Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this comm
In her recently published memoir “Recollections of My Nonexistence,” Rebecca Solnit considers the process of self-creation.
With lyrical and luminous prose, Solnit takes readers back to the early 1980s, to her first apartment, one that (as a young single woman) she could only rent after the lease was signed and executed in her mother’s name; she had to pay the rent in her mother’s name as well. She recalls one of the rental company employees “disdainfully dropped my application in the wastebasket next to his desk while I looked on” when she first applied in her own name.
The precarity of this position – her inability to live in her own name and fear that she would lose the apartment if her actions were detected – frames the “nonexistence” Solnit describes throughout the book.
From there begins an exploration of the tensions between learning how to be a woman in the world, in a world constantly working to erase women.
Solnit is the author of more than 20 books, among them “Wanderlust,” nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and “Call Them by Their True Names,” which won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction in 2018. She wrote “Men Explain Things To Me” – a book-length essay which explains the phenomenon of what is now commonly known as “mansplaining” – the patronizing and condescending way in which some men address women.
In her memoir, Solnit’s exploration of violence and its impact on women’s self-transformation is particularly apt at a time when quarantines and lockdowns have left too many in abusive situations without the recourse they would have in ordinary times. Like those women and children in our present moment locked out of their safe havens in a world grinded to a dread-filled halt by a pandemic, Solnit also inhabited “an inside out world where everywhere but the house was safe.” Solnit begins Chapter Three with a remembrance of her life as a girl and how it shaped her later life: “I had never been safe, but I think some of the horror that hit me was because for a few years I thought that I could be, that male violence had been contained in the home.”
Beyond our current predicament, however, feminism – critically – has made progress. The questions of what has changed and what must continue to be the center of our focus as we fight for progress were the subjects of my conversation with Solnit. We spoke on March 19, the first day that California Gov. Gavin Newsom had imposed the “stay-at-home” order in the Bay Area, where Solnit lives.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Rafia Zakaria: Why did you decide to write this book and why did you decide to write it now?
Rebecca Solnit: “Recollections of my Nonexistence” is my exercise in revisiting familiar ground in a new way. I have been writing about voice and consequences of voice, that is to say those who have too little and get silenced and those have too much and are able to shout down others. I wanted to consider who gets to be reliable and truthful.
I wanted to consider what it means to live in a world where just living means that men can harm you.
When I was a young woman I constantly faced the menace of being erased and I couldn’t find anyone to respond in a meaningful way. In the time I write about, I was really alone and men wanted to harm me. They were harming women like me for no other reason than that they were women.
I wanted to consider the interior experience of this and what it does to the psyche. It was later that I realized that I was suffering from classic symptoms of PTSD, you know we acknowledge this about soldiers coming home from war but we almost never do for women.
In this sense, the book wove together two strains (of my life): the individual stories of acquiring an audible voice, of doing research and thinking about these issues – and (being) an ordinary young woman who faces threats, harassment and a lack of people taking her seriously.
Zakaria: In Chapter One, you write: “I see young women around me fight the same battles.” Does this depress you? Do you mean this as an expression of the lack of progress?
Solnit: Feminism brings me face-to-face with women’s lives, the high profile and the low profile. … I feel like the weirdo who connects these dots in an omnipresent way. I chart the epidemic of violence against women in space and time.
I think feminism has accomplished extraordinary things. The “we” has changed from when I was young, there are women who are judges, provosts and deans, there are women who are assignment editors.
Men too have shifted, and consider women equal in credibility and audibility. And so on one hand I look at horror and on the other side I see changes in the way the law is applied and the awareness of rights, of consent and the violations of consent. The complex social dynamic that allows violence to be perpetuated is also being disrupted.
Zakaria: Today is the first day that California has a “stay-at-home” order. How are you making sense of this pandemic, particularly given the fact that so much of your writing has focused on catastrophe and its eventual reconciliation?
Solnit: I am actually doing this thing where I read fairy tales on Facebook live and today we will look at the Minotaur (a half-man half-bull monster imprisoned in the Labyrinth until an Athenian hero named Theseus kills it with the help of a woman named Ariadne). I will make everyone think of the Minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne and then the myth ends up being very different and interesting and also a political story when considered from different perspectives. [Note: Solnit has since suspended her fairytale readings for now.]
Perspective is important. In the book I wrote before this one (“Whose Story Is This: Old Conflicts New Chapters,” the story of how the new American narrative is more progressive than some may think), I found that a number of right wingers were constantly talking about immigration from the perspective of the people in whose communities immigrants and refugees had arrived – but never from the perspective of those who had migrated. It is not very different from rape stories being told from the perspective of the perpetrator.
