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A proud citizen of anywhere: Andrew Solomon's quest to celebrate difference

As a child, the American Solomon believed the UK would be a land of plenty. Now, he sees travel as a way to combat insularity.

Andrew Solomon grew up loving Britain most of all. In the introduction to Far and Away, his collection of travel journalism published last autumn, he explains that as a young child he developed the idea that if he ever came to the UK he would receive “entitlements” – such as “someone to pick up my toys”, or “the most expensive item on the menu”. Britain, the New York-born Solomon imagined, was a land of luxury.

Many years later, over breakfast tea and tartines (sadly, not the most expensive items on the menu) in Kensington, west London, he explains to me that his affection for Britain has extended into adulthood, although it is for rather different reasons.

“There’s an internationalism here,” he says, adjusting his pocket square, “and even though there are the rigidities of the class system, there’s a commitment to social justice. Of course, it’s a little ironic that we’re talking about this now, when this is all under threat.”

Solomon grew up in a very wealthy family on New York’s Upper East Side. His father, Howard Solomon, was formerly the chief executive of the billion-dollar pharmaceutical company Forest Laboratories, known for licensing antidepressants.

As a writer, he is known for combining social commentary with an academic depth of knowledge. It’s a skill that he has applied to a range of subjects, from depression (in The Noonday Demon, a memoir of his struggle with mental illness) to families where the children are very different from their parents, because of, say, autism or deafness (as in 2012’s Far from the Tree). The latter runs to almost a thousand pages yet is compulsively readable, and demonstrates Solomon’s ability to pick an arbitrary-seeming theme of modern life and show its relevance.

Far and Away is more piecemeal than his previous work, but Solomon sees it as his contribution to the debate around globalisation and what it means to commit your loyalty to the world, rather than a single nation. The book was published in the year when Theresa May announced, “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” It’s an idea that he rejects. “I’m a US citizen and a UK citizen and 53 years old, and I am also many other things.”

Solomon argues that too little travel and the resulting sketchy understanding of the world around us have led to a kind of “social decay”. He thinks that this insularity contributed to the rise of Donald Trump and the success of the Brexit campaign. “If Trump can actually achieve the level of attention and support he has, something has happened to the US population, and I think travel is part of that,” he says.

The British are better travellers, Solomon believes, better at slipping on our disguise as “citizens of the world” – an argument that gets more complex when you consider our imperial past. “I think British habits of modesty are behind it,” he reasons. “People don’t go in so much with a sense of: ‘They can’t possibly want anything else but to be like us.’”

In a globalised world, however, it is easy to forget that we are naturally attuned to our own cultures and customs, and it sometimes demands a great effort to overcome these. “It takes a certain leap of the imagination to go into another country where people don’t speak your language, don’t do things your way, and won’t be able to supply you with the brand of tuna that you’re accustomed to,” he says.

When I ask Solomon what unites his interests as a writer, he settles on identity and ideas of difference. “My work looks at how liberating it is when we get away from the narrow definitions of what’s acceptable” he says – such as when a community fights to have deafness considered as a feature, not a defect; or when a family whose wonderful child is described by the world as “disabled” finds out what “ability” means.

His next book is about identity, too, and returns to the subject of families: this time, what are commonly referred to, rather negatively, as “non-nuclear” families. Solomon is, as he once put it, “one of five parents with four children in four states”: his partner, John Habich, is the biological father of two children, Oliver and Lucy, who were born to lesbian friends and live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Meanwhile, he and his partner live with their son George in New York City, and Solomon’s daughter Carolyn lives with her mother in Texas.

He says that there is a gap in our language for these kinds of families. We describe them only through their difference from the norm, or as a downgraded version of what is expected. They feature stepfathers, surrogate mothers, adopted parents.

“In the past two decades, everyone has learned maybe 300 new words that have to do with the internet – email, Google, PDF. In that same period, families have changed quite dramatically, but there are no new words.” He believes that the inadequate scrutiny of these new families often comes from good intentions: we want to see them as equal to the perceived “norm”, so we don’t dwell on their differences.

“In the urgent battle for equality, there has been a spillover into equivalence,” he says. To illustrate the point, he talks about an exchange with a lesbian acquaintance, in which he complained about how people ask him and his partner: “Which of you is really the mom?” She suggested a comeback: “‘I always ask them, ‘Which chopstick is the fork?’”

Andrew Solomon will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 22 April. For more details visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear