Jane Ratcliffe | Longreads | March 2020 | 15 minutes (3,519 words)
Lidia Yuknavitch’s disquieting new collection of short stories, Verge, is often bleak, yet also exquisitely hopeful. Her characters, largely women, are on the edge of death, humiliation, relocation, mercy, self-harm — as well as a new kinship with themselves.
In “The Pull,” two sisters flee their war-torn country. When their raft falters far from a safe shore, the sisters know their strong swimmer bodies are the only way to save both themselves and the “family of strangers” onboard with them. The young girl in “The Organ Runner” is transporting black-market human organs when she’s confronted with saving the life of a “donor,” who is a former bully. The woman in search of “the most perfect wound” in “A Woman Signifying” carefully, gloriously, burns her face on the radiator. These stories are taut and precise; at times like fairy tales in their measured yet majestic scope. They are hard punches and sweetheart hugs, somehow as one.
Yuknavitch often wiggles into those dark spaces so many of us prefer to avoid. Take her memoir The Chronology of Water, which opens with the stillbirth of her daughter and carries us, with unflinching intimacy, through physical and sexual abuse as well as drug and alcohol addiction. The Small Backs of Children delves into the brutal aftermath of war. And The Book of Joan depicts a decimated Earth with a pod of now-sexless humans living in a hodgepodge space station and carving stories into their own skin.
And yet there is beauty. Dazzling beauty. This Yuknavitch never lets us forget.
Her self-generated motto is “make art in the face of fuck” — meaning the harder the world becomes, the more we need to create art of any sort. And the upside of a lot of fuck these days is that we’re graced with more of Yuknavitch’s.
We spoke over Skype about different ways of communicating, the end of the hero, and how women can harness their anger.
Jane Ratcliffe: In “The Pull” you write, “They don’t need language to understand one another.” This theme seems to run through much of your writing: languageless communication.
Lidia Yuknavitch: What endlessly fascinates me, particularly in times of difficulty, is how we become bodies more than analyzing brains. In my own life, I cross a lot of boundaries between people who are incarcerated or homeless or speak a different language than me — in terms of work and workshops and social activism. I’ve noticed you have to find other ways to be human together when you don’t completely agree or understand each other. That language barrier falls away when somebody is freezing and starving and they just need a blanket, some food, and someone to not treat them like they’re a shit heap. And the particular words you may or may not say to each other aren’t the thing that matters. The thing that matters is that you recognize the human condition of a body and the need for compassion and empathy and love.
You also address some of the complications of communication. “Street Walker” — in which an English teacher invites a sex worker into her home — is a beautiful examination of what holds us together and what drives us apart. Our narrator says, “I’ve noticed that my neighbor Clark and I both wear sweatpants and sneakers after five and on weekends. Clark may be an alt-righter; he may be just a guy who lives in his mother’s basement. In our Nike uniforms, who can tell?” I was quite moved by this, but also thought, what if Clark is an alt-righter? What if he is working to harm people of color and women and the LGBTQ community and the environment and so much more?
I do think sometimes that when we get stuck on the wrongness of the person next to us, we’re putting our energy in a dumb place. The Clarks of the world or the Trump supporters, whatever name we want to use, they’re going to keep doing their work. And others of us need to keep doing our work in the hopes that with our bodies and with our stories we can cross boundaries.
When I’m in a room talking about having lost a child and I’m telling stories about that grief and that loss and my body, etc., even Republican women who do not share my value system and do not vote the way I vote and do not do the same work in the world as I do, when they share their stories of grief and loss and child death, our stories make a nexus that our value systems don’t. And that brief nexus is a cusp or a verge, where the stories of our lives have a chance at recognizing each other — even when you’re feeling hate or rage for the people standing right in front of you. I think, like Indigenous cultures before us, storytelling is an energy. It’s a possibility space. I don’t think it’s just art people mouthing off. So it’s in that space of shared storytelling that I can talk to Clark. But it’s also a space where we can find reasons to punch each other in the face. It’s a tricky territory.
What if you have that moment in the nexus but then you part ways and the woman whose story just touched your heart is off at an anti-abortion rally or writing letters to overturn DACA?
She probably will be. Until we can get our stories to converge and care about similar things, we’re going to keep working against each other. That’s the human default. We’re never going to all agree. However, we’re facing some current conditions, for example, in terms of climate change and a kind of endless war that’s pervading our entire epoch, that may put enough pressure on humans to come together. But from what I can tell people are as stubborn as they’ve ever been in their beliefs. It’s part of the reason I’m willing to go into spheres that create divisions between people. I like going into jails. I like going into rehab centers. I like going into churches, and I’m an atheist. I go in and I make a ruckus for writing and creativity workshops just to pull out a story. Because once you hear it, yeah, maybe you still go to the crappy anti-abortion rally but that story’s in your head and your body. You did hear it and you can’t spit on me in the same way after you hear it.
That’s true and very beautiful. So with these workshops and your writing, is this part of making art in the face of fuck?
