California Book Club: Rebecca Solnit Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Rebecca Solnit's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman and guest Kristina Wong.

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David L. Ulin: Good evening everyone. I'm David L. Ulin. I'm the books editor of Alta Journal. I'd like to welcome you to this month's installment of the California Book Club. For those of you who are new to our event, the California Book Club is a monthly conversation with a California writer about an iconic or a necessary California book. Alta, of course, is a quarterly journal also with a very active website, focusing on the culture, the history, the art, the complicated legacy of California and the West. Our upcoming authors, tonight, of course, is Rebecca Solnit will be in conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman. Upcoming we have Maxine Hong Kingston, Tommy Orange, and Héctor Tobar.

Before we get started a few housekeeping notes. I want to thank our partners without whom we wouldn't be able to do this. They include Book Passage, Books Inc., Book Soup, Bookshop, Diesel, a bookstore, the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Vroman's Bookstore, Narrative Magazine, and ZZYZYVA. We also have a sale for California Book Club members. For just $50, you will get a year of Alta Journal. That's four issues plus invitations to web events and access to our website, a California Book Club tote bag, which I will show you here, a little screen. I always like to point out that it has outside pockets. Love a tote bag with outside pockets, and one of our upcoming California Book Club books. Watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this deal. This is not a limited time only, so I just want to say that.

Take advantage of the California Book Club sale and receive four issues of Alta Journal and a CBC tote bag for just $50.


Also, please visit the CBC clubhouse to keep the conversation going. This is a digital space for California Book Club members to dig even deeper into A Paradise Built in Hell, share questions, discuss tonight's events, and also upcoming California Book Club books. You'll find links to sign up for the clubhouse in this comment section, and also in tomorrow's email. So now, without further ado, let me turn things over to my colleague, John Freeman, who will introduce Rebecca Solnit, and I'm looking forward to this conversation very much. John?

John Freeman:
Thank you, David. Really nice to be here with my friend Rebecca Solnit, and all of you coming from Berkeley, from Victoria, Canada, from Davenport, from Atlanta. It's such a pleasure to be having this conversation tonight. I think when you're from a state as big and multifarious, as vast as California, you want your observer to have the multitudes inside them, you want them to have many dimensions, and if there's any writer in California who has that today, it is Rebecca Solnit. She's the author of 26 books, a pair of memoirs, a trio of atlases, a rewriting of Cinderella. She wrote A History of Walking, A History of Getting Lost, A Study of Landscape and Gender, a book about Eadweard Muybridge, and many, many more, including, coming up, this lovely book on Orwell's roses, which is actually quite connected to the book we're going to talk about tonight, A Paradise Built in Hell, which was published in 2009, and in which I think you see so many different aspects of Solnit the essayist at work at the same time.

You see the person who can map public space and see the ways we are activated there when things change rapidly. We see Rebecca Solnit the feminist rewriting the 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's aware of the climate crisis, and has been for a long time, because of the five disasters that she chooses to pick, from the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many of them are triggered by climate problems. Finally, you just 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, which in this book are, maybe we aren't so bad in a disaster. Perhaps in a disaster we show both equanimity and the desire to create new civic spaces.

This is a new civic space, Zoom, which has been developed during a disaster, our pandemic. It's the one we have to share tonight, so please join me in welcoming Rebecca Solnit to it. Dear Rebecca, come on board.

Rebecca Solnit:
I'm trying. Okay, here we go. I needed my start my video invitation. Hello everybody. Thank you so much for coming. Lovely to see people from all over the country and all over California. I have to say, since this is Alta, I am a San Franciscan from Novato, but my dad was from East L.A. I'm really excited to talk about A Paradise Built in Hell, a book I wrote because I knew in 2009 when this came out, we were going to enter an era of intensified disasters, intensified in frequency, intensified in scale because of climate change. Of course, we're talking in the middle of another disaster, a pandemic, which exemplifies both the most altruistic and idealistic stuff I document in this book, and the most vicious and racist and xenophobic stuff which I documented from the 1906 earthquake to Hurricane Katrina.

Speaking of which, I'm going to start by reading a little bit from one of the wonderful oral histories as filtered through my lens of the 1906 earthquake, which is often described as though suddenly an earthquake flattened San Francisco, which isn't what happened at all. What actually happened, the earthquake did a lot of damage, the city officials and the U.S. military headed by the horrific racist General Funston, whose name needs to be stripped from all our civic stuff, decided that they needed to take control and they needed to control the public by amateur attempts to set fire lines. They burned a lot of the city down. They did more damage by preventing citizens from doing their own hands-on firefighting and generally treating the public like the enemy, something we would see again 99 years later in Hurricane Katrina.

But most of the people in the earthquake were kind of awesome, and this is a book partly about the fact that people behaved well in the disaster, which could seem kind of brings out the best in people. Lovely. But I think there's something more intense than that there. It's about the fact that we have a deep and passionate desire to be connected to each other beyond private life, to have meaningful work, to be deeply engaged and connected, and that when we get that, even if our city burned down or flooded or got attacked by terrorists, the joy in that is extraordinary and really tells you about all these desires. We don't describe names, celebrate, taxonomize, but it's still burned within us and really matter.

I'm also super excited to be joined tonight by Kristina Wong, also known as the overlord of the anti-sewing squad, the great mutual aid group from this very pandemic. But let me just go back to 1906, because 2021 takes its own explaining.

The morning of the quake, policeman H.C. Schmidt was on patrol in the city's produce district near the downtown in the bay. The fires had begun downtown, and to stay cool near the blazes, he periodically dunked himself in the fountain surrounding the Mechanic's Monument, a bronze group of muscular, near naked men operating a huge press. On his rounds, Schmidt obliged some petty thieves to put back the boxes of cigars they had taken, and regretted it when the cigars went up and smoked soon after, shut some saloons, shot wounded horses, brought a dead Italian grocer out of the rubble, and finally got permission to go home and check on his family.

