Men Explain Things to Me And Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit

4th Dec 2014

Men Explain Things to Me
Noted essayist, non-fiction author and coiner of the term "mansplaining", Rebecca Solnit has a new book out. The title comes from her super influential essay 'Men Explain Things to Me', which is the opening essay in this book, but perhaps it's not just men who should be taking a critical look at their opinions...

Internet content ages in dog years, making its time of original publication (2008) ancient history. Yet Solnit’s work is still depressingly relevant.

Rebecca Solnit has the joyful literary quality of great essayists; the writers who create non-fiction, not out of lack of imagination, but because their engagement and wonder of the world around them is so great and so boundless, that they need not bother dreaming up fiction. Old dudes are “dull in a distinguished way,” their belief systems “the neat categories into which his world was sorted.”

In her essay on Woolf’s darkness, her passage on criticism – “the worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best open an exchange that need never end” – puts hers on par with Susan Sontag’s own landmark writing (whose work she references here) on the subject.

Of course, no author is perfect, and there are oversights, absences and misjudgements in this slim volume. Each writer is anchored to their upbringing, the contextual coordinates that shape their reality, and her writing is no different. When it comes to colonialism she speaks in broad strokes, talking of “those Middle Eastern countries where women’s testimony has no legal standing.”

As a woman from a colonised land, her attempts at post-colonial lyricism, though altogether well meaning, are sometimes uncomfortable; “Her name was Asia. His was Europe.” There are also throwaways references to “bride burning,” a subject so tied to colonial narratives and otherwise dodgy territory that it surely merits more in-depth exploration than a passing comment.

Whilst a comparison between Nobel prize winning activist Malala Yousafzai and feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian seems unnecessary and, quite frankly, a little weird, her assessment of the issue of online rape threats and misogynistic trolls is a praiseworthy one.

Solnit’s declarations on Islam and the veil are dubious to say the least. Solnit vocalises the type of outlook that jumps to bizarre conclusions on people of colour’s supposedly ‘oppressive’ culture, whilst failing to recognise problems closer to home. Her perception of the burqa as “a form of female non-existence”, speaks of a particular form of western literalism, illustrated by such comments as “they [veils] make people literally disappear.”

Perhaps it would be useful for Rebecca Solnit to consult the work of Pakistani-American artist duo Qinza Najm and Saks Afridi’s whose current art project encourages women who wear the full hijab or niqab to take selfies under the hashtag #DamnILookGood as a joyful celebration of the selfhood, agency and personal style these women have.

Intrinsically intertwined to the subject of colonialism is the question of race, a subject that is not sufficiently centered in this essay collection. “Violence doesn’t have a race,” says Rebecca Solnit. I am sure the protestors at Ferguson, who steadfastly continue to stand against police brutality, and anti-black racism, in the wake of the unarmed teenager Mike Brown’s murder, would disagree.

“I tend to believe that women acquired the status of human beings when these kind of [violent] acts started to be taken seriously,” she says. But what of black women, trans women? Trans women of colour? How do intersecting prejudices and privileges influence who receives justice and who does not?

Much is made of the lost voices of white women under patriarchy. The Judith Shakespeares, silenced in their middle class marriages, are present, but what of the black women authors, feminist and womanist writers, and other radical women of colour who paved the foundations for discussions today? Whose voices though widely published often go misinterpreted, appropriated or pushed aside?

After all, would an essay such as Grandmother Spider, so filled with generational trauma and loss, exist without such landmark work as Alice Walker’s In Search of our Mother’s Gardens or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?

Of course, these are specific passages, there are other discussions of race and gender when she is more successful. Her emphasis on the critically high levels of rape towards Native American women is notable in its urgency, as is her writing on the progress being made by Idle No More. The importance of women in the Zapatista movement was also a great topic to cover, and one I would have loved to have read more about.

Beyond questions of race and colonialism, her outlook towards gay marriage – which she presents as “subversive” – though good-natured, feels too simplistic.

To attach any kind of ideological message to such a broad group of people, seems Othering. After all, the queer community does not exist in the metaphors, feel good narratives and heavy handed symbolism of their straight allies, and to impose such narratives, whether positive or negative, seems reductive.

In this sense her declaration that “marriage equality is a threat: to inequality” seems to miss the mark a bit. Whilst marriage equality is, undoubtedly, a landmark breakthrough, it is important to remember that so many people in the LGBTQIA community still suffer deeply.

We must not forget these women in discussions of feminism. And we must not forget the complexities of context that anchor our bodies to our lived experiences. Here it would be useful for all of us to do less explaining and more listening.


This article was edited 12/12/14 to correct mistitling of Solnit’s essay ‘Grandmother Spider.’