Reading feminist author Rebecca Solnit after reading some contemporary writers can be like eating a gourmet dinner after living on fast food; her sometimes elliptical prose is evocative and precise, rather than the straightforward, “no-frills” prose that tends to be in fashion. That’s certainly true of her memoir, “Recollections of My Nonexistence,” about her coming of age and coming to awareness of how sexism erases women as individuals in society.
As Solnit says of living in San Francisco in her late teens, “it wasn’t that the world was vanishing from my consciousness but that I was vanishing from the world ... In those days, I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone ... .”
Solnit had left her family and her abusive father, ending up going to college in San Francisco in the 1980s. The first part of the memoir details how, through the kindness of an African-American apartment manager, she ended up in the studio apartment where she lived for the next 25 years. She writes with intelligence and historical perspective about the experience of living in what was initially a mostly Black neighborhood, surrounded by neighbors who had migrated to California in the 1940s. They had recreated a bit of Southern Black culture in the city.
She also acknowledges that, as one of the first white faces in that neighborhood, she helped pave the way for later gentrification, along with rising housing costs that would eventually end an era when a young woman with almost no money could live in the middle of one of the most culturally stimulating cities in the country.
A major theme in the book is how arbitrary violence against women affected her. Though she was not personally attacked, the silencing of women, whether for presumed safety or in more academic settings, is part of a continuum that has violence and rape at its extreme end. She writes grippingly about the fear of being attacked, walking home late at night, including one incident when a strange man offered her a ride when she was being closely followed by another man on the street.
The middle sections of the book cover the development of her career as a writer, and while she returns intermittently to the underlying theme, these chapters are invulnerable and disappointingly insubstantial. They’re never uninteresting — and it’s illuminating to read her take on the sexism of Jack Kerouac and the then-relatively-forgotten Beat culture in California (as compared with the Beats on the East Coast) — but readers may find themselves a bit at sea in these sections.
These chapters focus almost exclusively on how her work shaped her, mostly abstracted from her personal life; they lack the immediacy of the book’s opening. Solnit has always been intellectual in her essays, even as they weave complicated and disparate facts and ideas; perhaps the application of that style to parts of this memoir give it this feel.
The promise of the early chapters is revived toward the end, as Solnit returns more fully to the theme of the relation between violence against women and the silencing of women — centered around an incident also detailed in her earlier essay, “Men Keep Talking to Me,” when a man at a party who didn’t know who she was held forth to her about one of her own books. That essay led to the coining of the word “mansplaining” (with implications of monologuing and derogatory assumptions about the listener).
Solnit is clear that she’s talking about silencing as part of a system, and she gives examples in her career: the editor who unaccountably sabotaged an early book or the difficulty of being taken seriously by older men she was interviewing. She also acknowledges that there have been many men who were friends and allies during her development as a writer. She particularly credits the gay community in San Francisco for showing her that gender roles didn’t need to be fixed.
While Solnit’s struggles with being silenced and devalued as a woman ring true, it’s clear that some privilege was operating also in the jobs and connections she found and the work she did.
She often acknowledges a spectrum of intersecting oppressions, but doesn’t detail how privilege has operated for her as well as oppression. And there’s one major dimension of oppression that she doesn’t even mention — class — in a city that for decades was one of the strongest union strongholds in the country, which helped establish the low rents (due to rent control) in the 1980s that allowed her to live in the city.
Solnit’s concept of silencing as being one end of a spectrum that continues into violence can be applied in other experiences of oppression. Others’ disbelief and silence about an oppression is the beginning of covering the injuries suffered by many groups of people. Rebecca Solnit is someone validating and speaking up.
Read more in the July 8-14, 2020 issue.