Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit (Essays)

Rebecca Solnit EssaysThe Circular or Spiral Memoir

Having read a few of Rebecca Solnit’s essay collections, I’m used to her meandering mind or circular style of narrative, so while this has a #memoir tag that might create an expectation of recounting an aspect of the author’s life, Solnit’s essays are rarely linear, less ‘slice of life’ and more like interconnected ‘thought bubbles’.

She starts out recalling her early adult life, eight years in a neighbourhood of San Franscisco, the people she came into contact with, the situations she avoided as a woman, pausing now from years afar wondering about her impact on that neighbourhood, her contribution to its demise, to its gentrification, removing its diversity, colour, vibrancy and ultimately affordability.

The title pays homage to and contrasts Diana di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman, a feminist beatnik poet I first came across earlier in 2020 when I was reading all I could about 1968, the year she wrote Revolutionary Letters, a series of poems composed of utopian anarchism and ecological awareness, scribbled from a spiritual, feminist perspective. All touch points within Solnit’s repertoire, however she writes in and of a different era, scratching at the wounds of our non-existence, how it has been actively contributed to by others and by her/our own hand.

Our NonExistence

Recalling a sensation of disappearing, as if on the verge of fainting; rather than the world disappearing she senses herself disappear, introducing the metaphor of nonexistence, discovering/exposing the many ways it is enacted.

In those days I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were often at odds with each other.

Because of the meandering style, it’s not easy to recall which particular vignette or essay has the most impact, however I note that I’ve highlighted 107 passages in the collection, her words provoke, recollect, ignite the reader’s memory, imagination and own experience.

Looking Back At Youth From Ripeness

She struggles writing poetry as a young woman, not doing it well but ferociously, unaware of what or why she was resisting, often resulting in a murky, incoherent, erratic defiance, something she observes today, as young women around her fight those same battles.

The fight wasn’t just to survive bodily, though that could be intense enough, but to survive as a person possessed of rights, including the right to participation and dignity and a voice. More than survive, then: to live.

And though we all know people learn from their own experience, there is something reassuring in reading or hearing of those who’ve trod a similar path; she expresses a desire that young women coming after her might skip some of the old obstacles, some of her writing exists to that end, at least by naming those obstacles.

Women Feminism Rebecca Solnit Silencing

Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

Discussing harassment and violence towards women, particularly young women, she ponders how and what she is able to do differently being an older woman, compared to how she reacted and behaved in youth.

So much of what makes young women good targets is self-doubt and self-effacement.

Observing how we strengthen our purpose over time, gaining orientation and clarity, she recognises something like ripeness and calm flowing in, as the urgency and naiveté of youth ebb.

I think of her book The Faraway Nearby where she revisited childhood and a difficult mother, unrecognisable in the woman she then tended, neither of them who they once were, there being no longer any need in hanging on to the earlier version. Ripeness was a metaphor here too, one she desired to observe over days, a pile of apricots gifted from her mother, left on the floor of her bedroom, an installation, left to admire, to mature, rot, transform.

Conversation and Research Weave Patterns

Looking back at her evolution as a writer, she recalls the evening conversation that spawned the morningessay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ that went on to become that new word, now mainstream ‘mansplaining’.

She rereads photocopies of letters in handwriting that is no longer her own, meeting a person who was her, that no longer exists, who didn’t know how to speak.

The young writer I met there didn’t know how to speak from the heart, though I could be affectionate…She was speaking in various voices because she didn’t yet know what voice was hers, or rather she had not yet made one.

Furnishing her mind with readings, they become part of the equipment of imagination, her set of tools for understanding the world, creating patterns, learning enough to “trace paths though the forests of books, learn landmarks and lineages.” She celebrates the pleasure of meeting new voices, ideas and possibilities that help make the world more coherent in some way, extending or filling in the map of one’s universe, grateful for their ability to bring beauty, find pattern and meaning, create joy.

Discussing patterns of how women were portrayed in novels by men she read in the past, she becomes aware of always relating to the part of the male protagonist, usually cast in the preferred heroic role, noting:

‘women devoured to the bone are praised; often those insistent on their own desires and needs are reviled or rebuked for taking up space, making noise. You are punished unless you punish yourself into nonexistence.’

Imagination Rules

It was Nella Larsen, author of Quicksand and Passing who said:

“Authors do not supply imaginations, they expect their readers to have their own, and to use it.”

