On the Edge: A Conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch
Midway through Lidia Yuknavitch’s story “Second Language” comes the line: “Although she knew that stories had beginnings, middles, and ends, she also knew that, for her and those displaced like her, the order was out of whack.” Yuknavitch’s new collection Verge is a galvanizing, sometimes brutal book that explores narrative precipices and marginal spaces.
Re-storying is one of the threads that run through this hybrid collection of short fiction and fragments, and it undergirds Yuknavitch’s larger and impressive body of work. Yuknavitch challenges the narrative center of gravity and makes room for otherness, difference, and the voiceless. In Verge, she embeds grenades, and the stories explode. In a capitalist system, what and whom do we value and why? Whose work or writing matters? What is the true cost of eliminating and repressing the multiplicity of sentient life on this planet, even if, in our privileged places and stories, we seemingly benefit?
Yuknavitch is the author of four novels, including The Small Backs of Children and The Book of Joan, and her anti-memoir The Chronology of Water, which Kristen Stewart chose for her forthcoming directorial debut. Yuknavitch’s mantra, “I’m not the story you made of me,” changed my life, my writing, and my world. She was the first to see me where I live, on the exact margins she writes about in Verge. With this collection of twenty stories and fragments, Yuknavitch’s words, as always, rocketed me into space, into yet another dimension: the edge of a universe. But, readers, do not fear. You don’t go there alone. With this collection, as with all of her writing, Yuknavitch provides a map.
We have been in conversation together since 2015. She spoke to me over the phone from her writing studio in Portland, Oregon. As always, we picked right up where we last left off.
Kelly Thompson: The title of your new collection, Verge, works as an actual place in these stories and fragments; a location as real as any geographical space that the characters inhabit.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Verge is a wonderful word because it marks liminal space, the in-between spaces, as a real place. I think of the body as a place. I think of thoughts, emotions, and different intensities like pain or grief or desire as real places. So instead of setting or background, I was trying to represent place as the material conditions of body and self. That we are the places we’ve been is a really confounding and strange idea to me. That’s important to me, both in terms of my life and the people I love, and people I work with, and in terms of this art I’ve been trying to make for so long.
KT: In the story “Cusp,” we read about “a town on the edge of the storyline,” which locates us in a very interesting place.
LY: Yeah, that edge notion is endlessly fascinating to me. There’s the ocean’s edge, and the edge of the sand, and the edge of a building, and the edge of a girl’s life next to a prison, and the edge of life and death. Pretty much every story has some kind of edge in it. I’m more interested in the in-between and the edge than I am in the center or the mainstream, for about 10 billion reasons.
KT: Some readers will recognize that edge in the book, just as we recognize Texas, or Florida, or a building, as a place that is not fixed in time and space.
LY: That’s it. I’m making characters who don’t fully resolve. They’re kind of in flux or they’re moving. I try to suspend them inside that moment, on the edge, before the big thing, before their great mistake or their salvation or their anything. Even with the endings, I tried not to let anything fully resolve.
KT: In an interview with Elizabeth Block in The Brooklyn Rail, you say “…there’s no such thing as a universal experience.” As writers, we’re taught our work, our writing should be universal and that we find the universal in the particular.
LY: It’s possible I should stop saying that out loud. I’ve been saying it forever. I understand I’m saying something against the entire tide of the literary tradition but it doesn’t feel quite right when we say, “Yes, there are differences between us, but in the end we all participate in the great human experience.” I get it. I get the trope or the idea or the mythology or whatever we want to call it. But what agitates me is I’ve noticed some people benefit from that narrative more than others, the narrative that we all participate in a human universal experience. The voices and bodies and experiences of marginalized people are so quickly swept off the map when we say that. Because it’s starting to feel like what we really meant when we, whoever we are, came up with that concept, is a white universal experience. Also, a human over planet or animal or anything else experience.
I don’t think Native Americans and African Americans—and I’m not even sure we need that word American in those phrases—I don’t think the universal experience feels the same to everybody. Some bodies have been used to promote the concept of a universal experience, and even tortured and incarcerated and eaten alive by progress and civilizations. Do you see what I’m getting at?
LY: In the books I love the most right now—like Ocean Vuong’s book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, or Terese Mailhot’s book, Heart Berries, or Tommy Orange’s book, There There, or Carmen Machado’s books, In the Dream House and Her Body and Other Parties—there are writers who are being illuminated beautifully for whom I’m starting to change what I think radically. And I’m happy to change what I think about it. So, if somebody else can say it better than me, great. And, I’m already ready for everyone to disagree with me. That’s fine. But, I will admit I’m carrying an agitation in my body that I just wish we’d stop talking about the universal in literature
I’ve started to be super uncomfortable with how it gets passed on in workshops. So now when I hear it, I go, “Well, can we trample that idea just a little? Can we make it a little ripple, because I think it might be a lie?”
