Every City Should Have an Atlas: An Interview with Rebecca Solnit

By Chavawn Kelley

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Editor’s Note: This interview with Rebecca Solnit follows from Chavawn Kelley’s participation in Laramie: A Gem City Atlas, which Rebecca led while a writer-in-residence at the University of Wyoming. Read Chavawn’s article, “Laramie: A Gem City Atlas Reveals an Uncharted West” with image gallery, appearing in this issue.

About Author Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit.
Photo by Sallie Shatz.
San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit is the author of 13 books about art, landscape, public and collective life, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, reverie, and memory. These include November 2010’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, a book of 22 maps and nearly 30 collaborators; 2011’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, and many others, including Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics; A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities; Wanderlust: A History of Walking; As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art; and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.

Rebecca skipped high school altogether, enrolling in an alternative junior high in the public school system that took her through tenth grade, when she passed the GED exam. Thereafter she enrolled in junior college. When she was 17 she ran away to Paris. She returned to California and by the age of 19 finished her college education at San Francisco State University. During that time, she also worked as a museum researcher. She then earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 1984, and began publishing work as an art critic. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, Rebecca credits her education in journalism and art criticism with strengthening her critical thinking skills and training her to quickly develop expertise in the great variety of subjects her books have covered.

She has worked on environmental and human rights campaigns since the 1980s, notably with the Western Shoshone Defense Project in the early 1990s, as described in her book Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West, and with antiwar activists throughout the Bush era. Rebecca has worked with climate change, antinuclear, and other issues as an activist and journalist. She is a contributing editor to Harper’s and frequent contributor to the political site TomDispatch.com. She has made her living as an independent writer since 1988.

Among the many awards she has received for her writing are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, two NEA Fellowships for Literature, and a 2004 Wired Rave Award for writing on the effects of technology on the arts and humanities. In 2010, Utne Reader named Solnit as one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” She credits Eduardo Galeano, Pablo Neruda, Ariel Dorfman, Gabriel García Márquez, and Virginia Woolf as writers who have influenced her work.


Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit.
Photo courtesy Rebecca Solnit.

Introduction by Chavawn Kelley

I’ve been wrestling with this idea: What if one were to attempt to map Rebecca Solnit? There would be the obvious landmarks of thirteen books, among them Savage Dreams and A Paradise Built in Hell. For isn’t every book a conscious mapping of thought (or conversely, a fashioning of landscape from the materials of consciousness)? Solnit describes the materials of her landscapes as art, public and collective life, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, reverie, and memory.

Taking River of Shadows as but one example, the response to Solnit’s work suggests much agreement that her landmarks reward the effort of the (reader’s) journey. For River of Shadows, Solnit received the Guggenheim Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award.

A map of Solnit might include a soft voice and a strong will, an extraordinary ability to make connections and take action. Her hair suggests meandering while her eyes view the world with astonishing directness. Solnit would be a landscape of landscapes, cultures, histories and convictions on an expansive scale regardless of the immediate focus.

Perhaps a book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking offers a clue to the Solnit map. In it she describes the Orchid Hypothesis, which identifies “highly reactive” children who take in the world with such intensity (and reactivity), they often display a similarly acute sense of shyness. Orchids succeed largely on the strength of their observations and introspection. They are characterized by kindness, empathy, and an extreme sensitivity to injustice. The orchid’s sensitivity may be matched by a conviction so great it allows her to overcome an introverted nature. Of course Susan Cain takes pains in Quiet to make clear that many factors are at play, however dramatic the results of the studies that underlie the hypothesis. That said, perhaps the compass rose on a map of Solnit might aptly be an orchid.

Ultimately, like any actual place, I find Rebecca Solnit to be infinitely unmappable. And fortunately, Solnit is a writer who gives of herself generously through her books—and maps.


Rebecca Solnit's Infinite CityInterview

Terrain.org: In what cities have you launched mapping projects since Infinite City? What cities may be forthcoming?

Rebecca Solnit: Only New Orleans, where Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas will come out as a sequel to Infinite City in 2013. I am talking to other places about atlases in which I will be involved to varying degrees—including hardly at all, happily, since there is only one of me and every city should have an atlas. 

Terrain.org: What have you learned from your road trip of mapping, and maps in general?

Rebecca Solnit: Maps, like photographs, show specifics that dismantle clichés. They make generalities—“There were 99 murders in San Francisco in 2008”—precise and poignant when you show the exact location of each death. You look at that map—one of the ones in Infinite City—and suddenly you see how that number 99 breaks down into 99 tragedies, into specific locations where you might go yourself. Maps invite us to locate ourselves in relation to whatever they show, to enter the labyrinth that is each map and to find our way out by grasping what is mapped. They are always invitations to enter, to arrive, to understand, in a way that is different than the invitations of visual and written art. 

I’ve also learned that people delight in maps in a very particular way. 

Map from Inifinite City
Monarchs and Queens, map with artwork by Mona Caron, from Infinite City.

Terrain.org: What tools (broadly interpreted) do you believe are helpful or essential to map making?

Rebecca Solnit: Cartographers Ben Pease and Shizue Seigel, who actually made the maps for the Laramie, San Francisco, and New Orleans atlases out of the data we gathered and concepts we developed. A strong sense of place, a deep curiosity about who else is there and was there before, a consciousness about the coexistence of many living communities in the same space, a sense of space—of how something exists in place and in particulars. A spatial imagination, passion, enthusiasm, detective and research skills, and legwork. And maybe familiarity with the beautiful maps of the past and a sense of what can and cannot be mapped.