A passer-by had told him, wrongly, that all the houses in his part of the Mission District had been destroyed, and he feared for his family, but found the house damaged but standing. His wife and daughters came down to greet him from a friend's house, glad to see him after hearing exaggerated reports that made them fear that he had been killed. Rumor is the first rat to invade a disaster.

The military had already placed a guard around his section of the neighborhood, but with his police badge, Schmidt was able to get through to his home, and with the help of some young volunteers, take his new stove out and set it up nearby at one corner of the four square blocks, just then being converted from a Jewish cemetery into Dolores Park, which still exists near the old Spanish mission church that gave the neighborhood its name. Of course, that park is now known as the Google Cafeteria, but I digress because of who hangs out there.

The area filled with refugees, mostly working people from damaged peoples in the immediate vicinity, and from the crumpled and burning rooming houses near downtown. Schmidt recalled afterward that they had also salvaged two of the huge pots used for boiling laundry. He said, Mrs. Schmidt and the two girls soon set to work cooking in them, and making tea and stew for all that could not help themselves. The girls would go out moseying around the graveyard and come back and tell of some poor old woman with nobody to look after her, or some poor old sick man, or some children with the mother helpless, and then would fill up a can with coffee or tea and milk, and another can with meat stew, and off they would go with them. Empty fruit and vegetable cans were our soup tureens, cups, saucers, plates, and side dishes. They were very handy.

The grocer on the corner put out all his supplies the first day. That was one of the amazing things. The grocery stores were mostly going to burn down sooner or later, the grocers just gave stuff away, or people just came in and foraged, because of course, money no longer exists in a major disaster.

The same thing happened with Hurricane Katrina, and the same thing happened in both places also that the authorities decided that people were looting and needed to be shot, and shot people for getting supplies, often altruistically, for those who needed diapers or water or medicine or food.

This is something we often see in authority that certainly makes me think of the Trump regime is the authorities who actually are the disaster who think that they're taking control of it.

Officer's Schmidt continues, the wholesale butchers used to send out meat for the refugee camps from the Potrero wharves, and when a wagon was passing our place, the man would dump out a few fine slabs of meat on the corner, and that kept the stew pot boiling, the stew boiler going. It was the same with the dairy man from down the peninsula. They always dumped down one or two big 10 gallon cans of milk at our corner as they drove by, so that all Mrs. Schmidt and the girls had to do was to keep awake and keep the boilers full and the fire going.

Like the [inaudible 00:39:59] cafe, another mutual aid improvised community kitchen I wrote about in this book, a wonderful one, Schmidt's family kitchen became a community center, a site in which strangers and neighbors took care of each other.

Billy Delaney, a local entertainer with considerable charm, took on the task of foraging for firewood and water to keep the kitchen going.

Schmidt's reminiscences wrap up. Then, when the dynamite explosions were making the night noisy and keeping everybody awake and anxious, the girls or some of the refugees would start playing the piano, and Billy Delaney and other folks would start singing so that the place became quite homey and sociable. [inaudible 00:40:41] on the sidewalk outside the high school and the town all around it was on fire.

I just love that homey, despite the fact that the town all around it was on fire, that these people, not just taking care of essentials, but singing and gathering and really forming a sweet sense of community. You see versions of that in almost every disaster, as well as elite panic, the ugly side of disaster that became an essential part of my book.

John Freeman:
Later in the book, you go on to describe how carnival is a kind of ritualized disaster, but in this chapter, in this section about the earthquake, it sounds like a kind of carnival develops out of the disaster, and I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that, about social spaces that exist to suspend time and rules and our regular way of living, and if disaster is simply one of those accidental, sometimes, spaces?

Rebecca Solnit:
In an ideal society, a disaster would only be a disaster, but disasters often alleviate the disaster of everyday life, the meaningless, the alienation and isolation, and the hierarchies, et cetera. In a severe disaster, authority ceases to exist as such, and those who expect to be in charge are often much more concerned with regaining control than actually taking care of people, which is why you see often the violence, the authoritarian crackdown, the obsession with protecting private property.

But ordinary people often have an experience like carnival, and in the Christian tradition, which is quite radical, carnival is an inversion of everyday life, where the beggar becomes a king and the king might dress up as a beggar, when a lot of rules are broken and people celebrate. Of course, one of the amazing things about Katrina is that New Orleans is the great town of carnival also celebrated throughout the Caribbean and South and Central America, not so much in the rest of North America, except maybe Philadelphia, a very Black city as well.

But in this, there's a kind of chaos to carnival, a free mingling in which people step out of their everyday roles that's very similar to disaster. The roles that keep you from connecting no longer matter. The 1906 earthquake happened in Edwardian times, and there's a wonderful letter I found from a young woman saying that, you can speak to anyone without an introduction. A lot of marriages happened, people erected... They made it illegal to have fires indoors because they were starting to cook indoors or use your gaslights, a form of lighting for a lot of houses still, because they might start more fires, and in our wooden row houses here in San Francisco, it might burn everything down.

So people dragged their stoves out like the Schmidt family and built community kitchens, and some of them were really covered in really funny slogans. The most famous said, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland." But that quality of festivity, something very comparable to it was a kind of mutual aid depot that set up on one of the piers near Ground Zero and 9/11. Just a bunch of volunteers found a way to do horizontal organizing in an idealistic, anarchic way before the Red Cross, which usually comes in slowly and with lumbering bureaucracy and often a real inadequacy to meet the specifics of the situation.

