Rebecca Solnit refuses to talk to me

Rebecca Solnit refuses to talk to me

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Disaster of identitarianism: I was supposed to interview the American essayist at Mantua’s Festivaletteratura but, 24 hours before, she cancelled the meeting, opting for a speech without a debate. They told her I was ‘transphobic’ and that she would get into trouble. Here are my questions, which she had wanted in advance: you judge

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When I announced on Twitter that I would be interviewing Rebecca Solnit at the Festivaletteratura in Mantua, one user warned me: “A transfeminist open to debate?”. I would never have imagined that 24 hours before the meeting, with no respect for my work, Solnit would have refused the dialogue – opting for a short speech without a debate – because, according to her, I am ‘transphobic’.

Dear Twitter friend, I should have listened to you.

Things like this have happened to many others, and many times. JK Rowling, for one. But when it happens to you, it takes your breath away.

My questions had as their main focus the situation of America today. Solnit had wanted to see them in advance: I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my life, but very few have made this unpleasant request (anyway, you can read the questions below). But then someone told Rebecca Solnit that I was a trans-exclusionary feminist, pointed out our Feminist Post, and she warned the organisers (not me personally) that she wouldn’t have been interviewed.

I participated intensely and personally in the struggle of Italian transsexuals in the early 1980s, a victorious struggle for their rights; I’ve been a supporter of the LGBT movement from the very beginning; and, more, those who “explained things” to Rebecca Solnit, to quote a famous book of hers, explained them very badly. Nonetheless, I find her decision depressing but at the same time enlightening, because perhaps it explains well how it is America today, and in the end it was the result we wanted to achieve. 

A place of exasperated identity politics, of tribes in permanent conflict, where two women cannot talk openly and publicly to each other because, according to one of them, their feminisms are not compatible.

To ‘Call Them by Their True Names’, quoting a title of Solnit again, the name of this thing is ‘gag’ and it does not at all resemble what she writes in her essays: I have read them all even though, as those who proposed me to interview, I could not say that Solnit is exactly my passion. But Solnit is certainly an eminent voice, she has a large following, and it seemed interesting to me to have a dialogue with her.

We have already experienced the no-debate practised with firmness by the LGBT world, we have also experienced it in Italy with the supporters of the Zan bill who have methodically avoided any confrontation: but I would not have expected this from Rebecca Solnit.

Perhaps if, in addition to the essays, I had read this article of hers from a year ago, published by The Guardian, I would have been less surprised today at the discourtesy I received:

“… trans women do not pose a threat to cis-gender women, and feminism is a subcategory of human rights advocacy, which means, sorry, you can’t be a feminist if you’re not for everyone’s human rights, notably other women’s rights. (…) There is no one-size-fits-all definition of what a woman is; some of us are born with absent or divergent personal parts, or with chromosomal or hormonal anomalies; (…) It’s not about having a uterus or breasts or periods or about giving birth, because women are not breeding stock (and, sorry I can’t stop boasting about my city: the first man to give birth was in San Francisco). Some of us had mastectomies or hysterectomies or in the case of Angelina Jolie, who I’m pretty sure everyone accepts as a woman, both; and so many other variations exist.”

I wondered in which cases I would refuse to have a public dialogue with someone. Normally, being a person curious about others, I do not shy away. Perhaps I would do so if my interlocutor had previously seriously offended me, or if she were an avowed Nazi. I don’t think I fall into this category, even if Judith Butler, Solnit’s fellow citizen, in a recent and much discussed article in The Guardian in which she stated that the category ‘woman’ should be redefined, defined gender-critical feminists as neo-fascists (we will talk about this article again in the coming days, or rather Pakistani feminist Bina Shah will talk about it). Solnit probably sees it as Butler does.

Anyway: these are the questions I would have asked Rebecca Solnit, for those who want to get an idea: do you see anything offensive or disrespectful in them? Not talking to each other is always the worst option.

1. Thinking about this meeting, I imagined we would be talking about America. On this day, twenty years after the Twin Towers. But I never imagined that we would have to talk about the America that not even a month ago left Afghanistan, with all that followed. If Rebecca agrees, I would start right here. I’d like you to tell us in your own words about post-Kabul America, and in particular about how American democrats are experiencing President Biden’s initiative and the colossal domino effect that this initiative is having on the international stage, starting with the enormous humanitarian problem that Europe is facing…

2. Remaining in America: in Europe we have always known that the long wave of what happens there always reaches us, it is only a matter of time. But the American reality of these times is particularly difficult to decipher and interpret: we have witnessed the Capitol Hill revolt in astonishment, we see racial tensions escalating, the entrenchment of identity politics… If you had to point which facts we should pay attention to in order to understand America today and the direction in which it is moving, which ones would you indicate?

