Saturday, December 30, 2017

Men Explain to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I had just begun to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don't know your actions are futile; that you don't have the memory of the future; that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be; and that, in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death. This is when the words of so many writers often resonate most. 
I've seen this essay collection floating around for a while now, and in the wake of the most recent wave of sexual assault allegations, it seemed time to break it open. Solnit starts with a chillingly familiar story; at a party she finds herself in conversation with a man who is hell-bent on explaining her most recent book to her--a "very important" book that she couldn't possibly have read, let alone written. Her essay about that incident inspired both the title of the collection and the term "mansplaining."

As is her style, Solnit ranges pretty widely here. Assault on Indian busses, the IMF, Virginia Woolf, Cassandra. Despite some of the essays being close to a decade old, Solnit's insights on navigating the world as a woman are largely heart-wrenchingly spot on. She describes a college class which unearths a "chasm" between the male and female experience: "The intricate ways [women] stayed alert, limited their access to the world, took precautions, and essentially thought about rape all the time (while the young men in the class, he added, gaped in astonishment," and the ways in which women around the world are consistently marginalized in every sense of the word: "Billions of women must be out there on this seven-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever." Her prose is beautiful and intricate and painfully accurate.

Violence is a focus throughout--physical, emotional, verbal--but Solnit shows a serious blindspot as she tackles statistics about both American and international violence against women. This statement, made early on in the book, really rubbed me the wrong way: "Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender." I understand her point here, that women, on the whole, are subjected disproportionately to violence and abuse, but the reality is that violence does have a race, a class, a religion, and a nationality. White women, Solnit included, operate a space of privilege that not only shelters them from some of this violence, but that also prioritizes their voices and stories. Solnit seems fairly blind to this fact throughout her essays; she talks about the experiences of women of color abroad, but largely neglects the experiences of women of color in this country, and her writing loses some credibility as a result.

Overall, this felt very, very relevant. The book was published before the current torrent of accusations, firings, and the #metoo movement, and I like to think that Solnit might permit herself to feel some hope in the reactions over the past few months. White Feminism aside (and the essays have a serious White Feminism problem), the book does an excellent job of describing the underlying infrastructure that enabled the culture of assault that is slowly coming to light. Taken with a (white) grain of salt, it's worth a read.


Brent Waggoner said...

I've been thinking about reading this. I've really enjoyed the essays of hers I've read online.

Chloe Pinkerton said...

I think she's brilliant, and this is definitely worth a read. Her seeming obliviousness to her own privilege did start to really bother me by the end, but she is a fabulous writer, and it's really timely. Also, I want all men to read this, so you extra should go for it!

Christopher said...

#notallmen will read this