In an interview, Rebecca Solnit exhibits the thoughtfulness, wonder and enlightenment of her exquisitely crafted and interwoven essays and talks about her latest book, “The Far Away Nearby.”
Rebecca Solnit is a progressive activist who happens to be an extraordinary essayist, one who challenges us to explore our inner selves, our personal stories and our roles of being in the world. She has long been an advocate of choosing hope and empathy in the midst of uncertainty.
Few writers today exhibit the breadth of thoughtfulness, wonder and enlightenment that Solnit reveals in her exquisitely crafted and interwoven essays, as evidenced in “The Far Away Nearby.”
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Mark Karlin: The Faraway Nearby is a marvelously textured work that is woven together in a manner such that the full sweep of the tapestry of the book is only revealed when seen as a whole after the reader finishes. Was this your intention when you were planning it?
Rebecca Solnit: I used to say that I wrote books, but now I feel as though I make them. A book is a physical object; it has a sort of architecture – and the codex (the pages bound on one side that is the design of most books) is one of humanity’s great inventions. A book is an architectural space through which you travel physically – as you turn pages – and visually – as your eye travels along the miles of sentences – and this book calls attention a little to the architecture that is also the architecture of a story. I am glad that people read books any way at all, but I feel strongly that there is a beautiful spatial journey through a physical book that e-books don’t replicate.
Well, I invented it as I went along, but the mirrored or Russian Doll structure was there at the outset, and the sense of the book I started out with is that there were ideas and emblems that would recur. And they did. And then it made sense to put in that 14th chapter that runs, one line wide, across the bottom of the 13 that are in the table of contents. That chapter is literally and metaphorically the thread that ties the book together.
MK: Your first two sentences are, “What’s your story? It’s all in the telling.” I feel I can never do justice to your deft weaving of your personal reflections over a period of time – your stories – with fictional and nonfictional stories, lives and the exploration of relevant words and religious traditions. But to what degree are we all creatures of the stories that we create about ourselves, usually without even knowing our own narratives?
RS: We get stories with our mothers’ milk; we breathe them in and exhale them all day; we walk on them and sleep under them and sometimes choke to death on them. Writers often say the world is made out of stories with the implication that that’s wonderful. But stories come in all varieties, including stories of racial and gender inferiority, of American exceptionalism, capitalism’s inevitability, stories that justify atrocities and render invisible the consequences of actions. And those are just the collective stories.
The stories we are told growing up shape us: stories that we can do no wrong or do no right, that we are of inestimable value or worthless, that this is how men treat women, this is what it is to be a man, that this is fun, that is scary, these gods exist, those are false. And then we tell ourselves stories that can afflict us: how lucky or accursed we are, of how we fall short of what we’re supposed to be – for women, beautiful, for everyone popular and in possession of all the conventional hallmarks of personal and professional success. Those stories can be the very engine of depression, shame, miserliness. And everyone knows those stories that run through your head like nightmarish loop tapes of how that person did that terrible thing that they shouldn’t have and wronged you, those stories you have to learn to turn off.
I say at the outset of that book that we speak as though we tell stories, but stories tell us – tell us who we are, what to do, what to see, what to overlook. The great task of becoming a storyteller is learning to perceive the stories clearly, to choose them, to tell them, and the most zen aspect: to pause them and enjoy the calm between the storm of stories. It’s in this context that The Faraway Nearby tells stories and dissects them, celebrates and mourns them.
MK: To what extent did the model of Scheherazade influence the style of The Faraway Nearby?
RS: Journalists use a great phrase, “breaking the story,” to talk about when you’re the first to get the news out. Once when I was really stuck on rewinding and rerunning tales of my ill fortune, I put up a notice that said “break the story” in that other sense, above, of breaking out of the framework of the stories we tell ourselves. Scheherazade is a story breaker: She breaks the Sultan’s story that because his first wife cuckolded him, he’s going to sleep with a virgin every night and kill her every morning. And she breaks his story because she is the consummate storyteller: She tells him stories that go on and on and never end, stories within stories, pregnant stories. So both as someone who breaks stories and makes them, and for telling the stories I love, the stories within stories within stories, and that beautiful Islamic version of fairytales, she’s a presiding deity in the book. But she’s not alone. Frankenstein is also a story within a story within a story, and so are many of Joseph Conrad’s novellas, and the wonderful The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a Polish book from the 18th century (that is also a gorgeous romp of a movie) that is explicitly modeled on The Arabian Nights. I also thought of Tristam Shandy, another great novel from that era that is purportedly the narrator’s life story but, what with digressive stories, it takes him half the book to get around to being born.
