Book Review: Recollections of My Non-Existence // Rebecca Solnit

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As she writes, Rebecca Solnit sits at a desk gifted to her by “a woman who a man tried to murder”, a friend stabbed fifteen times by her ex-boyfriend. “It seems time to tell what it meant to me to grow up in a society in which many preferred people like me to be dead or silent and how I got a voice and how it eventually came time to use that voice […] to try to tell the stories that had gone untold.”

Here lies the vocation of Recollections of My Non-Existence, a meandering memoir-cum-manifesto charting Solnit’s lifelong struggle to write female voices into an overwhelmingly masculine narration of the world. It is the story of her growth as a writer and as a feminist, a gathering together of the silenced stories she has striven to tell.

We begin, nestled in the quiet nooks of the San Francisco apartment which was Solnit’s version of A Room of One’s Own, a place into which she entered as a “spindly, anxious” student and in which, over the next 25 years, she shaped her faint voice into words of influence and activism.

Tucked away in that “luminous” flat as a 19-year-old searching for direction and belonging, Solnit’s existence was light, insubstantial. She was young, poor and a woman, a person with little weight in the world. And in the streets around her apartment, she was surrounded by similarly weightless communities, people with one foot in a different time or place, still living its sights, sounds and stories. Groups whose vivid and varied imprints on the neighbourhood were eventually erased by “a river of people scouring out the place, making it less and less black, more and more middle class.”

Solnit continues to acknowledge these intersections of marginalised experiences that have helped to shape her feminism throughout Recollections of My Non-Existence, but her focus is always drawn back to masculine violence against women, and the forms it takes. As a young woman, these attempts at domination were expressed as sexual “proposals, demands […that] quickly turned into fury”. “I knew of no way to say No, I’m not interested, that would not be inflammatory […] There was no work words could do for me, and so I had no words”. Later, as Solnit’s writerly stature grew, this aggressive entitlement became less visceral and more underhand, channelled into efforts to police her writing and correct her opinions. But this was just “a genteel, disembodied version of the annihilating rage I’d met on the streets a few years earlier. These incidents seemed intended to tell me that this was not my place and in it my voice would not be heard.”

How to write, then, when surrounded by forces that would reduce you, both intellectually and physically, to nothing?

This thought runs through every one of Solnit’s recollections, tempering the concreteness of her experiences with the delicate lyricism that is a signature of her work. In this way, although billed as a memoir, the book is also a question, an experiment that tests different ways of speaking and listening with the same wonderful acuity as Kae Tempest’s brilliant On Connection (2020). As she probes the quiet fringes allotted to women and other marginalised groups by the great bulk of a straight, white man-sized history, Solnit weaves the voices of others into her own, creating layers of intertextuality through references to Sylvia Plath, to Philomela, to Shakespeare’s Lavinia, as well as the “shed skins” of her own earlier works.

And although she never really answers her overarching question, it doesn’t seem to matter. Solnit writes about writing with such freshness, such insight, that her prose pierces straight through all the stale structures we too often resort to when our words fall short of our meaning. In this way, as she guides us through the ebbs and flows of her lifelong conversation with language, she suggests ways in which we might begin to tell the “stories that have gone untold” in our lives as well.

Words by Emma Morgan

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