Last Tuesday, Manchester received some fantastic news. I was on the train from Stockport to an event at The Martin Harris Centre as part of Manchester Literature Festival, entertaining myself with the usual scrolling through Twitter when I came across the announcement that Manchester had just been granted UNESCO Creative City status.
Shortly afterwards, as the audience flooded the theatre, excited chatter filled the air. Had everyone heard? Wasn’t it wonderful ? It was the perfect news to accompany a brilliant literary event and, when the host included this in the welcome introduction, the entire room burst into rapturous applause.
The event in question? Rebecca Solnit in conversation with Jeanette Winterson – and now the first Manchester Literature Festival (MLF) event to be staged with the city’s new title. This was poignant. Not only was the event hosted by the Centre for New Writing’s Winterson, and reinforcing the notion that what we’re doing as a literary city is bloody fantastic, but its focus was on a writer whose most famous work is about the un-silencing of women. The timing couldn’t be more perfect – and the subject matter so bittersweet.
In a time where hundreds of women – and men – are sharing their experiences of harassment, abuse and the terror, it gave me the warm fuzzies that this was the first topic of conversation for an MLF event on an international stage. But it also left a bitter taste in my mouth because it was still so apt, and still so current.
Why are women still silenced? Not believed? Scrutinised in the media? Blamed for the heinous wrongdoings of others? Why, even when they choose to reveal their narratives – or in some cases, decide not to – are they never in control of it? It spirals and distorts and becomes meaningless or trivial or ‘attention seeking’.
I’ve long been a fan of contemporary feminist writer Rebecca Solnit, ever since devouring Men Explain Things to Me during my work lunch breaks. The book was given to me by a friend and I found it difficult to put down, sneaking extra pages long after I’d snaffled the last bite of my butty and was due to return to my desk. The eponymous essay of the book focuses entirely on the silencing of women, specifically the idea that men seemingly believe that no matter what a woman says, a man always knows better – sound familiar, right?
It’s an eerily apt topic of conversation for the current mood – taking away the credibility of female voices brings about a world where issues like domestic violence, harassment and rape are often discounted. It’s a terrifying and all too real concept. You only had to look at the sea of nodding heads to realise the sheer scale of the situation.
Solnit describes how the silencing of female voices is an infringement on female liberty and is an abuse of power, something she discusses at length during the event. She’s warm, funny, charming and charismatic. The usually cool-as-a-cucumber Winterson consistently fan-girls over Solnit, having written down a series of “wonderful quotes” by the feminist writer prior to the event so she wouldn’t get them wrong when recounting them.
Topics include the humiliation of women in porn – Solnit recalls a conversation with a male director who worked in heterosexual porn before turning to gay porn and wondering where on earth the humiliation scene was, something which changed his stance on the porn industry – the sexism surrounding the US elections where Hilary Clinton’s voice was often described as ‘shrill’ (in fact, you can find a six-minute video of US anchor-men discussing her ‘irritating’ voice on YouTube) and the recent Weinstein scandal and the reactions surrounding the revelations.
There’s also a brilliant moment during the conversation where Solnit talks about a brilliant Twitter exchange that had recently gone rival and replaced the words ‘sexual assault’ and ‘rape’ with ‘stab’ and centred each tweet around men not women. It’s humorous, sure, but it highlights the double standards and serious opposition faced by women attempting to tell their stories, their truth.
Solnit’s writing and activism has transformed how we talk about gender and politics. Her writing defies categorisation and unites the personal and the political. Her latest book, The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms, discusses the “powerlessness of silence and the fraught cultural framing of motherhood”. In it, she points the way toward a “new feminism” and discusses rape culture and jokes as well as gender roles, reproductive choices and “the silence of complicity”.
At the beginning of the evening, Solnit reads a passage from The Mother of All Questions where she states: “We are currently given one-size fits all formulas, but often these formulas fail. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again. And again.” She challenges the questions women are frequently asked – about marriage, children, careers – and the narratives we are permitted to follow.
Winterson began the evening with a conversation about Solnit’s observations about “silence in the patriarchal structure beginning with men silencing each other.” It isn’t a female-centred issue. It’s a person-centred issue. And that’s the wonderful thing about Solnit. Sure, 80 per cent of the audience were female, but there were men present listening and nodding and agreeing. After all, the patriarchy exists to silence anything that threatens it to include men who don’t conform to its standards.
Thought-provoking, powerful and truly important topics.
The Mother of all Questions: Further Feminisms is published by Granta and now available to buy.