It may take a radical imagination to describe the "startling joy" that can arise after disasters like the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, but Rebecca Solnit does just that in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Crowned one of the best books of 2009 by the Los Angeles Times, it's only one entry in the Bay Area author's considerable catalogue. She's been called an essayist, journalist, activist, cultural historian, art critic, a meanderer and more since City Lights published her first book, Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era, in 1990.
Novato, in part, can be thanked for Solnit's strong political and environmental proclivity. On the phone from her home in San Francisco, she says she still finds beauty in northern Marin County, where she lived from the ages of seven to 14.
"I love the California live oaks and all of the green," says Solnit. "The beauty always makes me very happy." Yet, as in her writing, which dwells in dystopia as much as it dwells in possibility, Solnit remembers incidents of racism and violence in her hometown, and recounts a move to San Anselmo with her mother, just before high school, as a chance to "get out."
On April 17, Solnit appears at SSU to talk about the writing career that ensued after she traveled to Paris at the age of 17. She later returned to the Bay Area, where she studied for an undergraduate degree from San Francisco State University, followed by a master's in journalism from UC Berkeley. Still, she professes a deep love for her own research. "I think that 90 percent of what I am as a writer," she says, "is made of things that I learned on my own rather than in college."
She's written about the egalitarian nature of the most ancient of human activities, walking, in Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism addressed the dotcom-era settlement of San Francisco by tech-boom yuppies and the ramifications of gentrification in a former epicenter of innovation and art. Though her subject matter might not seem on the surface to carry much dramatic juice, her prose is such that even the pedestrian becomes engaging and intriguing, always written in a way that's lyrically dexterous and beautiful.
Solnit resides in a certain school of renegade Western urban historians, alongside Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, and Erik Davis (no relation), author of Visionary California. These are writers who've followed Joan Didion into the unmapped woods of California studies, making a permanent trail where there was once only an unmarked path.
When I mention Mike Davis, Solnit sounds pleased. "He is a mentor to me," she says. Davis has said about Solnit's writing that it "summons us to the campfires of resistance."
After getting her master's degree, Solnit really began to dig into the histories, the "holes in public consciousness" of her home state. "In the 1970s and '80s, it was still seen as a place that was 'pretty vacant,'" she explains. "Why wasn't there writing about Eadweard Muybridge? Why wasn't anyone writing about the Western Shoshone and Yosemite and the nuclear test sites?"
The young writer took on the task of filling in those holes. Her book Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West examined the connections between the Shoshone land wars and the nuclear testing in Nevada. Later, she wrote about Muybridge, a photography pioneer, in River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.
California has a sense of possibility that differs from the East Coast, which rose out of Europe's shadow, she says. "The Bay Area is an incubator. You can change your name, change your gender."
But she also says that it's important not to "romanticize" the state, running through a list of California's ills, including inequitable tax codes, the steady growth of the prison-industrial complex and a collapsing public education system.
For now, Solnit is dividing her time between working on a new book that will take up where A Field Guide to Getting Lost, her 2005 collection of essays and musings, left off, and a New Orleans version of Infinite City, the book that reinvented the idea of an atlas altogether with layered, brilliant cartographies of San Francisco past and present.
But before that, Solnit needs to regroup from a recent trip to Japan, where she was on assignment for the London Review of Books to record her observations in diary form one year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami.
Whatever work Solnit produces from her experience in Japan, she's never been one to stray from examining the darkness for signs of light—for cracks and fissures that might reveal hope, or at least, radical possibility.