But this little mutual aid, or not so little nutrient thing, became the conduit filtering all the supplies to Ground Zero. Emergency clothing and equipment, food, medical stuff, sifting through information and things. The ability of people to self-organize in a disaster can be truly remarkable, and there's a kind of exhilaration. In some sense, people are finding skills they didn't know they had, they're functioning at a very high level, and they're connecting very deeply. I think that's something we want in everyday life that maybe we had in our hunter-gatherer and village societies once upon a time, but lack very much in a commercial society that really depends on us being miserable and alienated to make us good consumers and bad citizens. A disaster is a moment where we're not really consumers in the normal sense and often very good citizens, most of us.

John Freeman:
Can you tell me about the origins of this book? It came out in 2009. I presume you must've been writing it in the mid 2000s, which were not an obvious moment of... Not optimism, but at least some sort of cone of light on generosity and altruism. Where did the originating spirit for the book come, and when you started to research it, did you know what you were looking for, or did you stumble into some of these accounts of mutual aid developing in times of disaster?

Rebecca Solnit:
There's really four moments. The first is the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, which did kill some people, but overall was relatively mild, and thanks to building codes, very few people did die. I just remember realizing that people were having kind of a great time, a lot of them. The power was off, so stores like my little neighborhood liquor store was having a barbecue on the corner with all the meat, and restaurants were giving stuff away, and volunteers did a lot to help put out the fires in the Marina District. But the way that people were having a good time really startled me.

Then in 2003 in Halifax, I met somebody who told me, Robert Bean, an art teacher at the Nova Scotia School of Art, who told me about the hurricane they just had, and his face lit up, which is not how you think people tell you about their disasters. I can see in comments, people are talking about racism with that Oakland comment I just cited. You might know that Oakland was not a Black city in 1906, and so the Oakland joke was not about that.

But back to 2003 Halifax, and then I started working on a project with Philip Fradkin and Mark Klett for the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in 2006, and what I found, that's where the book really begins. I read so many oral histories, and so many of them, like the one I read and the one I referenced, describe people having this really remarkable time, really connecting, really taking care of themselves. As somebody interested in activism movements and Peter Kropotkin's mutual aid, I recognized what was happening. It's very exciting. It's fulfilling a lot of left-wing things we hope to believe.

The really funny thing is, so I wrote an article about that in 2005 for Harper's, my first article for Harper's, and it went to press on August 29th, 2005, which happened also to be the day that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I actually called my editor and said, "I want to make a few changes, I think." I actually was really worried because the media was fanning the flames of institutional panic, authoritarian panic, racist panic, by constantly claiming there was looting, completely fictional accounts of mass rape and murder, and just carnage, and whipping themselves and the public into a frenzy. My editor was so great, and he said like, "You're right, stand by. We're going to press. The only thing that's changed is that now you're above the masthead."

We went to press, and I was vindicated, and I just felt like 1,500 people died in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and none of them should have died. It was about poverty and racism, lack of the mutual aid of a good evacuation plan rather than privatized individual evacuation. But people were shot in the back by police. The Danziger Bridge incident happened. I became very connected to a young man who's one of the principal figures of this book, Danelle Harrington, who was shot by some of the white vigilantes who were reported on by Spike Lee and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, but not really with a, "Who the hell were these? Why aren't we hunting them down?" I actually got the great investigative journalist A.C. Thompson to invest-

... we've got AC the great, investigative journalist A.C. Thompson to investigate. And A.C. is personally responsible for sending cops to jail and doing a lot to change the story of Hurricane Katrina from out of control, black underclass, to monstrous behavior by people with badges and guns and authority and politicians and elites in the media, a story I was also telling in this book. And so, Katrina just made me feel like, okay, people need to know what really happens in disasters. And what I'd also discovered doing the 1906 earthquake research is that there's a whole field called disastrous sociology. I didn't discover how people behave in disasters just by combing through oral histories. Although I read a ton of them and they were fantastic and just so granular and immediate and vivid, the field of disaster sociology has known since the 1950s that panic is a vicious rumor, that ordinary people behave really well, and that...

And this was also important information, a lot of civilian bombing campaigns from Guernica and bombing of Hiroshima and Dresden and London and World War II into shock and on George Bush's horrible war in Iraq, assume that you could somehow demoralize the public, that people are very fragile and brittle and that's... So it was also relevant for warfare that people are mostly tough, resilient, creative, altruistic, capable of great improvisation. And so, I wrote about the blips in London and some of these other things as well. But those were the major inspirations for the book and kind of my dossier on what happens in disaster and why it matters just kept building. And then the last bit of it was I knew that the rest of the 21st century was going to be full of disasters. And here we are with floods in New York, hurricanes in new Orleans, fires in California, the incredible heat dome that broke all records over the Northwest earlier in the summer and so much more. Climate refugees everywhere.

John Freeman:
You just mentioned the book Mutual Aid, but I want, before we go to our guest Kristina Wong, I want to ask you to go back a little bit to that book Mutual Aid and how in this book, A Paradise Built in Hell. I can tell some people are newly arriving. That's what Rebecca was reading from, is kind of taking issue with social Darwinism as the model for how humans behave. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about that, about what social Darwinism got wrong and how a book like Mutual Aid has been waiting for us all along.

Rebecca Solnit:
Yeah, what Darwin actually did is a little more subtle and nuanced, but people tend to turn science into a mirror of what they want to see, of course, and the 19th century white Victorians, they wanted it to vindicate that white people are superior, that social hierarchy is the result of rich people being more successfully competitive than poor people. It led to eugenics, Darwin's own son, Thomas Henry Huxley's son, et cetera, were part of the eugenic societies that were a big part of Britain, as well as the U.S. So there was really a sense, this distorted Darwinism that said, first of all, life is basically competitive. We've been capitalists for billions of years, essentially. And that this selfishness is innate and natural and inevitable, and some of us are just better at it than others. And you can find distorted versions of this still being told in kind of popular science books.

