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Rebecca Solnit on the Intersection of Activism and Writing

In this episode, writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit reflects on her new memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence. Solnit talks to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the deep impact of gendered violence on daily life and what it means to be treated as unreliable witnesses to our own individual and collective experiences, as well as how her activism arose out of a deep love and what she calls “a positive engagement with uncertainty.” She also reminisces about her earliest writing spaces and formative experiences in political and artistic communities.

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Selected readings for the episode:

Rebecca Solnit


* Part I

V.V. Ganeshananthan: In the book you write about an exhibition of Ginsberg photographs, and you describe very strikingly how “the walls were hung with dozens of inscribed black-and-white prints of his male friends in various places, having adventures, having each other, having the world as their oyster, and then a print or two of Peter Orlovsky’s mentally ill mother and sister sitting on the edge of a bed, sad, stranded, hopeless.” I just thought about all the stories of the girl in the corner, the girl at the edge of the picture, and the way that this appears across all different arts.

Rebecca Solnit: Yeah, we in the West are so entrenched in the Odyssey template where the man roams the world having adventures and being heroic and the woman stays home. And you know, I also wrote about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which is exactly the male protagonist roaming the world having adventures, but I noticed—and I’d never really thought this before—wow, Homer was a lot more interested in Penelope than Kerouac is in any of his female characters. And that says a lot because Homer wrote a bit earlier than Kerouac did. And we would like to see some sort of progress rather than regress.

And we know from Mary Beard’s The Public Voice of Women how much the Greeks of that era hated women to even have a voice. The Odyssey opens with Telemachus telling his mother to shut up, and we’re off and running for the next 2,500 or so years. So yeah, the Ginsberg exhibit I had this really visceral response to, that surprises me looking back on it, because in so many ways, in that point in history, we were just so used to women not being part of the conversation, being written out of the story or being pushed to the margins.

But this time it infuriated me and I had this deep urge—I can still remember vividly—of wanting to shout. And somehow, I can’t even remember if Ginsberg was there to do a reading or not. So I’ve kind of erased him back. But I wanted to shout to disrupt the whole little cozy, self-congratulatory event, and to shout that I was not disrupting it, because I did not exist, because women clearly did not exist in this world.

There was this corps of men who didn’t quite want women to exist and who really celebrated masculine camaraderie, masculine freedom, masculine desire.

At the same time I knew, of course, this would reinforce exactly what the only two women in the show suggested, which is that women are sad and don’t really belong at the party and can’t really go anywhere, and etc. And of course I never did anything quite like that. But just that urge was so powerful. And at the time, somebody probably, if I’d ever confided that to anybody, somebody might have convinced me like, oh, you’re exaggerating, you’re out of line, blah, blah, blah. But there’s so many things that you can look at—some of my firsthand experiences with other Beats, although there’s some very nice people, and Philip Whalen once gave me a cherry LifeSaver.

But, you know, there was this corps of men who didn’t quite want women to exist and who really celebrated masculine camaraderie, masculine freedom, masculine desire, and it made harder to be not a man and wanting to be a writer, wanting to be a voice, wanting to be a participant in the little experiment of culture and civilization.

VVG: When I was reading this passage, I wondered, I was thinking about all the times I’ve been silently furious in public, and how many times my speaking up has relied on my leaning over, perhaps to a friend sitting next to me, and making my comment quietly and then that person encouraging me to speak up. And I wonder, do you remember, were you at that Ginsberg–

RS: I was alone.

VVG: Yeah, I was just wondering.

RS: One of the things I’m not sure is clear enough is so many of the things people do in groups when they’re young, going to movies and shows and walking around, and etc., because I was so bad at connecting to human beings—that I did so much of it alone. So I was alone at that show, there was no one to say like, hey, this really sucks, who’d say like, yeah, it totally does suck, and often, that’s all you need. And that’s so much of what I think young women give each other, is this validation that your experience is legitimate and real and shared, and whatever it brings up in you is okay, and that you didn’t imagine things because of course, the other thing that happens to young women all the time is they’re being told only to have thoughts and feelings that are flattering and convenient to other people, and so they shouldn’t think that there’s misogyny or that they’re being shut out, and they’re always being told that didn’t happen and you’re overreacting, and also you’re hysterical, and also you’re incapable of perceiving reality, and no one will believe you, so don’t even try. But I get ahead of myself.

And that’s part of the kind of nonexistence, that sense of not being part of the conversation. And if you do speak up, being told that that didn’t happen. And you’re not capable of being a witness to your own experience anyway, so shut up. And this, of course, pertains particularly to experiences of violence, particularly gender violence, where women show up—and this is on the day that the Harvey Weinstein trial may come to a conclusion, so we’re still seeing this, but women are told that they’re not reliable witnesses. They’re not capable of perceiving what’s happening. So there’s so many ways you get shut out. So you see something like this Ginsberg show—can you protest it? No, because it will only confirm the stories about women as not fit to be participants. So you’re in that double bind of be silent or be silenced, if you accept the frameworks. And if you let those be the people you want to talk to. And sometimes they have to be, if they’re the judge and the juries, the police, and the other people in the room, the publishers and editors, the people who have power in your life.

