Lidia Yuknavitch: The slight optimism I feel comes from the idea that the fight goes on, in every era, to stand up to those forces who would murder our humanity and end existence
Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of the bestselling novel, The Small Backs of Children, and Dora: A Headcase, which won the Reader’s Choice Award. She has been generating a lot of buzz nowadays with her TED Talk, "Beauty of Being a Misfit". The Book of Joan, another bestselling novel, was just published in Turkish by Çınar Publishing.
The Book of Joan opens with an epigraph from Marguerite Duras: “Heterosexuality is dangerous.” Lidia Yuknavitch tells the story of Joan (an obvious reference to Joan of Arc) through the body of Christine Pizan, namesake of a medieval feminist writer.
CIEL is populated by the morphologically-changed remnants of humanity. They have lost their hair, genitalia, and pigmentation. The ruler of CIEL, the dictator Jean de Men, has set out to murder sexuality and anything related to it under the guise of creating culture. And these new inhabitants tell stories through skin grafts. Storytelling –having a voice– is a form of resistance in this orbiting planet.
We talked with Lidia Yuknavitch about the novel, a story of the domination over the body, gender identity, biological sex duality, and biopolitics.
I want to start off with the obvious topic: You wrote this book long before Trump’s election and somehow managed to predict future: “A journey from opportunistic showman to worshipped celebrity to billionaire to fascistic power monger and what’s left? Sadistic military leader.” How did you feel after election?
Frightened! Ha…I mean not really, what I felt most when Trump was elected was rage. And sadness. And then a renewed urge to fight. What I was thinking about a few years before the Trump Apocalypse was a sense that America was headed for some big trouble. I was heartened by the Obama era, but simultaneously wary of capitalism, disparities in the distribution of wealth, media and celebrity culture rising like a tidal wave to subsume all forms of identity with consumerism. I was also thinking about our profoundly wrong-headed ideas about our relationship to the environment, the planet, and each other. And I was thinking about the central narrative tropes that got us here: The War Story, The God Story, and the Love Story.
What has changed under President Trump and what hasn’t? Are you optimistic about the future at all or do you have more of a dystopian view?
The Trump era has already ushered in catastrophic, immoral, and repugnant policies, ideas, and actions. People are dying. The planet is in danger. Our very lives are at stake—and the lives of the most vulnerable among us are being sacrificed daily. So on the one hand, no, I cannot feel optimism in the face of fuck.
On the other hand, this kind of horror and danger is not NEW. It is part of a longer history of violence, power, intolerance and colonizing impulses that are very old stories; we are simply living in a contemporary version of old histories. A new form—a hideous cartoon brutal immoral con man in the case of Trump. But the dangers have always lived amongst us and within us. And so the slight optimism I feel comes from the idea that the fight goes on, in every era, to stand up to those forces who would murder our humanity and end existence.
What was the reason behind having Joan of Arc as your protagonist? Does Joan have a special place in your life?
So much yes. I was raised Catholic (briefly…it didn’t work) as a child. That’s the first place I heard about her. This woman on fire burned herself into my kid imagination. Later as an adolescent I had a frighteningly vivid dream in which she appeared. I was maybe 5 years old in the dream, our house was on fire, and I was standing on the lawn watching it burn. Scared. She came up to me and said, “No one is going to save you.” Even though the dream was a little frightening and depressing, it also made sense; I was living inside a house filled with abuse and pain, and I was going to have to save my own life to get out. So the dream was a big deal to me. I also think like a lot of other young women I fell in love with her a little bit. There are not very many woman warrior icons for girls to look up to. Later still, in graduate school, I researched her biography and history, and by then a story had begun to form inside my body, a story that would not release me until I wrote it. Lastly, I was interested in the idea that Joan’s burning body is the only body from history I can think of that rivals the Christ body. I mean to me, a woman. An entire belief system emerged from the tortured and symbolic figure of the Christ body. What story might emerge from the burning body of a girl?
Dora: A Headcase was the retelling of a case of Sigmung Freud, Dora. Can we consider this novel as a retelling of the historical figure, Joan of Arc?
Well I think I’d call them something more like relocations. I definitely dislocated actual historical figures from their supposed histories, and relocated them in different time periods, but I also let go of the idea of who they really were in life (I am not trying to rewrite Ida Bauer or Joan of Arc), and re-imagined them as figures of narrative, figures capable of breaking down the very tropes used to construct their histories in the first place.
Can you describe the writing process of a retelling, or a relocation? How do you stay connected with the original story, how do you decide how much to stray?
