In recent years, we have adopted a cliché and saccharine approach to female empowerment. Our ideas have evolved into shallow, mass-marketed products that seek to endorse our societal narcissism and impressionability. By promoting superficial sentiments disguised as inspiration, we allow ignorance and privilege to reign. “Believe in yourself,” we say; “it’s about the journey.” In the age of social media dominance and celebrity influence, conventional beauty undermines the importance of critical thinking and intellect.
By challenging our perception of beauty and the female presence, writers like Roxane Gay (author of Hunger), Lucy Grealy (author of Autobiography of a Face), and Rebecca Solnit strive to revolutionize the concepts of gender and feminism. An American writer and activist, Solnit has a sweeping career comprising more than 20 publications and an array of essays. In her newly released memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence, Solnit redefines the power of a raw portrayal of feminism by revealing the harsh reality of male violence and female dismissal.
Image Source: The New York Times
Recollections of My Nonexistence chronicles, at its root, Rebecca Solnit’s emergence as a woman, a writer and a feminist amid cultural revolutions and regressions. Peacefully reminiscent of her drifting adolescence, her lyrical approach explores the voices of the chorus and the singular, the nameless and the known. Although her memoir is firmly rooted in her own life, Solnit allows a sea of voices to flourish, their ghostly presence animating her narrative, while her personal experiences echo faintly in the distance. Throughout her memoir, the discussions of gender violence and harassment, of loneliness and fear, of dismissal and silence, embrace and amplify a union of empathy and shared experience, of stories both devastating and inspiring.
“If men were everyone, then women were no one,” Solnit writes. By accentuating the lives of women who have faced such cruelty and shame as a result of male violence, Solnit does not strive to concede this state of nonexistence, but rather reinforce and redefine women’s existence and, more importantly, our presence. In particular, Solnit’s exploration leads her to discuss the woman who gifted her a beautiful Victorian desk a year after being nearly stabbed to death by her resentful ex-boyfriend. The harrowing nature of this woman’s reality seeps into the very pores of Solnit’s memoir, for this is the desk on which Solnit amplifies the stories of voiceless women in the hopes of arousing change and a sense of liberation.
Solnit’s voice pulses with vibrancy, her prose keen and vagrant. Deftly balancing simplicity and poeticism, Solnit anecdotally weaves elements of history, art, culture, introspection and personal and collective experience into a beautiful, arcing narrative of reminiscences and foundational transformation. Despite my reservations surrounding the non-linear structure of the memoir, I grew to appreciate her meandering voice and provocative traversal of gender politics and feminism. At times she remains peaceful and musing, her prose pleasantly serene and evocative; in other moments she expresses explosive anger and a yearning for rebellion as she describes her reclamation of power and confidence. Her youthful passion, alive and lingering, invigorates her commentary.
“There are absences so profound that they are absent to our awareness,” Solnit remarks. Her memoir is sprinkled with stories and reflections that are consumed by undercurrents of rage, bitterness, sorrow. In moments of stillness, however, when surrounded by nature and art, serenity emerges: “… my hands in warm honey came back to me as a recollection of the calmest moment of my youth … a moment of being rare among all the busyness of doing and becoming.” She allows her mind a moment to pause, a moment to withdraw from the noise of violence and anger, to reflect on her moment of rare individualism, her separation from the crowd, her separation from the predictable.
Image Source: Goodreads
“It was no wonder we were supposed to be so slender as to shade into nonexistence,” Solnit remarks. This line, in particular, I found most haunting. Much like Roxane Gay, the author of Hunger, Solnit approaches beauty and conventional femininity in a frank and sober manner, eluding romanticization and echoic angles. She allows the nature of her critique to complement her exploration of gender politics and female omission, and offer a refreshing perspective.
Not only does Solnit capture bodily violence and violation, she also explores the correlation between projected beauty standards and female erasure and dismissal. By fusing the two together, she persuades readers to consider how women’s ideal physical presence — or lack thereof — has emerged from, and thus perpetuates, our absence, both physically and psychologically. Solnit suggests that male dismissal casts women as submissive, weak figures and in turn influences thin beauty expectations, compelling women to remain mere silhouettes.
The photograph of Solnit featured on the cover is a mesmerizing addition. As eerie as the image is seductive, Solnit writes of her “trying to take shelter in [her] shadow” as her body shrinks away from the camera while her head remains more curious and allowing. Slightly blurred and darkened, the photograph is a powerful — but melancholy — encapsulation of her youthful trepidation and early exposure to male violence. If we continue to focus on perspectives like Solnit’s, in all their intensity and realism, and forgo the glamour and vain enhancement our society endorses, we might just be able to reclaim and redefine our presence and, in turn, resist shading into oblivion.