The Sunday Magazine

Rebecca Solnit on the power of changing the narrative and writing our own stories

In her most recent book Whose Story Is This?, Rebecca Solnit argues that the question of who gets to narrate the story of our time matters deeply. From Idle No More to Black Lives Matter to Me Too, many of the biggest social movements of this decade have challenged dominant narratives and retold them from a different perspective.
In her most recent book Whose Story Is This?, author Rebecca Solnit argues that the question of who gets to narrate the story of our time is deeply important. (Adrian Mendoza)

"We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them and then to become the storyteller," writes essayist and historian Rebecca Solnit.

Solnit has always been fascinated with stories. And in her most recent book Whose Story Is This?, she argues that the question of who gets to narrate the story of our time is deeply important.

"I think [in this decade] we gained a lot of critical tools to look at … whose story is it? Who gets to tell it? Who decides? Who is at the centre? And who's treated as valuable? Because audibility is such a crucial part of power," she told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

Here are some highlights from their conversation. Rebecca Solnit's comments have been edited and condensed.

Changing the narrator

I think Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Idle No More have been about changing the story by changing who tells the story. They are not just storytelling projects — storytelling is at the centre of them. They are about historically-silenced populations, whether it's women talking about sexual violence, gender violence and discrimination, or people of colour talking about the ways that they have been murdered, marginalized, impoverished, exiled.

The silencing is crucial to those projects. You have to shut people up before you can do terrible things to them. We have a legal system, in both of our countries, that has given too much credibility and audibility to perpetrators and not enough to victims. We told the stories of Canada and the United States in terms of wonderful noble conquests, discovery and nation-building; and not in terms of genocide in places that already had people.


If we could replace fossil fuels [with anger], we would have a great supply. But I think, a bit like fossil fuels, we should probably keep it in the ground. This is a tricky thing to say because … white man's anger is often valorized as legitimate and appropriate in a show of strength, [while] people of colour are seen often as scary. Women are seen as bad at being women if they are angry. We are supposed to be sweet and comforting. So I want equal opportunity access to anger. At the same time, to be angry is a terrible state to be in. It shuts down your mind. It feels terrible.

Anger and indignation are the easiest emotions to stir up. And it's a way to get people. When you get angry, you lock onto what you are angry about, and they have got you hooked. It's a cheap emotion. I think hope, generosity, perspective and love are so much more valuable, and a little more complicated to stir up. But not impossible.

I think that we are in a world that has been ramped up by economic pressure and social media, where people feel more isolated, more pressured, more perilous. And that all those things make people really tense. And fear and sadness are often expressed as anger. Anger is the safe way to experience danger and not acknowledge it.

That does not mean that this anger is an authentic expression that we should revere. It means we should look at the root causes and try and change them — whether it means justice, better conversations across difference, or a great beautiful slowdown where we can pay more attention to what matters, and also not have to scurry so hard to pay the rent and feed the kids.

On not expecting purity from politicians

You didn't have to think Barack Obama was wonderful and amazing and perfect to think that on reproductive rights, on race, on climate and the environment, the differences [between him and Mitt Romney in 2012] were really significant. So [I was] going after the purists who like to speak in absolute terms — that anything that's not perfect is terrible. That supporting anything that isn't already utopian perfection is a form of moral corruption, even though that's the only choice we get. A lot of times, the lesser of two evils is a lot lesser. I have never heard anybody say, "Oh, chemotherapy is the lesser of two evils. So I'll just hang out with this stage four cancer."

The left is a blanket term that covers a lot of really different communities and value systems. But there are certainly sectors of the left that are very good at being angry and punitive. There is a kind of armchair person who sees her role or his role primarily as telling everyone else what they are doing wrong. I once heard a climate activist dub them the "doing it wrong brigade," and they are unfortunately pervasive and mighty.

A lot of times what they're doing is saying, "Well, we should all be on the mountaintop." And when you take that step, you're not on the mountaintop. And the next step doesn't get you to the mountaintop either. So you're compromising and that makes you impure. [But] these steps, which are often proceeding to your goal by degrees, is actually how you often get to a political or social goal.

Hope in the face of uncertainty

Hope for me is nothing at all like optimism. Optimism and pessimism are flip sides of the same coin. Pessimism says we know exactly what will happen and it will suck, so we don't have to do anything. Optimism says everything's gonna be fine, so we don't have to do anything. 

Hope for me is very close to accepting the reality of uncertainty and unpredictability. We don't know what's going to happen, but we do know that what we do in the present will shape the future. We don't know whether this time around we are going to win. We don't know how much it will matter. Greta Thunberg is suddenly TIME magazine's "Person of the Year." A 15-year-old schoolgirl in Stockholm didn't know, when she sat down alone in a protest, that she was going to galvanize others around the world.

We have seen remarkable things happen, for the better and the worse, that nobody thought was going to happen. I remember just before the Berlin Wall fell, 30 years ago this fall, that everybody thought the Berlin Wall was permanent. The Cold War was permanent. The Soviet Union was going to last for centuries. The people seemed very powerless, or very tiny in the face of totalitarianism. And then suddenly it all just crumbled, almost overnight. So that's where my hope is. It's that we actually have a history of extraordinary victories, that ordinary people have tremendous power and that we don't know what will happen; but we can be what happens. 

The future is not yet written — which I think I got from Terminator 2 — but it's one of my favourite phrases. The future is not yet written, and maybe if we try our hardest, maybe if we use all our skills and all our capacity, we get to write some of that.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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