BOOK REVIEW – Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir

Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir by Rebecca Solnit – A memoir.

AGE: 16+ // GENRE: Memoir // PAGE COUNT: 239 // RATING: 4.5/5

*As always, the summary is from Goodreads.*

summary

In Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit describes her formation as a writer and as a feminist in 1980s San Francisco, in an atmosphere of gender violence on the street and throughout society and the exclusion of women from cultural arenas. She tells of being poor, hopeful, and adrift in the city that became her great teacher; of the small apartment that, when she was nineteen, became the home in which she transformed herself; of how punk rock gave form and voice to her own fury and explosive energy.

Solnit recounts how she came to recognize the epidemic of violence against women around her, the street harassment that unsettled her, the trauma that changed her, and the authority figures who routinely disdained and disbelieved girls and women, including her. Looking back, she sees all these as consequences of the voicelessness that was and still is the ordinary condition of women, and how she contended with that while becoming a writer and a public voice for women’s rights.

She explores the forces that liberated her as a person and as a writer—books themselves, the gay men around her who offered other visions of what gender, family, and joy could be, and her eventual arrival in the spacious landscapes and overlooked conflicts of the American West. These influences taught her how to write in the way she has ever since, and gave her a voice that has resonated with and empowered many others.

review

Hello! Welcome to a review of Rebecca Solnit’s most recent publication! As it so happens, I stumbled across an advanced reader’s copy of this one (the book was published last year, however).

*

Rebecca Solnit’s voice pulses with vibrancy, her prose keen and vagrant. Recollections of My Nonexistence chronicles, at its root, Solnit’s emergence as a woman, a writer, and a feminist amid cultural revolutions and regressions. Peacefully reminiscent of her drifting adolescence, her lyrical approach explores the voices of the chorus and the singular, the nameless and the known. Although her memoir is firmly rooted in her own life, Solnit allows a sea of voices to flourish, their ghostly presence animating her narrative, while her personal experiences echo faintly in the distance, oftentimes remaining ambiguous in their entirety. Throughout her memoir, the discussions of gender violence and harassment, of loneliness and fear, of dismissal and silence embrace and amplify a union of empathy and shared experience, of stories both devastating and inspiring.

Deftly balancing simplicity and poeticism, Solnit anecdotally weaves elements of history, art, culture, introspection, and personal and collective experience into a beautiful, arcing narrative of reminiscences and foundational transformation. Despite my reservations surrounding the non-linear structure of the memoir, I grew to appreciate her meandering voice and provocative traversal of gender politics and feminism. At times Solnit remains peaceful and musing, her prose pleasantly serene and evocative; in other moments she expresses explosive anger and a yearning for rebellion as she describes her reclamation of power and confidence. Her youthful passion, alive and lingering, invigorates her commentary.

“It was no wonder we were supposed to be so slender as to shade into nonexistence,” she remarks. This line, in particular, I found most haunting. Much like Roxane Gay, the author of Hunger, Solnit approaches beauty and conventional femininity in a frank and sober manner, eluding romanticization and echoic angles. She allows the nature of her critique to complement her exploration of gender politics and female omission (historical and current), and offer a refreshing perspective. In particular, I appreciated her commentary on the correlation between projected beauty standards and female erasure and dismissal, as alluded to in the aforementioned quote. Her commentary is sharp, stimulating, sardonic. The photograph of Solnit featured on the cover also mesmerized me. As eerie as the image is seductive, Solnit writes of her “trying to take shelter in [her] shadow” as her body shrinks away from the camera while her head remains more curious and allowing. Slightly blurred and darkened, the photograph is a powerful encapsulation of her memoir.

Time progresses very strangely throughout Recollections of My Nonexistence. As a result of the non-linear structure, I periodically found Solnit’s reminiscences rootless and, thus, aimless. Although her memoir feeds off of its drifting tone, I believe time remains a necessary grounding tool in literature. Solnit’s recollections often floated freely, however, disconnected from her timelines, and therefore rendered time irrelevant. This approach might work beautifully in other mediums (and, at times, it did in this one), but I believe a memoir—conventional or unconventional—benefits from greater attention to chronology, to a certain extent. I do, however, applaud and appreciate Solnit’s unorthodox approach to expression. As a result, Recollections of My Nonexistence embodies her unmoored youth.

*

Thank you for reading! The frequency—or lack thereof—with which I write remains inconsistent as ever, but my reading is alive and well (I’m currently reading Wuthering Heights!).

ava

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