Peter Kropotkin was a Russian prince who became an anarchist in exile, but also before that spent time as a geographer in far Western Russia and Siberia, I mean, far Eastern Russia and Siberia. And in Siberia, he made some really interesting observations that there wasn't competition for scarce resources. If you're a reindeer or a bird or something in the Arctic, there's not a shortage of food, but there are very intense circumstances for survival. And so, he actually saw the animals banding together often as caribou, muskox and then a lot of other species do for survival and saw that competition was arguably more important than, or that collaboration was more important than competition. And then he followed looking at a lot of traditional societies to see that human beings also have thrived through collaboration and cooperation.

And of course, if you're an anarchist, you believe that we don't need hierarchies and authorities, and that anarchist are idealist, that human beings are actually basically good and can be trusted to govern themselves. And so, Kropotkin found a lot of evidence that this is so, and his book has been incredibly valuable for A Paradise Built in Hell, looking at the way people are able to suddenly form mutual aid societies to take care of each other, how instinctively and effectively and efficiently they do it, how glad they are to do it, and just how routinely it happens in these moments. And nobody has to tell everyone, "Go get the neighbors out of the rubble. Go build a community kitchen." It just happens. And it happens over and over and over again. And so, yeah. So mutual aid, a term that's been really big in anarchist circles was also a big part of the pandemic.

And we're about to talk to Kristina, Kristina Wong, who founded the Auntie Sewing Squad. And I want to say the Auntie Sewing Squad taught me one thing that all this other work hadn't. We say mutual, which in a way is usually thought of in a very capitalistic sense, that goods are exchanged, I do something, or services are exchanged, but what's actually mutual about mutual aid is that we're already mutual. Since I am not separate from you, what I do I do for us together because my fate and your fate are intertwined. My wellbeing and your wellbeing are intertwined. So the mutuality preexists exchange of goods and services, it's not dependent on them. And in fact, mutual aid and disasters usually is fairly one way in how it circulates or some people doing something for a lot of other people as with the community kitchens.

John Freeman:
Yeah, no, I loved Rebecca's definition of altruism. Revolves around the idea that you can get pleasure from giving without the conception that you're supposed to receive a commodity or something in return. The giving is the powerful thing. But let us bring on Kristina Wong. She's a performance artist, a comedian, a writer, and she's performed around the world in UK, in the Hong Kong and Africa, her commentaries have appeared in American Public Media's Marketplace, PBS, Vice Jezebel, Playgirl, Huffington Post, and CNN. Her recent Kristina Wong for Public Office is simultaneously a real life stint as the elected representative of Wilshire Center, Koreatown Sub-district 5 Neighborhood Council, and a rally campaign show. The show was also filmed for the Center Theater Group's digital stage, where she's the creative collective member.

As Rebecca mentioned, Kristina founded the Auntie Sewing Squad, a national network of volunteers sewing mass for vulnerable communities. They have a book out this fall from the University of California press. The experience of erecting this remote, factory-turned national mutual aid collective at the start of the pandemic is also the subject of her latest Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, a show that runs off Broadway at New York Theater Workshop in November. Kristina, please join us. Thank you for being here.

Kristina Wong:
It was so great to hear you talk about mutual aid over history, Rebecca, and hear your context for it and go, yep. Yep. I'll just share a little about Auntie Sewing Squad. I'm a performance artist who sews as a hobbyist. I don't make very nice looking things for the most part. It's pretty crude sewing. I sew this giant vagina costume that I would do standup in. I've never made medical equipment in my life until March 2020 when my tour was canceled and I was deemed non-essential and I was like, "Really? This is it? We just wait inside and do nothing?" And I flashed upon something that said the hospitals were looking for home zone masks as there was just not enough PPE. It was still very foreign. This idea that we wear masks or own masks. There's a lot of confusing information about whether or not a cloth mask was effective, but hospitals were asking for them. So doctors don't prescribe colonoscopies because it's like a fun selfie to have, right? There's purpose ideally.

So, I very, I found like half a yard of fabric, a scrap of fabric. I found a little thing of elastic and I was convinced I would save America. And very naively offered to the whole world in an all health matters way, I can make you a mask. I can make you a mask. And was flooded with requests. And four days later just decided that I would create a small, manageable Facebook group as a two-week stop gap until the masks arrive from the cargo ships in China and the government dutifully distributed masks to every person. But it was really this patriotic moment of like, "I have to do this for my fellow American. We have this opportunity to out sew, outrun this virus. We're in this race against time.

And this group, Auntie Sewing Squad, which I really just named in a hurry, didn't realize our acronym was ASS, it was a lot of Asian women in the beginning. And that was sort of weird and creepy. And that's where this joke that I'm a sweatshop overlord comes from, that this weird, ancestral destiny has been fulfilled, that my grandparents came to San Francisco, started the laundry so that they could have this dream of gold mountain. And then here I am, their college educated granddaughter now doing the same kind of work, but like for free, because America didn't provide masks for people.

And our group ended up becoming 17 months old before we finally declared retirement in August, but it was a very hard thing. At certain points in our life, okay, I'll say this. We made an effort to, we realized really quickly we have to kind of... While we could cover everyone, we are not able to do that, so let's look for the people who can't find us. Let's look for the people who are two hours from a Walmart, or don't even have the money to buy the $2 mask on the market. So we shifted into partnering with the Navajo Nation, Standing Rock. We sent masks to San Quentin Prison, to the women's prison in California, and people arriving at the border, they don't have masks, just places all over the country. And so much of why we had to exist in the beginning is because all the stores were closed, and it was impossible to find fabric. I know, Rebecca, you've met my friend Sanjay, right? You had like two yards of fabric. And that was like gold. We were cutting up our bedsheets, our shirts. It was so bonkers, right?

