Books In Conversation
LIDIA YUKNAVITCH with Elizabeth Block
The bestselling author of Chronology of Water speaks to the Rail before the publication of Verge, her new collection of stories.
So much has already been stated about the highly anticipated publication of Lidia Yuknavitch’s new story collection. In a content-mad world, so few writers/artists remain timeless or produce at the vanguard of their context so that they last, as everyone’s clock eventually runs out. When literally only a handful of readers knew of Lidia’s work, she was always on the verge of something, slicing away at language like it was hers and hers alone, like she could turn it into anything, blow it up, tame it, orchestrate it, filibuster it, drown it, launch it into the sky. Now Yuknavitch has, indeed, reached a vast audience with bestselling books and as a TED speaker. Likewise, her memoir, Chronology of Water (2017), is being adapted into a screenplay/film by Kristen Stewart. With the publication of Verge, Yuknavitch’s writing flies into hyperspace. We enter the realm not only of another Angela Carter-ish freak, or a misfit for everyone. We transcend simplistic tropes of the pleasure-pain thermometer. To say that trauma is so real it can only be rendered absurd or represented within another representation is one true thing about these tales. They also give voice to and celebrate that which is so deeply felt and personal—its speech an act of courage and urgency. The book is historically specific, yet ultimately timeless in its address of the ecstatic. Welcome to Verge 2020.
Elizabeth Block (Rail): Hello Lidia. I know it’s been awhile. How great to meet again, on the occasion of your new book, Verge. Congratulations. This is definitely a culmination of your writing before you were widely known and your work after The Chronology of Water. I also see in here a conjuring of Two Girls Review, your former publication.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Elizabeth! So wonderful to cross your path again—I love knowing other writers and artists over time. I also love how art moves and changes over time, even though that’s not a popular idea inside the dreaded American market these days—but for me personally, I love how art is a living practice and a living organism out in the world. There is probably some Two Girls Review inside Corporeal Writing, no doubt about it—that morphing is ongoing. Maybe art and life are an endless morphing. Stasis is death.
Rail: I wanted to remain a standard deviant (at least for the purpose of this moment) and begin our conversation through the figure of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962). Because streaming media has made Edward Albee’s play widely available through Mike Nichols’s film adaptation, let’s begin with the film.
Yuknavitch: This is wonderful for me because that play had a MIGHTY influence on me the first time I read it—about the same time I read Equus (1973) [Laughter]. The play was written the year before I was born, 1962. So was A Clockwork Orange (Burgess), Ficciones (Borges), The Ticket that Exploded (Burroughs), The Man in the High Castle (Dick), The Reivers (Faulkner), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey), The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing), Pale Fire (Nabbokov), Ship of Fools (Katherine Anne Porter), and Sex and the Single Girl (Helen Gurley Brown), all books that became important in my weird little developing psyche. Thought I’d mention that when I first read Who's Afraid and especially when I saw it on stage it was the first time in my life that I caught a glimpse of the anger and arguments that were happening in my home. I saw domestic violence and a woman on the edge reflected in front of me. I suddenly understood my home life was not normal. Later in life when I lost a child, I then saw the play entirely differently. It still fascinates me, how, like I mentioned above, art is a living organism that changes over time—because we do.
Rail: When thinking of your work en masse, it occurs to me Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf offers much figurative fodder for a conversation. His play and the film remind me of your work (as a whole) on multiple levels.
The film is at once an ethnography of heteronormative sexuality and marriage (written from a gay outsider), and it is an onion slowly peeling away layers of representation and performance until a painful and sparse “reality” tears away at humanity, particularly a woman and her so called “biological destiny.” Just a nutshell interpretation.
Elizabeth Taylor blares, “I’m loud and I'm vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody's got to, but I am not a monster.”
What do you think of this quote from Albee and how does this play/film relate to your writing?
Yuknavitch: I think that quote is among a tiny handful of quotes out of the faces of women characters in literature that tells the absolute truth from inside the eye of a hurricane. I think that quote is a perfect distillation of a heteronormative woman speaking the truth of her anger without apology. What do you think? I also think it’s fascinating that it took the laser lens of a gay man to “see” and then amplify a woman’s anger without it being couched in some code of acceptability. She’s volatile and precise. That’s a little bit thrilling.
I refer to how Albee sparks your thoughts about representation within representation, the “difficult” woman or gender non-conforming freak, artist (non-conforming is such a strange term nowadays). Even more specifically how issues such as alcoholism, a story without or against a hero’s journey, motherhood, and gender/sexuality/body performance transpire in your writing.
