Lexical Undertakings - #4
Books read in June of 2018:
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Snyder
A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea
“What is mansplaining, anyway?” a friend of mine asked around the kitchen table a few months ago. “Because it seems to me that it’s just whenever a man explains something to a woman.”
I struggle to answer him, because I haven’t yet read Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me. I’ve just heard of it. For a brief overview; Rebecca Solnit was an author who wrote slightly esoteric books on things like the history of walking and Eadweard Muybridge. Then she published an essay detailing how she was at a party and the (male) host began telling the (female) her about a very important book that had just come out about the subject that they were discussing. Rebecca Solnit already knew about the book because, well, she wrote it. As she puts it in the essay, “Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway.”
She then goes on to explain that the incident, which resulted in some laughter, was an example of a tendency that she’s noticed. Some men like to “explain things to me that I know and they don’t.”
The essay exploded, becoming by far her most read work. It was published in 2008 and compiled into a book with six other essays in 2012 and then updated again in 2015. I read the most updated version. The 2015 version of the famous essay seems to have more asterisks in it than June of 2016 did as newspapers scrambled to figure out the least offensive way to get pu**y in a headline.
Men Explain Things to Me is a hybrid of a book and a long-form blog post. On the one hand, Solnit gets a chance to respond to the phenomena that her essay birthed: the term mansplaining. She didn’t actually coin the term, she explains. She hastens to add that, although she is impressed that mansplaining was added to the lexicon, her original essay makes it clear that “mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck”. She is given a chance to react and to correct, to try to wrap her arms around the overzealous and explain what she was actually saying. She seems to be self-consciously trying to be clear, while making sure that what she’s writing can in no way be construed as condescending. Solnit is well aware she’s been dubbed one of the head Knights in the fight against speaking down to people.
On the other hand, here is a woman writing about issues of how men and women speak to one another socially without knowing what is about to happen to her country. A large orange shadow is cast over every aspect of reading Men Explain Things to Me. The other essays don’t hit quite as hard. Topics include violence against women and rape culture. It isn’t that these aren’t important topics. It’s that for every single one, so much has happened in just three years that they seem unable to fully tackle the topics.
What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Snyder also seemed unable to fully tackle the topics it took on, although for different reasons. What We’ve Lost is Nothing is a novel set in my hometown of Oak Park, IL and was written by a professor at my alma mater, American University.
The novel takes place in a fake cul-de-sac, Ilios Lane, which is a few blocks away from a real street, Austin Boulevard. Austin is a dividing line between two very different places to live. One side is Oak Park, a family-oriented suburb filled with trees and small squares for lawns, and the other is the west side of Chicago, an area with apartments, glass on the sidewalks, and bars across the store windows. The stark contrast is often romanticized by artists and writers and is frequently studied by academics. Snyder tries to use it to explore race and class in the USA in 2004 by staging her novel around a series of home invasions that occur in the fake culdesac.
Reading this book was so weird. I lived in Oak Park in 2004, but I was a kid. I wasn’t worried about protecting my children or whether valuing diversity and community inherently re-enforce divides. It was impossible not to get hung up on tiny inaccurate details: there are no cul-de-sac in Oak Park, the high school is called OPRF and not Oak Park high, the types of girls the main characters are set up to be wouldn’t be cheerleaders there, the way that the characters buy MDMA is just not how that would go down….on and on and on.
But it’s still cool to read a book where the setting is so easy to picture. What We’ve Lost is Nothing is one of those books where the author wants to tackle a Big Issue (race, class, and security) and so throws trauma into their characters lives to create a plot. There isn’t much here and if it weren’t so relative to me I never would have finished it. I’m still going to talk about it when I watch the new OPRF documentary on Starz though.
After finishing my first novel, I flitted around and read some of Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of Unruly Women, a collection of essays about women who refuse to get shoved into categories. But I didn’t get into anything until I read A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea.
I’ve never read a North Korea defector memoir, but I felt like I should. As a kid (in Oak Park, in 2004) instead of thinking deeply about race in my hometown, I spent most of my time reading epic fantasy series. The evil empire and the lone rebel is such a trope in these books. North Korea feels like that evil empire, but the lone rebel is more likely to get shot in the back than save the world.
A River in Darkness is one of Amazon Kindle’s free books and top reads. It’s a sad story about a man with a Korean father and a Japanese mother. When he is a young teen, his father ‘returns’ the family to North Korea in the early 1960s, around when my parents were born, where they have been promised paradise. Instead, unsurprisingly, they find crippling poverty. Teeth fall out, clothes are threadbare, words are swallowed again and again. The family’s house burns down and everyone is hungry. People die and children are born. Everytime the author puts a year to an event, I place where I know my own family was at the time. It’s chilling, as I know it was meant to be.
It’s impossible to read this memoir without feeling deep sadness at the circumstances of this man’s life. But it is also impossible to not wonder who wrote this and why. If you have spent most of your life in North Korea, where did you acquire an education about totalitarianism? How was this book translated into English? How was it even published in the first place? What We’ve Lost is Nothing felt so grounded to me and it was so clear how I came to be holding the book in my hands. A River in Darkness was so foreign and left me with so many questions.