And people were throwing, like Venmoing me money. Like, it would make stuff go away faster. And I was like, "I wish I could throw money at this." At one point I was trying to figure out how to hire people to make this go away, but I realized the more important capital was labor and people willing to cut, sew, drive. And then the second most important capital was the actual material. And then after that, someone who would help organize and contact these places so that we're not just sending masks to a PO box no one checks. And somewhere at the... Like the very last, most useful thing in the scale was the money. And I do feel like there was a moment where it felt like it was like completely nightmare crisis, but it felt like this utopia where I don't know what half the aunties do for a living. They were just all these strangers showing up at my door. These masked strangers. I'd throw things in their backseat. I'm like, "Should I be networking with them? Should I know what they do? Should I know how they can help me?"

But it was just, we just met on this level of generosity and in order to keep us all going, because it was so hard, we've developed a system of auntie care because I was like, looking at the way we're working, I'm like, "Everyone's going to quit. This is going to be a complete disaster. I'm going to ask the people who aren't sewing to who bake us cookies, to deliver pizza to us." We're not food insecure. We're capable of doing this, but it's nice when someone makes a gesture to say, you need to sit down, eat this and rest. And so, that to me is how we were able to sustain ourselves across 17 months is this very complicated, incredible system of care and generosity, and not doing things in exchange for money, which is how so much of this world works. And really operating this whole other level of connection in a time that was really scary.

And, I mean, you were there too, right? We all lived through this together, but so much of the events of this pandemic, whether it was the election, the BLM marches, the wildfires, like the aunties witnessed all of that. And we felt, we were oddly very close to the pandemic in the ways that we would be sending masks to Standing Rock and to the Navajo nation. At one point, I got this request from an organizer in Alaska, and there are like 53 villages, the size of Washington State, one hospital with 22 beds and five ventilators. All the masks that had been, I don't know how they got COVID, but like a third of them had COVID and the masks that were sent to them were stuck in Anchorage. And the only way to get into this village is like this little jet.

And so, I'm here, no shoes on, in my house, like trying to figure out with this other mutual aid organizer, how we can get masks for them. And she found a nonprofit and a jet company that would be able to receive the masks and the jet was able to fly them in. But this is the kind of like shadow FEMA-esque coordinating that we were doing across the last... I'm a performance [inaudible 01:06:15], right? Like I was doing standup dressed like a vagina before all this, right? And now suddenly I'm like now trying to figure out like, we have one auntie Constance. I call her auntie Fauci. She was looking at like water tables and infection rates and looking at where governors were lifting mask mandates, like to help figure out, we're not infinite, but where can we target our finite power? Like where can this one batch of mask go?

So, that's a little peak at what this insanity has been. I think the real gift though, is because we weren't "Paying each other," people weren't getting stuff from it. It was really the community is what was like the payment. I am using quotes if you can't see what I'm doing. That the community was kind of twistedly funny and caring and if you're the kind of person that has like no engagement on your Facebook feed and you post a picture of masks to ASS Facebook page, and like you get 50 likes, it's like a tension crack. Like it was a lot of community in a time where we were literally isolated.

So that is why I think auntie stayed on and why, when we were trying to figure out how to retire so that we could better take care of ourselves, I think for some aunties, they're very nervous about stopping because this is maybe for them the first time in their life that they've ever felt this way and have felt that they could help other people they've never met in this way. I want to keep talking, unless you want to interrupt. I don't know.

John Freeman:
Kristina, these stories are really quite amazing. And I don't know if you can see the reactions and the, there's a lot of gratitude for what you're up to, but it also is echoing quite a few things that Rebecca wrote about in A Paradise Built in Hell, especially in the 9/11 section, she's describes how a 19 year old NYU students, who's mainly a DJ sets up this sort of union square, all-comers area where people can start talking about what they've lost in 9/11. Simultaneously, there's another gentleman who starts up a donut stand, which turns into a kind of a minuscule FEMA on the ground because it sort of mutates and grows and becomes a provider for many more things than donuts. And I think what you've just described is at the core of this book, I think you probably would agree Rebecca, in that a disaster can be a relief from the disaster of a isolated life. And no one wishes for a disaster, but when a disaster comes, it sometimes activates the altruism and the desire for better civil society. And it sounds like that was true for many of your aunties.

Kristina Wong:
Oh my God. I can't even believe I'm this generous. I was shocked. I was like, "I have empathy?" Oh my God. I thought at the end of civilization, I'd be the one pushing a shopping cart up the freeway, fighting people off with a pipe. So I was like, "This is weird." Like, "What am I doing right now?" And I will say that not everyone sewed and cut. Rebecca did not sew one single mask, but she is our historian writer, shakedown auntie. And then she wrote about us in The Guardian, but also like, it'd be like, "Rebecca, post this." And it was like, because there was a moment where I got in over my head and I never really did go to counting the first year of it because it was such a crisis.

So we had this opportunity to fill a van full of sewing supplies for the Navajo Nation for a sewing group there. In LA, we're by the Garment District, but they are not close to things like fabric. And they were taking like fitted sheets and trying to use the curve of the elastic to make gowns and stuff. And I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Just like we found this one store that was open. We were like, "Okay, buy it, buy it, buy it." I spent out our whole budget and it was like, "Okay, shake down, auntie. Post it, we need to replenish this budget." And we were able to double it, right?

