First let me say, if you haven’t read anything by Rebecca Solnit yet please put her on your list! Even if it’s just googling one of her articles or essays. I feel a bit redundant saying this, because I feel like I’m always prosthelytizing her work. But I mean it! Our July book Call Them by Their True Names is the third book of hers I’ve read (in addition to Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions which I loved).
Call Them by Their True Names is her most recent published collection of essays. The subtitle being American Crises (and Essays), is exactly what she delivers. From immigration, to mass incarceration and wrongful imprisonment, gentrification, voter suppression, freedom of the press, misogyny, racism, climate change, healthcare, gun violence, the oppression of native peoples, Donald Trump… she covers it all! And I’m here for it.
“We are all rowing past on another, and it behooves us to know how the tides move and who’s being floated along and who’s being dragged down and who might not even be allowed in the water.”
This is the book I needed on November 8th, 2016. Her words articulate so much of what I’ve been feeling for a long time. And although some of what she writes is raw and hard to read, they’re truth. I found myself feeling like I did fresh off of the 2016 election. So, so angry. But we should feel that way. These stories deserve our attention. And let me be clear, as one privileged white woman reading the work of another, I understand her writing is just one lens. But I respect the stories she tells and her activism as an ally. Anyone who can speak truth to power in this culture of “fake news” and twitter abuse is worth reading.
“To names something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt—or important or possible—and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story, the names, and inventing or popularizing new names and terms and phrases […] The process works both ways. Think of the Trump administration’s turning family reunification, which sounds like a good thing, into the ominous, contagious-sounding ‘chain migration.’ Think of the second Bush administration’s redefining torture as ‘enhanced interrogation,’ and how many press outlets went along with it. Of the Clinton administration’s hollow phrase ‘building a bridge to the twenty-first century,’ which was supposed to celebrate the brave new world tech would bring and disguised how much it would return us to the nineteenth-century economic divides and robber barons. Of Ronald Reagan’s introduction of the figure of the ‘welfare queen,’ a mythic being whose undeserving greed justified cutting off aid to the poor and ignored the reality of widespread poverty. There are so many ways to tell a lie.”
I was underlining and writing in the margins all over this book! If you couldn’t already tell by all the quotes I’m adding to this post. I love reading an author like Solnit because I don’t feel like I’m just passively reading. I’m actively learning through her writing. So often witnessing today’s news gives me a gut reaction but I feel void of sufficient language to explain how or why what’s happened is unjust or unamerican or just plain wrong. Reading essays like these puts words in place of that void. And I’m thankful Solnit’s words are written with hope. As a woman raising two young women in this world it’s easy to turn fatalist and become fearful. But Solint’s essays in Call Them by Their True Names, although they don’t shy away from ugly truths, look to the future with hope.
“I find great hope and encouragement in the anxiety, fury, and grief of my fellow residents of the United States. It’s not that I’m eager to see people suffer but that I’m relieved that so many are so far from indifferent. I feared after the election that those of us who are not directly targeted would do what people have often done during despotic regimes: withdraw into private life, wait it out, take care of themselves and no one else. Something else happened instead.”
If I haven’t convinced you yet, let me say it outright; read this book! Maybe not in one sitting. It’d do well to space it out. Read the essays one at a time, give them each their deserved thought, and give yourself time to process. But definitely pick this one up. 5 out of 5 stars from me!