One Voice in a Great Chorus: An Interview with Rebecca Solnit




I INTERVIEW LOTS of writers for books, newspapers, and magazines, including LARB. Given the ever-shrinking number of media pages allotted to book coverage, I try to focus on authors whose work makes my heart alternatively pump and sink. This writing is amazing, and Damn, I wish I could write like this. While basking in an author’s work, I often post snippets on social media, like this one from Rebecca Solnit’s 2000 Wanderlust: A History of Walking: “Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities.” 

The response to this post was immediate, and unique. Solnit’s words drew comments, private messages, texts, and emails from an unusually diverse array of respondents: writers and readers, young and old, white and of color, academics and activists, male and female and nonbinary. “I love Rebecca Solnit,” they agreed, each for their own reasons, and in their own ways. As The New York Times Style Magazine put it in 2017,Solnit is a certain kind of celebrity, if a reluctant one.” Indeed, her humility is part of her charm. 

By the time her 2014 book Men Explain Things to Me propelled her beyond the bounds of her cult following, Solnit had published more than a dozen books (many of them with Haymarket Books, a small, radical Chicago press) and a multitude of essays, earning two NEA grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship in the process. Solnit, who describes herself as “a writer, historian, and activist […] the author of twenty books on feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster,” occupies a unique space in her readers’ hearts and in our culture — a space that didn’t exist until she carved it out.

Case in point: Solnit’s new and most powerful memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence, was named a “most anticipated book of 2020” by outlets as divergent as Good Housekeeping, Time Magazine, and Vulture. Here, she tells LARB how and why she makes the magic happen.

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MEREDITH MARAN: Starting at the start: the title and the cover of Recollections are haunting. The story you tell in the book about the cover photo’s provenance is so tender and touching. Where in the process of writing the book did you come up with the title? How much agency did you have in choosing the cover art?

REBECCA SOLNIT: For some of my books, I had to struggle to find the right title (and for two of them I don’t think I did). With others, the title was the first thing in hand and it functioned like instructions. That was true for A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and it was true for this one.

With Recollections of My Nonexistence, I wanted to convey that experience of erasure that is so ordinarily a part of women’s lives — the things you are told you must not do and say, the places you must not go, the clothes you must not wear, the aspirations you must not have, if you want to survive. The ways you are told you must erase yourself so as not to be erased more violently by someone else.

My friend Heather Smith summed it all up: how young women are urged to “never stop picturing their murder.” What does that do to us, to live in a world where a lot of people would like to humiliate, brutalize, maybe maim or murder us, especially since the burden of preventing it largely falls on us? The experience of voicelessness, where you know if you say “stop” or “no,” it will not be respected, and if you say to others what happened next you may not be believed, so your voice often dies even when you do not, and without a voice you are not a full person, a full citizen, a full member of the community.

But, as I wrote, the idea of “nonexistence” grew. I wanted to acknowledge that misogyny is not the only form of erasure and exclusion out there; during the period I covered in my book, I lived in a black neighborhood a short walk from a famously gay one, and in 1991 I got involved in a Native American land rights struggle. I did some historical research for the Western Shoshone organizers and read for days the letters documenting genocide as it happened in the 1860s. There are so many versions of nonexistence.

And then, in the end, I also wanted to celebrate that suspension of one’s own life that happens when you are utterly immersed in the other world a book offers, that almost out-of-body experience I spent so much time in when I was young.

As for the cover, I couldn’t find another photo of me from that era I wanted to use. We looked at several from the box of photos in my closet, and this one stood out. It was taken right after I moved into that studio apartment in 1981 and it reflects who I was then, simultaneously cringing and turning away and dressing up to show up, seeking to both appear and disappear.

I understand your reason for using the words “My Nonexistence” in the title, though I had the opposite impression as I was reading. Maybe despite, or maybe because of the misogynistic suppression and violence you survived, I came away more profoundly impressed with your strength and resilience — your existence.

Thanks. The book is an account of a struggle against gender violence and the silence around it, of how that struggle extended to my early experiences in publishing, and of how forming a voice in that context felt like an act of resistance and thereby had to be used to speak up about those forces that try to keep us out or down. And, of course, I did become a published writer of 24 books, so that part turned out well, despite the men who tried to stop me early on. Even more than that, a feminist movement really began talking in earnest about gender violence several years ago, and some of my writing has been in conversation with that exhilarating opening.