Yes. Thank you for mentioning that, it’s my favorite phrase. It’s a kind of a funny, irreverent phrase. For me, it works like mantras work, it actually helps me. But the idea is that artistic language — or all forms of art or dance — is capable of punching through power-speak and propaganda and the stories they’re asking us to believe. Especially poetry, it has the ability to work against the grain of propaganda or political-speak or power-speak, because it rearranges language.
It interests me that art is thriving right now, even though we’re in a historical moment of oppression again. Arts funding is going away, and conservative forces are trying to shut the mouth of art. It gets really lively during times of crisis like that, which is great, right? Make art in the face of fuck is really a code word phrase for speaking back in a language they can’t ever really shut up. Kathy Acker had this great phrase that I wore on my face for a long time that just said, “Art is the cry.” It’s like an animal noise.
You wore it on your face?
I wrote it on my face with a Sharpie. I was so mad. This is during the time of Bush the first and the Gulf War. I was in graduate school, and I just started wearing it on my face. Just to help myself get through the day.
Many of the stories, such as “The Pull” and “The Organ Runner” have girls saving other people’s lives. Girl warriors. Which, of course, makes me think of Emma Gonzales and Greta Thunberg, among others. It’s so easy to turn these girls into heroes, and by doing so presume they’re not like the rest of us and that they have some sort of special gift. But I teach at the college level and last semester nearly all my female students were in profound crisis. And I thought, this is the generation we think is going to save us? They’re traumatized.
Exactly my sense of things. You really hit on the problem — our impulse to want them to be our new heroes. It happens with such speed, it’s hard to catch. But that impulse to raise them up and turn them into heroes is like saying, “Oh, good, somebody will do it for me. We blew it, so I guess we should let these young people that we fucked up do it for us.”
We have to resist the impulse to create new heroes, because that entire impulse is politically bankrupt. And it commodifies the labor of the person. If you watch Greta in particular, you can see her trying to reject that energy coming toward her and see her trying to remain inside the labor of other people, right as everyone’s shining the light on her and trying to make her the singular hero. I’m going to say a blasphemous thing, which is we are so fucking done with the hero’s journey. It has been to our peril. We held onto the hero story so tightly that we commodified it and now we’re living the results of that.
I remember reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s autobiography and was bowled over to learn he struggled with anxiety and insomnia, because I thought he must have superpowers to do what he did.
He had human powers. What to do is remember that we’re human and that “the work” is the part where you have to roll your sleeves up and shovel shit next to each other. The work is not to tweet. You know who’s doing that and it is not the way. It’s to get back into the material conditions. Stand next to the Gretas of the world, who are all around us, of any age, and get back onto the street. We have to be fully embodied and present again. Greta is everywhere. We need to stop waiting for her to come to our town. We need to recognize that she’s standing up inside all of us. The point is to find the collective in all of us, not to make Greta the new hero of it.
And Emma. I feel like part of what Emma was doing was processing some of her trauma.
That’s really important actually. When Emma did that two minutes of silence. it’s a version of what you’re talking about with processing her trauma. She pulled open a space where everybody had to shut the fuck up and witness in our bodies that we’re killing children. Not just that the perpetrators killed children, but that we are letting it happen.
When she made the silence, it got in us in a profound way because it was like somebody saying, “No, there is no language. They’re dead bodies of children.” But if I say that sentence, it’s actually less powerful than the two minutes of silence that was collected, ritualized; collectively for two minutes we had to admit dead children.
Connected with what we’re talking about, many of your female characters in this book, and in much of your writing, are angry and face challenges expressing their anger. In men, we often praise and, by extension, reinforce their anger, but with girls and women, we generally ask them to shut it down. What do you think might happen if women and girls let it out?
I think we know that some change would happen and it would be radical. I can’t name exactly what the change would be. Neither can you. Neither can anybody. But I do know that the anger of women is an earth-shattering thing. So whether I succeeded or failed, what I was scratching out with these pissed-off women is to catch them right in the moment of their anger and then stop the story. Because I wanted it to vibrate.
I wanted to remind people that it’s not a pissy woman. It’s an energy. And if we could find some forms of expression, it could serve change. But when it’s trapped into bitchiness or pissiness or just debate over whether women should be quiet and good and motherly, etc. — the energy dissipates and dies.
I’m not a wizard, so I don’t know how we harness the anger of women, but I am trying to write the conditions alive where their anger vibrates, and you can see it as an energy, and that’s as far as I got.
Where do you think the unexpressed, unexamined anger is going?
We’re carrying it in our bodies and in our neural pathways. It’s the pain in our neck or lower back. It’s in our issues around weight and weight loss. It’s in our achy joints. It’s in our migraines. It’s in our motherhood or not motherhood. It’s being recirculated back inside women’s bodies and it’s keeping us from being our full selves. And everything in culture reinforces us recirculating that energy back inside our own bodies and that’s keeping us from being full bodies, full humans, having full agency. The anger that is surfacing now like the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, the current zeitgeist of anger surfacing, some of which is coming from the bodies of women, is great. It’s great! Also, we have a lot of work left.
“Cusp” is a sweet, fierce, tragic story in which a woman uses her body to heal others, in this case incarcerated people, then is ridiculed and punished for it. The expectations we put upon women’s bodies can be staggering.