So everyone has a purpose, not everyone needs to sew, but that was sort of beautiful. It was finding, we have all these funny nickname, we have a Vermont auntie, we call her Vermontie, and I think the sort of gift too is like, I didn't really think that hard when I was writing the name of it. I was just like, if I put COVID-19 or mask in the group name, it's going to create an onslaught of requests, but the sad irony is we ended up being like the last group standing, but referring to each other as aunties, I think sort of also built in, like there's something when you call everyone, "Hey, aunties. Who's got masks for me?" Versus, "Hey, volunteers. Who has masks for me?" Right?" There's a whole different feel. And we literally became this family, like something softens when you call someone an auntie and immediately acknowledge someone who's just shown up as that.

And now, I think if I ever have to, I'm not going to start a organization or, this is not even an organization, it's like a loose collective to think about those sort of dynamics that when people feel like a family, they act in a different way.

John Freeman:
I want to bring Rebecca back in because we've just sort of passed a major anniversary of 9/11. It was 20 years two weeks ago or so. And I don't know if Kristina ended up like this, but I lived downtown in New York at the time. A lot of the things you described, I remember, Rebecca, and I found myself watching these documentaries feeling very conflicted about them because the images of that day were used for terrible purposes, but the things which happened on that day said lot about the qualities that you're describing today, that we have this yearning for meaning and community and connection, that we do have altruistic qualities that are not activated by our daily lives and those situations that we're in and that any disaster that can happen. And I saw that happen over and again on 9/11. And in particular, inside the towers, which is something that you know, Rebecca, from talking to people. I wonder if you could take us back to the book and maybe read from a section from that day.

Rebecca Solnit:
Yeah. With pleasure. And I just want to do a shout out to all the fellow aunties who are here with us today. Being a member of the Auntie Sewing Squad is the best thing that happened to me in the pandemic. I made friendships that will endure, and I just got to witness such a beautiful way of relating to each other and to the need and the pandemic out there. Was so exciting. And I got to call Kristina, Overlord, which I never call anybody else.

Kristina Wong:
That is the weirdest thing that has stuck this ironic sweatshop-esque joke, but most of the pandemic has been jokes. Our group has been jokes that have stuck. Like we were afraid to say ASS out loud. Anyway, go ahead, Rebecca, go ahead.

Rebecca Solnit:
Thank you, Overlord. And also, we really have two anniversaries that just passed. The 20th anniversary of... We're about to cross the 20th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan which 9/11 was used as an excuse for. And what was shocking for me here in California at the time was seeing the meaning of what happened be so distorted, treating an act by a bunch of freelance terrorists as an act of war that war is committed by nations against other nations and as a justification for wars that actually had to do with George Bush's daddy issues and the fossil fuel economies, speaking of climate change, and a bunch of other nefarious business, but also the way that the... The media again, really failed us because they lionized the men in uniform. The police and firefighters were just more people in Lower Manhattan in a crisis. The firefighters who died weren't really rescuing people. People rescued themselves. They were being sent like lambs to the slaughter without adequate communications equipment in heavy, hot uniforms, up into a collapsing building.

And literally people evacuating were saying, "What are you doing? Come down with us." And giving them water. And the regular people were trying to rescue the firefighters. And when police and firefighters did good things, but mostly people rescued themselves. And so I want to read a little bit about that. I actually gave a talk before I wrote the book and this woman said, "My dad worked at Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, and he was on," I forget what floor, like the 67th floor or something. And so I went to Southern California and met her dad who had retired. His name was... God, I have to turn back something noble, at Michael Noble. He describes being told to go back to his office, but not feeling good about evacuating with his Starbucks cup down the staircase, not taking the elevators, which were about to fill with airplane fuel and become incinerators.

And so he said, "We pushed out, we ran away from the building south toward Liberty Street, and the woman I evacuated with ran off in a different direction. There was a parking lot for a Greek Orthodox church, and that's where I went. As I looked around, every car was on fire. It looked like a war zone. I remember looking down and this was before I looked back up at the building, and there was an arm severed at the elbow with a wedding ring on. The same type of wedding ring as my own. And then shocked me a little bit to see a body part. As I looked around there were body parts pretty well all around, and lots of clumps of flesh, just blood and goo not recognizable as a body part. I saw things that day that no civilian should see. I started walking up, what I think was called the West Side highway. Of course, it was hard not to be looking up.

I looked up and I saw the spec in the sky and it caught my attention. There was a man who had jumped. I remember his arms and his legs just trying to grab at air. I watched him fall, and I remember thinking, how can I help this man? Is there some way I can communicate with him as he is about to die? I don't know. It's what I thought. For the last 15 floors he fell, I watched him try to hold his hand, be somehow in communication with him." Michael Noble wished afterward that he had retrieved that wedding ring for the widow. For the next few days he joined other senior management people in his firm, making phone calls to employees' homes to try and track down who had survived and where people were. Morgan Stanley had recently merged with Dean Witter, but before the crisis the two communities had remained distrustful. Afterward, Noble says, it was open arms. How can we help? Anything you need is yours.

John Abruzzo, a paraplegic account who worked on the 69th floor of the north tower was carried down all of those flights of stairs to safety by 10 of his coworkers in relays, using an evacuation chair designed to skid down the stairs that had been provided after the early attack on the World Trade Center.

[Zaheer Jafrey 01:18:01], a polio survivor from Pakistan, worked on the 65th floor of one of the towers and remembers the long journey down the stairs. He says, "We had to stop several times during our descent because of injured people being brought down. For example, you would hear, 'Move to the right, move to the right,' and everybody would move to the right so that the injured could be taken down. This happened three, four times. People in a groove and then they had to reposition themselves and people would actually say, 'No, you go first.' I couldn't believe it. That at this point, people would actually say, 'No, no, please to take my place.' It was uncanny."