My interest in dislocations and relocations, de-storying and re-storying comes from a deep fascination with history and the past and how we choose to tell stories of the past. It’s not that I don’t believe in history, but I also believe there are always a hundred different ways to tell the story. So the “what if” question is endlessly fascinating to me. Particularly in the case of those communities who have been used as the raw material to build so called culture, women, people of color, indigenous people, LGBTQ people, the poor, the incarcerated, etc…what if they could tell their own stories? History is written over the bodies of those who were sacrificed so that ruling classes could ascend. More specifically, I keep history books, hundreds of images, and other research materials right next to my face when I’m writing, so that I’m swimming in history even as I’m deviating from it.
Body image has an important place in your work. I remember Dora: A Headcase; Dora was attacking Sig, and not only his reputation, but also his body. You have also used your own body on the cover of The Chronology of Water. This time you’ve created a world in which people make grafts to their bodies, tell stories through them. Characters have different psychical looks; they are morphologically changed. How do you define the place of body image in your work? How do you define the body? After the burning of Joan, one can say that you changed the body image so one could be burned again.
Every book or story I have ever written has at its heart questions about the body and representation. For me the body has a point of view, a range of experiences, and ways of knowing. I think our bodies are a kind of nexus where consciousness, biology, spirituality/cosmology, and expression cross. The body is a metaphor for experience in addition to being the thing we use to move through experience. I do not believe in the mind/body split (ye ole Cartesian dualism). I believe we are just now beginning to understand relationships between our physical existence and a plurality of existences.
As a woman I am also steadfastly interested in representing our bodies on our own terms, rather than continuing to let stories be written over us, without us, drowning our voices out.
Christine Pizan is the other female protagonist of the book. A reference to Christine de Pizan, late medieval author criticized as immoral. Dora was also a misfit, and Joan is a rebel. You like rebel women and misfits, and your last book called is The Misfit’s Manifesto. Will we read similar stories from you in the future? How do you define the term misfit?
Well even though everyone has a little bit of misfit in them, since none of us are perfectly formed, and even though there is never only ONE definition of Misfit, the stories I collected in that book are about how those of us who could never fit the stories of how to form an identity or how to fit the story of life like other people are something like testaments to difference. The NON celebrity stories of enduring, expressing, innovating, reinventing, how the edges of culture hold the center and help new meanings form for everyone. I’m pretty sick of celebrity culture.
And the sadistic military leader is called Jean de Men. In that universe, having sex is illegal. People are observed all the time, everywhere. This is not so different from nowadays, but you prefer to tell the story of women in a dystopic/sci-fi extension. Why?
Because the bodies and lives of women are still being written over, tortured, and disappeared by cultures that claim to love and protect them. Because women are yet understood as objects rather than autonomous beings with urgency and power over their own existence and actions.
You created a Black Mirror-esque universe for this book. I want to quote from Christine Pizan: “After we tired of television, after we tired of films, after social media failed to feed our hungers, after holograms and virtual realities…” How is your relationship with social media and technology? Are you cynical about people’s social media habits?
First of all, let me say that I loved Black Mirror. My relationship to social media and technology is complex, just like most mammals. On the one hand, social media is a cesspool. Horrible trolls attack people daily, too much of the space is take up with superficial nonsense, idiotic and useless debates and behaviors emerge that are chatter and vomit. On the OTHER hand, the fact that critical mass and witnessing can happen with speed and tremendous energy, as happened with the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too Movement, and many other activist phenomena, social media can also be a possibility space where change can occur radically. It matters that so many people can now see credible video of people of color being shot by cops. It matters that so many people could witness and participate in the protests at Standing Rock. The way our authorities and institutions lie to us is undercut by the speed with which we can expose them. So I’m not particularly “for” or “against” technology—technology simply is. We live in this world, not some other. It’s what we decide to do with it that is at stake. It is who we decide we are going to be that determines the use and abuse of technology.
Last question: I just saw a picture of you, Strayed, and Le Guin. How did you feel after her passing? She was an amazing figure of not only literature, but also of feminist writing.
Ursula Le Guin was my friend as well as a core inspiration for my entire writing career. My heart feels heavy and like a small chunk of it just fell off. Her work in the world cleared a path for so many of us women writers who dare to tell stories about our bodies, our imaginations, and the cultures that would silence or disappear our stories. Her work made mine possible. I miss her terribly and I consider the work of a writer to include carrying on the passion we inherit from our mentors and the artists who came before us. I spoke to her not long ago. Among the many things she said to me, was this: "Stay loud. Don't flinch. The fight is longer than a single life."