Terrain.org: When we first spoke about doing this interview, you said, “Give the prairie my best. I’m reading The Song of the Lark, which is full of Western spaces.” What surprised you most about Laramie?

Rebecca Solnit: I love that book a lot, incidentally. What surprised me most was the friendliness of the people in general and the acuity of the women in the class in particular, in conceiving and executing strong and original maps. That baker’s dozen of women (for some reason the class was all my gender) rose beautifully to the occasion. Laramie will never be the same—or it was always this complicated, but now some of these complications are here on paper.

Terrain.org: And now they’ve taken digital flight and alighted at Terrain.org. The theme of this issue is “migration.” Do you have particular “flyways”—regular routes, cities, or places you live for various periods? You invariably return home to San Francisco. 

Rebecca Solnit: I used to think of myself as slightly nomadic, with San Francisco as winter camp, the place I keep my stuff and spend the most time. (And here it’s important to understand that nomads have fixed and routine and regular routes; they’re not aimless, lost, hippie-style wanderers or seekers.) That was when I used to spend some time house sitting for a friend in rural New Mexico every summer and had other places around the West I got to annually. But I travel less by car, alas, and more by plane to all kinds of places elsewhere, so it feels less rhythmic and more uprooted. I’m hoping to fix that a little this summer.

Terrain.org: You write in A Book of Migrations, “You walk through almost any but the most urgent and overwhelming landscape immersed in your own thoughts, a little atmosphere of home and self that surrounds you….” Do you have any thoughts of home to share?

Rebecca Solnit: I travel a lot for work, but keep in mind that I have been in the same region since before my fifth birthday and I lived in one apartment for 25 years: San Francisco is about 25 miles south of where I grew up. I’m not that mobile, and the epigraph of Infinite City is Thoreau’s “I have traveled widely in Concord.” Infinite City was about finding the whole world out there without leaving home.

I have very little appetite for travel outside the West now, and lots for travel within it. Well, Latin America also attracts me; it also seems like part of this larger place that is home, since California was once part of Mexico and before that New Spain and since so much of our population and culture comes from there (and there’s a generosity of spirit, a sense of time, and a set of romantic political ideals and histories—las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, horizontalidad, the Zapatistas, contemporary Bolivia, Ecuadoran insurgencies—that mean a lot to me). 

Rebecca Solnit participates in a Words Against War Read-Out, protesting the 5th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in March 2008 in San Francisco. Photo by Jen Angel, courtesy Aid & Abet.
Rebecca Solnit participates in a Words Against War Read-Out, protesting the 5th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in March 2008 in San Francisco.
Photo by Jen Angel, courtesy Aid & Abet.

Terrain.org: How do you think being a product of California might affect your view of other places?

Rebecca Solnit: Well, when I was growing up, California was really like a colony of the Northeast, the way that African nations or the Caribbean isles might be colonies of European nations. I was taught about history that happened elsewhere; I was given poems that contained other kinds of nature—babbling brooks, not deep seasonal creeks, four seasons and snow, not gold hills in summer, bluebells, not poison oak or lupines, the works. There’s a wonderful rant in Jamaica Kincaid’s book Lucy about Wordsworth’s daffodils sonnet, because the protagonist grew up in a tropical place that had a different flora and climate than the poem, and Kincaid expands on that sense of what it’s like to be in the colonies and not the capital in her ferocious, brilliant book A Small Place. I was told that we were barbarians, that history had happened elsewhere, that the California native people had been primitive diggers and were all vanished.

There was such scorn for California as banal and rootless and somehow easy, as though we lacked New England rigor, though we got our revenge by becoming the dominant culture through Hollywood and Silicon Valley but also through all sorts of cultural innovations and hybridizations and countercultures. While being told we had no culture, we made many kinds of culture (not all admirable, I hasten to add). People of color sometimes grow up without seeing positive images of people who look like them; I grew up with very few positive and meaningful images of this place, but I loved it; it was beautiful and powerful and where I belonged.

Though I did go to Paris for a little while in my late teens to get right at the heart of the Eurocentric culture we come from, I came back and by my mid-20s found my project was going to be, among other things, locating and writing some of the overlooked history of California and the West. I think growing up out there, where you share a border with Mexico and face Asia, not Europe, and where many native nations are still powerfully present, you’re freer from certain conventions and lineages, maybe positioned at a more interesting intersection. 

When I’m in the northeast I feel like I’m in a foreign country. Class and space and nature are all very different things there. But I’m happy with the country I belong to. 

Terrain.org: Speaking of foreign places, what was your arctic project?

A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca SolnitRebecca Solnit: I went to Svalbard last September, invited to accompany an expedition by boat around the archipelago up to latitude 80. Very thrilling, amazingly beautiful, exhilaratingly remote, and satisfyingly arctic—a place that has haunted my imagination since my early teens. An essay about it will come out in Orion one of these days (it was written for my friend Mike Davis, not for Orion specifically). 

Terrain.org: What’s next for Rebecca Solnit?

Rebecca Solnit: More books, and I hope more wandering around the West without benefit of airplanes. I’m part of the California Council for the Humanities statewide California Reads project: my book A Paradise Built in Hell is one of the five books they’re using for public-library-based community conversations about democracy, so I’m going to be traveling around the state this year. And I have a book coming out next April or May, very much in the vein of A Field Guide to Getting Lost.



Chavawn Kelley lives in Laramie, Wyoming, with her husband and son. She’s currently at work on an unconventional book about camping in America, due out from Gibbs Smith in 2013. Her short story “Estrella, Extranjero” appeared in Terrain.org Issue No. 25.

Header photo: Currier & Ives map of New York City, 1886.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.