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Author Of 'Men Explain Things To Me' Has A New Memoir


It's a phenomenon we are well aware of now - man thinks he knows more than a woman he's talking to, dominates the conversation, uses a patronizing tone and explains something to her. We call this mansplaining now, but before Rebecca Solnit's essay for Guernica magazine in 2008, no one had called it out before as a pattern of male behavior. The essay was titled "Men Explain Things To Me." And in it, Solnit recounted the story of a man she met at a dinner party who started lecturing her about her own book. In her new memoir, Solnit explains how easily that essay came to her after she committed to putting the experience on paper - and the revelations that came in the process.

REBECCA SOLNIT: As I wrote the essay, I realized that not being believed becomes a life-and-death matter. So I realized I was actually writing about something much more serious. And the amazing thing about that essay is I wrote it in a morning. I put it out. And it...

MARTIN: Yeah, what was the reaction? (Laughter).

SOLNIT: It resonated with people. It went viral. An unknown blogger coined the word mansplaining. I wish I knew who it was so I could give her credit by name. It wasn't me. And it helped create, with that word, a tool to describe a thing that's a real problem - the assumption that men are competent and women are incompetent, that they're better at facts, that they have more authority over what's real. And of course, that becomes a huge problem around gender violence and gender discrimination. And it's so much what this memoir, "Recollections Of My Nonexistence" is about.

MARTIN: You go back and give us a portrait - or at least the contours of what your life in San Francisco as a young woman in her 20s looked like. Can you describe how your own credibility at that time was undermined?

SOLNIT: I don't know that I ever had it. I write about the fact that I was so barraged by what we call harassment, but it was more than harassment. It was threats and menaces and stalkings and physical incursions and things. And I just felt so voiceless. I had good reason to believe that saying no would accomplish nothing. Stop, I'm not interested - might make it worse. You know I could make noises. But would they achieve anything? Would I be able to set boundaries, bear witness?

But when I try and talk to other people about what's going on, they tell me - oh, young lady, you're just overwrought and all wound up. And we're not really going to believe you because what do you know? And so there I was becoming a writer of history and nonfiction and being told in so many different ways that I was not competent to be a witness to my own life.

MARTIN: You write in the book - not in great detail, although you have written about it elsewhere - about the abuse that you suffered in your own home growing up - that your dad was abusive. But there is an overarching sense throughout the entire memoir of the anxiety of working through the potential of abuse, if that makes sense - that the practice that women engage in of preparing to be abused as some kind of warped defense mechanism, specifically on Page 63.

(Reading) I joked that not getting raped was the most avid hobby of my youth.

That just slayed me.

SOLNIT: Wow. Well, thank you, I guess. You know, the thing is, we talk about violence against women as either it happens to you because some extreme thing - you know, you got raped, which happens to, according to the statistics, 1 out of five American women or it didn't happen to you and you're fine - it didn't touch you at all. And that, I think, misses something really big that I wanted to address by talking about how the ambient threat of violence - after I left home - you know, after I no longer lived with my father who was physically violent, finding out that any stranger - you know, any male stranger might be violent and that our society as a whole was not and still is not prepared to say, this is a human rights violation and we have to change everything to make it stop. We need to see it as something ambient to which the only solution is profound social change.

MARTIN: As a culture, we have at least had a partial awakening about sexual violence, sexual aggression, misogyny. Does it feel real to you, that change? Does it feel concrete?

SOLNIT: I think the backlash is very serious in (ph) the people who are refusing to accept the reality and the legitimacy of gendered violence and the domination of women and silencing of our voices in ways that allow that violence to be perpetrated. But I do I think the very question in your question is, who is we? - and that the reason things are changing and the reason I'm hopeful is that the we who decides who matters, who should be heard and what's true and significant is not the way it used to be - the boring, slow work of having women judges and lawyers and TV producers and assignment editors but also men who listen to women and treated women as equals and were also willing to listen to those stories; more open definitions of gender; some of the liberation that's come from the stronger presence of queer people and their rights. So we have a whole different we deciding what the story is and who should be listened to, who matters.

MARTIN: What are you learning from young feminists today?

SOLNIT: I find them so exciting and so energizing. One thing I also think is really important is we often treat wisdom as though it's something individual that comes with age. But I think we learn as a culture. And people who didn't grow up in the extremely misogynist unequal society I did sometimes are able to see further or shake off assumptions better. And so the assumptions that the young should learn from the old are often all backwards. And they certainly have been for feminism because there are so many times when we can learn from the young who are like, wait a minute - you all had to accept that because we were still working on it, but we're not going to accept it. And yeah, this, too, can be changed.

So it's this beautiful conversation that includes women in their 80s and girls who are 12 - my friend Galesia (ph), who's 13, and so many other amazing people and men and people who are gender neutral and so many other people participating in this transformation of one of the most fundamental ideas in our society is - what does it mean to be male? What does it mean to be female? And how should power, particularly power as who tells a story - who do we listen to? - is allocated.

MARTIN: The memoir is called "Recollections Of My Nonexistence" by Rebecca Solnit. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SOLNIT: My pleasure. Thank you so much, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.