Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit – Review
By Barney Bardsley
In 2008, American author Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay called ‘Men Explain Things To Me’. She began this essay with a real-life experience from five years before, where a man repeatedly talked over her, to expand authoritatively on a “very important book” about the artist Eadweard Muybridge, blissfully unaware that she herself was the author of the book.
It was a funny and rueful opener, familiar, in its many different guises, to most women. But it led to Solnit coming to a much darker conclusion, as she explored how the persistent negation and annihilation of women’s voices throughout time, has sometimes – too often – led to their physical annihilation too. The essay became totemic to the new wave of feminism. It led to the creation of a new word, which, in 2014, even found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary:”mansplaining”. More importantly, it brought in its wake, a new and brilliant female militancy throughout the world, in particular the Me Too movement.
In the past two decades Rebecca Solnit has become a formidable force on the world stage. She is not only a writer, but an activist, too. Her investigations into nuclear testing in Nevada; her coverage of the maltreatment – and fightback – of Native peoples in the American West; and her work both for the gay community, and against the 2003 Iraq War – but chiefly, her continued articulation of the violent suppression of women the world over, are exemplary.
Solnit writes about all of this, in the latest of her many books. She closely examines her own career as a writer, starting with her young adult life in San Francisco, where she often felt overwhelmed – both fearful of, and invisible to the world. Everywhere she went, she was anxious of male violence, and in her nascent work as a writer, she felt belittled and excluded. Most young women, sadly, will be able to relate to her physical fears – and many female writers will recognise her experience of being locked out by the male-dominated publishing cliques.
Solnit has good reason for her terrors and for her feeling of being ‘non-existent’. “I am the daughter of a man who considered it his right to hit women and children and did as his father did before him, and of a woman who had, or felt she had for two decades, no recourse from that man and no place to register that complaint.” The author knows whereof she speaks, and this makes her a powerful advocate for other women.
Though the early pages of the book are filled with oppressive foreboding, even despair, Solnit grows slowly stronger and older. She breaks free from her San Francisco city streets, and learns to live more expansively in the wilds of the American West. Hope rears its lovely head. Solnit’s writing gains followers. Her activism inspires respect. Yet still, the author seems restrained, somehow locked in behind her own intelligent questioning of everything and everyone.
Anticipating the more straightforward anecdotal tones of a memoir, I had longed to get to know the author better, had expected more heart and soul, from a book which covers so much of her personal history – yet leaves the writer herself somehow elusive, even remote. When the early, more confessional, pages of the book are left behind, it is Solnit the analyst and essayist we encounter, rather than Solnit the woman, whom I still would like to know much more about.
Only when she turns the spotlight away from herself – as in a recent brilliant essay about the Coronavirus for the Guardian – does her writing take wing, to become direct and forceful and compelling. It is Solnit the political activist, rather than Solnit the memoirist, who really commands our attention, and it is in this arena where she takes her deserved place centre stage, as one of the pre-eminent thinkers of our contemporary world.
‘Recollections of My Non-Existence’ by Rebecca Solnit is published by Granta, £16.99 hardback & ebook