Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays).

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays).

Rebecca Solnit is a conductor. She manages with her words to make us, as readers, feel at once consoled, and then unnerved. Such is the sheer brilliance of her ability to capture a moment and a feeling and to translate everything about it onto the page. 

Her ability to convey what is happening — how and by what means, to whom, and by whose whim — is as scaring as it is hopeful; but, at least, we are brought to realise, someone— Solnit — is paying attention, can see through it all, and is ready to help the rest of us understand. And it’s that unique and invaluable skill of Solnit’s which is the focus of her latest release.

Rebecca Solnit’s 2018 collection of essays, Call Them by Their True Names, is, in a word, timely. All of her works are, singular essay or bound edition, but this book, at this moment, feels alive with relevance. 

The book covers a wide range of topics, more broad in subject than has been usual of Solnit’s last few Granta releases — she touches on everything from language to politics (both modern day and days past), to language in politics; racial divides, gentrification, climate change, capitalism, justice and injustice, and feminism (obviously). But what it is more than almost anything else, is a testament to the importance of language and how we use it.

Anyone who has had the pleasure to read Solnit’s words will know just how incandescent they are, but what they are as well, and what is so striking about these words in this book, is the sheer sense of thoughtfulness that is imbued in them. That is not to say that Solnit does not have her moments of anger — well defined, explained and explored as it is — but what is remarkable about even those moments, is the real sense of civility that lies beneath. It’s not emphasised — it just is, and that, sadly, has become somewhat of a rare thing, these days. 

The two essays that stand out the most, in this book, amongst a score of more than memorable takes, come somewhere just after the middle — Death by Gentrification: The Killing of Alex Nieto and the Savaging of San Fransisco, and Bird in a Cage: Visiting Jarvis Masters on Death Row. These two stories, both as they happened and as they are told to us by Solnit, are emblematic of the moral of the book as a whole. They exemplify the importance of actuality — of truth, and of the power of language in the telling of a story, and not only that but the threat imminent to us all if we do not uphold and protect the values of integrity and fact.

On a purely aesthetic note; this edition, like all of the Solnit Granta releases, is beautifully bound and features some sublimely abstract cover art which, while unique, manages to retain a sense of uniformity with the other editions in the collection. 

This book is many things, but most of all, it is a moment of uneasy reflection in a news cycle so fast paced it'll make your head spin. It is as enlightening as it is disconcerting, and despite the map-pin in the title, I would go so far as to recommend it as required reading for those of us who, while not American, want to better our understanding of the mood of the landscape and the culture, and the anger and the division currently impacting the country.

Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit is published by Granta, and distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin. 

It is available now, online and from bookstores.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the review copy.


Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)  
by Rebecca Solnit  
Literature & Literary Studies
Hardcover, 176 pages  
R.R.P.: $24.99 (AUD)  

Words | Erin Stobie