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In 'Recollections Of My Nonexistence,' Rebecca Solnit Once Again Tackles Gender Bias

In her now famous essay, "Men Explain Things to Me," Rebecca Solnit describes a party in a ski chalet, at which she told the owner of the chalet that she had just written a book about the photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

"And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?" he asked. The man then held forth about this book for several minutes before Solnit realized he was talking about her book. When this fact is finally, effortfully, conveyed to him, he went "ashen."

"I like incidents of that sort," Solnit writes, "when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that's eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet."

Solnit opens her new book, Recollections of My Nonexistence, which examines these forces and the ways that women work to counter them, with a description of a Victorian writing desk. It was given to her by a friend, who had recently been "stabbed fifteen times by an ex-boyfriend to punish her for leaving him," she writes. The friend survived; her ex was never prosecuted.

"Someone tried to silence her," Solnit writes. "Then she gave me a platform for my voice. Now I wonder if everything I have ever written is a counterweight to that attempt to reduce a young woman to nothing."

Prima facie, the presentation of women's writing as a counterbalance to violent misogyny seems absurdly insufficient, like bringing a collection of Gloria Steinem essays to a gunfight. What does the knife-wielding boyfriend care if Solnit writes thousands of gracefully recursive sentences about environmentalism, art, and feminism on a desk given to her by a woman he once tried to kill? On hearing yet another invocation of the power of women's voices, it is easy to wonder, along with the writer Moira Donegan, who reviewed Solnit's last book for The New Yorker in 2017, "if telling these stories had the power to change the way women are treated, why do we still have so many stories to tell?"

In "Men Explain Things to Me," Solnit follows the ski chalet anecdote with a story about listening to a boyfriend's uncle describe, "as though it were a light and amusing subject," how a neighbor had once "come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her." Solnit asked how he knew that his neighbor's husband wasn't trying to kill her. "He explained, patiently, that they were respectable middle-class people. Therefore, her-husband-trying-to-kill-her was simply not a credible explanation for her fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her. That she was crazy, on the other hand...."

Solnit's body of work makes the case that the uncles and the ski chalet owners of the world, though not the same as the murderers and the rapists, enable them by creating a culture where women aren't considered credible, whether it comes to pioneering English photographers or to whether or not their own husbands are trying to kill them. In this book, she clarifies that having a voice is "not just the animal capacity to utter sounds," but the combination of "audibility, credibility, and consequence."

Many of the arguments in Recollections of My Nonexistence might feel familiar or even obvious, which is due in part to Solnit's own influence in the last few years. A friend called this the "Blade Runner" problem, in which something is so influential that it comes to seem cliched. Solnit has valiantly been making the case that misogynist speech and violence are on a spectrum for decades, long before mainstream acceptance of the idea — so calling it stale now feels eminently unfair. (There have also, of course, been books by other authors on these themes: Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts — which uses the murder of Nelson's aunt to show how popular culture enables misogynist violence — is more probing, self-aware, and eloquent than Solnit's new book).

Here, Solnit describes the threat of sexual violence as a kind of atmospheric phenomenon, an accumulated weight of episodes and images rather than a particular threat. This gives the book a kind of mistiness, although you can see why Solnit might tire of litigating particular misogynistic incidents, even when they reveal a broader pattern. After all, if a listener is unconvinced, any example can be argued away as an aberration, an exception, and not indicative of a wider culture.

But no: "Legions of women were being killed in movies, in songs, in novels, and in the world, and each death was a little wound, a little weight, a little message that it could have been me," Solnit writes. "I once encountered a Buddhist saint who had worn tokens devotees gave him; they loaded him up, tiny token by tiny token until he was dragging hundreds of pounds of clinking griefs. We wore those horror stories as a secret weight, a set of shackles, that dragged along everywhere we went." (The reference to weights recalls Solnit's earlier claim that her writing represented a counterweight to her friend's stabbing — I picture Solnit pitching page after page onto some kind of cosmic scale, hoping to tip the balance).

In Recollections of My Nonexistence, Solnit implies that just as the illness can be both dramatic and also cumulative, gradual, and imperceptible, so might be the cure. And things that feel insufficient — writing, talking, walking, teaching — do in fact represent tiny counterweights, which together shift the course of culture.

In literature, writing sometimes aspires to the permanence of marble (Thus Shakespeare, confidently: "Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme"). But Solnit argues for a different model: "[P]erhaps the best thing creative work can do is to compost into the soil so that, unremembered, it becomes the food of a new era, or rather, devoured, digested, the very consciousness of that era. Marble lasts, but soil feeds."

Solnit has not lived a particularly unremembered life — she has been a public writer and speaker and thinker for many years. But this book defends the value of fighting privately, too, in conversation and in communities. My favorite glimpse of that fight comes in the acknowledgments, where, alongside thanks to various editors and friends, Solnit writes, "Thank you to the handsome bikers at the Denny's on the I-5 north of Los Angeles who listened and let me convince them that Anita Hill was telling the truth, one morning at a shared table in October 1991."

Hill — who spoke publicly in 1991 and was not listened to — is now a law professor at Brandeis, someone who teaches courses with titles like "Gender Equity Policies and Litigation," and is professionally listened to by young people studying law. Her choice to use her voice not only once, spectacularly, in the Senate hearings where she was humiliated, and interrogated, and dismissed, but every day in her teaching, seems like the best case for Solnit's faith in quieter, cumulative change.

All the writing, thinking, teaching, and talking encompassed by the phrase "women's voices" will not stop the next person who wants to stab his girlfriend fifteen times. But it suggests the possibility that when the next young woman has to stand up and talk about what happened to her, she might have different lawyers, might have a different jury, and might even find on it an aging biker, willing to be convinced.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.