Yuknavitch: Representations of the “difficult woman” in literature are kind of like a historical petri dish of social organization—the angry-ass woman surfaces and recedes in relation to what’s going on in the world and a never ending war against women reclaiming their own voice and agency in a culture that needs them to shut up and serve. Some of my personal favorites include Frankenstein (1818) (you heard me right), Housekeeping (1980), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Olive Kitteride (2008), EVERYTHING by Kathy Acker, Almanac of the Dead (1991), The Vagina Monologues (1996), The Woman Upstairs (2013), Carrie (1974), Medea (431 BCE), Antigone (1942), Sister Outsider (1984), Fates and Furies (2015) (sort of), A Woman Is Talking to Death (1974), Prozac Nation (1994), Two Girls Down (2018), Fat and Thin (1883), Beloved (1987) (SO MUCH), Cruelty and Killing Floor (1987), Borderlands (1987), Good Morning Midnight (1939), Nightwood (1936), Eileen (2015), The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964), The Lover (1984) and really ANYTHING by Marguerite Duras, The Passion (1987), Written on the Body (1992), Self Portrait in Green (2005), Defiance (2012), Bloodchild (1995), The God of Small Things (1997)…
(WOW! Now that I am looking at that list it would make a phenomenal reading list…um, slumber party?)
Rail: Some of my favorite authors as well. In terms of the “difficult women” label, it has been destructive for so many outspoken and talented women. Many women’s careers have been ruined or stalled because of lascivious or entitled men who silenced them just for being talented. A talented woman writer in an MFA program, for example, could be blacklisted by a male professor (let alone sexually harassed), labelled “difficult” for questioning canons, narratives, not tolerating he who says, “I don’t care if you are the next Virginia Woolf.” These people have the power to end a young woman’s career before it starts. Not all men; some are fantastic allies. The #MeToo movement is a relief (if only a new dawn), to say the least.
Yuknavitch: What we get a glimpse of briefly when an angry woman shows up in literature is the possibility of a full subjectivity unconstrained by the cultural inscription of “woman”—the “woman” who serves at the mercy of religion, family, and the state, the “woman” who is thus denied full personhood and full embodiment.
When we get a glimpse of the alcoholic woman (I truly love everything Marguerite Duras has articulated on this topic because it is not inscribed by sickness and health and AA and American moral codes), we are also looking at a real place of unrestricted voice and body—the woman who has turned away from the social codes that bind her and entered into a kind of liminal space, a free fall that might kill her or liberate her away from wife, mother, or compassionate widget in a society that cannot handle her full body or self.
Rail: I love everything she writes as well.
Yuknavitch: To bring it back to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, when we see Martha perform her motherhood, her sexuality, her gendered position, her alcoholism and anger, we are getting a peek at what Gilbert and Gubar (The Madwoman in the Attic, Yale University Press, 1980) so eloquently articulated as the woman as monster and man as martyr trope, the incarnation of female voracity and male impotence so characteristic of post war/Modernist literature. Gilbert and Gubar rightly boil things down to a fear of women, and by that they mean a fear of a fully embodied woman, unrestricted by social values or laws or god, one with full subjectivity, something rarely seen in actual life.
Martha is ecstatic. Martha’s drives are firing without inscription. Martha is vibrating with both life and death.
Rail: Thrilling character, writing spot on, Elizabeth Taylor performed her so well.
Yuknavitch: I am trying to write characters who vibrate similarly—in the liminal space between things, before cultural coding incarcerates bodies, lives, voices, stories. Characters vibrating between life and death.
For example, a couple of the stories suspend girls in a liminal space, even an ecstatic place, where they are both inside extreme danger but also inside the possibility of their own desire, anger, agency, as in “The Organ Runner” or “Second Language” or “Cusp.” None of the stories particularly liberate or resolve beyond the material conditions the characters inhabit, but I have tried to suspend them inside a space where meanings are generated and negated. To some extent their bodies are also spaces or epistemological sites where new meanings might be generated or negated. Similarly, in the story fragments like “A Woman Signifying,” I am trying to suspend that “vibrating woman” or vibrating man or child or refugee or addict or sex worker or mother or wife (like Martha) inside her anger or grief or desire or passion the moment BEFORE everything either goes to shit or becomes a portal.
Similarly, the story “A Woman Signifying” has to do with a woman taking the seething she is feeling on the inside and literally burning it onto her face as an external sign that no one can ignore anymore. She becomes the scream. She is wearing her vagina on her face in a culture that wants her to keep her power hidden, quiet, clean, and safe—inert.
Rail: In “A Woman Signifying” the narrator states:
What patience she had! What brave, glorious, undaunted patience. And even then she had realized it would take patience—patience to sit in front of the hot metal, patience to draw her face near, and nearer even as the heat became evident, whispering toward her cheek. Patience at the moment itself, to do it right, to pull away slowly, for after all she did not want to rip half her face off and leave it staring back at her from the radiator.
