For the past 35 years, Rebecca Solnit has written about feminism and sexual violence. The author of more than 20 books, she may be best known for her 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” which popularized the term mansplaining. Solnit’s latest book, Recollections of My Nonexistence (Viking, Mar.), is her first memoir, but like much of her work it defies easy categorization. It’s not just a memoir about her life as a writer and activist; it’s also a love letter to San Francisco, where she moved decades ago to attend San Francisco State University as an undergraduate.
Solnit’s first apartment, “a little unearthly place from a fairy tale” in a 1920s-era building, was located in a vibrant African-American neighborhood in a city that, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, seemed “like something old and crumpled with dust and treasures caught in its crevices.”
Solnit’s celebration of the neighborhood and of the city, which she feels liberated her from the trappings of conformity, includes praise for its libraries and independent bookstores, including City Lights, Modern Times, and Green Apple. In recent years she has also frequented the Green Arcade, which specializes in books on the green economy, sustainability, food issues, environmentalism, and prison issues.
While Recollections of My Nonexistence provides an account of how Solnit came into her own, both personally and professionally, since the move into that “luminous” apartment almost 40 years ago, its other main premise is the pervasiveness of violence in women’s daily lives. “I had wanted for a long time to talk about how violence-saturated a really ordinary life of a young woman is,” she says. “I also wanted to make the case that you don’t have to be the victim of one spectacular act of violence, which is the topic of a lot of recent feminist memoirs.”
This is the first time that Solnit has mined her own memories to explain the impact of violence—both actual and potential—upon women’s psyches and the gaslighting that often occurs when women speak up. The misogynist treatment she documents includes catcalls from strangers, being followed while walking alone, being spit upon, getting mugged, and even being disrespected by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of her first book, 1991’s Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era.
Solnit says that she decided to use her life almost as a case study to address issues that she previously has written about “in much more objective, polemical, editorial ways.” By doing so, she was able to go “deep into the damage, and I hadn’t seen anything that described it in the way that I experienced it.” In her younger days, she notes, when she expressed concerns about such infractions to others, those around her could not or would not respond. The book’s title alludes to her feeling at the time as if she lacked a voice.
Solnit’s journey in Recollections of My Nonexistence exemplifies, she says, what booksellers provide and why books matter. “Finding your voice, having a voice, becoming a part of public life, requires deep solitude, existing in other realms and times and lives—that is, reading.”