For activist and writer Rebecca Solnit (b. 1961), memory is the story that keeps us company. Hope is the memory of things yet unhappened. Through these structures, we form our consciousness. The Faraway Nearby carries us into these issues.
[The places we love] give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our own lives to remain connected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness.
This tethering to stories and narratives echoes the words of British novelist Penelope Lively who wrote “Memory is ballast” or German critic Walter Benjamin who thought memory was consciousness. Through tales of her childhood, family, and things as vast as Mary Shelley’s landscapes in Frankenstein and as specific as apricots, Solnit pulls the extended parts of herself back into the fold, back into a cohesive whole.
Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.
As Solnit sorts through issues like the alienation of home, the space of memory, and the piece by piece formation of our lives, the heart of the book is her mother’s Alzheimer’s and Solnit’s lifelong pain from their relationship.1
My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.
Solnit is gathering parts of her scattered self—or forming herself ‘against the ruins’ of her mother’s shore. (To borrow a metaphor from T. S. Eliot). The book is not only about storytelling; it is Solnit storytelling.
Like many who turned to art to express what cannot be said, Solnit concurs “Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things, it is not possible to say to someone.” Telling the story becomes the means to understand.2
To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.
In The Faraway Nearby we join Solnit into the largeness of the world and yet, still reach limits of understanding. There are some stories we simply cannot fully understand. The drawback of The Faraway Nearby is that while Solnit empathizes with her younger self, she fails to find empathy for her mother. Her mother remains a villain. Unreachable. I think Solnit is aware of this shortcoming, however.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown.
From her coinage of the phrase “mansplaining” to her ever-watchful eye towards injustices, environmental degradation, and the most untouchable kernels of hope, Solnit is a consistent and contemporary force.
Accompany The Faraway Nearby with tales from unparalleled storyteller Maya Angelou, who somehow, in the middle of a horrid century, presented us with unblinking light of being: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or her last book before she died, Mom & Me & Mom.
Solnit believes storytelling is bearing witness. Peer deeper into this concept with Elie Wiesel’s testimony of the Holocaust or my own study of the limitations and burdens of being a witness. There is always an uncrossable frontier of knowledge when we try to understand each other. But we must still try. To do so – according to Solnit – is the greatest act of love.3