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