Joanna Pocock

A love letter to San Francisco’s mean streets

In Recollections of My Non-Existence, Rebecca Solnit recalls how walking in the city was her ‘freedom and joy’, even while ‘strangers threatened to kill me’

A love letter to San Francisco’s mean streets
Rebecca Solnit. Credit: Getty Images
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Recollections of My Non-Existence

Rebecca Solnit

Granta, pp. 244, £16.99

Recollections of My Non-Existence is the Rebecca Solnit book I have been waiting for. I was born four years after the American writer, and on the same continent, and much of what she describes in Recollections feels very familiar: the flamboyant gay scene of the 1980s, swiftly followed by the devastation of the Aids epidemic, the navigation through second-wave feminism, the men who constantly told us ‘what to do and be’ while they scrutinised our bodies. When Solnit was young, ‘nearly everyone who held power and made news was male’. I was fist-pumping by the time I got to: ‘We were trained to please men, and that made it hard to please ourselves. We were trained to make ourselves desirable in ways that made us reject ourselves and our desires.’

The author of more than 20 books, Solnit has tackled art, feminism, political activism and environmental issues. Yet Recollections, as the title suggests, is her most personal work. The trauma of growing up in a violent household casts a long shadow over these pages: ‘At 12 and 13 and 14 and 15, I had been pursued and pressured for sex by adult men on the edge of my familial and social circles.’

She quotes Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’, to make it clear that one of her life’s missions was to not be the subject of someone else’s poetry. ‘I was trying to find a poetics of my own, with no maps, no guides, not much to go on.’ She was also trying ‘not to get killed’. Although this latter point may sound hyperbolic, violence against women is a continuous, almost unbearable, thread throughout her book, and one which was depressingly familiar to me.

A central paradox at the heart of Recollections concerns the other half of its title: Non-Existence. Solnit describes her need to be able to disappear as a mode of survival, while simultaneously expressing her desire to be heard, to have a voice in the cultural conversations around her. The trajectory of Recollections is essentially the dovetailing of these two desires. ‘I became expert at fading and slipping and sneaking away,’ she writes of her younger self, ‘backing off, squirming out of tight situations, dodging unwanted hugs and kisses and hands, at gradually disengaging, or suddenly absenting myself.’ She was adept at ‘the art of non-existence, since existence was so perilous.’.

Like many of Solnit’s books, the structure of Recollections is not linear; its layout is more like a map than a traditional narrative. Place is as important as time, and movement is measured in miles rather than hours. Much of it is a love letter to San Francisco, the city she moved to as a child and whose neighbourhoods she has watched rapidly gentrify. And, for the author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2014), experiencing the city on foot is crucial to her development as a writer and feminist. As she writes in Recollections:

Walking was my freedom, my joy, my affordable transportation, my method of learning to understand places, my way of being in the world, my way of thinking through my life and my writing, my way of orienting myself.

And then, in true Solnit style, she interrogates this idea: ‘That it might be too unsafe to do was something I was not willing to accept, though everyone else seemed more than willing to accept it on my behalf.’ Because of her commitment to not being a ‘prisoner’, she describes being spat at, followed, sexually harassed on buses, ‘yelled at and mugged and grabbed’ while ‘strangers threatened to kill me … and all of us spent our youths navigating the threat, as do most women in most places’. Solnit, however, conquers this paradoxical desire to exist and disappear by writing about it.

Reading Recollections, I couldn’t help but think how the act of becoming a woman and a writer in the 1980s looked very different from how it appears today, with the rise of the #MeToo movement and the multiplicity of women’s voices. ‘Non-fiction is at its best an act of putting the world back together,’ Solnit tells us.

It is in this act of ‘putting together’ that women are perhaps finding their agency and their voice. Her chronicling and map-making provide us with a way into our own experiences where we ‘recognise the patterns that begin to arise as the fragments begin to assemble’. Solnit’s writing (and Recollections is no exception) is both map and territory, fragment and whole, personal and political, vulnerable and resilient. Her paradoxes are universal. She writes with the clarity of a seer and the scope of a visionary. We are all the richer for her dazzling ability to conjure her existence into being.