Rebecca Solnit carries the thought further observing the astonishment of reading:

that suspension of your own time and place to travel into others’. It’s a way of disappearing from where you are…a world arises in your head that you have built at the author’s behest, and when you’re present in that world you’re absent from your own…It’s the reader who brings the book to life.

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

She finds research exciting, piecing together a nonfiction narrative like a combination of craft and medicine, of creativity and healing.

Research is often portrayed as dreary and diligent, but for those with a taste for this detective work there’s the thrill of the chase – of hunting data, flushing obscure things out of hiding, of finding fragments that assemble into a picture.

Even if some of this is familiar from previous works, it is the reworking of the landscape of her mind, the rearranging of those experiences, interviews, a more mature awareness and wakefulness that makes her work so readable, engaging and accessible and relevant to what is happening in the fast changing world we inhabit.

Nonfiction is at its best an act of putting the world back together – or tearing some piece of it apart to find what’s hidden beneath the assumptions or conventions…recognizing the patterns that begin to arise as the fragments begin to assemble.

For all it’s circular loops and spiral reasoning, its patterns and weaving, I appreciate the web Rebecca Solnit has created in this collection, threads linking across and around its intersections, leaving something fully formed at its conclusion.

Highly Recommended.

Rebecca Solnit Books I’ve Reviewed Here

The Faraway Nearby

The Mother of All Questions

Buy a Rebecca Solnit Book

15 thoughts on “Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit (Essays)

  1. How interesting. As I read your review, I thought how difficult this book would be, albeit stimulating and interesting. And then you conclude by finding the book readable and accessible, so clearly she’s done a good job. Ok, thanks, I will after all look it out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe I didn’t do such a good job! Because of the way it meanders it’s hard to generalise about the content, but it’s aspects take if her life through a lens of how we are made to disappear, whether that is herself or some of the people she encounters in her journalistic travels, activism evolving into feminism.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely review as ever, Claire. I really like the idea of the meandering style here, the interconnected thought bubbles as you so eloquently put it. I’ve often thought that I should read Solnit, and this book sounds as if it could be an interesting introduction to her themes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jacqui, I had the good fortune one time when I was in London to visit the SouthBank on a Saturday and I looked to see if there were any author events and Rebecca Solnit was giving a talk after the publication of The Faraway Nearby, which I had read, the first of her books I’d read, though I’d sent her book Wanderlust to a friend as a gift. To hear her speak made me even more of a fan, she has such poise and presence, reflective but in command of her utterances.

      Like

  3. Wow. This review is a tour de force. Dying to read this book now. Love so many lines herein: e.g., “Furnishing her mind with readings, they become part of the equipment of imagination, her set of tools for understanding the world, creating patterns, learning enough to “trace paths though the forests of books, learn landmarks and lineages.” etc. Lovely. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ was the first collection of hers that I read, outside of individual essays, and the writing is luminous. Of course, I needed ‘Hope in the Dark’ when the book was reissued, and have some catching up to do re: other collections. I think she’s brilliant, and this latest collection has a strong pull. Thank you for your review. And speaking of your reviews, you should know that ‘Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother & and Her Daughters’ has me captivated and is such a timely read in light of the reverberations of slavery in the U.S.

    Like

    • Yes, I have plenty of Solnit yet to read, she’s wonderfully prolific and this one is particularly interesting as she ponders her evolution as a writer, the voice she inhabits today versus the various efforts to find it in her younger years.

      That’s so great to hear you are reading and enjoying Maria José Siveira’s wonderful novel and history of Brazil through centuries of women. Such a great book and insight into who people are and how connected they are to historical events without realising, rising up to shun those they were not too many generations previously.

      Like

    • I first discovered her when I sent a copy of her book ‘Wanderlust’ to a friend and I also liked the sound of and have heard good things about A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I think it would be worth looking at her titles and seeing what calls to you, as her earlier nature inspired works are also interesting. I think you dive in where you feel a resonance, all her collections are good, just depends on the theme of the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. An excellent review that covers many aspects of this excellent book. As an historian, I’d simply add another. I love how she relates the time and place where she is to her ow story. Context as Vivian Gornick discusses, using herself as a prism for her world.

    Like

  6. I have read Rebecca Solnit’s books and loved them too. How much she says the things that need to be said. Once someone has started the dialogue, I realised I grew up not knowing how much needed to be said that just wasn’t.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s