The Importance of Rebecca Solnit – The Wire

Posted: August 10, 2021 at 1:53 am


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There are so many forms of annihilation, claims Rebecca Solnit in her finely crafted memoir titled Recollections of My Non-Existence. The book pivots strongly on one form of annihilation which Solnit navigates throughout her life the omnipresent and imminent possibility of gender violence. However, other claimants to annihilation politics are not far behind, whether these be questions of racial or class injustice, the suffering visited on indigenous peoples and generic forms of violence demonstrated vis--vis specific constituencies.

Solnit argues that the non-acknowledgment of peoples is often a prelude to an accompanying violence. It is a violence that does not harbour any guilt and takes away what rightfully is somebody elses. The United States, for instance, has sought to obscure its original violence directed against the native Americans to whom the land belonged. These examples of violence abound, as is evident from illustrations across the world. However, pervasiveness does not absolve a deep and fundamental wrongness of these acts.

An arsenal of erasure tactics is often deployed by the powerful to keep the voices of the marginalised out of sight. However, the truth is that these tactics are not always successful. Cracks show, voices break through these cracks and a single conscious voice, as Solnit demonstrates, blends with a burgeoning collective seeking a just recompense. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible.

Rebecca Solnit Recollections of My Non-Existence Granta Books, 2021

There is much that is going on in Solnits memoir. First, there is an incessant quest for patterns. Making sense of a complex world, Solnit has devised a strategy of reading sharply and discerning oftentimes the unsaid in conversations, both oral and written. She is patient and in the best traditions of journalism goes to great lengths to get her story right.

Second, she resides in awkwardness but finds an equilibrium in it. Solnit is keenly aware of the deep marks her childhood (poverty, a violent father and helpless mother) left. However, she makes coming from the margins in gender terms (notwithstanding her white privilege which she honestly concedes) her real strength. It offers her a perspective of her own where she can call out time and again the effacement of women in everyday life. Her struggles to publish her work, to find her voice and make it heard, to demonstrate professional rigour in a world of judgmental men and in her own way leave something of a legacy comes through with candour in this narrative. Solnit recognises that some stories set us free, or at least offer the promise of partial if not complete redemption.

Third, there can scarcely be a better teacher than Solnit when it comes to dissecting the forging of political consciousness. From accounts of her own political awakening through her brothers anti-nuclear activism in the Nevada desert to joining forces with feminist struggles over time while finding her own voice, Solnit documents her political evolution. None of this comes easy. She ponders, searches and finds kindred souls, sees the value of engaging those who do not share her view and compels us like she does herself to squarely contend with our phantom and real fears.

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Fourth, Solnit opens the reader up to the many worlds of mansplaining. She recounts a story in which a man is explaining a book to Solnit herself, unaware that she is the author. There are several other instances in which being male often presumes the privilege of pronouncing from a higher pedestal. The lack of knowledge in the relevant domains has never detracted these men. Women are invariably at the receiving end of this male gaze and smugness. However, women do not find it easy to ignore or dismiss these claims even though they know that these are untenable. It took decades virtually for Solnit herself to discover recurring patterns here and subsequently call the bluff whenever it showed its unpleasant visage.

Fifth, this memoir is not only about fears but also about things Solnit loves. Reading, language, archives and researching are all part of this heady mix. Each of these activities require careful attention but there is the excitement which Solnit conveys whenever she finds herself amid any of these activities. She is not afraid to take down by a notch or two the gurus of counterculture the Beat generation for almost entirely glossing over the gender question in their quest for creative freedom. There are many more well-known accomplished male figures in her narrative who for all their genius were oblivious to the dimension of gender equality. All of this makes for riveting reading and instructive learning.

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Finally, this is also a plea for at least one kind of robust activism political writing. Solnit is keenly aware of botched ideas and assembles together a set of new possibilities in the most unsuspected corners of our histories. There is an irrepressible optimist in Solnit who has a penchant for identifying the many barriers that separate us. She reminds us of our obligation to work towards their obliteration but in pragmatic terms incrementally. At least two powerful drives motivate her to write politically to record her deep resentment of some trajectories in politics and second to fight and argue for what she values as sacrosanct directing all her finite energy to secure their well-being.

I can see many women (and some men) wishing that they encountered this book earlier in their life. It is a book we must share liberally with our young across genders. Solnits brilliance of mind and clarity of prose cannot but shake us all out of our stupor even if only temporarily. The challenge is to sustain this critique and politically create the conditions for transformation along the lines suggested. Quite evidently, gender, race, class equality and a casteless society are monumentally incomplete projects in circa 2021 notwithstanding some meaningful strides in the preceding twentieth century. A lot of work remains to be accomplished and Solnit offers us key insights on getting going and inching towards desirable political metamorphosis. Are we listening?

Siddharth Mallavarapu is professor of International Relations and Governance Studies at Shiv Nadar University. Views are personal.

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The Importance of Rebecca Solnit - The Wire

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August 10th, 2021 at 1:53 am