Solnit’s memoir “Recollections of My Nonexistence” promises a more intimate look at her life. Here she tells us how she found her way as a writer, about her life in 1980s San Francisco and her shift from chronicling the trajectories of men forgotten by the art world to analyzing the tensions over the environmental and gender issues that define our times.
Solnit writes vividly of her influences, from the thick atmosphere of gendered violence and discrimination to the open landscapes of the American West, where she house-sits in New Mexico, researches and hikes alone. She captures her tiny “alabaster” studio so vividly that you can close your eyes and be there, running a hand along the haunch of the velvet sofa that “left droppings of ancient horsehair stuffing on the floor like an incontinent pet,” peeling back the tacky vinyl kitchen siding to reveal layers of wallpaper like layers of the neighborhood’s history or writing at her treasured desk. With Solnit as a guide, you can hear her neighbors tell tales of Texas and Oklahoma, walk past the varied shades of devotion in a community dotted by churches and sift through the archives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Readers are offered snippets of a life — often in rich tones — but do we come away with a better sense of who Rebecca Solnit, the person, is? Not really.
As its title suggests, “Recollections of My Nonexistence” toys with the confessional form, letting us in only so far. Solnit writes of trying to both “appear and disappear” — acts, she confesses, that are “often odds with each other.” The book’s cover echoes this theme: a snapshot of Solnit pressed up against a wall, bracing herself with elegantly gloved hands. She wears one of her favorite outfits, a 1940s pencil skirt and a men’s waistcoat belted and worn backward. The clothes may speak to confidence and transformation, but her pose is all about concealment.
So it is in the book: There is a sense of reserve that feels deliberate even as it is unsatisfying. Solnit obeys the conventions of the memoir genre sparingly. For example, when she moves into her apartment on San Francisco’s Lyon Street at 19, she is the only white person in her building. Rather than delving deeply into the implications of her presence, Solnit reflects beautifully on the intricacies of the neighborhood at large, writing one of the most vivid sections of the book. Yet when she moves years later, she leaves a gentrified, white middle-class area that bears little resemblance to the Lyon Street of 1981, she has little to say about it.
Solnit tells us how her voice developed — by listening to and reading stories in the news about violence against women, depicted in the arts and in personal stories told by friends. “I am a woman who during my youth thought it likely that I would be raped and maybe also murdered and all my life have lived in a world where women were raped and murdered by strangers for being women and by men they knew for asserting their rights or just being women and where those rapes and murders were lasciviously lingered on in art,” Solnit writes. Reading this, it’s difficult to fathom a way out of such darkness. What possible hope can remain within a society that passively allows violent female erasure?
Yet throughout “Recollections of My Nonexistence,” Solnit emphasizes the need to find poetry in survival. Describing a delicate Victorian writing desk gifted by a friend, she imbues the object with a strong sense of her intellectual life and credibility as a writer. She meditates on the words she wrote sitting at this desktop — the emails to friends, the 20 books and countless essays — before revealing its darker history. “A year or so before she gave me the desk, my friend was stabbed 15 times by an ex-boyfriend to punish her for leaving him,” Solnit writes. It’s a somber turn, yet rather than lingering solely on despair, Solnit pivots toward hope: “Someone tried to silence her. Then she gave me a platform for my voice.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the iconoclastic Solnit would, in her memoir, renounce the trappings of memoir itself. Solnit seems to see her own experience as part of a more sweeping experience of being a woman in the world. Writing about her own fear of rape, for example, she says, “I tell all of this not because I think my story is exceptional, but because it is ordinary; half the earth is paved over with women’s fear and pain, or rather with the denial of them, and until the stories that lie underneath see sunlight, this will not change.” Her book then, might be read less as memoir than as manifesto — a voice raised in hope against gender violence. It’s a call we should listen to.
Lauren Sarazen is a freelance writer based in Paris.
RECOLLECTIONS OF MY NONEXISTENCE: A Memoir
By Rebecca Solnit
Viking. 243 pp. $26