On Creative Nonfiction and The Faraway Nearby

By Courtney Zanosky

“What’s your story?” This is the question that Rebecca Solnit uses to thread together her narrative in the genre-refuting memoir The Faraway Nearby. Ultimately, she brings to light that your story is my story is her story is Frankenstein’s story is a Buddhist’s story is her mother’s story—annihilating the notion that memoir is inherently self-absorbed.

“One of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you…to tell stories rather than be told by them.” As our stories weave like threads into quilts coming together and coming undone, Solnit shows how the story of the world is told. The Faraway Nearby is a masterpiece in storytelling as it illuminates seemingly strange connections; how a pile of apricots rotting on Solnit’s floor is also the story of Leprosy, slowly numbing and alienating a person’s own body like a bad spot spreading across raw apricots. From a journey to Iceland to diving into fairytales, Solnit shows the fluidity of stories—how we make them and how we use them to define ourselves—and how they are not all as disconnected as we may think.

Creative nonfiction, as a genre, is often overlooked—receiving hardly one bookcase of attention at book retailers. A common misconception of the genre is that it is memoir-based, too personal, and unrelatable—as though the story you’ve created for your life is not going to match or be enhanced by the story that the creative nonfiction author has created for her life. Solnit not only pushes against this wall, but she completely dismantles it with this book that is simultaneously memoir, history, and geography—that brings faraway stories nearby. In order to do this, she plays with form in a way that arguably only creative nonfiction can do.

Her narrative is told in chapters, but the chapters progress forward and then move backward in parallel form—creating a mirror image, a portrait, of her story. Moving from the chapter titles of Apricots to Mirrors to Ice to Flight to Breath to Wound to Knot to Unwound to Breath to Flight to Ice to Mirrors to Apricots, her narrative breaths like a wave as it charges forward and then softly recoils. There is movement in the chapters—literally and figuratively—as the title of each starts far left on the page and moves more to the right as you read farther into the narrative. Once you hit Knot, however, the farthest right on the page, she unwinds you with Unwound as she also unwinds the chapters, and they start to literally recoil back to the physical left side of the page as the narrative starts to recoil back to the stories she’s already told. She brings you with her on a journey that starts at a heap of apricots and ends at a heap of apricots—with Iceland, Mary Shelley, Buddhist monks, Leprosy patients, her mother, and Wu Daozi filling in the middle. This use of physical form to reflect narrative meaning is both innovative and effective—demonstrating that stories don’t have a clear beginning or end, but that they are forever wrapped around a history that is almost impossible to pin down.

If that were not enough, Solnit also uses a story of a moth feeding on the tears of a sleeping bird as the physical thread that holds the pages of her memoir together. Running across the bottom of each page is this new, yet same, story that she is telling below the paragraphs and words above. You almost have to read the body of the book in its entirety and then go back and read the entirely new story that is told across the footer space. In the new story, you will find that moths that feed on sleeping birds’ tears are still part of the old story because just as the moth feeds on the sleeping bird, so does Solnit’s mother on her. There is nothing separate. As Solnit writes, “I sometimes imagine my whole life that way, as though each step was a stitch, as though I was a needle leaving a trail of thread that sewed together the world as I went by, crisscrossing others’ paths, quilting it all together in some way that matters even though it can hardly be traced.” In the end, this is not just the story of Solnit and her mother; The Faraway Nearby is the gorgeous nonfiction portrait of us all.

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