It’s a cool October evening, and writer Rebecca Solnit is onstage at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre telling a story. She was 19, she says, strolling San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, when she realized she was being followed by “a well-dressed white man murmuring a long string of vile sexual proposals to me.” This is a familiar scenario to tonight’s mostly female audience; we wait for the punch line: “When I turned around and told him to fuck off, he told me I had no right to speak to him like that.” We laugh. But: “It’s sort of not funny, because then he threatened to kill me.”
Solnit—maximal feminist, ardent climate activist—is a master of exposing the malevolent underbelly of everyday situations. “Telling startling and transgressive truths is funny,” she writes in “The Short Happy Recent History of the Rape Joke,” an essay in her twentieth book, The Mother of All Questions (Haymarket). “Or at least we laugh when we hear them, out of surprise or discomfort or recognition.” The 11 galvanizing essays in her latest collection include Solnit’s choice not to be a mother; a portrait of an American family whose son, Christopher Michael-Martinez, was killed in a 2014 murder spree in Isla Vista, California; and a rigorous study of the ways in which sexism silences both men and women. “This is about everybody,” Solnit says of Mother. “All of us live in a culture that is attempting to limit the range of our humanity, and so we’re all in this liberation struggle.”
To call Solnit prolific doesn’t capture the depth or magnitude of her work—when her good friend Sam Green, the Oscar-nominated documentarian behind 2002’s The Weather Underground, sees her, he likes to joke, “Hey, Rebecca, did you publish a book today?” Sometimes, he says, the answer is yes. While she studied English and art history at San Francisco State University and journalism at UC Berkeley, she’s a polymath who’s taken on a staggering variety of subjects: from a little-known 1950s West Coast avant-garde art movement (Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era, 1990), to Irish history and culture (A Book of Migrations, 1997), to the neighborly altruism that arises in the wake of disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2010), to her mother’s experience with Alzheimer’s intercut with a trip Solnit took to Iceland (The Faraway Nearby, 2013).
Read more at Elle.