KT: Yes. Let’s trample that. Your comment, and the way it’s expressed in your work—can we call it the anti-universal?—intuitively speaks to me. Those writers you mention, and you among them, are changing that for me, too.
LY: Well, we’re going to have to try to figure it out together.
KT: In the story “Second Language” we read, “Or maybe there had never been any heroes and saviors, and those stories were only meant to trick girls into forgetting how to be animals.”
LY: Well, there you found my deep skepticism about the stories girl creatures have been told their whole lives, and that I’ve been writing about forever.
KT: I’m wondering what it means to “forget how to be animals.”
LY: Yeah. In that story in particular, in that line in particular, I’m meaning to, a tiny bit, agitate both the human as on top of the hierarchy of beings idea, and the use of women and children as raw material to make belief systems and social organizations that will keep them in servitude their entire lives.
The stories that the characters in Verge have been fed are partly what’s killing them. And when I say stories, I mean inherited stories about how to be a boy or how to be a girl, or how to be a husband or a wife or a lover, or a human, or how to survive, or how to fit into your culture, stories that are eaten alive or swallowed up by woman as object, children as powerless, or children as objects, women and children as the raw material from which economies are built so they can only be exchanged as goods and services. I mean those kinds of stories are eating us alive. So, these characters are sort of speaking back to that. That’s what a sentence like that that you plucked out is vibrating with.
KT: In the interview I did with you for The Rumpus about Book of Joan you said that you try to get inside the stories and pull them apart so that you can let other stories and possibilities narratively exist. In this collection, you are doing that as well, but these stories are thematically somewhat different.
LY: Exactly. Verge has a little more to do with the economy. You know, capitalism. I don’t think I’ve focused in on that quite as nitty gritty in other things I’ve tried. This one has more about economy and scrappiness in it.
KT: The protagonist in “The Organ Runner,” an Eastern European girl, transports organs such as kidneys and other body parts. The references to the United States in that story intrigued me.
LY: “The Organ Runner” is about a literal organ runner, which is a very huge economy globally. But it’s also allegorical and meant to surface the question about identity and different bodies, and what is being bought and sold in terms of nations and countries and states, and even families and relationships. It’s meant to put a dollar sign to the question.
I was trying to capture identities that are wavering or shivering. I wanted to do that, both to shine a flashlight on possibility, but also shine a flashlight on this “the moment right before” someone’s identity begins to die.
KT: I wanted to home in on the question of identity and its role in these stories.
LY: I was trying to capture identities that are wavering or shivering. I wanted to do that, both to shine a flashlight on possibility, but also shine a flashlight on this “the moment right before” someone’s identity begins to die. So, some of the stories are not super happy when you get to where the character gets to, and some of them are slightly more possible, and some of them even briefly, briefly, briefly touch something hopeful. But mainly, I was trying to capture identities that are wavering. That’s as far as I got, probably. Does that make any sense?
KT: It does. What happens with mainstream stories and mythologies about who we are supposed to be, or what we’re about, is that our identities get fixed.
LY: Right. But that’s stupid and fictional.
KT: Yet, I see people who I imagine seem to manage these fictional identities.
LY: I see them too, but I’m a little suspicious.
KT: Yeah. Right. In this collection, neither story nor identity is fixed. Coincidentally, as I was reading the book, I saw a video in which a murmuration of starlings appeared, disappeared, then reappeared, giving me the same sensation I had while reading. I’ll have to see if I can find that particular video and send it to you.
LY:That so resonates for me. I hope you can find it for me. Yeah, like that, identity. Murmuration. Yes, it’s like that.
KT: The idea of the stories is to open up identity and other concepts and made me wonder about identity politics, how we might position ourselves in ways that force us into a fixed position. For example, as a marginalized woman, I might think, “This is what I am. I’m a woman, therefore these are my politics.”
LY: Yeah. Man, there are so many ways to talk about that particular topic. It’s dicey or tricky, complicated, as it should be. We’re all on our separate journeys, and we’re all at different points in those journeys, and all our journeys are crashing into each other all the time. And so, the frictions and contradictions and angers and tussles out there, it’s okay with me. It means we’re at a social stage where that’s going to happen, and I’m very thrilled to be alive during a time where there aren’t just three narratives that have some frictions and contradictions, there are many, many. That’s how it should be.
And so, we have to quit being so uncomfortable and defensive about the frictions and contradictions, even when rage or anger comes up because of our differences. I think we should get over ourselves and ask what the possibilities are there.
KT: Because, the possibilities are great. I love that.
LY: Yes. And, it’s going to take some friction and some contradiction and some anger and some disagreement. So what? You know what I mean?
