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
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain