Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch

I first read Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir, The Chronology of Water, in 2012, and I have carried my copy in my purse or tote bag ever since. The cover is frayed, impossibly bent, and held together with tape. After being lucky enough to get an advance copy of her latest novel, The Small Backs of Children, I now carry around that, too.

The Small Backs of Children is a book about a girl. But it’s also about art-making, life-making, motherlove, creating family, and overcoming the things life hurls at us. The book centers around The Writer, a woman whose daughter died in utero and was later stillborn. After The Writer is hospitalized, her friends and family rally around her to bring her back. They remember a photograph that she loved; that of a girl in a war-torn village, backlit by an explosion that killed her family. They decide to find that girl and bring her to the States, hoping to ease The Writer’s suicidal depression.

But what happens when people from very different worlds come together? How does one decision affect the lives of everyone involved? What bursts forth from this decision? Through different point of views, the stories in The Small Backs of Children begin to unravel.

What inspired you to write The Small Backs of Children

Four things:

  • The fact that I am haunted by the death of my daughter, and that her birthdeath brought writing to my hands.
  • My Lithuanian family history—my great uncle was sent to a Siberian prison for twenty years for photographing an illegal massacre by Russian soldiers at a hospital in Lithuania.
  • My omnipresent interest in the relationship between art, sexuality, and war (violence). The way creation always coexists with destruction. The way brutality always sleeps next to beauty.
  • My never-ending love affair with language. Not the ordered and proper kind. The free flowing ocean of it.

Can you describe the process you undertook in writing it?

The Small Backs of ChildrenWell I think sometimes writers are haunted by images or ideas for books. This novel absolutely came from a haunting. I felt emotions and saw images in dreams or lucid dreams. I felt seized by ideas and voices while driving my car, or making dinner, or right in the middle of teaching. I was, in effect, overwhelmed by the story and its images. A girl left for dead painting herself back to life. A woman whose mind is lost bringing herself back to life through loving others.

So no, I didn’t exactly have the story in mind, but I was haunted. And this: I was sent a box of black and white photos and news articles involving my Lithuanian family history. The artifacts of a past not mine, and yet not alien to me either.

I made formal choices the way that I did because the traditional formal choices available to me didn’t seem adequate for the story I wanted to tell. I didn’t want to write a book based on psychological realism. Nor one based on genre or fantasy nor historical fiction. I wanted to write a new kind of novel, where the formal play in the book connects to the corporeal and emotional experiences of women and girls. To do that, I had to abandon everything I’ve learned about literary traditions and reinvent story.

In place of stable individual characters, I created temporary and fragmented subjectivities. In this case their names became deprioritized while the state they are in at any given moment is amplified.

In place of character development I asserted emotional intensities—glimpses of people and things juxtaposed over time, sometimes in order, sometimes not, because that’s how we experience things—in pieces, not lines.

In place of linear plot I wove multiple story threads that braid or unravel or repeat or dissolve. I let form loose.

In place of a beginning that holds still and an ending that is stable and resolves things, I opted for something more like life—parallel possibilities that fracture and disperse between readers.

The formal choices I made were as important—if not more important—than the content. I agree with Willem de Kooning: “Content is a glimpse of something. It is very tiny, content.” I was fascinated by the chance that a novel could yet reveal meaning about worldly ideas as big as war and life and death and love even if I made that concept—that content is a glimpse of something—the heart of the story.

Readers of The Chronology of Water and Liberty’s Excess will recognize some themes from your life in this fictional work. Why did you include them here? Why do fiction and fact often blur in your writing? 

The Chronology of WaterWriting nonfiction and writing fiction are like a braid in me. This novel is in part my answer to the never-ending question I get asked about my anti-memoir: what’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction? My answer: a membrane thin as infant’s skin.

All novels blur the authors’ lives into the canvas of the page. All nonfiction moves through the formal choices available to a writer making art.

What part of The Small Backs of Children was hardest to write? What did you love the most? 

The hardest part was creating a psychic and emotional space where I could actually be in the presence of my daughter who died, something impossible to achieve in life—I could only hold her lifeless and beautiful body once she emerged. So I created a novel around a beautiful girl. A real place she can live forever.

It is also what I love the most. Making art from grief and loss. How beauty and brutality always rest next to one another.

Love of art is a theme in The Chronology of Water, Dora, and The Small Backs of Children. Can you talk about this? 

Art gave me something to believe in at all the times in my life when I felt life wasn’t worth living. Art also gives a person experiencing pain and the will toward self-destruction a viable option: self-expression. And art helps us bear the brutality in the world—because it cannot be burned or buried or bombed away. Someone will always make more of it. Art is an antidote for loneliness as well. Not all of us are well-adjusted and excellent at being with people. And yet we love our fellow mammals. Art gives us something to do with the love and the loneliness when we falter at life.

How do you choose the topics you write about? Do you choose them, or is it the other way around?

They absolutely choose me. SO MUCH.

I not only had no plans to write Chronology, I didn’t want to. At all. But once it started coming out, I couldn’t not.

Dora’s voice woke me out of deep slumber one night. She was yelling and she had potty mouth.

Small Backs came from a series of hauntings, as I mentioned, and the Book of Joan (forthcoming in 2016) came from standing in front of the Joan of Arc statue at Notre Dame in Paris and thinking about what we’ve done to the planet.

But I suppose there are less juju-y ways to think about the ideas I have for stories and books. They come from living a life. They come from an understanding that everything I experience in my life—even extreme difficulty—is a portal to consciousness expansion. And underneath everything I want to create new myths for misfits, women, children, outcasts and marginalized mammals.

What do you hope the book does for its readers?

DoraI hope that readers feel something in their bodies when they read it, and I hope that certain questions come alive in them that are not completely comfortable. I hope they wonder about women and children differently when they are dislocated from being the romanticized objects in novels and are relocated as complex subjects with agency of their own making, full of contradictions and ambiguities—fully human.

I hope at least one reader notices the play and importance of form and takes pleasure in it as much as I do. We could be pen pals.

I hope that it is not an easy book, but a difficult book, and I hope that the difficulty is thought-provoking.

Virginia Woolf is mentioned several times in your upcoming book; you’ve also mentioned Kathy Acker and many others in The Chronology of Water. Who are some writers currently inspiring you, and who do you return to again and again?

Current writers inspiring me: Sarah Gerard, Rebecca Solnit, Maggie Nelson, Amelia Gray, Porochista Khakpour, Kate Zambreno, Ashley Cassandra Ford, Wendy Ortiz, Roxane Gay, Lily Hoang, Monica Drake, Vanessa Veselka, Margaret Malone, Melanie Alldritt—and always, always, always, the men and women I share classrooms with—they are coming for you.

Jaime Rochelle Herndon graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia and is a writer and editor living in NYC. She is a contributor at Book Riot and a writing instructor at Apiary Lit, and her writing can be seen on Healthline and New York Family Magazine, among others. Her book Taking Back Birth is forthcoming in 2016 from Microcosm Publishing.

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