Eventually he got to the bottom of the stairs. He says, "I was walking very, very slow by now because I could barely walk. In the concourse level I was going so slow that two or three times people offered to carry me. I said, 'No, no. Maybe somebody else needs help.' The water was this much up to my ankles and it was slimy and slippery. My shoes were new and they were slipping. By this time I knew it was very serious because people were actually now beginning to run and you could hear the volunteers saying, 'Get out of the building before it falls. Get out of the building before it falls.'"

One of the firefighters in Jules and Gedeon Naudet's documentary about 9/11 recalls people saying to descending firefighters, "What are you doing? Get out." John [Gilfoy 01:19:33], a young man who'd been a college athlete, recalled, "I remember looking back as I started running and the thickest smoke was right where it was, a few blocks away, and thinking that whoever's going to be in that is just going to die. There's no way you could. You're going to suffocate, and it was coming at us. I remember just running. People screaming. I was somewhat calm and I was a little bit faster than my colleagues. I had to stop and slow up a little bit and wait for them to make sure we didn't lose each other."

That I find, in a way that's one of the most powerful testimonies I've ever read. He spoke of slowing down as though it was an ordinary, sensible thing to do. But to keep pace and flight from imminent death, not even with family or beloved friends, but with coworkers is not what we imagine ourselves or those around us would do. It exemplifies the extremes of altruism and solidarity and disaster.

A young immigrant from Pakistan, [Usman Farman 01:20:36] was also running from the cloud when he fell down. A Hasidic Jewish man came up to him, took into his hand the pendant with an Arabic prayer on it, that Farman wore. And then, Farman reports, "With a deep Brooklyn accent he said, 'Brother, if you don't mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us. Grab my hand, let's get the hell out of here.' He was the last person I would have ever thought to help me. If it wasn't for him I probably would've been engulfed in shattered glass and debris."

That's who New Yorkers were in 9/11. More than half a million people were evacuated by a spontaneously assembled [inaudible 01:21:16] boats, pleasure boats, ferries whose captains just saw what was happening and turned around in mid river. Policemen actually hijacked or hot wired a yacht and historic boats, fire boats. Everybody did what needed to happen. Almost everyone who died that day because they could not escape the towers or were in the airplanes. Almost everyone who was below the level of the hit was safely evacuated, including those who needed a great deal of help, except for the firefighters and people who were sent into the building. It's truly a remarkable, and it's really a more remarkable evacuation than the Dunkirk evacuation of Normandy in World War II. Half a million people in one morning.

That story was never really told it. It was turned into this fucking cowboy cop action movie suggesting ordinary people are weak and helpless and frightened, and we all need to rely on men in uniforms. Let's rely on some more men in uniform and start a war and worship our soldiers. We've been in this militaristic cult in this country ever since. A lot of young people may not remember we didn't have all this weird, honor the military and their service, let them board first on airplanes, that a lot of... A lot of weird stuff really changed in the culture and we became a kind of militarized society. We adapted the Nazi sounding term Homeland, which had never been used in US government before. The Department of Homeland Security, which folded FEMA into its militaristic bureaucracy. The FEMA that would fail colossally in Hurricane Katrina, failed to do... The Homeland Security that would fail to address what really threatened us like climate change.

It was a moment of incredible openness also in American imagination. People started reading about Muslim culture, wanted to understand how we'd fucked up in the Middle East. Why people actually had some real reasons to hate the US, why it happened. The Bush administration did not regard Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as the real enemies, they regarded a free and open-minded American public as the real enemy they had to conquer. They did that with propaganda in an incredibly effective and creepy way. They did it by spying on us, taking away our civil liberties, the NSA becoming the security, the kind of [inaudible 01:23:54] overreach apparatus that Edward Snowden would expose a dozen years later.

It really changed our society and it should not have been that way. We have not recovered, not from what Al Qaeda did, which was to kill 3,000 people, topple two towers, destroy four airplanes, or what the Bush administration did to us. And so that again is about ordinary people behaving beautifully and elites behaving viciously and self interest. And so, again, I wrote this book because this is the stuff we need to think about when something suddenly happens. There will be other terrorist attacks. Of course, we did have one in the nation's capital on January 6th, which you can almost see an outgrowth of that mindset and that anti-democratic mindset, but I need to stop there. That's not what John asked me to do. I read, which he asked me to do, and then I ranted, which he didn't. Did he play [inaudible 01:24:58]?

John Freeman:
No, I love that rant, but there's some questions I want to ask you because they've come in from audience members. One of the things that you probably noticed in Rebecca's readings is that she was reading largely from quotations from other people. As a stylist, Rebecca's toolkit is very specific, and this is a book that draws heavily on oral histories. It's actually quite close to Svetlana Alexievich in the way it's constructed and the way it tells history through the voices of people. There's a question about research whole, when do you know you have enough research? The segment that you just read Rebecca was so powerful, but I suspect you came across many, many others that you probably had to leave out. I guess, at what point do you say, "This is too much, 312 pages is good, but 500 means that people won't listen." How do you know the difference?

Rebecca Solnit:
I am around academics a lot. I love them. I rely on their work a lot in my own work. But I think academic training is you don't start writing until you know absolutely everything. But I have a degree in journalism from the graduate school journalism at UC Berkeley and journalists have to be nimble. You write, you go to the crime scene, you file your report immediately. You don't get to have writer's block. There's a nimbleness that I was trained in. When do you know enough? That's very much a subject of judgment. I was writing about five major disasters, each of which had many books of its own about it. And so it's really sifting for what helped make the case about how people behave, what was a compelling story, and my God, the material, particularly for the 1906 earthquake and 9/11 was so rich.

