Rebecca Solnit: The self as story

Jim Herrington
Rebecca Solnit will appear next Sunday, June 30 at Commonweal for a conversation with Michael Lerner.

Rebecca Solnit, an award-winning writer and “anti-memoirist,” grew up in Novato in the 1960s and 70s. She received a graduate degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, and has traveled around the country and the world, from New Orleans to Iceland. She has written over a dozen books and numerous articles and essays on the American West, gender, urbanism, disasters, politics and more. She will appear next Sunday, June 30 at Commonweal for a conversation with Michael Lerner. 

On Sunday she sat down with the Point Reyes Light’s Samantha Kimmey to discuss her new book, The Faraway Nearby, which touches on her difficult relationship with her mother and a bout with disease, while weaving together stories, characters and ideas as diverse as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ché Guevara, leprosy, fairytales and apricots in a work that serves as a meditation on not just stories but the act of assembling them.


Point Reyes Light: What moved you to write a book about stories and storytelling?

Rebecca Solnit: Ideas I’d been interested in for a long time, about story and about empathy, and the apricots my brother gave me from my mother’s tree. I like to say the apricots made me do it. There was something about the arrival of the 100 pounds of apricots that somehow catalyzed the events in my own life and made me start thinking, as I say in the book, about fairytales. While I was living that stuff it wasn’t time to write about it; years later I sat down on June 1, 2010, to begin writing this book. 


Point Reyes Light: You explicitly push back against books and stories that don’t leave the reader with any questions or loose threads.

Rebecca Solnit: Edna O’Brien, an Irish writer, said memoirs often have this catharsis and everybody is reconciled and everything’s tidied up, and life isn’t really like that. I completely concur with her. I think memoir as it’s now written is modeled after novels, where characters are knowable and consistent. The narrator is omniscient. (I’m not even omniscient about myself, and I’m definitely not omniscient about everyone else.) There’s a plot and it resolves, often with reconciliation and triumph. 

There’s a kind of Hollywood movie that I don’t love, where everything’s predictable and everything’s so resolved that when you walk out of the theater you’ll never ever, ever think about it again. The tidy resolution tells you there’s nothing you need to worry about, to think about, nothing to chew on. Somewhere in the book I say the real story of our life is all the way from birth to death. I wanted to aesthetically bring the book to a finish without making it neat and tidy and resolved and you never have to think about it again.


Point Reyes Light: The way you bring discussions from other chapters into the current chapter, it felt like you were weaving things together but picking them apart, too.

Rebecca Solnit: It felt a little symphonic to me. There are recurrent themes and different angles and stories—the Che Guevera story, the arctic cannibalism story, the Buddha story—stories about empathy and awareness and what a life might consist of and how we connect to each other. There’s a sense in memoir that your life is only your own story, and that’s how we’ve learned to tell our lives, from novels and also from therapy. You sit down and you talk about yourself. I think the self is a much more open-ended thing. 

During my own medical adventure, my friend Ann was dying, my friend Nellie had just given birth to a 2.2-pound premature baby, and those stories kept me company and made me feel less alone. Is my story only my story? Or is it my story and Ann’s story and Nellie’s story? What are the boundaries of the self? How are we connected to each other? We spend huge amounts of our lives listening to pop songs, to our friends and family tell stories, to the news, to movies and books. Our lives are actually these very complex tapestries, and I wanted to bring those other stories in and convey that texture. 


Point Reyes Light: Would you call it a memoir?

Rebecca Solnit: Not exactly. With the British edition, they have to have a category on every book, and my editor fought successfully with the publicity department to have it listed as “memoir/anti-memoir.” I made it up. We kind of know what memoir is, and it is that linear narrative that’s become codified and familiar in how it’s told and it feels like only certain things can be said. I wanted to be free to say other things and broaden the story. It’s not an anti-memoir in that it’s against memoir, but it’s against the limits that are arising around memoirs. 

There are amazing memoirs, like Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, that are really different and experimental. He tells incidents from his life as a chemist and young man and mountaineer and Auschwitz prisoner and survivor through the periodic table, which is a perfect way for a chemist to tell his story.

It’s also modeled after the Arabian Nights and other books that are stories within stories within stories. Frankenstein is really written that way. The book is officially a sea captain in the arctic who hears Dr. Frankenstein’s story and writes it in a letter to his sister, and then Dr. Frankenstein tells the creature’s story, and at one point the creature is telling Dr. Frankenstein about the family he eavesdropped on and learned to speak and read from, so you’re hearing a story within a story within a story within a story. 


Point Reyes Light: When you were thinking about putting this book together, did Frankenstein seem like a natural work to talk about?

