It was a logical step from the peregrinations of Wanderlust to Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies. River of Shadows won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Criticism for 2003 and won Solnit a Lannan Literary Award. Two slender books followed: Hope in the Dark (2004), her most directly political, celebrated the power of grassroots protest; A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), her most personal, elaborated on the virtues of meandering.
Storming the Gates of Paradise draws together twelve years of essays. The paradise in the title refers to the public and private spaces reshaped by greed, fear, and sentimentality: the Western towns whose indigenous names were supplanted by those of prospectors and bureaucrats; the national borders erected in an attempt to maintain a fictional homogeneity; the nature photographs that construct a fantasy of virgin wilderness.
As you were putting together Storming the Gates of Paradise, were you able to make any observations about your writing and your career to date? I’d been anticipating at some point assembling a sequel to As Eve Said to the Serpent and expecting it to be similar because my interest in gender politics and representations of landscape in nature hadn’t died away. When I started to look at what I’d actually been writing over the last few years, I realized that the work had become much more directly political and much more urban.
What steered you toward that kind of writing? The urgency of resisting the Bush administration and some related things have placed me more in the streets than in the woods than I might have been ten years ago. Urban landscapes are still landscapes and you’re often standing up in urban places to defend rural places. I feel that it’s important not to make an urban/rural distinction, as the places become more and more interfused, if they were ever separate.
I met Susan Sontag in 2003, and she was writing a talk for a human rights award she was receiving and showed it to me. I realized that I hadn’t been speaking as directly to people as I could, not only about this moment but also about the emotional content of this moment—the interior, personal side of what is often represented purely as public life. The other thing is TomDispatch. I have a fantastic relationship with Tom Engelhardt, to whom I sent the essay that became Hope in the Dark. That original essay was written to counter the despair that had broken out when the war began, which I felt was based on a not very useful and accurate analysis of how activism works and how history works and what timelines we can expect to see results on. It was the first thing I did on the Internet. The immediacy of that, the ability to reach people directly, gave me an outlet I hadn’t had before. I’ve been plenty political even in the 1980s, but talking about what happened with nuclear testing in 1951 is very different from talking about what happened on the streets last week. So it’s partly about having a place to say those things and partly about feeling like I had gained a different kind of voice.