An interview with essayist Rebecca Solnit in the The Believer's September issue puts a fresh spin on old mantras. "Everything is political" has become a tired refrain in art schools and writing programs, but doesn't make it any less relevant. Solnit discusses her aversion to didacticism with refreshing clarity. "You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style," she says.
Rebecca Solnit, 2009
RS: . . . we tend to think of politics as a tiny fenced-off arena of unpleasantness, which most Americans avoid—except for the horse race of a primary season or fun moral questions often centered in irrelevant individual crimes and acts. But politics is pervasive. Everything is political and the choice to be “apolitical” is usually just an endorsement of the status quo and the unexamined life.
BLVR: You’re making a challenge there to the politics of art, of writing.
RS: Apolitical is a political position, yes, and a dreary one. The choice by a lot of young writers to hide out among dinky, dainty, and even trivial topics—I see it as, at its best, an attempt by young white guys to be anti-hegemonic, unimposing. It relinquishes power—but it also relinquishes the possibility of being engaged with the really interesting and urgent affairs of our time, at least as a writer. The challenge is how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics? I think you can. It’s what I’ve tried to do. I still think the revolution is to make the world safe for poetry, meandering, for the frail and vulnerable, the rare and obscure, the impractical and local and small, and I feel that we’ve lost if we don’t practice and celebrate them now, instead of waiting for some ’60s never-neverland of after-the-revolution. And we’ve lost the revolution if we relinquish our full possibilities and powers.
BLVR: Savage Dreams (1994) and, more recently, Storming the Gates of Paradise (2007) show that span, right?
RS: I hope so. In Savage Dreams, for example, I have a very strong polemic about the nuclear wars—for nuclear testing in Nevada was a war, against the desert and its inhabitants—and the unfinished Indian wars. Politics rise out of culture, and you can change some particular consequence through legislation and opposition, but to change the causes is cultural work—people are not less homophobic in this country because we have better legislation; we have better legislation because people—even the Supreme Court a few years back—are less homophobic. The political changes matter immensely, but they come out of cultural changes—which doesn’t mean you don’t need activists inside and outside electoral politics; it just means that everyone who came out of the closet to their friends, family, and schoolmates or coworkers was also engaging in a political act, and the rise of nonscary, nondamaged queer characters in entertainment mattered, that representations and the war against cliché mattered. Even Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres mattered, and that two-hankie movie about queer cowboys.