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.

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Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

Apart from mild surprise when reading my mother’s entries in the baby book she kept for me, which lists the number of words I could say at 12 months and various intervals beyond that, I never really noticed too much that Allia didn’t speak words that could be recognised. Because she talked non-stop. She communicated incessantly with much enthusiasm and wasn’t shy.

She spoke a language tongue that we referred to as bird-talk, it was long streams of dialogue that went up and down in intonation which I was just on the verge of understanding if I listened hard enough, I was sure. Like listening to Italian or Arabic, languages that incorporate much body language and expression which communicate mood, tension and excitement without the need to understand their words.  It was very much like listening to the French language on the television or the radio in my early days of living here – somewhat familiar sounds with that feeling that surely if I did listen hard enough, it was just a matter of time before something in my brain clicked and “poof” I would understand everything.

It wasn’t until her brother arrived on the scene a year later and started using recognisable words in his rambled dialogue very early on that the contrast became noticeable – I think he understood the bird-talk because they would chatter away to each other and to us without hesitation. I wondered then if something was perhaps amiss, I say perhaps, because I am against making comparisons between children, they develop at their own pace and depending on what they are working on developing, other aspects can lag behind.

When people started suggesting we video her speaking like this, I realised it really was a little out of the ordinary, it was almost as if she had her own language, something like a twin language – but no twin. Unlike today when making a piece of film footage is child’s play, I wasn’t comfortable filming her as a kind of spectacle, I was more concerned with just interacting with her and giving her the freedom to express herself, waiting for her language to become something like one of the three languages she was hearing at home.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Previous Episodes

Episode 7: The Verdict, the Recovery and Home in time for Christmas

Waking up the day after the birth and the operation was difficult but waking up without our baby there next to us was gut-wrenching. We returned to the hospital as quick as we could and it would become my resting place for the next three weeks. I was kitted out with a mobile, electric breast pump, not too different from the contraption we see in a cowshed, only this cow had to be milked every three hours. I saw how little they survive on in those first few days, poor starving babies, but I also saw the rich colour of that life-giving, nutritional start a newborn needs, colostrum. Seeing that invoked a determination to ensure I ate in the most healthy way possible.

Allia spent three days in intensive care and apart from being asked to leave when they removed the respiratory equipment, the days passed with little drama. We learned that she had an Ileal Atresia, basically an obstruction in the small bowel, which required 35cm of it to be removed, leaving 130cm. Reading the notes of the operation and procedures in the Intensive Care Unit, I completely understand why some things are best not witnessed or even read about at the time one is going through them. I recently came across the discharge summary and actually have no recollection of ever having read it before, it’s not pleasant reading and I feel thankful to have a healthy daughter who shows no sign whatsoever of this challenging start to her life except the scar across her middle.

As if making up for that initial separation, we were then gifted with something few mothers experience I am sure, three uninterrupted weeks of constant companionship, the two of us sharing a room that became our world,  three weeks in which I learned that this small being was connected to me in a way I had never imagined possible.

Apart from when the nurses struggled to find a vein when doing blood tests, Allia never cried. She slept, she awoke, she rested in my arms as we waited for that all important organ, the bowel to commence its function. That would be one of the first signs of recovery. She was given milk through a line, so it had to happen soon and if everything functioned well, I would be able to start feeding her.

I would slip downstairs to the cafeteria for my breakfast when I saw she was sleeping and she was always quiet on my return, I would then read the notes to check if anything had occurred while I was away and it was via this I learned that this blissful sleeping baby was aware of my absence. The nurse had noted that Allia had cried and next to this note, that the mother had left the room to have breakfast. That the two events were connected was something of a shock initially, but so reassuring, to come to understand and experience something of the magic of the bond between mother and child. It is something I remain in awe of.  The next time I left for breakfast, I made sure to tell her where I was going.

Once she recovered and was feeding and putting on weight, we were ready to go home. We were discharged on December 18th and re-entered a city transformed by the approach of Christmas. A festive celebration it was indeed and the perfect time to be coming home and preparing for the season of joy and hibernation.

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Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 8: Ten Months of Bliss and Facing a Return to Work

Previous Episodes

A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Struggling with my latest read, I think about all those people starting out on the NanoWriMo trail and all those old stories gathering dust on the shelf, my finished and unfinished novels, the new one I would love to start and the words of my friend Bernadette, who suggested to me yesterday that I write a story directly into this blog.

It’s an idea with merit and one that will help me overcome another little dilemma, that of a 10-year-old girl who wants her own blog, whose little fingers have occasionally and so she says ‘accidentally’ found their way in here.

So this will be our collaboration, I will write the episodes and she will create the illustrations, which seems appropriate as this story is going to be about her, about an aspect of our journey together that is worth sharing, because I know our experience is already helping others going through something similar.

So, next up Episode One : The Benefits of Insomnia written by me and illustrated by my daughter.

Here is the cover she designed today, there is a colour version, but she wants me to put it up in black and white.

And just to clarify, that’s her on the left and me on the right. (She has used her artistic ability liberty to remove her curls and make herself as tall as me).