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Between the Covers Lidia Yuknavitch Interview

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David Naimon: Welcome back to Between The Covers, Lidia Yuknavitch.

Lidia Yuknavitch: My complete pleasure, David. You’re my favorite person to talk to.

DN: Well, as I was saying before we went live, I hoped, back in March, when everything collapsed and we retreated to our various pandemic bunkers, that we would be perhaps the first in-person interview again, because we share the same city. Then I imagined to talk about this book which is about, among other things, bodies and solidarity, that maybe our bodies would be in a room together once again. But we are talking from crosstown pandemic bunkers. I should also mention that we’re also in a city that is now in a state of emergency, under curfew, because of the protests that happened in Portland last night, around the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. So I guess I wanted to start there before we talk about your book and just acknowledge that what your book is about, what bodies are seen, what bodies are surveilled, what bodies are erased, is very much informing the way we’re having this conversation, and what’s going on here as well as many cities around the country.

LY: Agree.

DN: How are you doing?

LY: Well, I’m in a state of vibration of sorts, weaving in and out of the traumas within, and the traumas one ripple out, and the traumas outside your house where the pandemic is making its presence known. Then rippling out for that the violence of what the police did to yet another African-American person which I think of as killing. So it puts you in a state of vibration, I’m calling it, where you’re shivering between truths, and at the same time, the slowdown of life, this stopping of the speed of activity has released this entire other reality that’s with us all the time. But now we’re facing off with it in a slower, careful way. Just that animals are back in the streets, and in the squares, and in the rivers, and trees. I saw birds I’ve never seen in my neighborhood in my life, and trees, flowers, and plants, and beauty bursting everywhere, literally alongside violence, suffering, and despair. I feel as if we are now in this moment, for which the phrase present tense seems incredibly profoundly the right phrase. Present tense.

DN: Well, I want to start with my discussion with Garth Greenwell when he was on the show.

LY: I love Garth. [laughter]

DN: I told him that the idea of writing the body has come up a lot with writers who’ve come on Between the Covers. But it often has remained abstract for me, what that actually means in general, and also for any given specific writer that has brought up writing the body. But that Garth was one of the first people who really articulated it for me in a deep way, all the way down to choices he was making at the sentence level. He definitely feels a kindred connection with you and wrote that incredible piece in The New Yorker about your sex scenes in your books. You’re also this person who, I think both Garth and I would agree, is not someone who just is writing the body, but has also thought deeply about what that means and articulated it. So I was hoping maybe we could start, before we talk about Verge specifically, if you could talk about Corporeal Writing and orient us to at least the beginnings of an understanding of what that means for you.

LY: Sure. I drift notoriously toward the abstract. So if that starts happening, you just give me some hand signal and I’ll pull back. [laughs]

DN: Yes.

LY: But at its core, Corporeal Writing for me came from a deep understanding I had in my life after some bad things happened to me, traumatic things, grief and loss, and abuse. I was carrying the stories of what happened to me in my actual body. In other words, when my hip hurt, my spine ached, my neck hurt, I messed up a relationship, or I flunked out, those were versions of expression trying to find form. Once I hit upon the idea that I could make sentences in relation to the places on my body carrying the stories of my life, it became true for me—whether it’s true or not—that the body has a point of view. The body has a point of view and the stories that emerge from our lived experience, our embodied experience have a different relationship to language than just to communicate. There are forms of expression that make language go strange, as Emily Dickinson would say. There’s a pressure on language to do something different. This is how Garth and I met each other on the page inside language, and it was that rare moment where you think, “Holy shit. Somebody speaks my language. They can see me. They can hear me, and I can see them and hear them.” Even though we both come from literary traditions, I think we’re both also wrestling and in erotic relationships to language, because our bodies are at the forefront of the stories we’re telling as opposed to receded in the background, so that the craft of storytelling can be in the foreground.

DN: Right. Well you were on Sheila Hamilton’s podcast with a couple of doctors talking about depression. We soon learned that Sheila has taken classes at the Corporeal Writing Center. She talked about how, in your workshop, whenever she got stuck writing, you would ask her to return to her body and its sensations. So then she asked you to talk about why. Talk to us about what that does. When language isn’t coming, why do you go to a body sensation? What do you hope to discover when you go to your body sensations?

LY: A warm-up that I still do every time I’m writing is to close my eyes, get some of the deep breaths going, and ask myself where I’m most in my body that day. Let’s say, it’s my shoulder, my knee, or whatever. To begin to enter expression from that physical place and to ask what is being carried there instantly, takes me out of a prior tradition that we’ve inherited which is, you already know what you want to tell the story about, just tell it. It’s a way of, in an almost Jungian sense, returning to a subconscious area where your body, your life, your aches, your pains, your loves, your desires might have expressive choices available to you. It doesn’t have to be the body. I was just speaking yesterday to some people at Columbia about how I could pick this rock up and use it in exactly the same way, or this hummingbird nest, or this thing I can’t show you because it’s not legal. [laughs] The idea is that there are alternative portals for telling a story that take you away from thinking about it too much, and take you toward the idea that your body’s been carrying your shit your whole life. Maybe it’s a good time to ask what paths of expression might be open there instead of the giant pressure of what is storytelling in America? How do you follow those rules and become like those famous people? It’s a radically different origin point, expressive pathway, and it begins and ends with you, which is why no teacher will ever be more important than you, because you’re the only one carrying the vision that supports what you want to tell.

DN: Adam Swanson at Lambda Literary pointed out in your conversation how frequently you talk about hands, and how hands play this really large role in this collection, “A woman’s hand is severed. A woman dreams of running with her hands. Someone finds an arm in a planetarium. A woman massages a kidney with their hands.” You respond that you don’t find identity in your face, that your selfhood does not reside in your face, and I wondered if this was related to this notion of body as a place of story to move away from not only a disembodied mind but perhaps in your case, from privileging the face as the place of meaning in the body?

LY: Absolutely. I have to admit, way back in ye-olde graduate school [laughs] where I read a lot of literary theory, I was highly influenced by Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. One of the ideas in some of their books is that the face is not only the dominant identity marker for humans socially. But that it’s also a white screen-black hole system like a movie screen. Meanings get made there because we’re so over determined by our faces. I had to go think about that for six weeks. I just walked around and thought about that and muttered things to myself. But the more important idea is as a woman or as a person who inhabits the space we call “woman,” the over-determination of the woman’s face delegitimizes her experience and forms of expression about herself because the question becomes, “Are you beautiful enough?” Or, “Do you look enough like what we need women to look like in order to be fully human?” In my lifetime, we haven’t hit a point where women are perceived as fully human. I detected that part of the problem was the face of a woman. Part of the problem was the desired figure of a woman, the size and shape, the strength or softness. Partly, it was me, theoretically and intellectually, figuring out, I don’t want to inhabit that space. But the deeper meaning for me is, I’ve never been able to look at my own face, not even brushing my teeth even when I was little. So when I asked my body, “What’s the story there?” [laughs] I had enough trauma from my father and from my sister leaving home when I was young and being trapped there with those Oedipal people. It was like being trapped in a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or something. I divorced myself from looking in the mirror and finding identity there. Instead, I spent a lot of time alone playing by myself, making things with my hands. I made whole worlds with my hands out in the backyard, and that became drawing, and that became painting. Then one day, it became writing. At this point in my life, I’m absolutely positive my identity rests in my hands, and possibly my shoulders because of swimming.

DN: Like other people, you talk about story as a form of medicine. But I think for a lot of people, that’s a metaphor, or it comes as a metaphor. But I wonder if that’s actually when we think of your belief that the body is the site of story. So instead of the mind and maybe instead of the face, the body is the side of the story. If when you say, story is a form of medicine, that it’s actually a more literal and tangible thing that you’re saying.

