It was by pure chance that I discovered a recent online essay by Rebecca Solnit in which she was writing about women, art, motherhood and selfishness. As a creative woman who chose not to have children, I found it most affirming. After some research about the author, I could not believe that I had never encountered Solnit’s work before. But fortunately, the article led me to her impressive oeuvre and the latest piercing collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms. In the introduction, Solnit mentions “the rapid social changes of a revitalized feminist movement” and how it is “changing our understanding of consent, power, rights, gender, voice, and representation.” She speaks of the movement as being “gorgeously transformative”.
This book was published before the #MeToo Campaign and its momentous recognition of the inequalities and abuse women, bafflingly and unforgivingly, still face today – everywhere and at all times. But Solnit’s collection, divided into two parts (“Silence is broken” and “Breaking the story”), seems prophetic in her anticipation of such a quantum leap in understanding the crisis. She writes that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” How we proceed from there is essential: “A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
The Mother of All Questions “is a tour through carnage,” she writes, “a celebration of liberation and solidarity, insight and empathy, and an investigation of the terms and tools with which we might explore all these things.” In her essays, Solnit examines what it means to be a woman in relationship to our biology as well as to creative and intellectual pursuits. She looks at the history of silence and its dehumanising and exclusionary effects on women’s lives. Solnit stresses the importance of empathy as “a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves.” She explores the roles shame, language, violence and power play in the making of our lives. We need to imagine, articulate and work towards more favourable realities and opportunities than patriarchy offers: “there can be, must be, something better.” Art is a vital tool in this creation.
Above all, Solnit looks at the question most of us seek to answer: how to live a meaningful life? The reply will be highly individual for every person, but it is crucial to consider “addressing our own suffering while learning not to inflict it on others” as “part of the work we’re all here to do. So is love, which comes in so many forms and can be directed at so many things.”
What I love most about Solnit’s feminism is that it is encompassing and not alienating. She makes sure that we can all feel comfortable embracing her ideas. Accessible, wise and beautifully tender, The Mother of All Questions is a brilliant companion to our times.
The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms
by Rebecca Solnit
Review first published in the Cape Times on 16 February 2018.