MK: Your first and last chapters are entitled “Apricots.” The hundred pounds of apricots that unexpectedly arrive at your apartment play a key role as an image that re-emerges in your book: in relationship to your mother, in relationship to birth and decay, in relationship to the unplanned that happens to us in life and so much more. How did you decide to make this such a central image in your book?
RS: It’s the other way around, the apricots decided that there would be a book and they would be in the middle of it! They were so extravagantly allegorical, such an invitation to contemplate fairytales with their magical gifts and anxious abundances – whole rooms full of straw to spin into gold or mountains of grain to sort by dawn, on pain of death. In a way, the whole book is about the apricots: they beg questions – whose tree did they come from, why did they resonate, what is the nature of gifts and debts . . . The answers are about Che Guevera among the leprosy colonies of Latin America, about rot, decay, and mortality, about a cannibal incident in the Arctic, because the shortest distance between two points isn’t the richest or most illuminating, or the goal in a book of this sort.
MK: On page 108 of your book you quote Georgia O’Keeffe as the source of the title of your work. What did she mean when she signed letters to the people with whom she was most close to with the closing, “from the faraway nearby”? That is after she had moved from the urban New York art world to rural New Mexico.
RS: Georgia O’Keeffe used to sign letters to her close friends that way, to indicate that geographical distance is not emotional distance. You can be distant from the person next to you in bed or close to someone on the other side of an ocean. The mystic intellectual Simone Weill said something similar that I quoted in A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She wrote in a letter to a friend, “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, because those who do not love each other are not separated.”
MK: You offer the maxim: “Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason.” This returns at the end of the book during your ruminations on a decades-delayed rafting trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. As an essayist, you remark that it is an essayist’s desire to come to a clear conclusion, to tie up the boat at the dock when an essay ends. But you end the book, it would appear, with the promise of another new beginning, another story to commence – with the notion that after this tumultuous period in your life, there is a time to move on in the narrative that is your life. How do you react to that interpretation?
RS: I am suspicious of tidy endings. Because nothing really ends. Even your own life story doesn’t quite end with death, because your impact lives on, so how can a memoir wrap it all up? A lot of memoirs do, because even though they’re supposed to be from life, they’re modeled after novels, with knowable characters, an omniscient narrator, a plot and a resolution. Or they come from pop therapy culture with its terms like “closure” and “catharsis” that suggest you can fix something that’s broken, fix meaning that it’s all over. But even though your bone knits, you walk with a limp; even though you’ve forgiven the person who hit you with the car that broke your leg, your leg was broken and your life changed and your memory strays back to that time; the journey is not tidy or linear; occasionally something that’s been over for years returns and so does some of the distress or delight from another era. We are not neat, tidy, linear creatures; inside we are oceanic, with depths, storms, uncharted reaches, and sometimes an old shipwreck reappears when the waves are rough.
Sometimes the desire to reach such neat conclusions is the desire for questions to be answered, journeys to end, investigations to reach conclusions, and instead, that work goes on in any life worth living. In this book that is an inquiry into how we tell our stories as well as some stories about myself and stories that gave me encouragement and direction as they arose in that period, a tidy conclusion would’ve been a betrayal. In that last chapter I say, “Sometimes an extraordinary or huge question comes along and we try to marry it off to a mediocre answer.” We don’t have to do that. We can live with the question, with the open door, with the churning sea and even the chance the shipwreck will resurface. We can live with uncertainty. We have to, actually, because that’s what we are given, not certainty.
MK: You quote Virginia Woolf, on page 240, who wrote, “From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.” Would it be accurate to say that this quotation gets to the core of the art of how The Faraway Nearby is written?
MK: Can you discuss a bit about how the national television drama of Jessica McClure, a toddler who fell down a well in 1987 – and the saga of her rescue – became an illustration of empathy to you. In your past works, empathy is a recurring concept in being a key feature of the human condition, although not emerging as a salient emotion in far too many of us.
RS: Well, I was listening to the radio, and I heard the great blues musician Charlie Musselwhite talk about how he stopped drinking. He heard about this kid stuck down the well, heard that she was singing and hanging on, and as he put it, “Man! My problems were small compared to hers. Why couldn’t I be even half as brave as she’s being? I thought ‘That’s it. Until she gets out, I’m not having another drink.’ It was a form of prayer for her from me. By the time they got her out, I was out too.” He was out of drinking, out of his own trap. Somehow he got so engrossed in someone else’s story, felt so strongly for the person the story revealed, that he was able to stop being trapped in his own story, his own pattern. I wrote, “That stopping drinking was his first thought shows how much it was already on his mind. It was as though he had already been staring at the door when a key fell through the window, and of course he himself was the prison, the door, the window, and the key. Like a fairytale protagonist, he was rescued by his empathy with an even more fragile creature, and if the story of the girl in the well was a ladder out of his own hell, compassion was the force that got him to the ladder and maybe up it. His will to rescue her rescued him.” In other words, you could say his capacity to feel so strongly about a stranger liberated him from being trapped in his own drama. Which was a dramatic illustration of the way we live through each others’ stories, of the way we can break out of our own, and the ways that empathy, often seen as selfless, can also be useful.