Columbia University had oral histories and some of these came from those oral histories. I did my own interviews, notably with Michael Noble, talked to other people who were there, and so it's really about shaping the material. There's always this subtle thing. When do you have enough to start writing? That's a phase when you start the writing and you always find out when you're writing that you don't know everything yet, so you continue research as you're writing, where it's like, oh, I'm going to stop this chapter and go do a deep dive into this or that. But I'm so grateful for my training as a journalist, because a lot of it in my wonderful program was about ethics, your accountability to your readers, the people you write about, the historical record, which can be quite different than the way creative nonfiction is sometimes taught in. Some, but not all writing programs are great nonfiction programs, but journalism really emphasize that.

John Freeman:
Donna asks if you expect a rise in more mutual aid organizations like Kristina's in the coming future. I mean the 12 years since this book has come out, it's been a parade of various forms of disaster. Do you see that happening? I would add a follow up question to that is, how do you balance a desire for government to work and provide certain services while also believing and encouraging organizations like Kristina's and others that do arise and provide necessary services when the government isn't doing it?

Rebecca Solnit:
I was actually just thinking when you said that about the rise of the healthcare GoFundMe. We should be a society like all the other, almost all the other affluent societies, nations around the country where everybody's healthcare is free and fully covered. It's really heartbreaking and often weird seeing people praise somebody because they're raising money for their mom's kidney transplant or their niece's childhood diabetes or something. It's like, it's noble that they're doing it, but it's grotesque that they have to be doing it. There's this funny way in which relatively poor people are helping out relatively poor people. So much for this kind of stuff, like the rent parties people in black communities used to have to cover bills, or the wonderful mutual aid societies that still exist in New Orleans as the social aid and pleasure clubs.

But yeah, I do think we should have a government that guarantees that everybody has food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and access to education. There will still be ways people need to be helped. Even if you have healthcare, you might need somebody, you might want the neighbors to bring you soup when you're in hospice to help watch your loved one when they're in that final stage, to all the things you can do for new parents with meals. Stuff like that won't go away even if we have adequate services. I don't want to suggest like, oh, the failure of government is when we become wonderful. I think you can see that there are society... It is interesting looking.

Cuba has universal evacuation, government supported in hurricane so not a lot of people die nor are poor people left to figure out how to evacuate themselves. Iceland deals with its volcanoes and other disasters really well, has great search and rescue for their very exciting weather. I think that the government could be a hell of a lot better and we wouldn't run out of mutual aid things to do. Maybe it's also about devolving from centralized bureaucracies to much more decentered community based government that isn't so separate from civil society. That might be part of it.

John Freeman:
All right. Well, I want to ask one final question as we wrap up here. Beth, maybe you could put in the chat window a link to Kristina's upcoming show in New York in case anybody happens to be passing through New York City in November, so they can see Kristina Wong Sweatshop Overlord. But Rebecca, I couldn't help but think while I was reading, Orwell's Roses, your upcoming book, that there is a connection between what you're describing, the spiritual and intimate, personal interaction with nature that Orwell's having while by planting these roses that still exist in his cottage today, which you go and see at the beginning of the book. Many people were locked in but had gardens or had some tiny plant that they were growing. I know it's easy to sentimentalize this, but do you think that there is some tiny gesture of cross species mutual aid that is activated when we do something like plant a flower or garden or plant a tree in our backyard?

Rebecca Solnit:
I think the tragedy of the last few centuries has been a philosophy of the apotheosis of the isolated individual capitalism, certain forms of protestantism, racism, et cetera, patriarchy. Have all inculcated this idea of the lone individual, the individualistic hero who can solve all the problems, usually through violence. In order to understand climate change and to do what we need to respond to climate change, we need to understand what science has been telling us of late, which is that everything is connected to everything else. That's the scientific fact, but it can also be a deeply psychological, emotional, and spiritual reality, in that nothing is separate from anything else. It can be a nightmare when our tail pipe emissions are melting, the sea ice that seals and polar bears depend upon, or creating hurricanes in the Caribbean. It can be something incredibly beautiful when you understand the incredibly, elegant orchestration of flowers and pollinators and seasons and food sources. The way that each ecosystem is far more intricate and finally tuned than an orchestra.

I think that both in relationship to each other, within our human societies, we need to recognize interdependence and interconnection and our relationship to the non-human world. We also need to... I think mutual aid is the future and for our survival in the most practical terms. But I think also it brings us a liberation from the ugly alienation and isolation, the culture of selfishness that's been capitalism. And so it's both practical and profound and exciting to see it coming from economics theory, neurobiology, anthropology, and dozens of other fields, this articulation of a new sense of what it means to be human, what it means to be part of the biological world, what it means to be living on earth, what it means to be living through this biggest of all crises that is climate change.

John Freeman:
Well, we're going to need this book more and more and more, and hopefully all of you who've been listening maybe you can pass it to a friend, check it out at the library, spread the word. Kristina, it was very lovely for you to join us and thank you for everything that you've done in the last 17 to 20 months. Good luck with your show. I think now is the time where David comes on and says a few words from our sponsors, but let's all thank Rebecca for this tremendous hour and for this book. It's really, really lovely to see you again. David?

David L. Ulin:
Thanks John and thanks Rebecca and Kristina for a really remarkable conversation. Thank you so much for being here and for participating in this. I just want to say that this interview is recorded, has been recorded and will be available at pretty soon, pretty much immediately. If you want to revisit it, please feel free to do so. I'd want to remind everyone that next month on October 21st, the California Book Club's guest will be Maxine Hong Kingston talking about her remarkable first book, The Woman Warrior. Please do put that in your calendar and come back to see that event.

I would also like to remind everyone for the sale on the Alta membership for California Book Club members at Please go to the clubhouse if you want to continue the conversation with other participants, people who were here this evening, and please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. Other than that, I want to tell you all thanks for being here. Please stay safe, stay well, and we will see you all next month. Take care everyone. Have a good night.•

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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