BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel

Mother Knows Best

Before engaging with the words that make up Rebecca Solnit’s new collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions (Haymarket Books, $14.95), take a moment to comb through the visuals that accompany them. Six charcoal drawings by Paz de la Calzada, each a “HairScape,” that depict blonde tresses as loose and flowing as a cotton scarf, coiled dreadlocks that could be the trunks of palm trees or a series of pipelines, a loose ladder of red or light brown hair that might serve as a fire ladder for Rapunzel’s houseguests. The Mother of All Questions is largely a book about women and silence, but it speaks to a variety of people and types of silencing, and plaits them into an inspiring body of work.

Fans of Solnit’s work know to expect meticulous analysis, thoughtful and pointed research, and a penchant for combining disparate concepts in one place to make unexpected points. New readers may be surprised at the humor she brings to arguments about entirely serious things. The essay titled “The Case of the Missing Perpetrator” takes the Centers for Disease Control to task for a campaign that targets women and alcohol, but misses the point entirely. All women hardly run the risk of pregnancy, but their snazzy poster would have you think otherwise. She observes that women “past the age of knock-up-ability” can “do laps with handsome sommeliers in the great barrels of pinot noir ripening in the Napa Valley” risk-free, and so can trans women and many others. And how does drinking increase “any woman’s” risk of “violence”? Solnit points out that erasing men from these equations removes any responsibility for their sperm as well as their tempers, and notes, “We have a lot of stories like this in this country, stories that, if you believe them, make you stupid.”

Women’s repeated erasure from history, and from public spaces like Twitter that are often taken over by hostile and possessive males, have prompted a lot of frantic rewriting and assertion of our right to simply show up and make any sound at all. These efforts are always valuable, regardless of the result in any one instance. “Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech.” Solnit reminds us of the ways that one speaker coming forward to share a personal story can spawn a movement, as often as not these days in the form of a trending hashtag like #yesallwomen or, more recently, the resurrected #metoo. And we need to be thinking about strategic amplification of marginalized voices these days.

Many of the essays that make up The Mother of All Questions came out over the course of 2016, and while the disaster that was our last election doesn’t figure heavily into this text, it casts a long shadow over virtually every part of it. White male cisgender heterosexual entitlement is at the root of much that has historically gone wrong for anyone living outside that “default” setting, and as the marginalized become the majority, the old guard are pushing back hard to hold their ground. While the presidential campaign and election crashed and burned, Solnit was a steady presence on social media, directing readers to well-researched stories they may have missed, energetically reminding them to pay for such reporting whenever possible, and also waving the banners of fact-checking and accountability with vigor. When Trump won, her publisher, Haymarket Books, made her earlier book, Hope In The Dark, available for free as a download. Over 30,000 people accepted that invitation, and the paperback edition sold out as well.

That earlier work argues for hope as a middle path between optimism and pessimism. Hope itself, on the other hand, asks for our participation while promising nothing, yet it opens up space where anything can happen. Climate change reversal. Impeachment. A world less naturally inclined to devalue, disbelieve and discredit women and those in the increasingly busy and thriving intersections. If Hope offers a sense that such a world is still possible, Mother argues that we’re fairly well sunk without the efforts of women, as well as queers and people of all colors and genders and religious beliefs (including none at all). That such a world is coming frankly feels inevitable; the question now is how much longer we will continue to resist it, and what the fallout from that failure of acceptance will be.

Heather Seggel writes and tries not to get run over while roaming the streets of Ukiah, Calif. She is looking for new things to do and a new locale from which to do them. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 2, 2018

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