What was also amazing about the story is how differently it affected the people around it. Someone won a Pulitzer, someone committed suicide, and a philosopher used the story to criticize our irrationality. So there was a whole pack of people being affected, but also interpreting those events.
MK: Can you expand on your observation on page 148 that, “Mostly we tell the story of our lives, or mostly we’re taught to tell it, as a quest to avoid suffering”? Isn’t that in so many ways a survival mechanism of the species; i.e., to avoid suffering?
RS: Well, I’m for avoiding unnecessary bodily harm, which is about what animal survival mechanisms cover, but there are other kinds of suffering, because we are complex metaphysical animals. Otters and great blue herons don’t wonder much about whether they’ve made the right choices in life or what love really is. And I think we live in a culture that values the anesthetic, values comfort and safety very, very highly, and doesn’t have much language to talk about meaning, purpose and other difficult pursuits in life. I was just talking last night to a friend about the difference between bad and difficult. Bad is things that just suck. Difficult is something else, something that might be rewarding but is scary, hard, demanding. You might not enjoy doing it but it’s necessary to do, and when you’re done you’re better for it.
Facing your own fears is difficult, climbing a mountain is difficult, changing your life is difficult, seeing your own failures is difficult but worth it if you then move past them somehow. Often the avoidance of discomfort turns into the avoidance of your destiny, your life and ultimately yourself. Which isn’t suffering in the sense of excruciating pain, but is another kind of suffering from numbness, nothingness. You can suffer from meaninglessness, comfortably, on a couch with some snacks; you can rejoice in meaning while doing something that is not easy in any way – sandbanking a flooding river, rebuilding a home destroyed by a tornado or hurricane. That sentence you quoted part of is, when it’s complete, “Mostly we tell the story of our lives, or mostly we’re taught to tell it, as a quest to avoid suffering, though if your goal is a search for meaning, honor, experience, the same events may be victories or necessary steps.” I think we mostly learn from mistakes and difficulties and things that make us suffer, that in throwing ourselves into life, in taking risks, we grow and become, we continue on the journey. There’s a risk of getting hurt, as there is in being vulnerable, which is another kind of journey to the interior. But the risk of not living, of being stuck, of so insulating yourself from harm that you insulate yourself from life also looms large in this time. Finding a middle way is what I’m interested in.
MK: I have mentioned to you that I was quite moved by your admonition in a TomDispatch essay: “To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.” Much of your book touches upon the inevitable decay and deterioration that is associated with being born into the world, yet you find hope in new beginnings, new stories. And you are made hopeful by, as you recount, the nonviolent protests some time back against the Burmese government. How does one change one’s story from one of fear of the uncertainty that we wake to everyday to one of hope?
RS: Well, first you accept that nothing is stable and certain in this world. Everything is changing. And you accept that we don’t know the future – I think optimists and pessimists agree in thinking they know what’s coming next; by hope I mean only that the future is uncertain, and if we try we might contribute to how it unfolds. Even with climate change, which is the most dismal thing human beings have ever faced: What we may be able to do to circumvent the worst of it, how it will unfold, how we will adapt, who we will be in the year 2213, we don’t know, but we might be able to make a difference, we might matter. The Burmese situation is interesting: Who in 2007 foresaw that the Burmese military junta would loosen their hold on the country, that Aung San Suu Kyi after so many years under house arrest would be elected to office and travel? You don’t know. That sense of uncertainty and change is in all my books of the last decade, from Hope in the Dark to Field Guide, to my atlas of San Francisco (which is about the myriad ways a city can be read, while remaining inexhaustible anyway), to my book about the surprising aftermath of disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell. Things change. How they will, we do not know.
I could have called The Faraway Nearby after Ovid’s great book, instead, The Metamorphosis. I was interested in how stories change; how illness changes our sense of self; how unstable the shoreline of that self is as it reaches out to someone new, goes deeper into the self, or goes numb; how we continue growing and evolving all our lives; how after long decades a relationship can change for the better.
Change is often seen as loss but there are things we benefit from losing, and loss is what you see when you look back. When you look forward, you see the unfamiliar rushing toward you, with gifts, difficulties, new stories.
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