LY: Yeah. I do not mean it metaphorically, although it’s as well a metaphor. It’s a beautiful metaphor. But I mean it more in the way some bodies of animals are capable of regenerating limbs, regenerating tissue, or healing themselves. I mean it more like that. That we literally could grow new hands or if not body parts, new cells, new tissues. The skin is doing that a gazillion times a day on its own, regenerating. It’s that notion of for as long as we’re alive, and no one ever knows how long that will be, we are capable of generating and disintegrating, and generating and disintegrating over and over again, and storytelling is a version of that.

DN: I was hoping maybe we could hear a little bit of a story. Would you be willing to read an excerpt from Second Language for us?

LY: Sure.

[Lidia Yuknavitch reads from her latest book, Verge]

DN: We’ve been listening to Lidia Yuknavitch read from her latest book, Verge. I wanted to take this notion of embodied writing and bring it into the question of story form, or story shape because if we think of the story form as the body of the story, we see the same short story body over and over and over again. A beginning, rising tension, a climax and then a resolution. In the same story you just read from, our protagonist says, “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.” So talk to us a little bit about the bodies of stories, and how you are looking for different-shaped bodies for your stories.

LY: Well, that Freytag’s Pyramid that we’ve inherited really traumatized me when I was becoming a writer. I kept trying to fit the stories I wanted to tell of my body and the bodies of people I knew into the traditional shape. I couldn’t tell the story how I wanted to. [laughs] It took me a long time to figure out that it was the shape that was in my way, and that the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, and particularly in Verge, are about people who may or may not reach the point of structural climax in the short story. They may start at the end and go for a little while, and then fizzle. Or they may move toward a climax but then get stuck and just waver. All the identities of all the characters in Verge, I would say, are wavering either before the world’s worst choice that a woman’s about to make, like screw her whole life up, or the moment before someone takes their life, or the moment before someone saves their life. The storytelling shape is meant to correspond as directly as possible to the material conditions of each character. So if there’s a character who’s living next to an area in Texas where they’re building a prison, the shape of her story ought to have some relationship whether or not it fits the Freytag’s Pyramid. If there’s a character who’s an organ runner, the shape of the story needs to include what it feels like to be invisible, and yet highly valued as long as you stay invisible and commit transgression. So I paid attention to that at the sentence level, the paragraph level. Where is the climax? Is there a climax? Some of the stories have no climax. There’s a story about a woman on top of a roof that doesn’t quite fit any shape of story. It’s just this moment of wavering identity and the readers never told what happens to her. So there are other books I’ve written like The Chronology of Water and The Small Backs of Children where I literally deconstructed narrative form and put it into pieces that could move around each other. You could switch where you start the book and where you end the book. But in these stories, I wanted both the tradition I inherited of the short story form and my understanding of these characters’ bodies to inform the language on the page. The very last piece in Verge is as hopeful as I get or as free in language and bodies as I can possibly get, and it’s about two young women lovers.

DN: When I was talking with someone we both really love, Lance Olsen, and he was talking about how he almost always begins with form and the implications of form when he starts a story, I had all sorts of ideas of questions I would ask you under his influence, but I ended up just reaching out to him and asking him if he wanted to ask you a question in the interview. So instead of asking under his influence, I’m now going to ask a question to you from Lance.

LY: Okay.

DN: “Verge is all about social margins in terms of its thematics, its characters, its situations. I’m interested in how form suggests philosophy as well. Would you talk a little bit about that? About how your structures, your aesthetics also engage here? Have always engaged in your work with the idea of margins of the in-between of liminal spaces? And how have your ideas on the subject changed over time?”

