The titular essay is about an interview in the UK that Solnit did. The interviewer, a man, was really concerned that she never married and had children. Solnit tried to laugh it off, but the interviewer kept pressing her on the matter. Nothing she said would satisfy him. She even went so far as to say “Fuck this shit” at one point. Solnit uses this experience as a jumping off point to discuss women’s bodies, the expectations society has for what women are allowed to do with their bodies, and how our patriarchal culture makes it everyone’s business, especially men’s, to interrogate women when they deviate from the prescribed “norm.” As Solnit notes, no male author would ever be asked why he never married and had children. As a woman who chose to marry and not have children I very much loved this essay because it is something that is rarely talked about. It is such a pervasive assumption that women are supposed to get married and have children, that a good many never stop to think whether or not they actually want children. And if they do and decide no, they are in for a turbulent time.
But the essay that really sparks in this book is the longest one, “A Short History of Silence.” Solnit discusses imposed silence, who is allowed to speak and what they are allowed to speak about. The focus is on women and other oppressed groups, but she notes that men are not immune to forced silence either. White men might have all the privilege but even they are not allowed to talk about certain things because it wouldn’t be manly. And so Solnit shows how this system we all live in perpetuates silences of all kinds and we are all hurt and made poorer for it.
The issue of silencing is a thread that runs through quite a few of the essays in this slim collection. Solnit also addresses rape culture and refutes the notion of an epidemic of false rape accusations. There is a terrifying essay about gun violence in America. The statistics she employs are breathtaking. Ninety-one people in the U.S. are killed by guns EVERY DAY. She asserts that the argument for more guns has nothing to do with facts or safety and everything to do with guns as icons of identity and the macho fantasy of being dominant and in control. There is also a great essay on women and work.
All of the essays have appeared in other places either online or in print magazines. But it is nice to have them collected because reading them together produces the pleasant effect of being able to see Solnit develop her thinking and work out different ideas. If only I could be as smart and insightful. How does a person get to be that way? Is it just something you are or is there a path towards becoming?
Allow me to leave you with a thought from Solnit’s “A Short History of Silence”
Discrimination is training in not identifying or empathizing with someone because they are different in some way, in believing the differences mean everything and common humanity nothing.