A feminist, activist, and prolific writer recounts her emergence from solitude and vulnerability.
“To have a voice,” writes Solnit (Whose Story Is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters, 2019, etc.) in her absorbing new memoir, “means not just the animal capacity to utter sounds but the ability to participate fully in the conversations that shape your society, your relations to others, and your own life.” As a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s, Solnit lacked the “three key things that matter in having a voice: audibility, credibility, and consequence.” Instead, she felt silenced by a society that effaced women, circumscribed their freedom through harassment and violence, and insisted that they learn “deferential limits.” So she became expert “at the art of nonexistence, since existence was so perilous.” At 19, “young, ignorant, poor, and almost friendless,” Solnit was finishing her last semester at San Francisco State University, living in a dingy residential hotel, when she found an affordable, light-filled studio apartment. Furnished with pieces she found on the street or in thrift stores, the tiny apartment, where she lived for the next 25 years, became a refuge from a pervasive threat of violence. A joyous walker, she was often “followed and yelled at and mugged and grabbed.” In the news, movies, and TV, women were beaten, raped, and murdered by boyfriends, husbands, or serial killers: “Even if none of these terrible things happen to you,” writes the author, “the possibility they might and the constant reminders have an impact.” Books offered another kind of refuge where “I ceased to be myself, and this nonexistence I pursued and devoured like a drug.” Solnit traces her discovery of communities—artists, punk musicians, gay men and women—that sustained her and the people and places that inspired many of her books. Writing offered her a way of participating in the world, probing “what’s hidden beneath the assumptions or conventions,” illuminating forgotten people and places, and showing “how invisibility permits atrocity.”
A perceptive, radiant portrait of a writer of indelible consequence.