A Paradise Built in Hell: The Rumpus Interview With Rebecca Solnit

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Rebecca Solnit’s 2003 book, River of Shadows, was about the 19th century photographer Eadward Muybridge. Muybridge produced, for the first time in history, still images of a body in motion, showing what was right in front of us, daily, but that we couldn’t see without his intercession. This is much like what Solnit herself does. To read one of her books is to slap your forehead and say, “How could I, and everyone else, have missed this?” Although she has written on a vast array of subjects, all her books give new ways to understand the passing world, and to glory in it.

What you typically notice first, when you open one of her books, though, is not the revelatory subject but the seductiveness of the prose. She, as editor Tom Engelhardt has said, “writes like an angel,” gritty, lyrical sentences that make you follow like a zombie till you realize you’re seeing and thinking in ways you haven’t before.

A partial list of Solnit’s productions would start with Secret Exhibition:  Six California Artists of the Cold War Era, a story of art-making and counterculture in the ‘50’s. Savage Dreams voyages into Native American territory to crack open the twinned stories of Yosemite National Park and nuclear  weapons testing in Nevada.  Some other books that seem to follow more obviously one on another include A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland, Wanderlust:  A History of Walking, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

Her newest book, too, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, is partly an expansion on themes and moments from an earlier book, Hope in the Dark, a tour-de-force essay on organized dissent in the late 20th century, reassuring activists of the importance of their actions even when they don’t see—or can’t recognize—results in their lifetimes. (Hope is very short; I recommend reading them together.)

A Paradise Built in Hell is a startling look-again at a number of disasters and how regular people behaved when their lives were torn asunder: not as the mob that our leaders and news programs counsel us to guard against, but in spontaneously caring and rationally generous ways. Solnit, a forceful iconoclast, quotes disaster research and disaster victims in arguing for a much more optimistic view of what can be called “human nature” than what’s taught in Psych 101. In doing so, she suggests we reconsider the ways that democratic societies are best structured and run.

The Rumpus asked her about it.

The Rumpus: Although A Paradise Built in Hell is structured in a rough chronology spanning the last century, I’m guessing that your own journey into the material was more circuitous. How and when did it first start occurring to you that there might be strong, hopeful, useful evidence that disasters briefly perfect human nature—that people behave generously and courageously under duress, as opposed to transforming into a dumbly selfish mob, as a prevailing view would have it?

Rebecca Solnit: The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, centered in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but felt powerfully in San Francisco, is where I began. I was startled by my own and others’ remarkably positive emotions in response to the situation. This cued me in to pay attention to subsequent disasters–9/11 was another occasion when I noticed people were having–what is the language for this? We have only the language for fun and miserable, and maybe we need language for deep and shallow, meaningful and meaningless. In the aftermath of 9/11, people had not a good time, but a deep, profound, rousing time, woke up from their ennui and isolation and trivialization to feel engaged, connected, purposeful, ready to give, to engage, to care, to learn. There was a tremendous opening in which the country could have gone in other directions, an opening in which people wanted to understand Islam and foreign policy, wanted to sacrifice and engage. I saw the Bush Administration wrestling these forces back into insignificance and urging people to fear, to shop, and to withdraw instead and then to duct-tape the leaks of the space into which they’d withdrawn. A few years later I did  research for a project on the centennial of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and again I found these remarkably positive responses, emotionally and practically, and realized that this was pretty standard and pretty interesting and pretty unknown.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little about the differences or interactions between human and natural factors in the disasters you examine?

Solnit: Actually the Halifax explosion was of war munitions and was entirely manmade, as was 9/11, and these are two of my five main examples. There are disasters that are entirely manmade, but none that are entirely natural.  The tsunami that devastated southern Asia in 2004, for example–it was unforeseen, almost unprecedented, and I don’t agree with people who blamed class for who lived nearest the water–after all, waterfront property is a privilege in many parts of the world. But the Thai government decided not to give a warning, because it would disrupt tourism in the high season, and they were not certain the tsunami would be a problem. Profit entered in, and political and economic forces shaped the response. In Hurricane Katrina, you have a possibly climate-change augmented hurricane, which hits a city made vulnerable by the decision to build canals and channels that bring the storm surge into the city, by the poorly built and maintained levees, the decision to build in low swampy places like New Orleans East, and to demand but not to provide resources for a mandatory evacuation. And then various local and federal forces essentially do everything possible to make it worse–not all of them, for there were good cops, and the Coast Guard and Fish and Wildlife were great, but much of the loss of life, suffering, divisiveness, hysteria, demonization and even murderousness was as unnatural as war. And a huge counteroffensive of altruism, inprovisation, guerrilla rescue and guerrilla community-building and then rebuilding and support for the displaced mitigates this official failure and meanness. So it’s all about a war of social impulses and beliefs that is as powerful in its way as a big hurricane.

The panicked military of 1906 essentially burned down a lot of San Francisco and shot an unknown number of people as looters–one estimate says as many as 500. Who shoots people for minor property crimes, who thinks property is that sacred a basis of civilization? Who fucking cares when people are dying? The answer is the people in power, often, because the 1906 earthquake and Katrina 99 years later have a lot in common. . ‘Elite panic’ is a term coined by disaster sociologists Caron Chess and Lee Clarke to describe the way that elites freak out in crises (while the general public generally does not). Because they have so much power, their fears are magnified into policy, institutional violence, response or its lack–all the things you see in 1906 (when the mayor of San Francisco issued a shoot-to-kill proclamation for property crimes and some of the wealthy feared, as they often do and maybe should do in crisis, that disaster would unfold as revolution, with the roles of the powerful delegitimized and civil society recharged). For me the insurrectionary possibilities of disaster are what make them really interesting and sometimes positive–Mexico City’s big 1985 earthquake brought a lot of positive, populist, anti-institutional social change.

Rumpus: Built in to your essay is the fact that a state of disaster is temporary, as are the societal changes that come with it. You talk a little, in the sections on the Mexico City earthquake and the Nicaraguan revolution, about conditions that can help to make change permanent, and also talk, in the section on 9/11, on what happens when a government seizes hold of elite panic and uses it to advance a pre-existing agenda. Where do you see the possibilities for structural change in the USA, a country so large and so diverse? Is there anything to be done to counter that negative perception of the mob, particularly given that those worst affected by any natural disaster are the poor, who are vulnerable, and the non-white, in part because they are disproportionately poor?

Solnit: Well, I’m a big fan of the vigor of civil society, political engagement, and public life in many parts of Latin America and really interested to watch the Latinoization of parts of this country. Many places  have become more lively and engaged or are becoming so. In his study of the Chicago heat wave, Eric Klinenberg points out that the vitality or lack of your neighborhood had a lot to do with whether you lived or died. You also see in the US a lot of localities taking more sane and inclusive approaches to disaster preparedness and planning (if not in some of the pandemic plans the Bush Administration put forward). And a lot of enthusiasm for public space, farmer’s markets, the idea of community–but we still build car-based sprawl and what I think of as the northern Protestant tradition of privatization of the social is still a major force.

I think that fear of the mob, the expectation that people, particularly poor and nonwhite people become mobs almost automatically in the absence of coercive authority, is inculcated by the media, the movies, and politicians. I hope that my book will do something to make it clear they’re spreading destructive distortions about how most people actually behave and make visible some of the remarkably brave, altruistic, and resourceful ways people often act in crisis and disaster.

We are entering a new era of populism and, finally, a turning away–not enough, but some–from adulation and deference to the rich and to the corporations. Nothing may come of it–but much could if people whose work it is to offer new ideas and tools seize the moment. And the poor have often been subversive just because they don’t always believe their own depiction as brutes and loafers and leeches, and this new economy is making lots more poor or recognize their fellowship with the insecurity of the poor, the portion of the population for whom the system does not work. Maybe even the era of identifying with the rich is over…..

Rumpus: Your writing, in Hope in the Dark and A Paradise Built in Hell, as well as in many articles, is compassionate and lyrical but also politically uncompromising. How do you manage to be exhortative—because both these books are calls to action—without being preachy? Also, you make a sympathetic but unstinting critique of some elements and assumptions on the left.  I love the way you characterize Orwell in Hope, in which you talk about breaking down old right-left binaries, that he was “too rigorously honest a man to toe any political line…” Do you ever get flak from people who shouldawouldacoulda been your allies?

Solnit: I’m delighted to hear that I’m exhortative without being preachy. That’s definitely in the eye of the beholder, or the ear. I grew up around preachy people–the Bay Area liberal-to-left galaxy. While a lot of people want to join the left to react against the mainstream or right, I in many ways react against the left–not a lot of its fundamental commitments, but its often dismal tone, righteousness, defeatism, etc. There are lots of older writers and pundits I just so passionately did not want to be, or become, and that helped. A contrarian at heart, I am often guided by what I disagree with and don’t want. Hope in the Dark itself came out of a fierce disagreement with the defeatism and despond that were everywhere in the antiwar sector of society in the spring of 2003. Sometimes I sign the book, “Never surrender.” I was not going to surrender to the status quo and corporate insistence that ordinary people have no power and influence. For one thing, I’d been watching history unfold for decades by then–I’d seen the status of queer people change profoundly, in both public imagination and representation and the law, seen something of the same for Native Americans, seen new ideas enter the mainstream about the environment, notably an ability to think systemically, and seen how all that began with ordinary people at the margins and in the shadows. And I am not so surprised that the Bush agenda took a hideous toll but in so many ways has failed, profoundly. Not enough–the power of large corporations is still a scourge on the earth, but at least the arguments supporting them are undermined now.

I don’t see A Paradise Built in Hell as a call to action, rather as a tool for the situations we face, equipment for responding to the sudden crises that are disasters and the ongoing issue of making a society, for societies are based on beliefs and desires, and this book addresses some of them. I do see it as hopeful. And that came as a surprise. I took up the subject of joy in disaster lightly, as though I had opened a door into what I thought was a garden or a room and found spreading out before me a colossal new landscape that needed to be mapped and described. And found too that it connected up very much with Hope in the Dark, with an enhanced sense of popular power. Anarchists believe that we can govern ourselves in the absence of coercive and centralized authority; the underlying premise about human nature (to use an infinitely problematized but necessary term here) is fundamentally positive. And the evidence that in disasters people are really pretty kind, generous, brave, resourceful and creative fed that.

Rumpus: How has your experience in direct-action affinity groups, particularly against the war in Iraq, figured into your proposition that people are best able to look after one another in small, voluntarily assembled groups, dedicated either to “mutual aid” or to some greater good?

Solnit: It goes way back to the war against Iraq and way beyond affinity groups, the small groups into which people organize when risking arrest or otherwise acting directly in politics. I’ve seen the world changed by ideas and perspectives that began with–well, Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I’ve seen that happen quite a bit. So that’s who we can be when we have political agency, or take it, and keep it, and to keep it you need the longterm perspective that, as the graffiti in Seattle ten years ago said, “we are winning.” On some fronts. More people and more perspective and we could win on a lot more. But in 1993 if you opposed NAFTA you were called all sorts of insulting things by the American mainstream, as you were for opposing globalization at the WTO in 1999. The world has changed so much that Hillary Clinton felt the need to lie and say she had always opposed NAFTA; it was as impolitic to be for it as it had once been to be against it. How did that change take place? It came from below, from the margins, the shadows, to the center stage of governments and policies. In the decade since Seattle, most of Latin America had liberated itself and moved to the left, another unforeseen but profound shift.

But the disaster histories really caught me by surprise. I had a fundamentally positive and hopeful view, but this stuff was more so than I might’ve dared–here were major disasters in which, for example, a spontaneously assembled armada of boats evacuated 300,000 to 500,000 people from the lower edge of Manhattan in the hours after the Trade Center towers collapsed, boats going into that terrible cloud of uncertain danger in an evacuation no one directed and no one was ordered to carry out. It was the size of the famous Dunkirk evacuation of the Second World War, but that one took nine days (and was admittedly carried out under German fire). Not very many people even know about it, or understand how important a role the “Cajun Navy” of boatmen played in evacuating flooded New Orleans four years later–also an example of spontaneous, self-organized evacuators operating in circumstances they were told were hideously dangerous. They were rescuing people the media and government encouraged them to see as violent brutes. You start to see a century of such patterns and see that this is more encouraging than you might have dared to believe–encouraging also because most of that stuff about crazy looting panicking mobs in disaster is pure hallucination and slander. And that too is documented by the magnificent work of the disaster sociologists that opened up this realm for me, or rather that gave a stable substructure to the amazing first-person stories I also used extensively.