Rebecca Solnit: I had been commissioned to do a piece on the arctic for the Berlin Guggenheim, and I reread Frankenstein, so I was actually in the midst of thinking about the arctic that summer the apricots arrived. I read it a different way for the Guggenheim essay. Even though I first read Frankenstein when I was 17, I felt like I was reading it for the first time because I saw how much it was about empathy and the failure of empathy, and how much coldness is a metaphor, all through the book, coldness and remoteness. Of course it served my purposes incredibly well. And the parallel chapter, the chapter about ice, about Atagutaluk and Peter Freuchen, that’s about the same thing—parenthood and storytelling and empathy and the ways we connect and fail to connect—from a completely different perspective. 


Point Reyes Light: Do you think growing up in the Bay Area contributed to your fascination with the arctic?

Rebecca Solnit: If I’d grown up in Wyoming, I’d say, “Oh damn, here comes the snow again.” But I have spent some time in really cold places, including Wyoming in January. It’s so otherworldly. The world turns white, it muffles sound. Even walking is treacherous. Water becomes a solid you can walk across and build things out of. But in the far North, the light is so different, too. 

It’s not just coldness, but northern-ness that I’m interested in, because of the light and darkness and remoteness. There’s something very pure and pared back about it. The circumstances of survival are very stark and clear. And the different cultures: Icelandic culture, Inuit culture, Siberian nomad culture, reindeer people culture are all very beautiful and fascinating—that kind of endurance in extremes, which is why I love Peter Freuchen’s books.


Point Reyes Light: And the way his story about Atagutaluk, who ate her husband and children when she was starving, keeps changing?

Rebecca Solnit: That was interesting because he was a popular author, and he didn’t feel obliged to keep track and he just kept telling the story. He didn’t even notice that he was contradicting himself, both factually and in terms of the meanings he ascribed the story. I have at least a dozen versions and I had to cut that chapter down because I was completely fascinated by that stuff, but it needed to move a bit more briskly. I came up with so many versions and so much material. The people in her community told the story in many different ways: sometimes there were only adults in the summer and they were out hunting, sometimes her husband in this very Christ-like way told Atagutaluk that he was going to die and they would have to eat him. He gave of himself. It felt like some of it might have been anxiety about the transgression and the desire to make it milder. But who knows?


Point Reyes Light: In the book you say you’re never quite sure which version you believe.

Rebecca Solnit: I don’t know if anyone will ever know exactly what happened. These are the first-person accounts from the survivors and witnesses and people who met witnesses and people who knew her. That’s what exists. That’s the primary material, as anthropologists and journalists would say. I didn’t feel like it needed to be resolved. Certain things are consistent throughout the story, but what was also interesting to me is that Peter Freuchen told the story in a very narrow way: here’s this woman who ate her children. But you broaden out the story, and say, here’s a woman who, when she was very young, had to do extreme things to survive that were traumatic, but because of them she survived. Because of that she married again and gave birth to other children who themselves had children and grandchildren. She also became a benefactor to the community and took care of other people. So it’s an interesting question: should she have just starved to death? 

You can see that her survival became a real blessing for many other people. It’s as though the camera pulls back and instead of seeing this one incident you see a long life that, because she did this terrible thing to survive—or transgressive thing, I’m not sure eating the dead is terrible, but for her it was in the sense of it being transgressive and traumatic—she gave life in all kinds of ways. 

It felt like the Frankenstein story, with the arctic and the tangle between death and life and generation, these questions about understanding the story, and the story changing, and motherhood, it’s all in there. And the fairytale magic of the melting sled, and Peter Freuchen’s own story, the cave made out of his breathe. 


Point Reyes Light: It’s such a powerful image, the idea that one can exhale and the moisture freezes on the walls until the room is filled with it.

Rebecca Solnit: That was one of the most extraordinary things. And you think, “I can’t believe I just struck this incredibly rich vein of narrative and imagery.”


Point Reyes Light: There’s so much about regeneration—both positive and negative—in the book. You said you didn’t want to focus on your relationship with your mother, so I wonder if that was an indirect way to explore the complexity of your relationship with her.

Rebecca Solnit: I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but a lot of these things can be seen as ways of thinking through some of the issues or concepts or possibilities in my relationship with my mother. Everything becomes a tool to think about ourselves, but it could go the other way as well. My interactions with my mother were also a way to think about stories and the way we tell our stories. 


Point Reyes Light: You write that many of us have a story that we would let go of, but we start to weave a narrative around it and tell it over and over, and so it stays with us.

