A Feature Review of
Whose Story Is This?:
Old Conflicts, New Chapters
Paperback: Haymarket Books, 2019
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Reviewed by Rhonda Miska, OP
According to St Augustine, hope has two daughters: anger at the status quo and courage to change. Rebecca Solnit’s most recent collection of essays is driven by thoughtful anger as well as hope-filled courage. In Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters, historian, author, and activist Rebecca Solnit reflects on progress made through movements of the past decade: “Occupy Wall Street (2011), Idle No More (2012), Black Lives Matter (2013), #MeToo (2017), and the new feminist surges and insurgencies, immigrant and trans rights movements, the Green New Deal (2018), and the growing power and reach of the climate movement.” In her terse, cogent cultural critique, she challenges her readers to remember the wins of recent decades as evidence that “people considered marginal or powerless – scholars, activists, people speaking for and from within oppressed groups – have changed the world.”
Who has the right to speak, be heard, and be considered credible? Who narrates the American story? Who define the “we” of America? These questions unify this collection of twenty essays. Solnit explores topics including voter suppression, the role of unconscious bias in politics, the framing of the abortion debate, and public discourse around reports of sexual assault and harassment. Solnit is clear about her self-understanding as a writer: “I am someone whose job it is to hear and to tell the stories of the powerless.” Like Eduardo Galeano, Naomi Klein, or Howard Zinn, Solnit writes out of what Latin American liberation theologians have coined “the preferential option for the poor” – particularly women, people of color, queer people, and others who have been marginalized. In siding with those on the margins, Solnit critiques power structures which gaslight, minimize, and delegitimize the voices and experiences of those who are not white, male, and straight.
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Solnit’s social analysis is sometimes scathing yet never emotionally overwrought, occasionally sharply sarcastic without devolving into snarkiness. She lays bare the racist and misogynistic assumptions at work in public discourse on who is considered charismatic or presidential (spoiler alert: white men), as well as the sense of entitlement beneath the anger of those living comfortably within the dominant narrative. Ever concerned about the use of language in democracy, she calls out “comfort” as a code word for maintaining the status quo. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, she argues that there is a disproportionate concern for men’s discomfort and too few stories about how women feel uncomfortable in workplaces or on the street. Similarly, she challenges the Border Patrol’s statement of being “very uncomfortable” with the use of the word “cages” to describe the conditions of children held in detention at the US/Mexico border.
Alongside indignation, these essays ring with gratitude for the “human alarm clocks” without whom all of us would be less woke than we are. However, she emphasizes the successes won through collective action, arguing that figures like Martin Luther King, Jr and Cesar Chavez should more correctly be called catalysts, not leaders – as the term “leader” creates an implicit and disempowering binary between leaders and followers.
Given Solnit’s emphasis on collectivism, it is not surprising that she chooses the image of a collectively-built cathedral as a central metaphor: “We are building something immense together that, though invisible and immaterial, is a structure, one we reside within…” opens the book’s first essay “Cathedrals and Alarm Clocks.” Throughout the essays, she returns to what is being built collectively “about race, class, gender, sexuality; about nature, power, climate, the interconnectedness of all things; about compassion, generosity, collectivity, communion; about justice, equality, possibility.” This emerging cathedral stands in stark contrast to those “trying to take up residence in the wreckage of white supremacy and patriarchy, perhaps convinced that there is no shelter that shelters us all.”
The public spaces we shape in turn shape us. She offers the shifts in naming, the toppling of some statues and the raising of others, as tangible proof that we are in the midst of a steady, seismic shift in whose voice is heard, whose story is told, and whose identity is acknowledged. What difference will it make not just to queer people but to all of us to have the San Francisco airport named after Harvey Milk? What difference will it make not just to African Americans but to all of us to have a major thoroughfare in Chicago named after Ida B. Wells? What difference does it make to not just Native people but to all of us that the highest peak is the nation is no longer named Mount McKinley (after the former US president now critiqued for his racist actions and speech) but Mount Denali – the name given it by indigenous people in Alaska?
Though Solnit is hopeful about these shifts, and may be considered by some too optimistic, she in no way minimizes the national mess we are in. She claims the US is “in a sort of civil war, and part of what it at stake are truth and facts in the form of documented history, scientific fact, political accountability, and adherence to the law, as well as the methodologies by which facts will be determined and the presumption that facts matter.” This is a “war about stories” and who tells them. That both the current US President and Solnit have used the language of “civil war” reveals a common perception across the social identities and ideological commitments that divides them: national polarization has reached a point where the center cannot hold. “This country has room for everybody who believes there’s room for everybody. For those who don’t – well, that’s why there’s a battle about whose story it is to tell,” Solnit writes.
Of course, battles have winners and losers. Wars leave us with the victors and the vanquished. Whose Story Is This? is filled with challenging, insightful, if not always entirely original, underlineables for progressive-minded readers. But it does not offer guidance on incorporating into this new broader “we” those losing the battle – those who resist the inclusion of new voices, those who deny climate change, those who don’t believe there’s room for everybody. These essays left me wondering what it would look like to struggle unequivocally for equity and inclusion, to change our literal and metaphorical landscapes in ways that acknowledge the full humanity of those historically marginalized, and to simultaneously recognize this larger “we” still has to include those who resist this change. To be fair, reconciliation with oppressors is not Solnit’s aim in this work. She isn’t writing primarily to win over those who feel threatened by the inclusion of the historically excluded voices, but rather out of a clear commitment of love for and identification with the excluded.
This collection of essays, like Solnit’s previous work, is smart, incisive, timely, and accessible. If you are suffering from outrage fatigue brought on by the latest presidential tweet or battling a bout of climate anxiety, Solnit’s insistence that we are, in fact, slowly but surely constructing a new way of being America together will bring welcome encouragement. If you come to Solnit’s essays out of either of “hope’s two daughters” – you will find there fuel for action in the great, ongoing work of constructing a new American cathedral.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com