Rumpus: You have described A Paradise Built in Hell as a sort of follow up to Hope in the Dark, and, rereading Hope, I found numerous points that are expanded and reconsidered in Paradise. Can you talk a little about how your works—not just these two, but perhaps also others in your diverse corpus—are in dialogue with one another?

Solnit: I wish you would talk about the numerous points! I don’t even know if I’ve made that point in public before, about the relationship. My work is on one hand, all over the map–toward that end, I am actually working on making an atlas right now, not of my work but of my home territory, San Francisco and the Bay Area. On the other, it can be mapped to distinguish some ongoing underlying concerns and enthusiasms–for landscape, geography, place, for slowness, dissent, scrutiny, and subversion, for the importance of other ways of seeing and thinking, for power from below, and for the ability of culture to shape politics. If you think of typical academics as having a “field”–for which I always see a real field, one of those hedged-off English rectangles of territory, nice but not so big, then I have public-lands grazing rights of scope, as writers often do–our expertise is in the medium, not confined to a specific subject or discipline of knowledge. Maybe that’s the wrong metaphor; maybe I’m just trespassing or moving without license where the work takes me. I roam around a lot in my territory, but what I learn at one end inflects and opens up my understanding at the other.

For example, in my second book, Savage Dreams, I got very involved in Native American history in the Americas and fought on the side of the Indians in one of the ongoing Indian wars in this country. That was a deep and formative experience for me that has shaped how I think–and let me see how much the mainstream imagination has been changed by ideas that came from Native American activists and from scholars redefining the history of this hemisphere and thereby the meaning of the present and the possibilities and ethics of the future. Seeing public-school education, public monuments and signage, mainstream media, Columbus Day and other pieces of mainstream culture change in the wake of this insurgency and re-imagination demonstrated for me the power of ideas, of the margins, of the small against the big.

The Zapatistas in southern Mexico also caught everyone by surprise when they rose up on January 1 of 1994 to rebel against both the institution of NAFTA that day and the 502 years of oppression that the Columbian era brought them. They brought a revolution in the nature of revolution in many ways, brought the possibility that the future might draw from the deep past of indigenous culture, brought a new and poetic language to politics, and influenced activists and movements around the world.

Rumpus: You give a couple of Mexican examples of individuals subsuming their individual identities within a cause by using masks, particularly the lucha libre fighter, Super Barrio, and the Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos. The anonymity here is also carnivalesqe, and humorous. You’ve elsewhere mentioned Anglo-American equivalents though not so much with anonymity as a component. Can you talk a little about the uses of hilarity and masks for social justice?

Solnit: The Zapatistas were a big influence on the idea that rather than demanding change you could just make and be it. And that theater, poetry, imagination were tools for revolution–”the fire and the word,” they say a lot meaning guns and ideas. And the word has proven much more central and powerful in their struggle. And a lot of activists thereafter wanted to embody the better world rather than just complain about this one, and Reclaim the Streets out of Britain in particular, with its vast street parties, shifted toward demonstration as carnival rather than protest (in the sense of complaint; with carnival you could mock, critique, insult what you opposed but do it with jubilance and verve and imagination). My brother David’s group Art and Revolution brought giant puppets and street theater into West Coast demonstrations at the same time. Maybe it was just a zeitgeist. As for the masks, they make you no one and everyone, and sometimes they protect you from the information police. And masks are part of carnival, for if you and I are no one and everyone, we can meet in ways we might not as ourselves.

Rumpus: You very much identify as a writer of the American west. How have your long residence in San Francisco, your participation in many western social justice movements and your writing on the western landscape shaped your ideas on human psychology and political action?