Rebecca Solnit: It’s one thing to think about the meaning of your life. But with negative narratives, there’s a way they become looped tapes you play over and over. I’m quite good at that myself. My mother was excellent at it. If you’re not telling the story, is there emotion at this moment? The story generates the emotion. Stories are kind of these emotion-generating machines. If somebody does something mean to me, I feel it at the time. But 10 years later, I can tell that story and feel the same way again, and that’s not necessarily useful. That’s one of the ways in which I feel like stories can be really destructive. 

You look at conflicts in Yugoslavia, where racial animosities were incited by telling stories of war crimes from hundreds of years ago, and people who had actually gotten along for decades were suddenly at each other’s throats. We think the feeling is there and the story describes it but in fact the story often generates feeling, and that’s something we don’t talk about that much. It’s also tricky when the model is therapy, where you go tell your story in order to understand it, and understand how you tell it and maybe become free of it in some way. But you can get stuck in it. It’s something I think is really interesting. 

I also think there are larger stories: what women are supposed to be, what beauty does, what parent-child relationships should be. Should is always part of these stories: you should be successful, you should have all of the normative things in your life. There are these larger stories about race and gender and what constitutes success and who’s cool and who’s uncool—all those things that just bludgeon us. I wanted to stay away from that typical setup: the world is made out of stories and isn’t that wonderful. 

The world is made out of stories: some of them are prisons and some of them are poisonous. You have to be very careful about what stories you pick. Learning to recognize the stories and to choose them and maybe to stop the ones that are destructive and recognize that we construct them about who we are, about what our life consists of, of what’s valuable—those are the stories that we tell ourselves all of the time. And they run you or you run them.


Point Reyes Light: Have you paid more attention to the way you tell yourself stories over time?

Rebecca Solnit: I don’t want to sound like I’ve mastered it. I’m engaged in the process of trying to be more conscious of how I tell stories and what the consequences of certain stories are. Professionally I’m a storyteller, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m in command in my personal life. But it might give me some access to the process of identifying what stories I tell myself and learning to pause my stories. And realize it’s the story I’m telling that’s making me feel this way, rather than the incident.


Point Reyes Light: Is everyone a natural storyteller?

Rebecca Solnit: Everybody has a life story, and everybody wants their story to be heard in some way—the parts they’re not ashamed of. I think everybody is a storyteller, but we’re not particularly trained in the craft. We just get all these stories, and we mistake them for reality instead of things that have been given to us that we can test to see if they’re benefiting us or harming us. 

Women are told lots of stories that can be really confining and depressing. Feminism has partly been the job of broadening the definition of what women are allowed to be, not limiting them to mothers and wives and subservient people. 


Point Reyes Light: Were you told those stories about women and gender as a child?

Rebecca Solnit: I think everybody is. My family was liberal. My mom was an early subscriber to Ms. Magazine, which started coming out when I was 11 or 12. The whole world tells women so much of what they need to look like, what makes you valuable, and often tells you you’re less valuable than a man. It often limits what you can do. When I was growing up, people didn’t have much ambition for girls. It was a really different world: Title IX didn’t exist, we didn’t have a lot of sports. People didn’t necessarily encourage you to have a career and to think big. That’s the story of what gender is. It’s little things, too. I remember the boys on my block had a spitting contest and I tried to participate—I was a tomboy—and they said, “Eww, a girl, spitting!” I think men are limited, too, in how they’re allowed to express and feel and be. Both genders are given these really limited ranges.


Point Reyes Light: What inspired you to create the line of text that runs along the bottom of the book’s pages, which begins with a statement about how moths drink the tears of sleeping birds?

Rebecca Solnit: The chapters are all addressing the same things, but they are very disparate. I liked the idea of a line of continuity running through the book. I had this gorgeous material I hadn’t used, namely the thing about the moths drinking the tears of sleeping birds, and I wanted to riff on that. 

And in the book itself I had a metaphor of the thread from my friend Ann Chamberlain’s island—the art installation with the red threads between the islands so there were lots of metaphors of threads and sutures and spinning and weaving. Creating a narrative thread that offered a literal continuity was interesting to do. 

It also called attention to the fact that when you’re in a book, you’re traveling through space. We often treat books like they’re disembodied and neutral, but a book has architecture. It’s a structure your eyes travel through. This calls attention to that a little bit. People get to decide whether to read and how to read this thing across the bottom, but it also calls attention to how you’re traveling. You could read this all the way through and read it very quickly, you can glance at it when you’re reading the main text, or you can just ignore it.


Point Reyes Light: Have you asked many people how they read it?

Rebecca Solnit: I heard from somebody who glanced at it from time to time and saw that sometimes it seemed to relate very closely to what was in the main text, and sometimes it seemed to be really divergent. I didn’t construct it that carefully, but as people question the future of books, I think calling attention to what books do that other things don’t is worth doing. One of the things they do is give you this space you travel through. Your eyes are moving across these lines of text, and that’s a long journey. The book is not only about storytelling, but to some extent about books and what happens when you get lost in a book.