Of course, I’m in my 50s and much less targeted by the street harassment and other harassment that was so chronic in my youth. But those experiences taught me that a lot of people did not want this to be my world and did not want me — and people like me — to be free, confident, and full participants in it. The impact is lasting, both as a political issue and as a bodily reflex, a habit of nervous scrutiny, a preparedness against all the vile things that could happen. And it’s still happening to other women, and that impacts me too. I read about violence against women every day, whether I try to or not. Yesterday I sat next to a woman reading James Ellroy’s book about his mother’s murder, with a picture of the corpse on the cover, not long after I opened the mail to find that a publisher had sent me a memoir about a woman investigating her sister’s murder. Violence against women is my daily diet, and probably yours too. It’s often all over the front pages of the newspaper, unremarked, and all over entertainment and literature too. I’m just one of the people who notices the pattern. So, it’s not over. For any of us. I wrote, “It gets you even when it doesn’t get you,” because too often the criterion is that if nothing grotesque happened to you, you are unharmed. But the constant presence of it, the possibility of it, harms you; the harm done to others impacts you.

The fact that I somehow acquired — or rather built, and was able to project — a voice heard in many places is a victory, but the real victory of this book is the current feminist movement in which I am one voice in a great chorus. Now, I don’t have to spend as much time disappearing in order to survive, and there are fewer people trying to shut me up and shove me out.

I love what you wrote about your “tall, thin, white body” and about thinness in women: “Being thin is seen as a virtue, as a consequence of discipline, and self-restraint…” How’s your relationship with your body now? How do you think women, including feminists, might ever escape the tyranny of the male gaze on our bodies?

Well, in the rest of that passage, I wanted to make it clear that, though thinness is so often seen as a virtue, it is often just due to the genetic lottery and to time of life; lots of us just start out scrawny, as I did. That to be thin is to be seen as irreproachable is just a way to say that to be anything else is reproachable, and it’s terrible that we are supposed to feel reproached for any kind of body. I also note how terrible it is that softness means both literal yielding flesh and a lack of moral determination, as though to have flesh means failure, moral failure. Which brings us to how women are supposed to diet themselves into near-nonexistence, are lauded for doing so, and sometimes die of it.

Of course, I still hear all the ambient instructions about what a female body is supposed to be, but they no longer seem so loud and compelling. They are monstrous anyway, because by those standards no one will ever actually be good enough, because no body is perfect, and the actual biological body with all its fluids and processes is not the ideal female body, so we all fail.

OMG, that story about your publicist at Sierra Club Books, who said he’d booked a tour for you across the West, leaving you to discover en route that he’d lied about the whole itinerary and hadn’t scheduled a single event! You write, “He had, one way or another, decided to bury my book.” How has your writing itself, as well as your career, been impacted by the responses to it? As you have been supported and read more widely, has your writing improved? How has increased support affected your choice of topics?

Yeah, that was such a classic example of that voicelessness — I had an awful publicist in charge of my second book (which was, in large part, about that Western Shoshone land rights struggle). I didn’t trust him. No one took my complaints seriously until after I had set out in my pickup truck on a six-week book tour, and it turned out that every event he had supposedly scheduled he had just made up. I had a tour full of holes. That was also an example of something else that was recurrent in this book: not just that some man did some hostile thing, but that the people I turned to didn’t believe me, so I had no help or recourse or, for that matter, voice, because a voice has to be more than the capacity to make sounds; it has to be the condition of being heard.

That was my second book, and of course I was learning to write, and I’m still learning. I don’t think more support or more response has improved the writing, but more writing has, and more reading. And then still more writing.

Your language is always efficient, sharp, and irrefutable, while being simultaneously gorgeous: “In the evenings when the sky near the horizon is apricot and the sky above is still blue I sometimes try to find the seam between the two colors…” As a sister writer/activist, I wonder as I read you whether that gorgeousness flows as readily as the narrative, and whether you spend more time crafting certain sentences than you do others. Can you talk about craft and message-making?

