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Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of my non-existence

Granta, 2020; 244pp; £16.99

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The author of over 20 non-fiction books on topics ranging from walking and activism to the history of Yosemite National Park, Rebecca Solnit is probably best known today for her viral 2008 feminist essay, ‘Men Explain Things to Me’. At the heart of this memoir of her formative years in the ’80s and early ’90s are a place and a struggle, symbolised respectively by an apartment and a writing desk.

Five days after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, the 19-year-old Solnit viewed a cheap apartment in one of the San Francisco’s black neighbourhoods. Already in the third year of her financial independence – having left a home in which her a father ‘considered it his right to hit women and children and did’ – she had been living in a tiny room in one of the cities’ residential hotels, sharing a single roach-infested kitchen with the other tenants.

Though it was small (the bedroom was literally a closet), Solnit was astonished by the apartment’s beauty and distressed to learn that its slumlord management company would automatically reject her because of her low income.

Nonetheless, the building’s manager – a 60-year-old African-American – suggested an effective form of subterfuge and Solnit was able to move into the luminous space – ‘a gift from a stranger’ that she would inhabit for a quarter of a century. ‘I didn’t make a home there,’ she writes ‘it made me; as I watched and sometimes joined communities [and] wandered thousands of miles on foot’ in ‘a place that opened to the four directions’.

Solnit’s writing desk was given to her by a friend who had been stabbed 15 times by an ex-boyfriend. ‘Someone tried to silence her’, Solnit writes: ‘Then she gave me a platform for my voice’. An essential tool in her struggle ‘to lay claim to having something to say, to deserve participation in the conversation that was culture, to have a voice’, she has since written millions of words on it, including all of her books, ‘reaching out and diving inward’.

There were no legal consequences for her friend’s would-be murderer. The ever-present threat of male violence against women is another central theme: ‘the little stories tucked away on newspaper back pages, given a paragraph or two, mentioned in passing on broadcasts, about dismembered sex workers and murdered children and tortured young women and long-term captives, about wives and children slain by husbands and fathers, and the rest, each one treated as an isolated incident or at least something that was not part of any pattern worth naming’.

Solnit recounts how she herself has been harassed, spat at, stalked and threatened – and sometimes slept ‘with the lights and radio on so it would seem as though I were still alert’. She tells these stories ‘not because I think my story is exceptional, but because it is ordinary’. It is an ‘undeclared war’ that, in ‘a kind of collective gaslighting’, ‘no one… would acknowledge was a war’.

Not only is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ‘far more common and far more rarely addressed among rape survivors than combat veterans’, but according to David Morris – a former Marine and author of a book on PTSD – the absence of ‘enduring cultural narratives that allow women to look upon their survival as somehow heroic or honourable’ means that the potential for enduring damage is even greater.

Likening these stories and experiences to drops of blood in a glass of water, Solnit asks: ‘What does it do to all the women who have a drop or a teaspoon or a river of blood in their thoughts? What if it’s one drop every day? … What vitality and tranquillity or capacity to think about other things, let alone do them, is lost, and what would it feel like to have them back?’

Such violence lies on a spectrum with the belittling and silencing of women – and Solnit recounts many personal examples of these too. But she also writes movingly of her tranformative engagements with San Francisco’s Queer scene and with anti-nuclear activism.

The former encouraged her ‘to imagine that gender is whatever you want it to be, and that the rules were breakable’ – and to realise that ‘what troubled and frustrated me in straight men was not innate to the gender but built into the role’.

The latter – begun in 1988, with her participation in one of the many protests at the Nevada Test Site, the site of hundreds of demonstrations and some 15,000 arrests – played a major role in her development as a writer. Solnit realised that she needed ‘all the modes of writing I’d learned’ (historical, evocative, personal and analytical), ‘together [and] unsegregated’, in order to describe the complexity of that political situation and historic moment.

Deeply-informed and beautifully written (in one memorable vignette, she writes of an elegantly-dressed man who ‘radiated kindness’ that he provided ‘living proof that cool and warmth could emanate from the same source), this portrait of the writer as a young woman is a must-read for Solnit fans and for newcomers to her writing alike.