Rebecca Solnit begins her new memoir, The Faraway Nearby, with a question: "What's your story?"
"It's all in the telling," she says. "Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of the world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice."
In her book, Solnit explores her tempestuous relationship with her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's before her death. She weaves in being a writer in residence in Iceland and examines the stories of Scheherazade and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
"We think we tell stories," she says, "but often stories tell us."
Solnit tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jackie Lyden about receiving a "fairy-tale" gift from her mother: 100 pounds of apricots.
"Every time I looked at it," Solnit says, "there were a few more going bad. And so it became a pile of anxiety. I was always looking to see what was going wrong rather than just feeling this superabundance of apricots."
"We often talk about empathy as an emotional virtue, but it's also an imaginative art. Before I can empathize with you, you have to become real to me. I have to listen to you, I have to tell myself your story. I have to imagine what it is like to be you with your illness or your situation or your aspirations or whatever it is. If you don't have empathy, other people might not exist for you."
On her relationship with her mother
"The really interesting thing with my mother is that so much of her wrath at me wasn't really me, it was narratives about what a daughter should be, about what feminine beauty should be, about what she lacked and she thought I had."
On the effect of Alzheimer's
"Over the passage of time through this disease ... she just forgot all the stories, and it was really remarkable for me because really for the first time, that I could remember, I'd walk into a room and she'd be just thrilled to see me. The stories were really what had come between us. ... And then, of course, the disease continued to progress and she lost more and more capacity and perception and awareness, but there was this remarkable period when she just was so enthused about me and so effervescent that was just enchanting and enchanted."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Writer Rebecca Solnit begins her new memoir with 100 pounds of apricots. And before the book is finished, she's explored her tempestuous relationship with her mother who's facing Alzheimer's. She's been a writer-in-residence in Iceland, and she's drawn threads that connect the stories of Scheherazade and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."
Allowing her imagination and intelligence to wander have always been a feature of Rebecca Solnit's many books. Her latest is called "The Faraway Nearby." It's an exploration of empathy and the role of storytelling, and it opens with a question.
REBECCA SOLNIT: (Reading) What's your story? It's all in the telling. Stories are compasses in 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. 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.
LYDEN: Author Rebecca Solnit reading from her new book, "The Faraway Nearby." Her starting place was that 100 pounds of apricots delivered from a tree her failing and forgetful mother could no longer tend. She says that mountain of stone fruit arranged in her bedroom was to her like a task from a fairy tale.
SOLNIT: Where you have to spin a whole room full of straw into gold on pain of death. But they also felt like a fairy tale gift because it was such an amazing superabundance. I didn't recall ever having had an apricot from that tree, so it's amazing to suddenly have a mountain of them.
I took them out of the boxes that my brother had brought them over in and thought I was going to just feel rich and admire this pile of abundance. But every time I looked at it, there were a few more going bad, and so it became a pile of anxiety. I was always looking to see what was going wrong.
LYDEN: This book, "The Faraway Nearby," isn't one of those memoirs where the mother is venerated because the two of you are very different people, and it's a complicated relationship. When she starts being forgetful, she doesn't call your three brothers. She calls you. She says, well, you're the girl. You're at home all day. You're not doing anything. Did she understand you as a writer?
SOLNIT: In some ways, she did. I think when she talked about me to other people, she represented a version I liked. When she talked about me to me, there was a kind of denying that I resisted in a way. And, you know, so I was just a mirror for what she needed or expected. But I have to say we were a great deal alike, and that made it all so much more interesting.
LYDEN: What was the genesis of this book as you are thinking about her? You write that one of the things you wanted to explore was the nature of empathy.
SOLNIT: Yeah. Well, the book is very much about storytelling and empathy and the way those two things relate. Because we often talk about empathy as an emotional virtue, but it's also an imaginative art. Before I can empathize with you, you have to become real to me. I have to listen to you. I have to imagine what it is like to be you with your illness or your situation or your aspirations or whatever it is.
If you don't have empathy, other people might not exist for you or you just can't imagine we really need to be fully human to imagine being every other kind of person. And it extends you. It expands you. And that sort of expanding and contracting, projecting and numbing self was a lot of what this book was about for me.
LYDEN: At the end of this book, you and friends have prepared these apricots as bottles and jars of jam. You've given a lot of those away, and you've really come to a peaceful understanding of your mother. Can you talk a little bit about that? Did she ever see any of these jars of apricot jam that came from her tree?
SOLNIT: I spent lots of time taking her out to eat the things she loved, you know, coconut ice cream and things like that. But somehow, it never occurred to me to bring her the apricots. But the really interesting thing with my mother is that so much of her wrath at me wasn't really me. It was narratives about what a daughter should be, about what feminine beauty should be, about what she lacked and she thought I had.
Over the passage of time, through this disease - that's Alzheimer's - she just forgot all the stories. And it was really remarkable for me because, really, for the first time that I could remember, I'd walk into a room, and she'd be just thrilled to see me. The stories were really what had come between us. You know, it was like a wall fell down, and we were really able to contact each other in a way that we hadn't before to be with each other.
And what was a really interesting passage of time, a really elated time for her in many ways, everything was incomparable. Every piece of cake was the most delicious piece of cake. Every flower was the most beautiful flower. She had a really wonderful time because she lost terrible things as well as the things that we all want to have as part of our ability to function.
And then, of course, the disease continued to progress, and she lost more and more capacity and perception and awareness. But there was this remarkable period where she just was so enthused about me and so effervescent that was just enchanting and enchanted.
LYDEN: And, Rebecca, you explore that relationship in this tapestry of stories that transport us from Iceland to the ancient Tang Dynasty in China - so many places, more than we can talk about here. But it's a rich and imaginative journey. Rebecca Solnit's new book, "The Faraway Nearby," has just come out. Rebecca, thank you for being with us today.
SOLNIT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.