thu 02/07/2020

Rebecca Solnit: Recollections of My Non-Existence review - feminism, hope and the great American West | reviews, news & interviews

Rebecca Solnit: Recollections of My Non-Existence review - feminism, hope and the great American West

Rebecca Solnit: Recollections of My Non-Existence review - feminism, hope and the great American West

An autobiography of a self formed by the many

Rebecca Solnit© Adrian Mendoza

Rebecca Solnit’s autobiography, Recollections of My Non-Existence, is just as you might expect it to be – tangential, changeable, deeply feminist, and imbued with a sense of hope that undercuts her wild anger at the world’s injustices. It says much for how quickly our thinking about women’s rights and those of minorities has evolved recently that her feminist rhetoric almost feels dated at points. However, Solnit’s energy is still fresh, urgent, and vital, reminding the reader that although the battle seems to be on the way to being won by powers of good, we are still far from victory, starkly demonstrated by facts such as a rise in femicide in the UK, with 2019 the worst year on record.

The self at the centre of Recollections of My Non-Existence has, perhaps taking its cue from the title, only a light presence. Solnit is formed by her surroundings, the people she meets, and the ideas that she encounters and later generates. The facts of her life are there, but they are almost coincidental to other narratives and other lives. She brings space (San Francisco, the great American West) and time in for a moment, then releases them again, creating a non-linearity and a diffuse narrative that is never confusing. Solnit describes her style perfectly when she compares storytelling to the way that children play hopscotch, “tossing your token into another square, covering the same ground in a slightly different pursuit each time. You can’t tell it all at once, but you can cover the same ground a few different ways, or trace one route through it”.

Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca SolnitSolnit returns again and again to the theme of oppression, whether it be of the black community overcome by gentrification in the San Francisco of her youth, the ongoing struggle of women for equality, the fight of Native Americans for their own land, or the horror of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. This is where the book is at its most raw. It begins innocuously enough, setting the scene in San Francisco, lulling the reader into the sense that this might be a straight, nostalgic autobiography. Then the peace is split by the story of her writing desk, given to her by a friend who was stabbed fifteen times as punishment for leaving her boyfriend (her friend thankfully survived). Solnit’s rage is never truly despairing – she details the ordeals of having a female body, of being catcalled in the street, or being belittled and of being thought less than. But she never loses hope.

This is despite the sense of non-existence that has been impressed on her throughout her life, a sense that a large part of her writing works calmly but firmly to counteract. She writes with glee at times, as in one great satisfying moment when she describes how her viral, excellent essay about mansplaining caused a famous female writer to tell a “well known pundit, a bellicose misogynist” exactly what she thinks of him. However, this is the counterbalance to the stories of the experiences of herself and others, and something that this book and her writing as a whole has sought to change, trying to “grant me the capacity to perceive events with a reasonable degree of accuracy”. Recollections of My Non-Existence is a wonderful book in that, without ever really explicitly saying so, its writer is aware that Solnit’s voice, like every voice speaking against the hegemony, is important, that any resistance to received, conservative thought is something to be celebrated. The aggregate of all of the small voices effects change, beautifully demonstrated in an autobiography that speaks more of the collective than of the self.

The facts of her life are there, but they are almost coincidental to other narratives and other lives

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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