Rebecca Solnit: 'I came to the idea of hope as an activist and writer of history'

The acclaimed US essayist on ‘ambient harassment’, freeing women’s voices – and why she’s looking forward to a date with Mary Beard

Rebecca Solnit is one of America’s leading writers on art, culture and politics. She’s been called “the voice of the resistance” by the New York Times, and her 23 previous books include Wanderlust, Hope in the Dark and the 2008 essay Men Explain Things to Me, which gave rise to the term “mansplaining”. Her new book, Recollections of My Non-Existence, is a memoir of her early life as a writer in San Francisco, where she has lived for four decades.

Your writing has always drawn on personal experience; why did you decide this was the time to write a proper memoir?
I felt that after years and years of writing feminist essays about violence against women and the suppression of women’s voices, there was something essential I hadn’t gotten at yet, which is: what is the real psychological effect on you, even if you’re not a victim of the very worst things that can happen, but you still live in a regime where violence against women is so common that it impacts you daily? I wanted to use myself as a case study to say, even as somebody who escaped the worst things that can happen to women, I was still so profoundly impacted and here’s what it looked like.

You felt that the threat of male violence was so pervasive that at times you wanted to become invisible: is that what the title is about?
I think there’s a dread and a constant presence in your imagination if you’re a young woman, of: “I can’t wear this, I can’t go here, I can’t be out at this hour, I can’t trust this person, I have to watch whether this will lead to something uncomfortable or dangerous.” I wanted to connect that to the broader question of how this particular form of assault on women’s agency and choice also takes place in other more polite arenas, like publishing. So it felt like this was a very particular story of how I found a voice, and also a very generic story of what it means to be a woman in a society that doesn’t want women to have a voice.

Was it harder or more painful to write than your previous books?
It wasn’t the painfulness so much, it was more that it felt like a very artless book. And it felt ugly in a way, because I was talking about some of the worst things that had happened to me and my natural impulse is to want to give people something beautiful. It was interesting because this was so personal that it felt like I didn’t know what I was doing and whether it was any good.

You grew up with a family background of domestic violence but you don’t talk about that in great detail here – why not?
I feel that we as a culture have talked about domestic violence and there have been lots of memoirs of childhood abuse. It’s not very interesting to me, in that I feel there’s no new light to be shed. I feel like we haven’t talked about what I really wanted to talk about in this book, which is this ambient threat of harassment, so I chose to begin it with me at 19.

Were you prepared for the way your essay Men Explain Things to Me reached such a huge audience?
Absolutely not. I had no idea it would resonate with so many people because that experience was so ordinary and so infuriating. More than infuriating, it was really interfering with women being able to testify to what happened in a personal situation, or being able to be respected in their professional capacity. In relating my own perception of a really common experience, I stumbled on something that was really significant in a lot of women’s lives.

That piece went viral; do you feel that social media has been a force for good in giving people a voice?
I’ve never felt like I can weigh up the two sides. I think the people who own Google and Twitter and Facebook have chosen to violate our privacy, monetise our personal data, they’ve chosen to tolerate propaganda, disinformation, corruption of elections. A lot of really good people have used these technologies for good, back to the Arab spring and Occupy Wall Street, but the people who own them and profit from them don’t give a damn about human rights and democracy, or equality of voice and accuracy of information. There are so many reasons why Donald Trump is president but I think a large part of it is social media and the vulnerabilities they created for all sorts of forms of misinformation.

Your 2016 book Hope in the Dark gave encouragement to progressives during the Iraq war and again after the Trump election. Have you always been an optimist?
I was a pretty depressed young person. I came to the idea of hope as an activist and a writer of history, seeing that things were better than we were often told, that actually ordinary people can have a great deal of power and often succeed in using it in ways that change the world for the better. I have to say the last few years have dampened my hopefulness a bit, not just because of runaway climate change and Donald Trump, but because the kind of collective madness that allowed Donald Trump to happen.

Your UK tour has been cancelled because of the pandemic. Are there writers or artists whom you turn to when things are bleak?
There are specific writers and poets I find encouraging – I read Jack Gilbert, Robert Hass, Philip Levine. But I’m also always looking out for what’s happening around me that contains some sense of possibility, or where something positive is taking place. For example, how do we come together in mutual aid in a time of quarantine? But I was so looking forward to coming to the UK and I was agog at the idea of being in conversation with Mary Beard. I’m definitely going to come as soon as I can to collect on my Mary Beard date.

Recollections of My Non-Existence is published by Granta (£16.99). To buy a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15.


Stephanie Merritt

The GuardianTramp

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