LY: That’s a great question and you also know I love Lance as well. I’m devoted to his artistic practice and his existence in the world along with his wife Andy. How it’s changed is my understanding of the primacy and importance of the person who lives in the in-between space has gotten a lot louder. When I first started writing, being drawn to the character who exists in any kind of in-between, liminal space, or alterity was a cool idea that corresponded to how it felt to live in my own life. I felt most present when I was alone, and I felt most agency when I was not doing the big move or the big action, but something quiet in an alley. [laughs] So I tried to write stories of this in-between space. But what’s happened as I’ve gotten older is that I now understand that in-between space is inside language and artistic expression itself. It always was. Now when I go back and track the writers, painters, and musicians I have loved most, shockingly, they have always been swimming inside that idea, whether it’s in writing, musical notes, or on the canvas. Abstract expressionism is my favorite kind of painting. Now I see why. Now, it’s like form before it moves towards looking like the thing it really is, which would be representational realism. It’s before that, but it’s not the chaos of the abyss or psychosis. It’s something in between those two things and I now understand why I have loved Gertrude Stein all these years or Marguerite Duras. “I found my kin” would be another way to say it. So I always had this devotion to the in-between space of characters, of lives, of experience. But as I’ve gotten older and practiced it more, I understand that I’m having a real relationship to these words on the page, not a metaphoric one. That may creep some people out, and I don’t care. [laughter]

DN: Well, I wanted to ask you about the in-between space or the Verge as the orientation to this collection, if we bring that back to the body, and this idea that you told Sheila Hamilton both in her podcast and in her workshop to return to the body and sensations, because you’ve often described wanting the characters in the various stories to vibrate between life and death. But you’ve also said, “I pull back from what a short story traditionally does in order to leave the reader in this intense vibrating space that includes them,” which suggests that you don’t just want the characters to vibrate, but you’re explicitly aiming for a certain body response in the reader that perhaps is the similar body response to the character. I was hoping you could talk about it because you mentioned that, at the very beginning, this sensation of vibrating about yourself, about this time. Then you mentioned it in terms of a goal, an aspiration around the place you want to hold a character, but it also seems to be something you hope that the reader’s body is going to experience, too.

LY: Right. I don’t have the same aspirations that maybe some other writers have. My strongest aspiration ever is always, “Can I get the reader to feel something in their own body as they’re participating on the page with what I’ve written?” I think sometimes I hit it here and there. Other times I don’t. I get that. Your whole career is a series of sad little failures jumping out of the nest. [laughter] But you can hit it in moments, and I feel like that’s worth it to try. Who cares if you don’t always hit it? But my thinking on that, about bringing us back to what it feels like to be in our bodies is echoing in this present moment as we’re experiencing this global pandemic. That brings you back to your own body, all the fears, all the desires, all the anger, all the beauty embodied experience, because I politically believe—and this is where Ursula Le Guin and I had our friendship mold itself around—I actually believe that severing our tie to capitalism is, of course, politically important for me. A secondary generative aim would be if we could learn to put our bodies in relationship to the world and the planet and each other differently than we have understood ourselves to be in the world so far. So it’s not just some cult where I think people should be back to the body, and some weird form of Cartesian dualism where the mind and the body are split, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that embodied experience gives us a chance to be in the world differently than narratives of power that come toward us telling us who we should be. So if you can vibrate in your body for a second inside a sentence I’ve written, maybe you can walk out your door differently that day.

DN: Yeah, and I feel like when you described your stories as having these weird shapes, I would say none of these stories are complete in the normal notion of a traditional short story.

LY: Correct.

DN: You mentioned that some of them fizzle, some of them get stuck. They almost feel like they depend upon each other. I haven’t experienced this in a story collection and I love it. It’s not a novel in stories. They’re not connected stories in terms of characters traveling from one story to the next. They’re in discrete worlds that somehow are also, at the same time, successful because of the other stories.

LY: You’re on to me.

DN: [laughs] Good.

LY: There’s a couple of ways in which that intention played out for me. It’s very intentional, and one level is at the level of the poetics of the book as a whole. In other words, if we went in with a highlighter pen and search for the primary image systems and the poetic language, you could track it through all the stories as if it was one big story. The other level that played out for me in terms of intention was, so there are series of shorts within the book that are all about a woman who does something—and they’re all very short—they punch through the other stories periodically, [0:42:06]. That was my creative solution to the idea that culturally, women are still not understood as fully human. So these pieces of women and their rage come punching through, just to remind everybody, “We’re not done yet.” So those are two ways in which the connectedness, threading thoroughness, or how the language and the content inform each other in the stories. Those are the kinds of things I was thinking about. I was also thinking about how—this is true in life, you can disagree with me—see if you agree with this.

