Rites of Solidarity

A Paradise Built in Hell lights the way for gatherings during the pandemic.

rebecca solnit, john freeman, kristina wong

It would be an understatement to say that gatherings during the pandemic have stirred strong opinions. Yet Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell offers hope. What we face, perhaps, is not as unprecedented as some of us feel. A hopeful image lingers after reading the book: strangers coming together to make noise in the cacerolazo, a kind of popular demonstration.

Solnit details the first night of economic disaster in Argentina in 2001. Everyone marched the streets banging pots and pans. Others heard the clanging in their neighborhood or witnessed what was happening on their television screens. Numbers mattered, of course, but at first, there were probably few. Others may have come outside with their own pots and pans only after they saw a large enough group coalesce, expressing their discontent with the powerful and soldering their relationships with one another.

Another person explained it evocatively:

When you went out with the cacerolaza on the nineteenth, you saw your neighbors also cacerolando. And you said, how crazy! Because I never speak to this person, or we see that one in the street and only say good morning, or not, and here my neighbor is also banging a pot. Or, my neighborhood butcher is cacerolando! The neighborhood pharmacist! How strange...it was a reconnection with something that was lost. Many ways of being social had been lost.

With the restrictions the pandemic has, of necessity, triggered, it has been easy to feel isolated and stressed by distancing in California and elsewhere. However, our ties to others may have deepened from our sharpening common awareness of what we once had and what we lost in time spent apart. Protest and the banding together of neighbors, friends, and far-flung strangers have been profound over the course of the pandemic.

As in Solnit’s examples, early in the pandemic people in Spain found satisfaction by gathering alongside others to bang pots and pans. The clanging marked a shared sense that COVID-19 was being mismanaged. Some neighbors sang popular tunes together each evening as a way of connecting in spite of distance. Engineers built platforms like Zoom so people could still forge their bonds and discover commonality of purpose in spite of physical distance. Activism flourished on social media. Literary readings and performances thrived online. Were they the same as before? No, but they allowed us to keep coming together.

It takes only one person’s full-force performance of their values to spark others—Solnit herself has participated in the making of a Bay Area beloved for progressive values and environmentalist action and LGBTQ rights. However, it takes others gathering around a lone figure who believes in what she’s doing to change the story.

This is a moment in history when we need the enduring, slightly mysterious, yet persuasive, accounts of Solnit’s book: here is our moment of reinvention and collaboration, as she frames it. And speaking of collaborators, we are excited to announce that our special guest for the book club gathering on September 23 is performance artist, comedian, and activist Kristina Wong.

Wong’s solo theater shows have been presented internationally. They reflect questions of democracy, race, global economics, and climate change. As she describes it herself, the “Kristina Wong” persona of her shows is a “‘know-it-all social justice warrior’ who tackles oppression with tactics that are simplistic in idealism and often self-serving. This naivete unfolds in hilarious blunders, forcing Kristina Wong towards more poignant investigation, and always, no easy resolution.”

When a national tour of her show “Kristina Wong for Public Office” was sidelined by the pandemic, Wong sewed masks for frontline workers and vulnerable communities instead. On March 24, 2020, she founded the Auntie Sewing Squad, which has been featured in the Washington Post and on CNN, Good Morning America, and elsewhere. Others joined her in making masks. Her new show is “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord.” We can’t wait to see it. In the meantime, join us for her conversation with Rebecca Solnit and host John Freeman about A Paradise Built in Hell on September 23 at 5 p.m. •


a paradise built in hell, rebecca solnit


John Freeman, critic and host of the California Book Club, praises A Paradise Built in Hell for its synthesis of history and political writing and calls it a profound piece of reportage. —Alta

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Five thought-provoking and moving films about disaster and altruism you should watch after you read A Paradise Built in Hell. —Alta

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california book club bookplates

Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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