Recollections of my Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit
25th Mar 2020
Writing, painting or singing oneself into existence is not a new concept. Humans have long used the act of creation as a way to define ourselves and the world around us, whether as an act of confirmation or resistance.
Yet for many years, mainstream culture was largely reflective of those who also dominated wider society: overwhelmingly male, white, cisgender, heterosexual.
Recollections of My Non-Existence, the latest memoir-cum-essay-collection by Rebecca Solnit, is both an exploration of discovering her own voice amid the silencing effects of patriarchy, and a broader consideration of how writing and activism form vital tools of empowerment for marginalised groups.
Moving into a predominantly Black area in San Francisco as a recent graduate, Solnit begins to connect the forms of erasure enacted on her as a (white, straight) woman – the threat of violence preventing her from feeling safe in public, the denials of her expertise stunting her early career in investigative journalism – with those used to confine Black communities to deprived areas, force queer people into hiding, and bury the traumatic legacies of indigenous communities in the false narrative of the white ‘pioneer’. Practicing what she preaches, Solnit is careful to give these groups credit for their teachings, using her own privilege to amplify their lost voices and give thanks.
Recollections of My Non-Existence functions as an anti-memoir, reflective of its title. Rather than charting a process of becoming, in this account Solnit’s early twenties function as a kind of disappearance, a gradual loss of confidence which, paradoxically, sows the seeds for a process of (re)self-discovery and a new sense of belonging among other outsiders. These sections of the book are by far the most successful.
Change is not always instantaneous, nor does progress always take the form we imagine. Yet the rising tide of visible women, non-binary and queer folx, PoC/BAME and indigenous people is both a proof of and a tool for our continuing liberation.The final chapters cover the 2008 publication of her hugely successful essay (and later collection of the same name) ‘Men Explain Things to Me’, the cultural impact of which was so pervasive it spawned the now-ubiquitous term ‘mansplaining’.
Sadly, this section of the book is less strong, occasionally veering into the airing of grudges and settling into a more conventional autobiographical structure which is rendered flimsy by a seeming reluctance (albeit understandable) to share any real details of her life.
Still, at a time when it is all too easy to feel that things are going backwards and we are losing the battle, Recollections of My Non-Existence – although occasionally unclear in its structure – is a welcome defence against the paralysis that fear induces.
We are reminded that change is not always instantaneous, nor does progress always take the form we imagine. Yet the rising tide of visible women, non-binary and queer folx, PoC/BAME and indigenous people is both a proof of and a tool for our continuing liberation.
That the past is shaped by those who tell the stories is not a new idea; the present and future, Solnit argues, are constructed similarly. Connecting her work with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, among other liberation movements, she reminds us that the more women’s voices are listened to – and, crucially, believed – the less their testimony is contingent on whether it has been validated by powerful white men. In other words, she urges us to keep telling our stories: our existence depends on it.
Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit is available now.