on call them by their true names

In her latest work, Rebecca Solnit examines a wide array of American crises through the lens of a single theme: the power of calling things by their true names.

The 166-page essay collection tweaks the format of Solnit’s other Haymarket-released books, Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions. As with those works, Call Them by Their True Names gathers together several fast-paced feminist essays, most of which Solnit first published online. Here, though, the writer addresses a wide range of subjects, from the threats posed by climate change to the gentrification of San Francisco to Trump’s erosion of democracy. By contrast, Solnit’s past two books almost exclusively focused on the far-reaching ramifications of gendered violence. So, too, do the seven essays of Men Explain Things to Me and the eleven of The Mother of All Questions read as much more fleshed out than the eighteen essays of Call Them by Their True Names. The three books are all of similar lengths, but the brevity of the pieces collected in Call Them by Their True Names makes each blur by in a frenzy of wit, anger, and haste.

Uneven in quality, the collection is a mishmash of laser-focused political writings and articulate but underdeveloped blog posts. In the best of the essays, Solnit analyzes the social implications of specific injustices at a swift pace, with clear but complex conclusions always in mind. “Death by Gentrification” connects the police killing of Alex Nieto in a San Franciscan park to the city’s displacement of Black, Latinx, and working-class residents over the past three decades, while “Twenty Million Missing Storytellers” frames the disenfranchised citizens of the 2016 election as silenced storytellers barred from shaping national narratives. Stellar essays such as these are interspersed among the many pieces that read as sketches toward longer meditations. In “The Ideology of Isolation,” one of the collection’s most promising pieces, Solnit starts to deconstruct the tenets of what she calls “loopy libertarianism that inverts some of the milder propositions of earlier conservative thinkers,” before she makes a jarring turn 5 pages into the 7-page essay and begins considering how climate change in particular most clearly brings out “the folly of individualist thinking.” As with so many of the essays in Call Them by Their True Names, I found myself wanting Solnit to slow down, elaborate upon each of her points, and more smoothly move among her argument’s sundry parts.

Most of the collection’s essays, then, fail to spotlight Solnit’s strengths as a writer and thinker. Solnit prefers “intelligent conversation that distinguishes shades of gray, ambiguities and ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns, and opportunities,” so her style lends itself best to long-form work, where she can dwell in uncertainty and make clear unexamined connections between ostensibly disparate topics. Nowhere in the collection does she do this more lucidly than in the conclusion, “In Praise of Indirect Consequences.” In it, Solnit draws attention to the unexpected consequences of several 20th- and 21st-century protest movements, from the 1970s antinuclear movement to Occupy Wall Street and the gathering of tribes and activists at Standing Rock, in order to advocate for the persistence of community and hope in the face of defeat:

[We] must remember that often when you fail at your immediate objective—to block a nominee or a pipeline or to pass a bill—that, even then, you may have changed the whole framework in ways that make broader change more possible.

The point is a convincing and insightful end to the essay, but it also articulates the thesis of the entire book. Within the conclusion and across the collection, Solnit frames the first step of direct action as calling injustices by their true names to ourselves and to each other, with the belief that doing so might initiate further change in civil society. Call Them by Their True Names would have been one of the year’s most imaginative and inspiring works of nonfiction, had Solnit as deliberately developed the claims of her argument in each essay as she does in the last. As it is, the collection features a few pieces of excellent writing, but it feels a bit derivative of and overshadowed by the author’s more thoughtful past work.

3 thoughts on “on call them by their true names

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