Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is, like most contemporary writing, something that I saw floating around online and laid out prominently in bookstores for years before I eventually got my hands on it. Solnit even came through the city I live in about a year or two ago but, since I wasn’t really familiar with her work at that point, I didn’t even go see her talk — though now I am kicking myself for not going! I finally got the chance to read this collection of essays because of a secret gift exchange I do with some coworkers each year. The lovely lady who was my secret gift giver picked this book out for me because it was on her to-be-read list, too. I am so glad she sent this to me because I was (unsurprisingly) absolutely floored by Solnit’s writing.
Like I said before, I was pretty unfamiliar with most of Solnit’s work, though her name inevitably appeared in various literary lists, articles, and what not. I wasn’t even aware of the connection between this titular essay and the concept of mansplaining that took over in recent years, especially in the online space. I know both the term ‘mansplaining’ and the title ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ can elicit a knee-jerk reaction from some people who assume something about Solnit’s ideas from what they believe the title or word indicates. However, what I like about Solnit is that she can be fairly polemical in the way she unabashedly criticizes culture, but she is also very self-reflexive and that self-reflexivity is what makes her ideas so brilliant and nuanced. Take, for example, how she views mansplaining:
“The term “mansplaining” was coined soon after the piece appeared, and I was sometimes credited with it. In fact, I had nothing to do with it’s actual creation, though my essay, along with all the men who embodied the idea, apparently inspired it. (I have doubts about the word and don’t use it much myself much; it seems to me to go a little heavy on the idea that men are inherently flawed in this way, rather than that some men explain things they shouldn’t and don’t hear things they should. If it’s not clear enough in the piece, I love it when people explain things to me they know and I’m interested in but don’t know; it’s when they explain things to me I know and they don’t that the conversation goes wrong.)” — Men Explain Things to Me, 13
There were a number of great books and great authors that I read in 2017, but there was one particular author who captured my heart in 2017 and who quickly became one of my favorite authors ever: Maggie Nelson. Like most people on social media, I became aware of Maggie Nelson when her text The Argonauts began popping up all over Instagram, review lists, and even Emma Watson’s online book club, Our Shared Shelf. Like a lot of other people within the online space, I become aware of books existing long before I actually get around to reading them. The Argonauts cover always caught my eye — the bright pink against the matte black remains became pretty ubiquitous on book blogs — but it wasn’t until a friend of mine actually made me open up the book in the summer of 2017 that I finally read something by Nelson. And from there, I subsequently became hooked on her writing.
I had the privilege of seeing Roxane Gay read from her latest book and (wittily) do a little Q & A with the audience. This is the first time I had ever heard her speak or gone to any of her events; although I had seen her work floating around the internet – especially Bad Feminist – I never ended up reading her work until a few months ago, when my friend and I saw her name on an events list and decided to go. I am really happy that I finally became acquainted with her work. Better late than never!
The event I attended was for her latest work Hunger, which is billed as her memoir on her relationship with her body. Before I read this text, I had finished reading Bad Feminist (again, better late than never, right?) and her series of short stories Difficult Women, for my little book club. What I like about Gay’s writing is the grittiness of it and the fact that she depicts trauma in a way that is not spectacle. There is not a lot that is “beautiful” about the things the women are subjected to (or subject themselves to in some cases) in Difficult Women in particular, and yet Gay is able to show the complexities behind human action. And there is something beautiful in Gay’s ability to depict horrific things in a way that draws out empathy from the reader in a way that isn’t voyeuristic – at least for me, at any rate. I knew from reading Difficult Women that Gay is able to handle messy topics really well, so once I saw some more information coming out about Hunger I knew it was something I should read.
