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Recollections of my non-existence: Conclusion



Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections begins with a startling image of the young Solnit seeing her reflection in a full-length mirror and watching that reflection appear gradually to vanish. Then comes a sample of the barbed wit she handles so well: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,’ said Edgar Allan Poe, who must not have imagined it from the perspective of women who prefer to live.” (Your columnist is happy to confess that Poe is just about his least favourite writer in the whole world). Solnit goes on to account for herself when “young, ignorant, poor, and almost friendless” and her finding and renting the tiny but beautiful studio apartment that is the primary location for the rest of the book. She is nineteen and just about to graduate from university. All the other tenants in the building are working-class and black. Again and again Solnit returns to the key concept of mutability. “Your life is full of choices with huge and unpredictable consequences, and you rarely get to come back to choose the other route.” And one more quotation from this early part of the book (it had better be the last, or my review will be nearly as long as the book). This is for my younger readers: “Possibility means that you might be many things that you are not yet, and it is intoxicating when it’s not terrifying.” The second section of Recollections places Solnit’s apartment in context. The neighbourhood is black, in the city of San Francisco. (Solnit’s depiction of the Pacific Ocean, on a bay of which the city is built, and of its constantly shifting colours, is glorious). “It was a deeply, densely spiritual neighbourhood, a small place shouting to the heavens and to various versions of God.” Mother Teresa pays a visit and has her photo taken, in the background an Arab-owned, black-run liquor store. Solnit gives lovely, perfectly observed and detailed, affectionate portraits of her neighbours. There are also some sudden, sharp shocks; one neighbour, a World War Two veteran, describes how the US military tested its poisonous gas on its black troops. And this leads to socio-political contextualization: the reversal of progress for the masses (variously defined) when dumbo Ronald Reagan is elected President; the devastation caused by the arrival in the neighbourhood of crack cocaine. The third section of Solnit’s book is titled “Life During Wartime.” She records: “The desk I sit at is a desk given to me by a woman who a man tried to murder.” She gives accounts of the murder or mutilation of other young women, of how the women are invariably blamed for the violence inflicted on them, and of how the popular media dish this up as entertainment. She realises she must write about this, must engage in protest. It is a horrendous fact that the threats of violence continually faced by women are much more likely to lead to post-traumatic stress disorder than are being shot at or blown up in armed combat. This is, as Solnit puts it, to live in a war that no one around her would acknowledge as a war. I shall move on now by talking about the larger part of Recollections that I haven’t yet addressed; the reason I’ve spent so long on its early chapters is that Solnit is such a fine writer, so irresistibly quotable. Witness this: “I tell all this not because I think my story is exceptional, but because it is ordinary; half the earth is paved over with women’s fear and pain, or rather with the denial of them, and until the stories that lie underneath see sunlight, this will not change.” About a third of the way through Recollections Solnit asks “Do you have a right to be there, to participate, to take up space in the world, the room, the conversation, the historical record, the decision-making bodies, to have needs, wants, rights?” Her question is addressed to women, but applies also to all groups and populations that are oppressed or marginalised. The rest of the book maps how Solnit asserted her rights. She takes us through her early reading habits and her learning to write (non-fiction an early preference). This section is full of insights, hints and caveats (warnings) that could stand as guidance for a budding writer. Key notes here are self-realisation and the ability to reach beyond the self (above all, to empathise, which is harder than to sympathise). She records: “after a brief period when I wanted to be a librarian because they spent their days with books, I realised someone actually wrote each book, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.” She works with and learns from artists and photographers, one of whom sensitises her to a principle dear to your columnist’s heart, to scrutinise ‘not the representation of politics but the politics of representation.’” Solnit traces the varied subject-matter of her early writing: radical movements in the fine arts, the damage caused to people and to the environment by the testing of nuclear bombs, the total marginalisation of Native American populations (they are made as if to vanish). In particular she is concerned about “symbolic annihilation, a term for the nonrepresentation of a group—a gender, an ethnicity, an orientation—in the popular culture or the arts and official versions of their society or region.” And in a book in which Solnit says surprisingly little about her family background, on the subject of difference she records: “I was white, but I grew up the daughter of a liberal Irish Catholic and a Russian Jew in a conservative and sometimes anti-Semitic neighbourhood, a book-besotted kid in an anti-intellectual town, a girl in a family of boys.” Recollections traces Solnit’s journey from that inauspicious start to becoming—in this columnist’s view and in the opinion of many, many others—one of the world’s major essayists. The last section of the book begins with an audacious but, typically, tightly controlled metaphor, which kicks off by noting that a human baby is born with its cranium divided into four plates that have not yet knitted together (so that the baby can pass through the birth canal). “Open enough to grow and closed enough to hold together is what a life must also be. We collage ourselves into being, finding the pieces of a worldview and people to love and reasons to live and then integrate them into a whole, a life consistent with its belief and desires, at least if we’re lucky.” As they pass through a dangerous and unstable world, I wish all my readers that kind of luck.

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