“Cusp” is kind of an allegory of the idea that if you’re born into a woman’s body, or identify as a woman, you are entering a space where you’re fucked if you do and you’re fucked if you don’t, and you’re fucked in every way in between. If you’re the good woman, there’s punishment. If you’re the bad woman, there’s punishment. If you admit you have sexuality in any way shape or form, you lose any power you ever had.
So that space of “woman” is fraught with impossibility?
Women have never — this is globally true but let me dial it back to say it about the country I’m currently living in, which is America — experienced a fully liberated body or subjectivity. Ever. This is true in terms of religion, in terms of law, in terms of government and social organization. Men’s bodies aren’t legislated to the same degree that women’s bodies are legislated. So since we’ve never achieved a fully embodied self or consciousness or subjectivity, nobody knows what it would yield.
I like to write characters who have not transcended the politics of your question. Girls and women whose bodies are vibrating with possible punch through. Their bodies are vibrating like Emma Gonzales. For a second, it felt like she could punch through and be fully embodied and have full subjectivity. I don’t even know if the words “girl” and “woman” would apply anymore because she’d be so much bigger than that. She would bring us to the new language and bring us to the new being and we wouldn’t be fighting about woman, girl, gay, straight, trans; we would be entering a new reality.
So I try to make women characters who have that potential or are about to fail at it dismally. When I wrote The Book of Joan, I was trying for a character who was going to punch through, but imperfectly. And also to resist the hero narrative even though everybody wants her to be the hero — that she would on the page punch through but not denote her being to the hero narrative. And I’m not talking about did I succeed at that. I’m saying I was playing with that. I’m endlessly annoyed and disappointed by the conversations as they stand now. I think we’re having old fights that keep us locked inside debates that aren’t going to help anymore. I want to start creating characters who aren’t girls or women or boys or men or trans or gay, but are beyond that, a transhuman.
You can feel the narrator’s eagerness and her empathy in “Cusp,” and all the ways that she thought she was helping. And in the end, she wasn’t being perceived at all the way she was perceiving herself.
Which is, I think, the condition of woman. You can see the seeds of my biography in so many of the stories: I wanted my father to love me. He would have preferred a son, so I tried to become that. And when he transgressed my body and life with his abuse, I wanted to be able to take it. I thought I was doing good. That’s not a good thing, but it has a biographical underpinning of this girl who just says, “Okay, I’m here. I’m in culture. I’ll do it. What is it?” And then she finds nothing she does will ever be perceived the way she thinks it’s being perceived.
As much as you acknowledge the trauma and the limitations of the body, you also seem to really love bodies. The way you write about the body is reverential and exciting. Could you tell us about your own relationship with your body?
My body has been the entire jam for me. It’s been my life story. The fact that I survived the violence of my father as a kid means my body punched through my first crucible of death. My teen body was this athletic, amazing swimmer body that didn’t just win races and get some medals, but it got me out of the fucking house. It got me out from underneath the body of my father. And it also gave me biceps and strong legs, and I could run and I could fight and I could swim and he couldn’t.
And then as I moved toward college years and young womanhood, sexuality for me was like a battering ram against a world trying to make me be quiet and pretty and small. So I was very aggressive sexually, which got me into a lot of trouble, like so many women, but it’s not like I was passive.
And I, to this day, feel like an explorer or an astronaut. I think we’ve tapped into the tiniest, tiniest understanding of sexuality.
Now I’m 56. I’ve been through weight gain and menopause and the crankiness that’s the surface of a woman aging. Not the deep anger that’s good, but just the surface crankiness that makes everyone wish you would go away.
I was just in the pool with this woman who’s 36 — utterly gorgeous, with long luxurious hair and a perfectly svelte body. And there was this moment where I’m like, I’m a manatee. But right when I thought that I felt joy. I didn’t feel crappy. And I didn’t feel any less. I felt happy to be in this pool. And I love my body so much for getting me to this age. And this woman is the age my daughter would be. All I felt was such joy. And so I said to her, “I kind of feel like a manatee next to you.” We both started laughing and then she immediately started saying, “Oh no, no, you’re not. Your body is beautiful.” And I said, “No, no, I love my body.” And there was this long pause and she says, “You know what, I think you really do.”
Are you listening to what your body says to you?
Yes. I went through more than a decade thinking my body was monstrous because my baby died, which a lot of women go through. Illness, pain, addiction, grief, loss. The upside of all of that inside a body, which is difficult and hurts, means that there are stories. And so what this body is also giving me is the generation of stories. And I can live with that. I can live with the fact that I’m a recovering addict. I can live with the fact that I have chronic pain. I can live with the fact that I’m getting older. I can live with all of it better, not perfectly, but better, if I remember the other side of all that difficulty is the generation of life force and story. Not even for just me. I mean, I’m not putting those stories in the world for me. I’m going to be dead. They’re for the women standing right behind us.
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Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Sun, The Rumpus, Tin House, and Narratively, amongst others. She’s just finished a novel about the unpopular peace movement as well as the women’s movement in London during WWII.
Editor: Carolyn Wells