I told another interviewer that I measured one of my books—calculated the lines per page and pages in the book—and figured out that if you ran it as a single sentence, it would be like three and a half miles long. You travel quite a distance in a book. Maybe I’ll measure how long this one is when I get home.


Point Reyes Light: You wrote about an image from the Chronicles of Narnia, of a forest full of pools of water that you go down into and travel to another world, as a metaphor for a library.

Rebecca Solnit: Looking at a shelf of books is still magical to me. Each one opens up to a different world.


Point Reyes Light: Do you think that Kindles and Nooks lack that physical presence?

Rebecca Solnit: I haven’t used one. Basically as long as people are reading I’m psyched, and I understand people travel a lot and things like that. For some people, the aesthetics of paper don’t particularly work and they don’t want to collect the books and have them on their shelves. Anything that keeps people reading is great.


Point Reyes Light: You write a lot about the etymology of certain words in the book: emergency, suture, vanity.

Rebecca Solnit: In the same way I think of a book as a box that I learned how to open when I learned to read, a word is a container and it contains more meaning than we often pay attention to. The fact that emergency contains the word emergence, which is the opposite of merging, tells us something about what an emergency is: it’s a sudden change, a sudden move from one state to another. So I find some of those things really interesting, as ways to think about the world, as a word-mad person. It’s part of being a book lover and a language lover.


Point Reyes Light: You dove into books at a very young age.

Rebecca Solnit: My mom said I learned how to read my first week of first grade. I remember how exciting it was. Books had been closed to me. I could look at pictures, and I was already a kid who was in love with stories. Suddenly infinite stories were available to me; it’s as though I suddenly had a key and I could unlock all these boxes and enjoy the treasures within. It felt really magical. Libraries were these enchanted treasure troves. I still feel that way about bookstores and libraries.


Point Reyes Light: A seemingly infinite supply of stories.

Rebecca Solnit: More than you’ll ever have time to read. Even the Novato public library, which is the wonderful library I grew up with, has more books than I will ever read in my lifetime. That’s just a medium-sized town library. U.C. Berkeley has 10 million volumes. Ten million isn’t infinity, but compared to the amount of time you’ll spend reading in your life, it might as well be.


Point Reyes Light: You grew up in Marin?

Rebecca Solnit: I grew up in Novato, the conservative part of Marin County. It was where all the San Francisco cops lived. It’s funny, you say you grew up in Marin, and everyone from the outside thinks that means you grew up in Mill Valley among liberal lawyers, but I grew up among conservative policemen and firefighters. But the landscape was amazing and beautiful. Because so many people come from elsewhere, being a local is kind of a minority culture. [Ms. Solnit saw an egret.] That is so slow and dreamy.


Point Reyes Light: You focus a lot on how stories expand the self and our sense of empathy.

Rebecca Solnit: It expands the self because when something bad happens to somebody I feel really connected to, I don’t feel it literally but I feel for them, and therefore my feeling is there as well. Someone you don’t care about—what happens to them doesn’t affect you. 

You see people withdraw from even the people around them. Before you beat your kid, you have to somehow detach from your kid. It’s scary how good people are at doing that. I think it’s true of most physical and psychological violence. You have to feel deeply separate from someone before you can do awful things to them. That separateness and that numbing is damaging to the perpetrator as well. In a sense that violence comes out of that sense of separateness and numbness. 

One of the tragedies of our time is that we teach young men to be useful for killing, and then we bring them back into our society, and they’re damaged, and we don’t really have a process to remake them. Sometimes they come back and they are very traumatized or violent. That’s one of the things I’m interested in: how do we go numb, how do you shut off awareness and empathy, which you can see literally as a kind of reduction. If I expand when I feel for somebody, I contract when I can’t or don’t feel. We tend to talk as though the self were this very simple thing: my boundaries are my skin. But I think, in an emotional and ethical sense, those boundaries are much more complex. 

The people you care about are somehow included in your sense of self. We enter into each other’s lives when we hear each other’s stories, even in literal ways. When you sit in a room full of people you’re breathing in little particles of each other. People who live together longer are influenced by pheromones and bacteria. In a lot of interesting ways we can define the self as a much more complex system with much more blurry boundaries.


Rebecca Solnit will appear  next Sunday, June 30, from 2 to 4 p.m. in a conversation with Michael Lerner at Commonweal, in Bolinas. The event is co-presented by Point Reyes Books and the New School at Commonweal. Admission is free but advance registration is required at