Published in the i paper, 13th October
The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms
By Rebecca Solnit
Review by Anita Sethi
Silence and violence are the topics terrifically tackled by Rebecca Solnit in her excellent new essay collection which she describes as completing a trilogy together with Men Explain Things to Me (2014) and Hope in the Dark (2004), the former which popularised use of the term ‘mansplaining’ and the latter a powerful political manifesto which saw a surge in sales following the election of Donald Trump. Interspersed are 6 striking drawings of ‘hairscapes’ by Paz de la Calzada which work well plaited together with Solnit’s signature style and themes, in itself an intricate weaving.
“We talk about open questions, but there are closed questions, too, questions to which there is only one right answer, at least as far as the interrogator is concerned”, writes Solnit who subtly explores silences implicit even within speech. In the title essay, ‘The Mother of All Questions’, Solnit recounts the frustrating experience she had in which a male interviewer hounded her with the question of why she didn’t have children (he “insisted that instead of talking about the products of my mind, we should talk about the fruits of my loins, or the lack thereof”). At their heart, such questions are not questions but assertions and assumptions, argues Solnit, that women must marry and breed, and that there is only one way for a woman to live her life. “Would you ask a man that?”, is the question she now uses to stymie such questions.
In the book’s first part, Silence is Broken, Solnit gives ‘A Short History of Silence’, a fascinating look at the many ways in which silence has been used to oppress women and maintain the patriarchy. “What I regretted most were my silences…And there are so many silences to be broken”, wrote Audre Lorde, the section’s epigraph. Having a voice is central to human rights, explains Solnit, “and so you can consider the history of women’s rights and lack of rights as a history of silence and breaking silence”. Solnit ranges widely through history, from Virginia Woolf (“I want to write a novel about silence. The things people don’t say”, wrote Woolf) to the contemporary use of social media hashtags in which women have shared experiences of silencing, and through which they have broken that silence.
The book is filled not only with the closed questions Solnit has been asked but the cogent ones she asks. Who has been unheard and why have they been unheard?, she probes, and recounts how the struggle for liberation has been in part to create the conditions for the formerly silenced to speak and be heard, the intersection of the civil rights movement and feminism, how genocide and slavery are forms of silencing. She also considers how patriarchy requires that men silence themselves first, including aspects of their emotional lives.
Solnit perceptively explores the connection between silence and violence, since “violence against women is often against our voices and our stories… It is a refusal of our voices”. She gets to the core of what a voice means (“the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret and narrate”). She unflinchingly details cases of abuse, murder and rape, and also traces how attitudes have evolved thanks to those who have bravely broken the silence and challenged their perpetrators.
The book’s second part, ‘Breaking the Story’ explores the ways in which stories and language can harm or heal, make us or break us, and how discrimination occurs both societally and linguistically. Solnit both exposes and dismantles the narratives that have propped up patriarchy. The essay ‘80 Books No Woman Should Read’, for example, is a pithy response to Esquire’s list ‘The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read’ which included only one female author.
Exploring the ways we dehumanise one another, the book is also infused with hope for a more humane world. Here is an eloquent clarion call for empathy.