Rebecca Solnit’s writing has been many things: it has taken the shape of political analysis,both history and art history, and has even reinvented the map. In her new memoir “Recollections of My Nonexistence,” Solnit’s writing tries to be personal.
Branding this book a memoir feels somewhat misleading as it feels decidedly less intimate than most memoirs. Throughout the book, it seems as though Solnit has trouble straying from her analytical style and writing in a more vulnerable way. She tends to present evidence, analyze it and then conclude its importance. Though several personal anecdotes and themes run throughout the book, they are not the majority.
Early on in “Recollections,” Solnit enunciates what drives her writing. Solnit reminisces on how much of her struggle has been oriented around the lack of representation of the female experience. She understands that when she names and writes extensively on issues that plague women, these problems can begin to be solved. The first step is educating the population about women’s experiences. Solnit’s work is crucial to this first step, as has been evident in her numerous books.
Many of Solnit’s nonfiction books can function as writing that explains the issues American women face everyday. Much of her memoir functions as a way to contextualize both this present state and Solnit’s own perspective of it. However, Solnit often seems to conflate these two ideas of widespread reality and her own personal experience. “Recollections” is certainly insightful, but at times Solnit seems to refuse the progress women have made since her own youth, and instead hyper focuses on the negative.
Though Solnit’s current concerns about the wellbeing of women are statistically valid, they are skewed by the fact that she spent her formative years in the 1970s and 80s. Solnit writes, “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.” This line is quoted on the back cover of the book, as if it is being bragged about, as if someone in a book store should take that line home with them, even if they don’t purchase the book. This can feel a bit misrepresentative given the progress that has been made in recent decades in the fight for womens’ rights.
Since Solnit was born, women have joined the Supreme Court, Title IX was signed into law, Roe v. Wade was decided and women have been elected to vastly expanded roles in our nation’s government. These achievements do not compensate for centuries of sexism, discrimination and misogyny, nor do they absolve the contemporary and ongoing violence women endure. But they do evidence progress, and Solnit does not sufficiently acknowledge that advancement.
Yet, does this progress deserve to be praised as it sometimes is? This is a question “Recollections” presents. It forces readers to be uncomfortable, making them decide whether they will focus on the progress that has already been made or the room we still have to grow.
“Recollections” is a jarring read; it is filled with statistics about violence against women. This is a difficult but necessary reckoning, and one that must happen if there is any hope for progress. Though Solnit has trouble filling a book with first-person writings, she has provided yet another installment of indispensable literature nevertheless. She presents her own life as a case study by which the intense fear and peril of the female experience can be understood. Though this may not be every woman’s experience, Solnit compellingly writes of the struggles she herself has survived. She understands her role as a writer with striking clarity. As Solnit has explored her career, she has made the myriad problems of the world much clearer and has thereby lessened the dogmas women face each and every day.