DN: Okay.

LY: The crap I have to deal with in my own life doesn’t always resolve in my life, but a piece of it emerges in somebody else’s life and is resolved there. In that way, we’re both individual and collective. I moved the markers like climax and resolution around from one story to another so that somebody else’s climax appears in a different story without you necessarily realizing it as a reader. That’s another way I was trying to wrench it away from the tradition.

DN: Well, you totally succeeded.

LY: Hooray! [laughs]

DN: I feel like it enacts this. It feels like it enacts just what you said in this way that’s uncanny. It was incredibly moving and inspiring to be brought through that.

LY: You made me giddy. [laughter] I’m momentarily giddy.

DN: Well, I want to think about Corporeal Writing and writing on the Verge together with regards to telling the stories of people who are on the Verge or the margins of society, because that’s who most of these protagonists are. These protagonists in Verge are refugees. They’re orphans. They’re homeless. They’re drug addicts. They’re organ traffickers. They’re prisoners. They’re people who are not seen or welcomed by society often, so they exist on the Verge, they exist in the margins. But I wondered if this could also be another form of Corporeal Writing for you in the sense that, when we do often see these characters in stories, let’s say homeless person, it’s usually through the point of view of someone who isn’t them. It’s usually through some of the dominant cultural narrative. We aren’t in the bodies often of the people that are being portrayed, so the people being portrayed are not given agency and dimensionality or at least the dimensionality they’re given is top-down. So is putting us in the bodies of people on the margins part of an ethos of Corporeal Writing for you?

LY: It’s probably the core ethos, if there is. It has something to do with the idea that all existence, including beyond human existence, the experiences embodied by those kinds of characters are as worthy of story and profound lessons, and inclusion in the human larger story as anyone, and that the rewarding or legitimization of storytelling that looks down upon, erases, or makes invisible certain people in the human experience is actually violent to me. Another thing I would say is that a core ethos of Corporeal Writing also has to do with a polyphonic voice, a willingness to understand that the great grand model voice of novels and storytelling is something we might want to look at in terms of whose body counts, whose voice counts, whose experience counts. For what? If you are telling a story, let the voice open up. Let other bodies in. Let it be true that the mono voice is not able anymore to erase the bodies and stories and lives of everything around it. We’re working at it. We haven’t achieved something completely, wholly ethos successful yet. But we are breaking down the idea that there’s only one way to tell a story. We are breaking open the idea that our bodies aren’t nothing like we’ve been told they are.

DN: Another thing that I think makes this collection stand out and also makes it feel unsettling and unpredictable and dangerous in a good way is that, like the way you describe that series of stories that punctuate the collection, “A Woman [blank]”, and the way you describe that is punching through is that even though, supposedly segregation ended in the United States, white people can move through white spaces and live their whole lives mainly among white people. There’s a similar phenomenon with class in the United States where people can move around and like the relationship between a white person and police officers, they’re not going to be surveilled in their neighborhoods. They’re not going to see the constant presence of police officers and if they do, it may actually be ultimately to keep other people out of their neighborhoods whether they realize that or not. But what happens in your collection is these segregated spaces of class or race or gender are continually crossed over. Within stories and across stories, the stories almost feel like they’re both enacting and are about at the same time, that discomfort and the friction of breaking down those spaces. I don’t know if you’re recognizing yourself in my description of it, but I was hoping you could talk about that because I feel like there’s a way in which this collection is also punching through as a mode.

