Rebecca Solnit Q&A: “My earliest memory is riding a Galapagos turtle in Peru”

The "Men Explain Things To Me" author on Patti Smith, the patriarchy and growing up in South America

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Rebecca Solnit was born in Connecticut in 1961. She is the author of 20 books and numerous essays, including the collections “Hope in the Dark” and “Men Explain Things To Me”, which led to the coinage
of the term “mansplaining”.

What’s your earliest memory?

My first memories are from Lima, Peru, where we lived the third year of my life. I remember riding a Galapagos turtle in the zoo, an earthquake, the back garden and some blurry bits from Lake Titicaca.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was my literary aunt for having a whole wall of books and eloquence and wit about most of them. My adult heroes include the US’s poet laureate Joy Harjo, the young people in the US climate lawsuit, the Sunrise Movement, and the dedicated staff of Oil Change International.

What book last changed your thinking?

Ocean Vuong’s fantastic new novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reminded me that every word can be an incantation, and that beauty does hard and important work.

Which political figure do you look up to?

The people I admire most are activists, not elected officials: those leaving water in the desert for undocumented immigrants; the Native American convergence at Standing Rock; the millions whose names we’ll never know who make the changes that politicians only ratify in the end.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I’ve described my mind as being more like a steel sieve than a steel trap; a lot of odds and ends stick in it and a lot washes right through. For a brief time I knew more about the photographer Eadweard Muybridge than all but one or two other living people.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Oh God, I’m a woman; in what other time, unless you go back really far to some matriarchal prehistory or anarchic hunter-gatherer society, did women have more or less full human status in law or culture?

What TV show could you not live without?

I have lived most of my life without TV, and from what I can tell that has made my life better.

Who would paint your portrait?

Since Gainsborough is not available, my friend Tino Rodríguez, a magic-realism painter and refugee from Mexico.

What’s your theme tune?

A toss-up between Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

If people are angry about what you’re doing, you’re having an impact. 

What’s currently bugging you?

Patriarchy, refugee babies in concentration camps, fossil fuel, and starving whales on my coast.

What single thing would make your life better?

Death to patriarchy.

When were you happiest?

When my two-year-old and five-year-old great-nieces arrived for my birthday this week and ran to me to be picked up.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

A fiery ball of unexpressed opinions and ideas and ingrown sentences.

Are we all doomed?

Mortality is a very nice arrangement to make room for the next crowd. 

“Whose Story Is This?” by Rebecca Solnit is published by Granta

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special