A central paradox at the heart of Recollectionsconcerns the other half of its title: Non-Existence. Solnit describes her need to be able to disappear as a mode of survival, while simultaneously expressing her desire to be heard, to have a voice in the cultural conversations around her. The trajectory of Recollections is essentially the dovetailing of these two desires. ‘I became expert at fading and slipping and sneaking away,’ she writes of her younger self, ‘backing off, squirming out of tight situations, dodging unwanted hugs and kisses and hands, at gradually disengaging, or suddenly absenting myself.’
This question of whose voices are audible has become a central theme of Solnit’s writing in recent years, and at times Recollections does cover ground traversed in previous essay collections, most obviously as it catches up with her present work. But it is a rare writer who has both the intellectual heft and the authority of frontline experience to tackle the most urgent issues of our time. One of the reasons she has won so many admirers is the sense that she is driven not by anger but by compassion and the desire to offer encouragement, “a word that, though it carries the stigma of niceness, literally means to instil courage”.
That voice of hope is more essential now than ever, and this memoir is a valuable glimpse into the grit and courage that enabled her to keep telling sidelined stories when the forces opposing her seemed monolithic.
It is this galvanising prose, coupled with Solnit’s personal experience, that give this book its brightest and most effective moments. Though Recollections of My Non-Existence doesn’t have the same sort of focused exposition we find in Solnit’s other book-length works, its lifelong scope allows for change and development. Offering a deeply-considered exploration of consciousness and the mutability of selfhood, this memoir is generous in the breadth of its ideas, and generative in the clarity of its arguments.
Recollections of My Non-Existence announces itself as a memoir that will reveal how this skinny, friendless girl found her voice and her place in the world. There’s a lot of first person writing across Solnit’s books. She has always used her own experience, describing herself walking across cities and deserts, or evading the violence or speechifying of men. And her take on culture is original enough that it wouldn’t be surprising if her take on memoir was original too. But this book feels a little thin, because she’s not an introspective writer. She’s not curious about the relationship between thoughts and feelings or about her own ambivalence or contradictions. There is not here the plunge inwards, the giddying rush of embodied thinking, that we get in, say, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
This is a book that goes to dark places, but it also cherishes the people who have helped Solnit on her way: in particular, queer culture, which taught her that the notion of family “can be liberated from conventional roles”; and the passionate, lifelong friendships that have been her ballast. In the same way that “Men Explain Things To Me” is fuelled by anger but infused with hope, Recollections of My Non-Existence is both the story of where we’ve been and a celebration of how far we’ve come.
Out of force of habit, perhaps, the book is more essayistic than biographical. While memoirists are often criticised for navel gazing, Solnit is more at ease depicting exterior landscapes. She paints a picture of a gentrifying San Francisco in broad strokes — with its gay community decimated by Aids and minority neighbourhoods displaced by the tech boom. Her mission to make women heard was motivated in part by personal experience: “I grew up around a lot of male violence and a deeply misogynistic environment,” she told the FT in 2018. She bypasses the painful chapter of growing up with an abusive father, however, by starting the story when she leaves home. “I’m uninterested in the brutalities of childhood in part because that species has been so dwelt upon,” she explains, “while some of the brutalities that come after have not.”
Recollections of My Non-Existence is hopeful, as is characteristic of Solnit’s feminism. The book ends in recognising progress, thanks most recently to the #MeToo movement, and prophesying future gains. But it’s the opening chapters that dazzle. In one, Solnit tells us, ‘half the earth is paved over with women’s fear and pain’ and she imagines a world ‘without this ordinary ubiquitous damage’, one that would be ‘dazzlingly alive’ and where ‘a joyous confidence now rare would be so common, and a weight would be taken off half the population that has made many other things more difficult to impossible’. Solnit believes that such a change is not only possible but coming. I started this book thinking I’d like to meet Solnit; halfway through I imagined buying her memoir for each of my students.