Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir
“deliciously readable . . .”
Recollections of My Nonexistence, Rebecca Solnit’s most personal memoir to date, is a lyrical love letter to girls, to young women and their dreams. It is also a prayer, a manifesto of solidarity to the women those girls became or will become, a song to sing in choir their regrets. It is, also, a poetic warning cry to what awaits if they are to insist on having a voice and the power to decide over their lives.
“In those days, I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were often at odds with each other. And I was watching myself to see if I could read in the mirror what I could be and whether I was good enough and whether all the things I’d been told about myself were true.
To be a young woman is to face your own annihilation in innumerable ways or to flee it or the knowledge of it, or all these things at once. “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. “I was trying not to be the subject of someone else’s poetry and not to get killed; I was trying to find poetics of my own, with no maps, no guides, not much to go on. They might have been out there, but I hadn’t located them yet.”
There are at least three important elements to any great story. Solnit’s has them all: the first of them, the who, is herself as character, a white girl among black people trying not to disappear.
“Still, out on your own, you’re a new immigrant to the nation of adults, and the customs are strange: you’re learning to hold together all the pieces of a life, figure out what that life is going to be and who is going to be part of it, and what you will do with your self-determination.
You are in your youth walking down a long road that will branch and branch again, and your life is full of choices with huge and unpredictable consequences, and you rarely get to come back and choose the other route. You are making something, a life, a self, and it is an intensely creative task as well as one at which it is more than possible to fail, a little, a lot, miserably, fatally. Youth is a high-risk business.”
The where is, of course, place: the apartment in which she spent 25 years becoming, learning to exist, from her late teens to early middle age, and which serves as metaphor for the larger secondary topic Solnit explores here: the disenfranchisement of communities, in this case, for racial reasons as seen by a white girl escaping the Bay Area suburbs and finding home, first among the urban poor African American communities of San Francisco, then among the writers and musicians of the Beat generation just as AIDS had begun to rear its ugly head, disenfranchising them all even more.
“I was an outsider in that neighborhood, a new stranger, even if it was because it was a neighborhood of outsiders to the white society within which I was free to travel and belong.”
And, “It was they who taught me that a conversation even between strangers could be a gift and a sport of sorts, a chance for warmth, banter, blessings, humor, that spoken words could be a little fire at which you warmed yourself.”
Of course, to speak about disenfranchisement is to speak about politics, but Solnit goes deeper in a successful attempt to weave together the erasure of women and the erasure of minorities in general and how they happened during the time she recounts:
“I had first visited the building and met Mr. Young five days after Ronald Reagan's inauguration. The nation, having reached its maximum of economic equality, had voted in someone who was going to reverse direction, stop black progress, reconcentrate wealth in the hands of the few, dismantle the programs that had helped so many rise, create mass homelessness. Crack was soon to come to the city and other cities, and to our neighborhood and our block. My own experiences around that time with the sense of potency and grand destiny cocaine produced made me wonder whether it was seductive specifically as a counter to the despair and desolation this reversal brought, the drug you took when you hit the wall built to keep you out.”
And how that led to this:
“Change is the measure of time, and I discovered that in order to see change you had to be slower than it, and that by my living in one place for a quarter century, it became visible to me. Gradually. Not at first. People came and went in the building I stayed in, and many of the transient inhabitants imagined that they were passing through a stable neighborhood, but they were part of what was changing it, a river of people scouring out the place, making it less and less black, more and more middle-class. The newcomers lived in the space their money secured, not the space that belonged to everyone, and a vitality faded away as the neighborhood became less a neighborhood.”
It is these historical movements in one direction or another, seen from the point of view of the outsider turned insider, that provide the third element making this a great book, the fascinating what of the book, the most heartbreaking moments, the most staggering truths about what it means to be a have-not in the land of the privileged, in Solnit’s case, because of her status as a poor woman living alone, but really for any woman, since regardless of civil status, in these long-playing times of gender war, when the moment of violence arrives, every women is alone in the world:
“I felt hemmed in, hunted. Over and over, women and girls were attacked not for what they’d done but because they were at hand when a man wished to—to punish is the word that comes to mind, though for what might linger as a question. Not for who but for what they were. We were. But really for who he was, a man who had the desire and believed he had the right to harm women. To demonstrate that his power was as boundless as her powerlessness.”
Recollections of My Nonexistence is, evenly, from beginning to end, as deliciously readable as Men Explain Thing to Me and The Faraway Nearby, Solnit’s previous critically acclaimed bestsellers, but here it is this lyrical—but also clear, well-researched, impactful—articulation of womanhood that makes it required, urgent, reading for women of all ages, and for men, all men, even more so.