KT: Yes. I see that just inside my own personal journey of becoming aware of the variety of narratives in my own family, which I see as a microcosm of what you’re describing. It’s mind-boggling when you begin to recognize there’s a lot of narratives going on here. And none of them really jibe.
LY: Right. Exactly. Instead of getting scared about that and getting defensive and fighting, it might be the moment to start looking at the multiple voice, multiple narrative, multiple body experience. That’s one reason why I like the cover of Verge, because those color bands, they kind of are metaphors to me of how sometimes the threads move in a wave, like the murmuration of birds you were talking about. And sometimes they don’t, sometimes they make knots and they crisscross or pull apart from each other or break. And like the rhythms in the cosmos or whatever, or rhythms in nature, they’re doing their chaotic thing and sometimes doing their smooth thing, and that’s okay with me.
KT: Your writing reflects such passion and empathy for everything, for everyone, for all living beings. I see that in the stories and characters in the book. How did that happen?
LY: Everybody’s walking around with the potential to understand the stories of being and knowing and existing differently. I’ve had these foundational moments: a mother whose legs looked different, a daughter who was born and dead on the same day that wrenched my story forever away from everything I’d been told. And then I was left with, “Okay, what does that mean?” The idea that you could re-story things is true for everyone. And to be honest with you, we’re going to need it.
KT: We are. What is it, as well, in people, in their bodies, that makes them want to ignore and deny stories, to refuse different space in the world?
LY: Well, it’s scary for one thing. I mean, we made up stories theologically and philosophically and even scientifically; we made stories until they changed, because it’s scary being human. You’re looking for ways to explain the world around you, and explain what you think and feel from earliest times to now. And then later in life you find out, “Oh, the world’s not flat. Son of a gun.”
KT: Right. I have found that out many times in shocking ways, repeatedly. How many shocks do we need?
LY: Apparently, many.
KT: Evidently. Yes.
But for me, the whole process of writing or making art is a metaphor for that stepping into an unknown possibility. And so, the fear is a portal. I can live with that.
LY: So, stories of how we are in the world shift. They shift since the dawn of any existence. They’re shifting all the time. They shift on a daily and hourly basis. And it’s scary to let go of something you’ve been told your whole life and step into something that’s a big unknown. But for me, the whole process of writing or making art is a metaphor for that stepping into an unknown possibility. And so, the fear is a portal. I can live with that.
KT: In “Street Walker” it interested me how the narrator, the ex-junkie suburban wife, and the prostitute, were somewhat portrayed as mirror images.
LY: They’re mirroring each other, but it’s misfitted. The question I’m trying to suspend is in terms of their writing. One of the women is a writer in explicit ways. The other woman is a writer, too. What is writing for? What does it do? Which writing counts and which doesn’t? For that matter, whose work counts? It’s not completely different than the ”Woman Signifying” story, that thing she does. I’m trying not to say the thing.
KT: “Woman Signifying” reveals yet another form of writing. And that showed up in Book of Joan, too.
LY: Yeah. You’re on it. I’m even trying to keep asking myself in my real life, because these are fictions, but in my real life it’s a real question for me, what is writing? So, I’m those two women, too.
KT: Before we end, I wanted to bring up the effective use of story fragments in the collection. Why fragments?
LY: Oh, yeah. The fragments that have similar themes are meant to radically unresolve and vibrate and just hold something in suspension. They’re all in that in-between space. And the fragment helps me tell it without resolving it, helps suspend it and let it shiver. But the very last one, the last story in the whole book, is me letting tenderness and hope shiver.
KT: “Two Girls.” I knew it. I knew it. It circles. We have circles instead of beginnings, middles, and ends.
LY: Yes, yes. Oh, yes. You’re the first person that’s said that. You just made me so happy.
KT: And maybe that’s the alternative to the redemption thing.
LY: It’s meant to be.
Lidia Yuknavitch is the National Bestselling author of the novels The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children, winner of the 2016 Oregon Book Award’s Ken Kesey Award for Fiction as well as the Reader’s Choice Award, the novel Dora: A Headcase, and a critical book on war and narrative, Allegories Of Violence (Routledge). Her widely acclaimed memoir The Chronology of Water was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award for creative nonfiction and winner of a PNBA Award and the Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice. The Misfit’s Manifesto, a book based on her recent TED Talk, was published by TED Books. Her new collection of fiction, Verge, is now out from Riverhead Books.
Kelly Thompson‘s work has been published, anthologized, or is forthcoming in Guernica, Electric Literature, Proximity, Entropy, Oh Comely, The Rattling Wall, Dove Tales, Witchcraft, Manifest-Station, The Temper, Yoga Journal, and other publications. She is also a contributor to The Rumpus where she curates the column “Voices on Addiction.” Kelly lives in Denver, Colorado and is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Twitter handle: @stareenite.