Rebecca Solnit on What Writing a Memoir Made Her Discover in Her Past Work

Rebecca Solnit Trent Davis Bailey

Women learn early to stay silent. It’s a lesson passed down in almost every social and cultural setting. Perhaps it’s this tension that makes women’s memoirs so compelling. Who are these women writers that couldn’t stay quiet? It’s not so much that they want to make a statement, to shatter glass ceilings; it’s that they just can’t keep quiet anymore. Silence becomes a personal liability when truth is on the line. Women speak out because they can’t keep the truth a secret any longer. It’s a terrifying state of liberation that can exact a high price—or grant you a life far beyond your expectations.  

In Recollections of My Nonexistence, her new memoir chronicling her coming of age as a poor white woman in San Francisco, acclaimed writer Rebecca Solnit embraces that sense of freedom and wants to share it with others. This blessedly sprawling memoir is an invitation to join a conversation. She wishes that “young women who come after me might skip some of the old obstacles, and some of my writing has been toward that end, at least by naming those obstacles.” 

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The obstacles she faces are as direct as sexual violence and as inchoate as the atmosphere of rape culture. She writes, “To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in innumerable ways or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once.” She adds, “I was trying not to be the subject of someone else’s poetry and not to get killed; I was trying to find a poetics of my own, with no maps, no guides, not much to go on. They might have been out there, but I hadn’t located them yet.”  This book is not so much as a guide book or atlas, but it serves as a means to engage and open dialogue with yourself and others. 

Rebecca Solnit is an enormous figure in politics, social activism, feminism, injustice, urban studies and environmental issues. But this memoir doesn’t track the typical benchmarks of success. Instead, Recollections of My Nonexistence is a nonlinear, meditative examination of the circular ways we come to know ourselves and our communities. The work of becoming an adult is also the work of getting to know our neighbors, our shared geography, and a sense of respect for the history and social fabric that binds us together. 

Reflecting upon the heart of her project, in a lengthy and candid conversation with Observer on the day that Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race, Solnit considers the way that this memoir is a departure from her earlier work. “It does feel really different because it just feels very straightforward and artless compared to all the structure and metaphor in my books like The Faraway Nearby or A Field Guide to Getting Lost. With Recollections of My Nonexistence, I just really wanted to get at this business about how women’s voices get crushed and how central that is to the whole problem of violence and discrimination. I wanted to write about trying to make a voice as a writer, both as resistance to that voicelessness and as how I became somebody who could actually speak up about it.”

For Solnit, the act of writing this book was, in some ways, the act of discovering what she wanted to write about. “One of the funny things about writing a book like this is that you’re trying to think something through. And often it’s only after you’re done that something’s become perfectly clear.” Though the topic of finding one’s voice is an internal journey, much of what Solnit writes is rooted in a sense of community. “First my black neighbors and then gay men taught me to talk with banter, wit, and warmth. This is the way you greet somebody, a complete stranger on the street…words are not just transactional business. And then [it’s also about] ways that you benefit from other people. I benefited so much from queer culture and queer liberation in that liberation is contagious and all these things impact us. Just like violence against other woman impacts all of us, even if it’s not us.” 

Not only did Solnit write this book to connect with younger women, she also wanted to write a book as a person who had not experienced incredible trauma. It was important for her to take space and time to acknowledge that even if you haven’t been raped, as a woman in the United States, you’re surviving life in a rape culture. 

“I felt like I’ve written a lot about violence against women, but I’d written it mostly from a kind of editorial journalistic objective way. Just throwing out statistics, doing social analysis. And I hadn’t seen anybody get at what it really does to you, except in the kind of memoirs and stories by women to whom one exceptionally terrible thing happens.” Solnit considers memoirs by writers such as Roxane Gay and Alice Sebold as examples. “Those stories are important and valuable, but I wanted to say, even if nothing terrible happens to you, this [the climate and culture of sexism and violence against women] can be devastating. It devastated me.”

Going further she says, “I wanted to go into the subject of interior psychic life, of being a very young person, living in a world where a lot of people want to harm you. And nobody else seems to think it’s even interesting, let alone a ‘life or death’ question and a human rights question. It’s just something that I needed to adapt to by circumscribing and conforming and doing all these things that were impossible or ridiculous for me to do, which still doesn’t do it.”

Solnit then enumerates, “You wear a nun’s habit or a burka. You still get raped. You never leave the house after dark. You still get raped. You never touch a drop of alcohol. You’re 80 years old. You know, rape happens to every kind of person. We still place so much of the responsibility on the victims.”

Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Nonexistence. Penguin Random House

Delving into the language of her title, Solnit unpacks further, “Part of voicelessness is nonexistence, this experience that nobody would acknowledge and an experience of a lot of people wanting to annihilate me in little ways, by reminding me that they had the power to menace and degrade me and I had no power to resist, and in big ways, because terrible things were happening to other women. It was only happenstance that it didn’t happen to me. Those women didn’t do anything wrong and I didn’t say anything right that would explain why I didn’t get raped or I didn’t almost get stabbed to death like my friend with the desk.” In the book’s frontpiece is a photograph of the desk that Solnit has used to write all of her books, essays and articles over the years. It’s moved from apartment to apartment with her, but it first belonged to a friend who almost died at the hand of her then boyfriend. The gift of that desk brought with it a mission to speak out for others who cannot speak for themselves.

This mission has informed Solnit’s writing through the arc of her career, but in this book she wanted to stress that while, “we [as a society] say, ‘oh, either the really bad thing happened to you or it didn’t happen to you,’ I’m saying that this [psychic and literal violence] is happening to all of us and impacts all of us. Because I wanted to really go into that interior life, it became very much a book about voice and voicelessness.” 

Towards the end of writing the book, it occurred to Solnit that in fact, since publishing her widely praised essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ in 2008, voicelessness, more than violence, has been her topic of focus. “This [book] ties a huge amount of my work together, which has been so focused on how women’s stories and voices get suppressed, discredited and trivialized. How inequality of voice creates the circumstances in which these things happen that wouldn’t happen otherwise. We don’t just need to fix audibility; we need to fix value and belief systems.”

Bringing these issues to 2020, Solnit remarks, “I just did an editorial for The New York Times, about Weinstein and that inequality of voice. He committed all those crimes in the confidence that he could control the narrative. He could silence his victims with NDAs, with intimidation and threats, with ruining their careers, with hiring spy agencies to follow them around and sabotage journalists with all this crazy stuff that was truly about gender and money and power. If Weinstein had lived in the world where his first victim had enjoyed the same level of audibility and credibility and consequence that he did, I don’t think there would have been a first victim.”

Solnit points out that in society, we treat these things as crimes of passion, but they’re almost always crimes of calculation. “Until 2017, he made what was a very good calculation that he could get away with it. He got away with it because even the most famous actresses in the world were voiceless compared to him in this way. I wanted to get at the understanding that #metoo had all been about voice, having a politics of voice, democracy of voice analysis was one of the things that I really learned writing this book.” 

Shame has so much to do with suppressing voices. Nondisclosure agreements codify a relationship between shame and silence that holds incredible power over women. Chipping away at the bureaucratic—as well as social—structures of suppression is a large step forward. Solnit agrees, noting that this has been “such a huge part of the last few decades as the master narrative wears down like a windup toy losing steam. All these other stories come up instead that were untold by all the people who weren’t supposed to talk—trans people, black people, poor people. I just feel like my whole adult life has been in this era of testimony. But regarding Weinstein and all these men whom I write about, it’s clear that while not only do some of us not have enough voice, but some people have too much voice. If you can use your voice to erase or silence or discredit someone else’s, then that’s part of the autocracy of voices.”  

Throughout the book, Solnit reflects upon the people who lifted her up and helped her see how language could be both a cage as well as armor. It all depended on how you used it. The communities that supported her in California are ones that have fallen victim to gentrification. Solnit recognized early on that in addition to using your voice, you also need to respect the place you call home. It’s the western United States that inspired Solnit to write and fight for environmental and anti-war efforts. 

Geography is as critical as our voice; liberation is a sense of freedom that depends upon the mobility to come and go as you like, but also the ability to make a home. It’s within that home that one is able to nurture a community as well as the culture that rises up from it. Solnit writes, “before you can make art you have to have a culture in which to make it, a context that gives it meaning and people from whom to learn and to whom to show your work.” We are nothing without each other. Historically, you can track the ways that rights are suppressed by bearing witness to containment and silence. If you are mobile, you can escape your fate. If you can’t afford to move or even stay, your life is fixed. Education and mobility are two means of escape. 

A mark of her education, Solnit muses, “Perhaps I will always live in questions more than answers.” There are those who find that to be a symptom of rootlessness rather than a sign of wisdom. Continued curiosity and puzzlement is a sign that we place value in the stories of those who challenge us through difference and experience. Embedded in Solnit’s voice and writing is a passion for activism. She notes, “It’s often assumed that anger drives such work, but most activism is driven by love, a life among activists has convinced me.” Solnit’s memoir convincingly demonstrates the way that we come to claim our voices through listening to and respecting those around us, most importantly those at the furthest margins. 

While it’s critical for young women to find their voice, it’s critical to remember that these voices are only as strong as those that we help amplify. An intersectional feminism applies directly to Solnit’s logic. Recollections of My Nonexistence entreats the reader to engage in conversation with others and speak with informed thought, joy, and passion about the things that matter most—peace, selfhood, community, culture and our environment. 

Rebecca Solnit on What Writing a Memoir Made Her Discover in Her Past Work