3. Your autobiography is intertwined with an awareness of the violence that, in all its forms, every woman has to deal with simply because she was born a woman. In some way, your whole life, since early childhood, has been marked by a struggle with this reality of violence. In the book, you talk about your tendency, since childhood, to hide in order not to be seen, following the instinct of survival. Today you are one of the most visible women on the intellectual scene, and not only in America. You don’t hide anymore. Was there a moment in your life when you realised that hiding was no longer necessary? Where do you draw the strength to escape from male domination?

4. You say that many girls have the desire to be men, to identify with men, to be where the power is. It has always been the first movement of emancipation, to try to be like men, to enjoy their own freedom. Today there is an increasing number of girls who try to realise this desire in their own flesh, I am talking about the growing phenomenon of young FtM transsexuals. You, who have lived intensely the queer culture, to which you declare yourself indebted, know very well that FtMs have always been a rarity, but today they are 7-8 cases out of 10 of transition. How do you read this phenomenon?

5. In your acknowledgements you mention gay culture. I would like to ask you a question about that, and also one about San Francisco. The relationship between women and feminism and the gay and queer world has always been one of exchange and mutual support. Today there are many indications that this relationship has soured, becoming difficult and even confrontational, the JK Rowling case speaks for all, but there are also Judith Butler’s anti-feminist invectives, the conflict over gender identity, and so on. What caused this painful estrangement? Is today’s queer the same queer you claim to be indebted to? And where are the reasons for a resumption of dialogue to be found?

6. You dedicate many loving pages to San Francisco, especially in “Call them by their true names”, and you talk about its formidable gentrification. Once the global capital of the creative counterculture, San Francisco is now the driving force behind what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism. There, in Silicon Valley, lives and operates the richest, most pervasive, unregulated and invincible capitalism known to human history. How was this evolution possible? Are there elements that link that counterculture with the possible risk of anti-democratic drift that this capitalism brings with it?

7. One thing you repeatedly say is that the signs of change always arise at the margins and in the shadows, and that they progressively move towards the centre with a karst movement, which is not always easy to read. The real story to be told, in short, must be carefully sought out. And it invites us to grasp and promote change without letting ourselves be overcome by cynicism and distrust. What are the signs of change you are most interested in today?

8. One device of resistance and struggle, you say, is precision in the use of words. You say that we are going through a real crisis of language, a deregulation of meaning with important political consequences. It seems to me that social networks, which for reasons of profit have every interest in promoting fake news and shifting the boundaries between true and false, are one of the main battlefields of this work on words that Italian feminism of difference has always called “work on the symbolic”. How and where is this political work done?

9. An excellent example of the political power of words is a neologism of your own invention, in the book ‘Men Explain Things to Me’. This neologism, mansplaining, has not only been included in the Oxford English Dictionary, but has become part of the lexicon of women all over the world (p. 220). The simple naming of this experience, habitual for every woman, immediately became an instrument of resistance. Do you have anything to tell us about this?

10. Another device of resistance and struggle that you point to, a place where change is produced, is the closeness of bodies that cannot be replaced by virtual relations. You also refer to simple neighbourly relations, to people one meets while walking – a practice you have written a lot about – or shopping in the shops around the house. Perhaps they could be called weak links, but they have great potential for strength and change. The pandemic has challenged us in this way. Do you think it has left a lasting mark on human relations, that this co-presence of bodies is definitively compromised?

11. Still on the subject of coping devices, you say very important words about anger, you explain that it is hostile to understanding and that it can be a serious obstacle to promoting change. We live immersed and engulfed in anger, much of which is induced precisely to paralyse us. But you explain: ‘Although it is a common belief that anger drives (change, ed.), in hanging out with activists of all kinds I have found that militancy is usually driven by love’. Can you give me an example of a transformative practice inspired by love?

12. One of your important fronts of engagement is climate change, which you describe as violence on a global scale. The first time this was discussed was at the Club of Rome, 1968. Let me observe that the Americans have not exactly been in the forefront. I still remember being stunned, in a cold New York winter, to see from the window of my hotel people moving around half-naked in their flats, with the heating on a thousand. Now, after the terrible hurricane Ida, Biden seems to have announced his definitive commitment on this front. Do you think we are really at a turning point?

13. The last question: from your point of view, what is the most important story to tell today? Can you tell us in advance what you are working on?

Marina Terragni (translated by Valeria Nicoletti)

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