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Rebecca Solnit on Sense of Place and Writing for Social Change

The prolific San Francisco writer will speak on such topics and more at the Bay Area Book Festival this weekend.

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Ocean Beach is Rebecca Solnit's favorite place on Earth, which is significant because the acclaimed San Francisco essayist and author of seventeen books — including Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Men Explain Things to Me — has certainly been to a place or two over the years. But it's also unsurprising, considering that Solnit's writing exudes a heartfelt appreciation for San Francisco's culture, history, and geography.

Solnit's familiarity with the city allows her writing to resonate as a guiding light, one that pierces through the fog of political unrest, economic struggle, and communal grieving. For instance, when a San Francisco police officer killed unarmed civilian Alex Nieto in March of 2014 in Bernal Heights, countless media outlets covered the devastating incident. But it took Solnit to human-ize the story.

Solnit's feature appeared in The Guardian exactly two years after the shooting, yet revealed so many details: How a new-to-the-neighborhood tech employee called the police on Nieto because he was eating a burrito on a park bench. The neighbor thought Nieto appeared nervous. But, as Solnit reported, the perception that Nieto was anxious likely was due to the fact that he had just been harassed by a large, off-leash dog.

The author also expounded on the broader context of the situation: the ways in which neighbors rendered the San Francisco native and son of Mexican immigrants an outsider, largely by virtue of San Francisco's gentrification in recent years. Her troubling conclusion was that the housing crisis is not only about rising rents, but also rising racialized tensions between economic classes.

As she did with that Guardian piece, Solnit often tells stories that offer intimate detail, but also fit into a broader cultural frame. "Different kinds of writers have different kinds of roles," Solnit explained during a recent phone interview in advance of her appearance at this weekend's Bay Area Book Festival in downtown Berkeley. "But I feel like, for the kind of work I do, a lot of it is being not exactly a historian, but more than a journalist: somebody who has a sense of changeover ... who sees patterns by knowing how things have unfolded over a period of time."

Acquiring perspective requires a commitment to boots-on-the-ground research. And, for Solnit, that often comes in the form of activism. When the so-called Frisco 5 recently went on hunger strike to protest police violence in San Francisco, she visited their encampment every few days. She even helped the group write a press release. And when the protesters and their supporters marched to City Hall to deliver demands to Mayor Ed Lee, she walked with them.

Solnit has also written extensively about the ways that the tech influx is making San Franciscans less connected with each other and with their sense of place. She frequently walks around the city just to see what's happening on the streets and simply witness her environment first hand. It's about taking the time to walk, instead of, say, Uber. And her reporting style speaks to this constant presence and attentiveness to her surroundings.

"In [my book] Wanderlust, I said that home is everything you can walk to," Solnit explained. "And my relationship to San Francisco really comes out of the fact that I'm a walker." She says walking gives you a unique sense of weather, light, how the buildings change. "You see the Google Bus unloading in the public bus stop, you see people walking around like zombies staring at their phones — you see what's going on."

At this weekend's festival, Solnit will appear on the panel "Disruptors: Writing for Social Change" at the David Brower Center (2150 Allston Way) on Sunday, June 5, at 5 p.m. It will also feature Aya de Leon and Julia Serano, and will be moderated by Chinaka Hodge. (It's worth noting that Solnit said that Silicon Valley has ruined the word "disruptor" for her by adopting it into corporate vernacular. She'd prefer to describe her methods as "insurrectionary.")

New York author and literary critic John Freeman will also interview Solnit on Sunday at Freight & Salvage (2020 Addison St.) at 10 a.m. Although Solnit said that she hadn't yet prepared, the event's description claims that they'll be discussing income inequality in San Francisco versus New York. It also mentions Solnit's 2014 essay "Pale Bus, Pale Rider," a firsthand account of an artist-led public intervention staged against a Google bus that year.

There will be more than one hundred authors at the Bay Area Book Festival, speaking at venues throughout downtown Berkeley. Those include Sherman Alexie, Daniel Handler, Peggy Ornstein, Daniel Clowes, and Robert Haas.

Solnit is one to see, though, because her work easily exemplifies what's meaningful about being a Bay Area writer today: how, even in a world where digital publishing has radically shifted how geography informs the writing industry, one can still tell stories that are tied to a place and its people.

"I'm from the Bay Area, and I feel like that's an identity as strong as an ethnic identity," Solnit said. "I've been shaped by the culture, and weather, and great libraries, and radical communities, and access to incredibly fabulous landscape all my life.

"And Ocean Beach, don't forget Ocean Beach."


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