Life Writing

Reflection: Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit is, for me, an essayist who I can read with ease. I agree with most of her takes, I find her turn of phrase clear, but not patronising, and I enjoy the way she weaves her knowledge and experience as an historian into her observations about life in what has been fairly complex, turbulent, and angry times. I enjoy the essay as a genre of writing, but I can no longer drag together the energy to be righteously indignant every time I read something. I think this is why I love Solnit. She offers relief. She offers hope. I know she can be pop-feministy, but there are also times when I want to listen to pop music, or watch reality TV and I think these things can teach readers, in their own small, quiet, softly, softly ways.

In Call Them By Their True Names Solnit pokes at (rather than delves) into the psyche of America since the election of Trump in 2016. There are one or two essays that pre date this point, and the 2014 essay “Climate Change is Violence” is a particular favourite of mine that guides readers towards new frameworks for understanding how they use language. The essay collection provides an entry point for readers who are only just coming to an understanding that the world is bigger than Masterchef. It offers a segue into American gender and race relations, into the history and impact of invasion and white-supremacist settler colonisation. It is not the be all and end all on these issues, and it doesn’t present itself as such. The collection is accessible and considered. For myself, I find the essays comfortable. They aren’t earth shattering, they haven’t changed the way I understand the world. I do love it when essays shake my worldview, but these essays were more about a space of ideological comfort for me. And, for reasons I don’t have to explain to you, dear reader, I sometimes need ideological comfort. In fact, one of the essays was about the virtues of preaching to the choir, that sometimes the faithful need to know that they are seen, and addressed, that evangelising is not the only thing the leader and congregation do. Preaching to the choir can be an easy acknowledgement of the choir’s hard work, practice and dedication. In this, Call Them By Their True Names is, for me at least, an indulgence. But not all reading has to be hard work, sometimes, reading can and should be a familiar comfort, something you can pick up and revisit when you need to. I think this is certainly the strength of this collection. It will be easy to slide into any one of these essays again, to see if they offer something new in future years, regardless of whether we are out of, or more deeply immersed in, the woods.

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