A while ago I devoted a post to my love of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, so you can imagine how pleased I was when I found out another Arendt piece was assigned for one of my seminars. However, rather than being one of her other famous texts, we were assigned a piece that was essentially Arendt’s “dissertation” or post-doc project of sorts, which was on a German Jewish woman named Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833), who became quite a well-known salonierre in Germany. Arendt’s archive was originally made up of pages upon pages of letter that Varnhagen had written to various family members, friends, and love interests over the years in which she candidly philosophizes on her outlook on life, her situation as a female Jew in Germany, and many other topics. Interestingly, Arendt’s research doesn’t simply focus on the way Varnhagen describes herself; instead, Arendt uses Varnhagen’s letters as a point of departure for her own meditation on ideas of representation, self-identity, history, and an incredibly wide array of topics.
Arendt actually had to put this project on hold as she had to flee Germany due to the events leading up to WWII; most of the book (minus the last two chapters) were completed in 1933. The final two chapters were written a little thereafter, but the book was not published until 1957, so there are a lot of interesting gaps in the writing of this. Since Arendt had to flee Germany, she also lost access to her archive of Varnhagen’s letters. She thus had to reconstruct the text from her notes on the thousands of letters that were lost to her.
As I’ve done in the past, I think the best way to get a sense of the writing here is to get a glimpse of the text itself. Here are a few of the passages that caught my eyes as I was reading along, but keep in mind that I had to pick out a handful out of tons of flagged-pages! I think this will give you a sense of the style of writing Arendt goes through in this text.
It has been a while since I actually wrote about a specific book that caught my eye and is applicable to my field. So when this text was assigned for one of my graduate seminars and we worked our way through the text, I knew I had to dedicate a bit of time to it. The text is called Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies and is a collection of articles/essays by various scholars who would place themselves in various area study disciplines. Most of these essays are from Asian Area studies (i.e. Japan, China, Korea, Southeast Asian studies, etc.) but I think that they highlight the issues in area studies as a discipline, which are not necessarily specific to a specific region.
The tone of this book, overall, is quite cutting of Area Studies and these criticisms are made by those who are an active part of the field. I’ll admit right now that I really enjoyed this text because many of these people articulated issues that I had sensed over the past few years, but did not know how to articulate my qualms.
Those of you who follow me on Instagram are probably tired of seeing me post about Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism – and yet here I am writing about it in ever MORE depth. I thought I would take a moment to not only update this poor neglected blog, but also to explain in a little more detail why I have been absolutely enthralled by this book. In other words, I wanted to explain my love for Hannah Arendt.
I have come across Arendt’s work in the past through my interest in critical theory, as well as my interest in her time period, which was during and around WWII. I have read some of her writing in a few of my classes, but I have never sat down and worked through an entire text. Since I was delving more deeply into postcolonialism, I kept seeing her name come up in conversations about imperialism and the negative impact that imperialism had on the colonies, as well as Europe itself. This is an argument that is quite common in postcolonial studies, but I wanted to see how Arendt constructed her argument, so I picked up this book and started reading. Not only has this been a phenomenal way to reconsider imperialism from the position of the Occident, what has struck me the most about Arendt’s writing is how applicable her ideas are to what is happening in the United States today.
I will include a few quotes below to help illustrate what I mean:
I have decided that I would touch on some books on here that I think deserve a little more room than what I am allotted on Instagram. I also think the commenting system on here would make it a little easier to see anyone else’s opinions on these texts, so we will see how this goes! I have been reading Intimate Empire by Nayoung Aimee Kwon for a (shamefully) long time now, but since it was fall break for us and I had a little more wiggle room in my schedule, I decided to devote some time to it. I will begin by briefly saying, for anyone not aware of what I study, I work on Modern Japanese Literature, which overlaps with the period leading up to WWII. In the past I also did a lot of work on postcolonial theory from the Western context, but I have switched my position to that of the periphery and I now consider imperialism in terms of Japanese colonialism of Korea and Manchuria, as well as Japan’s precarious position as an intellectually colonized society by the West.
Needless to say, this book fits snugly into that very specific network of interests.