I heard the American writer, activist and feminist Rebecca Solnit speak recently at the London Literature Festival. Since then I have read her current book, The Faraway Nearby, having previously read and loved an earlier book of hers, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

The Faraway Nearby did not disappoint. It is enigmatic, sometimes elusive, and ultimately stimulating and thought provoking.

The book was largely inspired by the unexpected gift of a (very large) box of apricots. This makes sense when you have read the book, the fruit bounty, symbolic of both abundance and decay, serving as a catalyst for this memoir/’anti-memoir’, which is in essence a series of connected personal reflections on stories and storytelling.

The fruit was shared and eaten, with some decaying before they could be enjoyed. Some apricots were canned, the jars and their contents mirroring the fate of stories, a preservation of something that would otherwise disappear.

And so, the stories of our lives preoccupy The Faraway Nearby, from its very first words:

‘What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. 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.’

Our stories, and those we intersect with, create our connection with the world we inhabit:

‘You can speak as though your life is a thread, a narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread, but each of us is an island from which countless threads extend out into the world.’

A significant thread that forms the backdrop to The Faraway Nearby is Solnit’s longstanding problematic relationship with her mother:

‘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.’

At the time of writing Solnit’s mother had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and as a result was losing her stories, living increasingly in an ‘unremembered past.’

Solnit journeys far, both on the page to Frankenstein and Shelley, to Che Guevara, and to many fairytales and myths, and physically to Iceland, always considering stories, and the self along the way:

‘The self is also a creation, the principal work of your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an artist.’

‘Not to know yourself is dangerous, to that self, and to others.’

Solnit develops breast cancer  – ‘Where does a story begin? The fiction is that they do, and end…’ – and her experience of diagnosis and treatment leads to reflections on where an individual’s story is positioned in the face of illness:

‘The real story of your life is always all the way from birth to death, and the medical experts appear like oracles to interpret and guide even as they turn you from your familiar self, a dealer in stories, into mute meat, breathing or approaching last breaths.’

Empathy is inextricably linked to how we tell and hear stories. Considering doctors specifically, Solnit suggests that they need a ‘balance between empathy and separation, closeness and distance, to find the right distance at which to function best for their own and the patients’ well-being.’

Empathy for Solnit ‘is the capacity to feel what you do not literally feel…’, or more lyrically, it is a kind of music akin to Wordsworth’s “still sad music of humanity”.

The capacity for empathy requires an imaginative leap. ‘…a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.’

Following on from a recent piece in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2013/05/20/130520crat_atlarge_bloom), which read as a cautionary note on how we perceive the benefits of empathy, particularly where it becomes our moral guide – ‘…empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future’ – I asked Solnit to comment on this perspective. She remains resolutely passionate about the importance of empathy in the creation of a humane society:

‘Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members, just as people can and do erase the humanity of those close to them.’

There is much to consider in this relatively short book. Solnit brings you on a journey, where you feel guided through many imponderables, and less alone in your questioning and searching:

‘Books are solitudes in which we meet.’

CQ

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