I think of the way it represents an onion that when slowly and painstakingly peeled away until we get past the performance and past the representation to the naked human tragedy that is what makes everything accessible and open—this is what I mean by the process of your work unfurling to a large mess. For years your work was within a small community, an experimental or group of daring readers. But here you are getting at the same Martha character in a horrific metaphorical sense, one more contemporary that is as literal but an expansion as well. Here the narrator is equally unsoothed and trapped. No resolution. “What advice was there for a woman’s epic anger when it was equaled in intensity only by need? The room swelled with shame and silence.” The narrator asks. But this is as real as it gets. And cannot be described as real. Domestic violence to the core.
Returning to A Chronology of Water, you still maintain an unusual execution of language and form but get down to the core of such a personalized experience that you transcend the mere experimental and open up the floodgates to a whole new audience. Do you feel like a different kind of writer? Because in many ways with Verge you are still the same stylist as you were with Her Other Mouths, just that you have a large audience and platform now.
Yuknavitch: I don’t actually believe in “universal and cathartic human experience.” I think I became suspicious of that idea and its corresponding dictum in literature and art some time in my 30s when I began to understand deeply that there is no such thing as a universal experience. Yes, I know everyone everywhere disagrees with that. But I actually believe that the idea of “universal and cathartic human experience” legitimizes some bodies and lives and stories while burying others. That’s why I’m so thrilled by the voices being amplified in our current zeitgeist: Terese Mailhot and Tommy Orange and Roxane Gay and Saeed Jones and Garth Greenwell and Alexander Chee and Esmé Weijun Wang and Myriam Gurba just to name only a few—I think the bodies, lives, and stories of those who have been silenced, incarcerated, tortured, and erased from culture are actually speaking back to the myth of “universal and cathartic” to remind us that the universal is a living organism that needs redefinition or maybe even replacement.
Rail: What a fantastic group of writers to remind us of such historical story arc and representational guffaws.
Yuknavitch: Yes! I feel like a different kind of writer and thank oceans for that! I think you can see the “trace” of my style struggles and breakthroughs in everything I’ve written. I think you can see that in the work of all authors, actually. Do you? I don’t think my style is the same as it was when I first started writing at 26. A good example is that at 26 I was coming out of psychosis and grief and I wrote a story called, yup “The Chronology of Water.” The story is made from fragments. But I couldn’t write the book Chronology of Water until 2010. Neither my style nor my life was ready for it. I hadn’t lived it yet and I hadn’t grown my art enough to try it. You know what I mean? I could not in any way shape or form have written Small Backs of Children without having written Chronology of Water first. Nope. Would not have been possible. I think it’s true or true enough that every book teaches me more about writing—like little portals I move through—or crucibles. I have consciousness burps and skill burps with every attempt. If I didn’t I’d quit and do something else. Yeah? Make sense?
Rail: Absolutely. Small Backs definitely builds on Chronology in a whole other manifestation, like another movement in a longer musical work, if I may use that metaphor.
To me Verge incorporates your earlier ideas about gender and sexuality (and its subsequent violence) for a generation of youth growing up beyond binary ideas altogether. I think the world is finally catching up. What is your take on the millennials’ more fluid understanding of gender and sexuality than the fight with which you have had to undergo to be heard and claim rights and freedom?
Yuknavitch: My take is YES YES YES FUCK YES FINALLY. The generation of youth growing up now (one that includes my son Miles who is about to be 19) and their take on a more fluid understanding of gender and sexuality makes me want to stand up and applaud while simultaneously peeing and coming. I could not be more thrilled by these new beings, this new species. Honestly. Just god damn. Hell to the yes.
Rail: Wow, he is already 19. I remember when we did a Poets & Writers reading with Lucy Corin, and he was a young monkey climbing all over you as you read.
Yuknavitch: So do I. My whole body is vibrating on this topic, just like one of the characters. I dunno how anyone survives motherhood. I really don’t.
About the “fight” you reference in your question…I think that fight emerged before I was born, I think every epoch has to encounter another form of it and devise their strategies to face off. So my personal puny little life inside that much larger story of resistance only matters because it keeps the story going. That’s why it’s so silly to me that generations throw shade at each other…I mean we need ALL OF US ALL OF THE TIME in the face of world-ending fuck, you know, so I just ignore the squabbles and keep doing my minor teeny little part to keep the story going. If I get in the way I try to learn from it as fast as possible. There is so much shit to shovel. I don’t care who wins the popularity contest of the day. I care about shoveling shit together with passion. We can take turns. I’m not meaning to say that making art is shoveling shit—there is much harder work to be done all around us collectively. But I am saying that making art is the strand of social action that keeps storytelling alive, noisy, and unflinching, and that’s not nothing.
