that I should send it into that remote wilderness to my friend, it seemed to describe where she had arrived at. So I did. I then forgot about the book until I saw the name Rebecca Solnit come up recently on NetGalley, she had a new book coming out The Faraway Nearby. Here is the book I will read I thought and requested it.

Some weeks later while in London one Saturday, I discovered The London Literature Festival was on and at 3.30pm, I could attend a talk by Rebecca Solnit speaking about her book The Faraway Nearby. Serendipity? I bought a ticket, a hardback copy of her book and went to listen to the author, curious, though I had never read a word of her writing.

FarawayThe book is good, but Rebecca Solnit’s ability to captivate an audience is spectacular. I’m almost sorry to admit it, but the live version was even better than the passive written version, which I really enjoyed, the reading experience enhanced significantly by the additional anecdotes and philosophical meanderings of Solnit in person, as she spoke without pause, the voice of a poet.

The talk was hosted by the literary critic Alex Clark, who suggested that the media coined her book not a memoir, but an anti-memoir. Part anti-memoir and part matremoir, it starts with her recounting the gift of 100 pounds of apricots from her mother, one of the few gifts she ever received from her mother and not disconnected from the fact that her mother is undergoing something of a personality change since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She lays them out on her bedroom floor, wanting to appreciate their abundance, but instead embraces a soon to be dissected anxiety.

“The fruit on my floor made me start to read fairy tales again. They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with, the roomful of straw the poor girl in Rumpelstiltskin needs to spin into gold overnight, the thousand pearls scattered in the forest moss the youngest son needs to gather in order to win the princess, the mountain of sand to be moved by teaspoon. The heaps are only a subset of the category of impossible tasks that included quests, such as gathering a feather from the tail of the firebird who loves at the end of the world, riddles, and facing overwhelming adversaries.”

 

Nature essays, how stories create the narrative of our lives, philosophical meanderings, her chapters weave in and out of many subjects, flitting here and there, as she recounts pieces of a year that passed whilst her mother was regressing. She contemplates and then makes an escape to Iceland, mentions friendships and her passion for visual art, the occasional Buddhist legend, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, pain and leprosy likening her narrative to a Russian matryoshka doll, even going so far as to repeat chapter names in reverse, once she arrives at the hard core (the doll that has no doll).

“My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and then tried to get herself back from a daughter.”

ApricotsThere are many anecdotes, insights and great lines throughout the narrative, however Solnit stops short of going too deep into her subject, she observes the apricots and watches how they change, just as she does her mother, but stops short of looking too deep into the past, of really describing their relationship and how they were with each other, it is implied, not described.

I understand this reluctance, for that percentage of women out there who had the kind of relationship with their mother that Solnit did, there will be many nods of the head in recognition of what she says without having to go into detail. For the rest, it may seem superficial or even harsh, but they are the words of a mature 58-year-old women, who admits:

“If I had written about her earlier, the story would have had the aura of the courtroom, for I had been raised on the logic of argument and fact and being right, rather than the leap beyond that might be love.”

At the end of the talk, a few people asked questions and at the last minute, but too late I put up my hand, my question deemed to remain silent. Or so I thought. As everyone left the Purcell Room, a woman called Helena sitting next to me who was also visiting from the country for the day, asked me what I had been going to ask. And so I told her – and had a delightful conversation, just as interesting as it might have been, had I asked the author.

The question I wanted to ask was:

Did she believe that a challenging relationship could be a gift, that it could bring her something that she may not otherwise have developed in herself, had it been otherwise?

I suspect the answer is yes, that these relationships do give people something that can be used proactively, if self-awareness is developed to prevent regressing into the negative aspects or effects of those childhood and adulthood experiences. She may not have been able to fix her mother, but it may not be a coincidence that Rebecca Solnit is outspoken and active in terms of her support of nature, the environment, politics and art.

“I didn’t have much sympathy either; it was not that I refused to give it, but that there was none in my equipment yet, perhaps because I had experienced so little of it.”

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

London Literature Festival #londonlitfest

Late last week I was working in London and had a free Saturday to enjoy the delights of the city.

Providores

The Providores + Tapa Room

I was meeting a friend for brunch in Marylebone High Street, ironically it is London’s French quarter, many of the shops and cafés and boulangeries are very familiar; however we weren’t heading for a French café, we couldn’t help but be tempted by one of New Zealand’s greatest exports, chef Peter Gordon and his restaurant The Providores with its excellent downstairs Tapa Room, the all-day restaurant, café and wine bar.

London's South Bank Centre

London’s South Bank Centre

Before heading out, a quick google search “literary events London” informed me that the London Literature Festival was on, I couldn’t believe it!

So after a terrific brunch, off I went to the South Bank Centre and the Royal Festival Hall, always a hive of activity at the weekend, and hive  an apt metaphor, as the festival was using the image of a bee and honeycomb in its publicity.

Don’t you just love those sun loungers outside Foyles bookshop. Bliss!

To my delight and surprise, the American essayist and writer of non-fiction Rebecca Solnit, was speaking in the late afternoon, so I avoided the pull of Foyles to buy a ticket and then decided to check out The Spectacular Translation Machine, a collaborative attempt to translate an entire book from French into English.

CIMG4524The book On Les Aura! was the private diary of a French solider written in 1914 , which the renowned illustrator Barroux discovered and published in France, adding his line drawings to bring the story to life. It has never been translated into English, so each illustration along with the short paragraph of text was hung on a line around a room in the Royal Festival Hall and members of the public invited to choose an image and attempt the translation.

I chose an illustration of the solider lying in bed and a steaming cup of coffee beside him. The paragraph underneath the illustration read:

Je m’éveille après une bonne nuit de sommeil et je trouve un bol de café fument. Quel changement ! J’écris a ma chère femme pour la rassurer et lui envoyer mon adresse. Vers 10 heures, le Major passe la visite.

Along with children, a couple of students, a woman who could speak 15 languages and anyone else wanting to give it a go, we sat at the table and worked on our translations in a wonderful community approach. Such fun!

From there, a quick scout of the bookshop Foyles where I picked up a copy of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and a copy of The Artist’s Way.

CIMG4528Then on to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an inspiring talk by Rebecca Solnit, author of The Faraway Nearby, hosted by the literary critic Alex Clark. Solnit’s book was already on my list and downloaded to the kindle to read, but jumped to the top of the pile after an engaging talk about apricots, Alzheimer’s, Iceland and the significance of stories in our lives. A very poised and engaging speaker with scores of anecdotes and quotes that she repeats without hesitation.

It must be the season for book readings, because I am back in Aix and today we have had Jonathan Coe participating in an excellent and well hosted and translated discussion. More on that soon!

*

CIMG4522