Solnit: Growing up north of San Francisco, I immersed myself in the local landscape and in books about Native Americans, cowboys, and pioneers that seemed to ground me in it, but to pursue culture in those days meant being spun around until dizzy and then pushed east. You were told that California had no history and culture was always an imported product. Fighting my way back to the west through ideas and histories was my founding struggle as a writer. One important stage was my graduate thesis on the Los Angeles artist Wallace Berman, who was part of beat culture. This turned into my first book, Secret Exhibition, about this milieu. And it brought me into contact with some of the surviving beats–Michael McClure, Bruce Conner, Jess….. Some of those beats–maybe Gary Snyder most of all–exemplify the liberatory ways the west is different than the east. You face Asia, Mexico and the wild spaces and still-present indigenous cultures of the interior west, while the east has always faced Europe first. Freed from that Eurocentric lineage, the field is wide-open. Tradition doesn’t fence you in. Of course you can live in San Francisco as though it were a suburb of Manhattan, and many do, the accursed devotees of the New York Times who have no clue where they are and begin all their vacations with airplanes. Or you can live here as though it is what it once was: the capital of the West, three hours from the crest of the Sierra, four from the desert, from Reno, with mountain lions who can see the Golden Gate Bridge, salmon migrations coming through the Golden Gate and raptor migrations over the city and 36 species of butterfly, some endemic, within it. And a lot of freedom of movement and identity (and rootlessness, concomitantly) that feel very different from the East Coast to me. It’s a different country, and I’ve been gratified to see over the twenty or so years of my writing life the West become less of a colony of the East; maybe new technologies and too much travel undermine the idea of provinciality. And the increasing power of Asian and Latin culture and Native American.

Rumpus: We can’t close this conversation without returning to Katrina. I recall reading your TomDispatch report on the Algiers Point murders and was gratified to see them discussed in Paradise, but it also made me despair all over again for the dispossessed of this country. Where do you see Hope for compassion as a first response in the Dark of national and local assumptions about victims of Katrina?

Solnit: That book is called Hope in the Dark with a desire to redeem the iconography of darkness, which has always had racial and even racist overtones in this country. For me, hope in the dark was hope in darkness, in the unknown, in the night in which love is made, things regenerate, identities and boundaries soften, and in the shadows and shade that are so sheltering and almost thirst-quenching for desert-dwellers (and really pale people who have to wear lots of sunscreen, like me–I’m just back from two weeks in the Grand Canyon, where shade was such a blessed thing we sought every day). Dark does not mean dark times; you could call the Bush era glaring times, as though they shone flashlights into our faces, blinding us and invading our privacy, the glare of an interrogation chamber, of those Guantanamo prisons where people were not allowed to sleep, to dream, to restore themselves. Hope in the Dark includes Thoreau saying, ”I believe in the forest, and the meadow, and the night in which the corn grows.”

What is kind of beautiful about Katrina is that even though the media and officials are working hard at telling us everyone in New Orleans was a monster, in the immediate aftermath more than 200,000 people invite displaced strangers into their homes through hurricanehousing.org and an uncounted horde go to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to give, to love, to be in solidarity, and to rebuild–a moment like Freedom Summer magnified a thousandfold. It matters, and it’s deeply moving. And though the official response is harsh and mean, it is countered by this popular power–to provide alternatives, to fight to change some of the proposals and policies, to cherish and support. I think it brought a lot of white people into contact with a virulent racism and gave us–I was one of them–a sense of the nightmarishness and the urgency of the problem. And maybe helped bring on the Obama era.

A lot of people still believe the characterization of the people of New Orleans as barbarian hordes; I meet them too. That’s a crime of the media, though one that only reinforced a lot of old beliefs that media, entertainment, and government had encouraged for centuries. But a lot of people woke up to solidarity, compassion and engagement. I don’t know how you weigh the one against the other. But I know that the more open and idealistic side matters.


Padma Viswanathan's most recent novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, was published by Random House Canada in spring 2014 and is forthcoming in Australia and India. More at her website: www.padmaviswanathan.com More from this author →