Rail: Do you think the transgender movement has helped make it possible for bisexuals to be more open and accepted by the lesbian and gay communities?
Yuknavitch: YES YES YES ALL OF THE YES. Except that I think the transgender movement is much more important and revolutionary than helping bisexual people be more open and accepted by the lesbian and gay communities. I think the transgender movement—which is really the living bodies and lives of the bravest people around standing up inside a culture that wishes them dead—is the vanguard of a radical new existence possibility away from the current nomenclature altogether, away from the primary binaries that have cocked us all up so badly, toward queering as a verb, a true liberation movement.
Rail: So true.
Speaking of the liberation of textual meaning and catching up, can you go back a little and talk about Chiasmus Press, remind your readers what that was about?
Yuknavitch: What I am proudest about with regard to Chiasmus Press is that we published phenomenal writers including but not limited to Gina Frangello, Lance Olsen, Kate Zambreno, Stephen Graham Jones, and a LEGION of other genre-busing writers for a few years. Our aim was to keep hybrid, experimental, and transgressive writing noisy, unflinching, and desiring at the edges of the literary establishment. We had a pretty good run before it became impossible financially to continue without succumbing to support systems and market forces that creeped us out.
What I did with my book money when my reach extended was to quit academia and open up Corporeal Writing, a non-academic punk space for any writer who wants to come into a room and make art, but particularly for writers who feel misfitted or shut out or priced out from mainstream options like MFAs or fancy expensive residencies. I don’t know how long we can sustain it but I know we will die trying.
Rail: The titles alone in Verge are eye catching and provocative as a title exquisite corpse. I’m sure this is not a coincidence. Any thoughts about the titles?
Yuknavitch: Yeah you rightly point it out—they are meant to thread through one another, a kind of mapping or orchestral or curated shape. They are also meant to create an echo effect between stories.
Rail: You write as if you are structuring movie scenes, and you are aware of shot set ups. This is something that carries you through all of your work, including Verge. Can you talk more about your interests here.
Yuknavitch: Well the short answer is that my obsession with film started when I was six years old, about the same time that my obsession with being in water did. Coincidence? I think not. Film and water let you leave your life and enter a reality—a real place—where imagination endures. I am certain my imagination has been formed between image and word, and so I think my writing reflects that deep experience in me.
Rail: Speaking of film, congratulations on the Kristen Stewart screenplay/film adaptation.
Yuknavitch: The thrill of my 50s. Also, I find myself working with a whole legion of brilliant young women artists who are the age my daughter would have been. I think about that every single day of my goddamn life. There are many motherhoods.
Rail: Do you prefer “apocalyptic" or “dystopian" in reference to your work? I ask because of The Book of Joan (2017). These are descriptions attached to the work. You don’t seem hopeless, really.
Yuknavitch: I’m not sure I like either of them, do you?
Rail: Not exactly.
Yuknavitch: Considering we are living them in our present tense, they don’t seem to be useful terms any longer, since we used to use those terms to reference a future pitched ahead of us, you know? The future is now and it’s eating us alive.
Instead of apocalyptic or dystopian, I honestly believe I am just trying with my whole body and my art to be precise.
I’m not hopeless AT ALL. I am cynical, cranky, old, often cartoonishly righteous, but I am not hopeless. I just define and see hope in the places other people spend their lives trying not to look at (kind of at the heart of Verge). Then again, I have held a dead infant whose life/death passed through my body on the same day, so I have a profound understanding of how you can love something more than you have ever loved something in your life and how an infant who is no longer alive can be the most beautiful thing you have ever experienced. You could say my writing comes from that place. It’s a real place.
Rail: These most radical and “corporeal” issues offer endless material and bravery. I am finally writing and making work about motherhood, how my experience of losing a parent very young and nearly dying in childbirth has completely transformed my body. Your work has been a huge inspiration. Congratulations on the publication of Verge and all the attention it is already getting. It has been lovely to reconnect with you from San Francisco to Portland. Some of your stories were published years ago in literary journals and are now revised. They represent a long arc of your career. Are there any parting words you wish to state about the book?
Yuknavitch: No, but I want to thank you for putting your work into the world—like I said above, we take turns. We take turns so no one has to be the lone savior, or artist, or failure, or mother, or anything. My hope for this book is the same hope I have for all books we make—that a book will “happen” to the reader, that they will be moved to create themselves, that they will be moved to endure, to stick around, so that we can make more messes with each other every time they try to clean us up.