I do go over and over my prose, and it’s like gardening or mending; there are places that need weeding, planting, watering, and others that the second or 11th time around still seem to be fine and can be left alone. Some bits come to me in isolation while I’m doing something else, some pour in from the unknown while I write as part of that process, some I struggle to get right for a long time, and some still feel like I never do quite get right, in how they sound or what they do.

Near the end of the book you write, “Writing about sexual assault and misogyny has been the easiest writing I’ve ever done…” because it’s “a force harder to stop than to start.” Can you say more about that? Does it feel, now, like you’ve said what you have to say on that subject, and you can return to more difficult writing?

There are two kinds of political essays I write, or rather two things that prompt them. One is indignation. For example, in 2014 I read an awful article about how climate change would produce violence among ordinary people, and it seemed so wrongheaded that I wrote a piece for the Guardian about how we need to recognize that climate change is violence against ordinary people. Or something else happens — I read something, something pops up in the news, and it’s like the last piece of a puzzle, and suddenly I have with this last piece an ability to recognize a lot of other pieces that belong together, a new picture I want to share, a new way of drawing things together. A lot of my feminist writing is against misrepresentations, biases, assumptions, an attempt to bash our way out of old stories, and it often feels as though those pieces write themselves, and indignation is one of the things that fuels them, so they just pour on out.

I think one of the strange things that can happen to writers is getting a sense that, by writing something, we’ve instructed the whole world on what’s what and can move on. I feel that way, delusional though it is, about disasters and civil society after writing A Paradise Built in Hell in 2009 (or I did, before the pandemic hit). On the other hand, I feel like I’ll keep squawking about violence against women until it’s over or I’m over, and I know which will come first. But I did do something that was new for me with this book. Rather than writing about violence from an objective, journalistic, or editorial perspective, in Recollections of My Nonexistence I described what that violence actually does to you, or at least what it did to me — how a kind of PTSD seized hold of me during the years when the menace was most chronic, a hypervigilant stress and anxiety, intrusive thoughts, fantasies of how to survive worst-case scenarios, and outrage that I could find no one else who recognized how wrong this was. So, I’m going back to old subjects to say something new, at least for me, about them. I also thought it might be useful to say that it’s not only the women who’ve been the victims of extreme violence who are impacted. We so often talk as though the very bad thing has either happened to you or not happened to you, but the constant threat of violence and the violence against other women impacts even those to whom the worst things have not happened directly. And, of course, they could always happen later. Lately, I have noticed a lot of news stories about elderly men murdering their wives of many decades.

Your book has been described, in part, as a love letter to San Francisco. I lived there during the time you describe, on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, and it felt realer than anything I’ve read about that city in that time. Did you see The Last Black Man in San Francisco? What are your thoughts on that movie, and on the soul of San Francisco today? 

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I have been writing about the displacement of black people in San Francisco since my first book in 1990. I also wrote about it in Recollections, in my 2000 book Hollow City about tech and gentrification, in my 2010 book Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, and in my long report in the Guardian on gentrification and the police murder of Alex Nieto, published in 2016. There was so much to love in the San Francisco I moved to in 1980 — a funkier, more eclectic, and far more affordable place that still felt like the far edge of the world rather than a sinister power center, as it is now that Silicon Valley has annexed us as its supernovas.

Natashia Deón is a friend and shero of mine. I was happy to read your mention of her decision to become a “people’s lawyer” within the context of your own decision to explore “how the world gets changed and where power lies and what the case for hope is.” How’s your case for hope doing today?

After the 2016 election, I said, “I took personal responsibility for hope thirteen years ago, and I’m not stopping now.” I’m deeply dismayed by the misogyny that so impacted Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, by the inaction on the global climate crisis, and by the decay of our democracy. But I am encouraged by a lot of amazing young people who are, in their belief systems and in their behavior, the realization of our hopes and dreams; by feminist movements from Mexico to Chile to South Korea to France to Iceland; by the subtle but powerful arrival of many new and better ideas in our international conversations, ideas put into practice as laws or how we do things; and by the changes I’ve seen over what’s beginning to seem like a long lifetime.

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Meredith Maran, www.meredithmaran.com, is the author of a dozen books including The New Old Me and Why We Write. She’s a contributor to The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. 

 

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