* Part II

Whitney Terrell: You’ve talked about your activism rising out of love. And you also, in the book, talk about your queer friends who “modeled for you the radical beauty of refusing your assignment,” which also goes back to this idea of liminality that we were talking about earlier. Could you talk to us a little bit about the place optimism about people holds across your body of work?

Rebecca Solnit: I am actually anti-optimism, just as I’m anti-pessimism. I see both of them as forms of certainty.

WT: Maybe we don’t have to have that binary category. We should find a different word then.

RS: Well, I use hope. And by hope I mean a kind of positive engagement with uncertainty. Optimism thinks everything will be fine no matter what we do and gets us off the hook. Just as pessimism says it’s all going to hell no matter what we do, which equally gets us off the hook. And I want to leave us on the hook where we have some responsibility, because we have some power, because we don’t know what’s going to happen, so let’s see if we can shape it.

And that is what my book Hope In the Dark was about, looking at how change happens, how often people who are supposed to be powerless—and this goes to your enthusiasm and mine for collectives—band together and end slavery, build the civil rights movement, get women the vote, get same sex marriage rights, get AIDS treatment, and stop climate-destroying fossil fuel pipelines. So I’m about hope instead, which is the sense that we don’t know what’s going to happen. In that lack of certainty is a sense, sometimes, of possibility. That means that if we try, we might win something and it’s worth trying. So that’s kind of how I go at it.

And you asked another thing that’s really important. One of the things that has been such a huge part of my life since I was in my early teens is gay men. We’re just recording here so you can’t see me getting down on my knees and thanking some great feather boa-wearing trans god for this, but what they gave me, first of all, was a sense that there’s nothing wrong with men; there’s something wrong with how we define masculinity for straight men. And this is not all gay men. Everybody has the right to be horrible and boring. That’s another one of my axioms, along with “categories are leaky”—everyone has the right to be an asshole, no matter how oppressed and marginalized. But I grew up in a famously queer city with men who refused the assignment of heteronormative masculinity.

And part of that was about being shut out of marriage back then and conventional family structures, and really recognizing this beautiful thing that I don’t think we give enough recognition to, which is that the support networks that really matter are not necessarily your biological kin. Sometimes they’re wonderful, sometimes they’re trying to destroy you. They’re not necessarily marriage, which ends in divorce 50 percent of the time in the US, but it’s often these networks of friends. I think just who you are as a friend is a much more fluid, open—you know, it’s an inherently polyamorous situation, among other things, not in a polyamorous erotic way, but a lot of people can matter to you.

I just felt so blessed to grow up in a place where people were modeling that you don’t have to accept your gender assignment and that these men saying we don’t have to be what men are supposed to be, helped me—as did the dykes on bikes and all the lesbians around me—say I don’t have to accept what femininity is supposed to be, and I don’t have to accept the conventional female fate, that if you don’t get married and have children, you failed somehow. A life among non-straight people has been just so liberatory and helpful and inspiring and beneficial for me and it’s something I want to see and tried to bring up, that we benefit so much from each other indirectly. Your liberation benefits me, your oppression does the opposite—you can’t do it just out of self-interest, but we can recognize how interwoven we are, and how we model for each other what the possibilities are.

And that happens another way in that I am a woman who has not technically been raped. Although, God knows, it seems like most of my friends have been. I’m a woman who read about horrific murders by spouses and strangers in the last 24 hours and I do pretty much every day without going out of my way to find them. I also feel like the opposite is true. We recognize that you don’t have to have actually been shot in the back by a policeman to be a black person who has reason to fear the police. You don’t have to be a rape survivor to have patriarchal violence impact you as a woman. We are impacted by what happens to other people. The good things make us see that, could make us see them and say that could be us, but so do the bad things. That’s so much of what being a young woman is about, is constant instructions, that lots of people want to kill you, but we’re not going to do anything about it, so here’s how you have to organize your life around trying to minimize them killing you, without ever making them feel that it’s a bad thing they want to kill you, or complaining, or doing anything unladylike like that.

And obviously, those are not exactly the instructions I’ve obeyed. But those have been the standard operating instructions for young women, that lots of people want to do horrific and hideous things, possibly unto death, to you. And it’s your job to navigate it, and also, we didn’t say it and this isn’t happening, and if you don’t trust men and try and make their lives brighter and more sparkly, there’s something wrong with you.


Transcribed by Condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan, Summer Collins, Bethany Graham, and Eva June Narber.

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