The world, according to Rebecca Solnit, isn’t for the faint of heart. Or, I should say, it’s not for those who think in strict binaries, or eschew complexity for simple stories. It is a world where hope can be found in disaster, arrivals are the beginning and the end, and assumptions about race, class, gender, the environment, America, drug wars and so on are set up to be studiously dismantled, always with humor and grace.
The San Francisco-based writer’s latest collection, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, gathers pieces written by Solnit for Harper’s, London Review of Books, Boom, The Nation, Orion, tomdispatch.com and others. Written over nearly a decade, the book’s essays cover a large geographical territory, including Silicon Valley, Fukishima, New Orleans, the Gulf of Mexico, Iceland, Haiti, Detroit, Iceland and the Artic. The range of topics, too, is as large as the territory traveled: Occupy Wall Street, urban gardening, the Arab Spring, Mexican drug wars, Mardi Gras and Carnival, the BP oil spill, Post- Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, Google Buses, Silicon Valley libertarians, the Inari Shrine, Hiroshima and Fukishima in Japan and more.
On Dec. 7, Solnit appears in conversation with Peter Turchi, another writer whose work dwells in maps, cartography and puzzles, at City Lights Books.
“Truth for me has always come in tints and shades and spectrums and never in black and white, and America is a category so big as to be useless, unless you’re talking about government,” writes Solnit in “On the Dirtiness of Laundry and the Strength of Sisters,” an essay that starts with the oft-repeated argument that Thoreau’s mother did his laundry—and was inspired, Solnit admits, by a Facebook beef.
In that same essay, essentially a defense of Henry David Thoreau disguised as an investigation into who actually did do his laundry (it’s never revealed with absolute certainty), Rebecca Solnit defines categories as “leaky vessels”: “Everything you can say about a category of people has its exceptions, and so the category obscures more than it explains.”
In fact, throughout the book, Solnit bristles at assumptions and categorization. And, to no surprise, her new book defies categorization itself. In “Arrival Gates,” about the Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, Solnit begins with a retelling of her reporting trip to cover the aftermath of the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2001. But this retelling reveals the hidden cracks and fissures left out of her first essay, which focuses on the stories at hand and not on Solnit’s emotional state. It leads perfectly into a walking meditation on the nature of time, slowness and arrivals, stimulated by the experience of the Torii gates in Kyoto, in a color of “orange so vivid it is as though you have at last gone beyond things that are colored orange to the color itself.”
When I interviewed Solnit in 2013, just after the release of The Faraway Nearby, she discussed the pros of living on the West Coast, so far away from the European influence that sometimes stifles or holds back East Coast intellectualism. It’s a mixed blessing, as the book examines in “The Google Bus: Silicon Valley Invades” and “Pale Bus, Pale Rider” wherein the spoils of Silicon Valley (itself a beneficiary of California’s long history of experimentalism and outlier thinking) come up against economic injustice.
You can’t write about California without writing about water. In “Dry Lands,” Solnit offers a crash course in the water dynamics that have plagued California from the early days of statehood. This includes the ongoing exploitation of the Colorado River, ill-thought outer water projects like the Glen Canyon Dam, and the accidental lake and “toxic bird sanctuary” known as the Salton Sea.
As is her way, Solnit rescues obscure voices lost (or purposely buried) by history. In “Dry Lands,” she vindicates Major John Wesley Powell, a prophet of sorts, who saw as far back as 1878 that “there wasn’t enough water to irrigate people’s visions of a big agricultural society in the west and that the limits on water would ultimately be the limit on everything else.” He was booed off the stage in Los Angeles and, obviously, ignored by the powers that be. As Solnit points out, this was before the populations of Los Angeles and Phoenix exploded—and before that hedonistic water-sucker between the two, Las Vegas, was even a gleam in a gangster’s eye.
Apocalyptic images of Phoenix flow easily into an essay on the “post-American landscape” of Detroit, an excellent example of Solnit’s ability to swing gracefully between hope and pathos.
Other essays, like “Climate Change is Violence,” venture into the political territory inhabited most recently by journalist and activist Naomi Klein. “Climate change is global-scale violence against the places and species, as well as against human beings,” writes Solnit. In “Oil and Water: The BP Spill in the Gulf” she travels to Louisiana, just after the horrific BP oil spill, interviewing clean-up workers, fisherman and environmentalists along the way. She digs into the many ways petroleum, and other extractive industries, have altered the Gulf. Unlike so many of the other essays wherein Solnit excavates hope or beauty in the grimmest of locales, there is no good news to be found here; just death, and future death, all around.
“In Haiti, Words Can Kill” puts a new spin on the concept of looting after major disasters. “We need to banish the word looting from the English language,” she writes, “It incites madness and obscures realities.” She challenges the media for perpetrating the image of the lawless looter after the earthquake in Haiti. “Immediate personal gain is the last thing most people are thinking about in the aftermath of a disaster,” Solnit argues. The problem with a hyped-up view of looting, she maintains, is the inevitable emphasis on protecting private property over saving human lives, a situation that led to multiple, avoidable tragedies in Haiti and New Orleans.
In the end, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness lives up to the promise of its ambitious title. The reader leaves the book both troubled by the disaster and injustice bubbling in every corner of the globe, but with an equally strong glimpse of how life could be if we broke down the walls and acknowledged each other with compassion and awareness, with a readiness to engage in civic society, with nature, and with our own edges. Without numbness, but with heads up and hearts attached.