Event Recap: Solnit Asks Readers to Reconceive the Possibilities of Civil Society

The author of A Paradise Built in Hell argues for our interdependence by showing how generously people behave during disasters.

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California Book Club members gathered with host John Freeman last night to discuss Rebecca Solnit’s rigorous yet inspiring nonfiction book A Paradise Built in Hell. The 2009 book builds its argument that ordinary people behave generously toward others during disasters through a deep dive into five incidents: the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, the Halifax maritime explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Solnit investigates other catastrophic events, too. She asks what our society could become if we recognized that humans are capable of acting unselfishly, not only in the aftermath of disasters but day-to-day.

Freeman introduced the book and the multidimensionality of its author, saying, “You see the person who can map public space.… We see Rebecca Solnit the feminist rewriting stories of women who were invisible in some ways when the history of disasters was told entirely through the idea that we panicked when disaster arrived. You see Rebecca Solnit, the person who is in search of justice and who is aware of the climate crisis—and has been for a long time. You see the suppleness of an essayist at work who can make her thinking bare in front of you and who can bring new ideas to the fore.”

When Solnit came on-screen, she explained that she wrote the book because she knew, in 2009, that we were going to “enter an era of intensified disasters, intensified in frequency, intensified in scale, because of climate change. And of course, we’re talking in the middle of another disaster, a pandemic, which exemplifies the most altruistic and idealistic stuff I demonstrate in this book and the most vicious and racist and xenophobic stuff, which I documented from the 1906 earthquake to Hurricane Katrina.” She discussed the joy of being deeply connected and engaged in the aftermath of disaster. People are able to form mutual-aid societies efficiently and routinely, she said, noting, “Nobody needs to tell people to go build a community kitchen.”

Our special guest in conversation with Solnit was performance artist, comedian, and social-justice activist Kristina Wong. Wong described herself as a performance artist who sews as a hobbyist. Prior to the pandemic, she’d sewn herself a costume of a giant vagina. In March 2020, when Wong found herself nonessential during the pandemic, she began sewing masks—even though she had never made medical equipment—after learning that there wasn’t enough PPE in hospitals. She began the Auntie Sewing Squad, where other “aunties,” many of them Asian American women, joined her. Solnit became one of the aunties in the circle.

Wong noted that of all the things people wanted to donate to the Auntie Sewing Squad, as it became well-known, the least useful was money. More importantly, the aunties “met on this level of generosity.” People weren’t paying one another. Instead, the community that developed “was so twistedly funny and caring.”

Wong told stories of the Auntie Sewing Squad community during the pandemic that reinforced Solnit’s beautiful and important arguments about disaster. She noted, “Something softens when you call someone an auntie.… When people feel like a family, they act in a different way.”

Later in the conversation, Freeman brought up 9/11, the 20th anniversary of which just passed and which Solnit discusses in her book. Solnit explained that in its aftermath “more than half a million people evacuated by a spontaneously assembled armada.… Everybody did what needed to happen.” However, this remarkable story was left untold. Instead, the predominant narrative turned into this “cowboy cop action movie suggesting ordinary people are weak and helpless and fragile and frightened and we all need to rely on men in uniform, so let’s rely on some more men in uniform and start a war.… We’ve been in this kind of militaristic cult in this country ever since.”

Referring to Solnit’s forthcoming Orwell’s Roses and tying it into A Paradise Built in Hell, Freeman asked, “Do you think there is some tiny gesture of cross-species mutual aid that is activated when we do something like plant a flower?” Closing on an eloquent and profound note about the interdependency of everything in an ecosystem and lambasting a culture that promotes the notion of the lone hero who can solve everything, Solnit said, “Nothing is separate from anything else.… Mutual aid is our future.”•

Alta Journal’s California Book Club will return on October 21 in conversation with Maxine Hong Kingston. We’ll be reading and discussing her important memoir The Woman Warrior, which tells of a girlhood in California haunted by the family stories and folklore her mother told her. For more information on how to join us, click here.

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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