As for the lockdown itself, I know a lot of white-collar people like me will be fine. As a San Franciscan I take long walks alone all the time and as a writer I have stayed home for 32 years.
I cannot help but look at my neighbors somewhat differently, who just got laid off, who will be in financial free fall. There are people who live around me who drive taxis, who work in retail, they’re musicians and actors and they all will be severely impacted. I just have this sense of so many people being hit so hard and it is heart-rending. This scale of (economic and psychological) catastrophe has no precedent in (modern) US history.
As we live it we are learning whose labor is really essential. The requirements to be separate are so difficult for so many – writers get to joke about social isolation and how it’s easier on introverts, but apart from the jokes, a re-orientation is underway.
Zakaria: Regarding violence against women, it is often said “the injury is private but the antidote is public.” To what extent is the failure to build a collective feminist movement responsible for the failure to change society enough such that domestic violence is no longer a threat? Do you think it is because feminists have failed to make violence against women a political issue and a political movement?
Solnit: This is a complex question. When I was young, domestic violence was not recognized as a public problem, it was all in the private realm. The police and legal system never intervened in domestic violence issues, it was also joked about – you can see it in old movies like “The Taming of the Shrew” (based on the William Shakespeare play).
Feminists have made it a public issue. The police today do respond to domestic violence calls and we have changed the law over and over to make it a public issue. It used to be the responsibility of the victim to testify against the abuser because she faces violence.
I think there are some very important layers of progress. Domestic violence shelters were opened and maintaining them is still a feminist issue. The transformation we ultimately need as a society is (to get to a place) where it does not occur to men that they have the right or desire to harm women.
We are in a radically different place than we were; we are engaged in a process that is in early stages and it involves legal and social change but most of all, cultural transformation. We have emphasized women liberating themselves from men, and I had really bought into the idea that this was something women had to do. But I realize that we must require men to engage and reveal that men too will be liberated in this process.
One of the most significant sections in the book is the one that considers what it meant to grow up as a white straight woman among black gay men who had rejected the social norms of the time. (For Solnit, living as a young woman among so many black and gay men taught formative lessons – most importantly, that one did not have to conform to social norms preached by the majority to live a happy and fulfilled life. She also learned valuable skills about the importance of mutual aid and how to survive in a hostile world.) Liberation is contagious and it called me to liberate myself and take on new means of organizing my life.
Zakaria: In the book you write: “I wanted to trace the lost patterns that came before the world was broken and find the new ones we could make out of the shards.” What do you mean by this?
Solnit: The very principle of creative work is to make new stories and break old ones. Telling the story of slavery or colonialism from a white perspective is not new nor is it new to have women’s stories told by men.
There are important questions here. Who is reliable? Who has credibility? Who are we here to listen to? Often the politics on the surface do not give us the whole story – what the story is or what matters.
I have written about it in very political ways in stories about climate and nature.
When I was young I started to spend a lot of time with Native American people and I realized that their creation myths are so different from Judeo-Christian ones, where we fall out of Eden and we are burdened by sin and it all really sucks. What is really interesting and what I thought was great about Native Americans’ creation myths is that the world is never perfect. The world is often made by various gods who are collaborative and also argumentative – you don’t need to have perfection as a category, and it made me look at how often we apply the binary of perfect versus the fallen. Instead they have complex human histories.
Breaking can be a creative act.
Zakaria: How do you understand the role of being an author, given the disparities of power, of who gets to write and to have a voice?
Solnit: The thing about being a writer is that there are no objective criteria, every book and every piece of writing is a piece of a conversation that has no beginning and no end. The job of telling the story is everybody’s job.
This question echoes back to Best American Essays that I edited in 2019. I picked the best ones but I was also pretty committed to not producing yet another white male majority book. I did not have to compromise in any way to do that. It is necessary to disrupt the Anglo-centric narrative – and that often depends on ignoring some people.
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Zakaria: You wrote your famous essay “Hope in the Dark” when the bombing of Iraq began in 2003. Could you write a similar essay now, do you think there is still hope in the dark?
Solnit: Could I be that hopeful now? There is both uncertainty and possibility in every moment – the optimist says that everything will be fine and pessimism that everything is hopeless. Hope is just a sense of the deep uncertainty of what could happen, sometimes we can make a difference and sometimes the “we” is idealistic. I am still somewhat hopeful … it feels like what we are shading into is some future clarity.