Yes, I’m Angry: Reading Men Explain Things to Me By Rebecca Solnit

The last time I attracted this many glances while reading on public transit was my sophomore year of college, when the entire sophomore class had to read the Bible and the Qoran as part of Contemporary Civilization. Naturally, being maniacal about schoolwork, I brought the books along on subway rides. So there I was, flipping through the Bible on the 1 Train41r8yICXM-L._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg, attracting the stares of people who though they knew me.

A similar dynamic happened on the mornings I brought Men Explain Things to Me on the crowded train I take each morning to work. Only this time, I didn’t mind being typecast. I didn’t mind that men were looking at me reading a bold blue book with a bold white title. I’m happy everyone got to watch me nod righteously, be righteously angry, know that I wasn’t alone. I hope that all the men who gawked at me googled the book.

The essays are about how the cards are stacked against women, always have been. The essays are about the patriarchy and history and domestic violence, about power struggles and how individuals can be crushed under forces of apathy and cruelty. Such violence against women is structurally embedded into the system: how men behave, how law enforcement works. Such violence is allowed. Solnit is angry, yes, but her essays are based with facts and with proof, not emotion. This, of course, makes the essays scarier.

On the one hand, reading this book was satisfying because Solnit identifies a pervasive concept: mansplaining. But mostly, reading it made me angry. Putting a word on “mansplaining” doesn’t make it go away. Listing the awful statistics about domestic violence doesn’t make domestic violence go away. Lately I’ve been inarticulately angry — an anger so looming and large I’ve never been able to gather it into my hands, but like vapor it swirls around me as I walk through the world. I’m angry at the Big Powerful Forces, at having to live through this. How are we going to endure when Voldemort becomes president?

This book came out in 2014, back when I still thought we were headed towards some glittery land in the horizon called “progress.” In the essays Solnit concluded that while feminism has come a long way, there is so much longer to go. But she assured me that we were going there.

And yet. It’s 2017 now. Voldemort, tomorrow, will become the leader of the free world. In light of this, many of Solnit’s optimistic pronouncements ended up reading remarkably dated, like the whole book has been dipped into the present-day situation and came out dripping cruel irony.

Take an excerpt from this essay that she wrote condemning Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s assault of a maid.

“The United States has a hundred million flaws, but I am proud that the police believed this woman and that she will have her day in court. I am gratified this time not to be in a country that has decided that the career of a powerful man or the fate of an international institution matters more than this woman and her rights and well-being. This is what we mean by democracy: that everyone has a voice, that no one gets away with things just because of their wealth, power, race, or gender.”

And yet. It’s 2017, and 20 women have accused Voldemort Trump of sexual assault. A recently married Voldemort Trump said that grabbing a woman “by the pussy” was an acceptable means of seduction. All of this came out before November 8, and yet he still got elected. And to think — we could’ve had a woman in the White House. It’s not just that he won — it’s who didn’t win.

So, yeah, I’m angry. And confused. And want to reread this book and give it to anyone I know so they don’t fall asleep on what is happening and what will keep happening if we keep falling asleep.

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The Argonauts by Maggie goddamn* Nelson

*I throw in the goddamn only to convey my enthusiasm and admiration for the sheer BRAVERY of Maggie Nelson, who bares herself in this book for almost clinical purposes, to create a Frankenstein monster of a book that would only be possible if the author were willing to sacrifice her life to the scrutiny of an academic examination. 

The Argonauts had been on the fringes of a lot of conversations, especially while

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maggie goddamn nelson

I was in college and people actually spoke about gender, theory, and feminism in an enlightened way. Since the time of my graduation has coincided pretty neatly with the rise of He Who Shall Not Be Named, speaking intelligently about gender and womanhood is more important than ever. That’s why I’m happy I read The Argonauts now, not when I was protected by Columbia’s all-inclusive bear hug.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson provides a lyrical mixtape of critical theory meets personal life meets personal hangups. It’s book without chapters or sections; rather, she flows from grouped idea to grouped idea. If an essay could be an epic poem, it would be The Argonauts. It’s essentially poetry.
51joiqa3rml-_sx331_bo1204203200_-1And boy is it beautiful. And powerful. I’ll be honest: it made me cry! The first book that made me cry in ages. I was finishing The Argonauts in the den of three finance bros, people who are lovely but probably wouldn’t dream of reading a genre-bending memoir that looks at mothers, daughters, academia, sexuality, identity, and love, love, love from a very personal lens. So I was sitting in the living room alone, reading. And then, reading and crying. It felt fitting to be having this sort of epiphanatic moment–when the words felt so shockingly true they shook me–in this setting where the written word so rarely penetrates people’s cores. This was the feminist autotheory answer to the biographies of billionaires the boys read in that living room. Felt like I blessed the space in some way.

In the book, Nelson explores the limitations of language. She thinks that everything that can be said can be said with language, and her whole mission is to chase the ineffable with her words. It’s like when I say I love you. I’m chasing what I mean, meaning something different each time. Actually, aptly enough, that’s where the title of the book comes from:

“A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

 

I also appreciated the value Nelson gives to caretaking and the role of caretakers in this book. In her valiant prose, motherhood is important, a topic that merits serious thought. And it merits serious joy and honesty, and that description of the birth sequence is shocking and I can’t believe birth is something so many women go through! Wowzers.

This is a great book because, like a good college course, it asks you to challenge your own assumptions. Like all gender theory, it’ll make you question what you’ve swallowed and allowed to become a part of your posture, gait, and perspective. What constitutes a “family” and what constitutes a “partner” are all up for grabs in this book. And it’ll make you want to call your damn mother.

Read this book, and enjoy walking through binaries, feeling them stick to your face like cobwebs but puffing out your lungs so you lose them on the wind. Lose them for as long as you’re reaidng the book, at least.