LY: It does resonate with me what you’re saying. I’m endlessly interested in another form of in-betweenness which is that our only hope, our only chance for change, as we’re all stumbling forward, is going to be inside an in-between space where we have to confront the divisions and frictions and pull from it, change. We have to enter in and cross each other’s spaces to find new storytelling, new ways of being with each other that don’t rely on the narratives we’ve used so far, that we’re looking at the peak or the zenith of a kind of narrative that our country was actually founded on if we’re talking about America for a second. Genocide and slaughter and using human beings to build an economy by making them slaves, that’s our origin story, like it or not. We’re living the logical conclusion of both late capitalism and the American identity experience. If we don’t figure out how to change the story, it will consume us, which is happening. So the possibility of an in-between might exist between the girl who’s grown up next to the prison that’s getting built. There’s a place between them where more than one story is possible but we have to be willing to go get it. One of the reasons I work inside women’s correctional facilities is I’m willing to go in and ask what’s your story. But I’ve also gone into churches and I’m a hardcore atheist. [laughs] I’ve also gone into areas where I’m not entirely welcome. Just to ask, “Well, I had an abortion. You had an abortion, too? Let’s talk about the storytelling that could come from that.” Instead of, “I hate your politics and you’re wrong.” So this goes back a little bit to your question about storytelling being medicine or they’re being such a thing as narrative medicine. Again for me, it has not been a metaphor, it has been the possibility for movement or change. I actually think what’s happening right now in cities across America, around this police brutality, it’s a kind of story trying to emerge. So when I look at the headlines, I don’t see that word “riot” as what my country’s telling me it is. I see another story trying to emerge and I’m going to go stand over there.

DN: Yeah. I feel like your collection from the very get-go makes us what puts us in community even if we’re not living in community with people unlike us in our actual lives. We are put in community in the collection, but we’re also made complicit from the first story, with that very sudden twist that I won’t share of point of view. I just think from the beginning, that’s when my body vibrated is, “Okay, my skin’s in the game in Verge and I am involved. I’m not reading other people’s stories. My story is in this story, for better or worse.”

LY: Well, I’m still me after all, [laughs] and I can’t seem to write a book that doesn’t agitate in one way or another. But another way to talk about my desire to have the stories get you to feel something in your body is an attempt to suggest that everything we project out away from ourselves as bad, actually lives within us. We need to go find it and give it a different story. Even in terms of to what extent do I participate in white privilege and white supremacy, it’s a story I have to go look at in myself and quit acting like somebody out there called me a name and I should defend myself. We have to go back into our bodies and find where the stories went so wrong and see if we can do something about it while we’re here.

DN: Yeah. I want to return again to your conversation with Adam Swanson because it was such a good one. He noticed that there are many reviews of Verge that describe aspects of your work as grotesque or that your characters are in disaster. He said those words never popped into his head reading the book and you said they never entered your head when writing it. It made me wonder, I guess, about humans and our ability or lack of ability to tolerate difference, or how narrow the range of difference is allowed before we treat people radically different. Let’s say if someone’s eye were a quarter-inch higher on one side than the other, or if someone had a discoloration of skin on their face, or if a man is six inches shorter than average, or a woman is six inches taller than average, or someone has a third nipple, or someone has a cleft lip.

LY: My people.

DN: Yeah. [laughs] Any of these things, which really, if you think about it in the larger scheme of things, are small, are huge. They can change a person’s destiny on how they’re seen, and how they’re treated, what they have access to, can alter everything. I don’t know if that is related to this question of viewing your characters or situations as grotesque, but it’s what came to my mind. I was hoping maybe you could revisit the question you had with him again with me, and just your thoughts about that impression of your work. But then also this notion of this really narrow band of before we make someone “other” and dismiss them as perhaps grotesque.

LY: A little adjacent to the idea of grotesque or disturbing is the idea of the monster or the creature, which I am devoted to. [laughter] Partly because the trope and fact of the monster or the creature is this hybrid space between human and something we’re not quite sure what it is. It is such a space, it’s a possibility space, as my friend Lance Olsen might say, “Where, again a new body or a new meaning or a new future could emerge.” But we often quiet it, shut it down, make it other so quickly that we can’t even explore that idea. The way the monster or the creature has been used in literature and art also reinforces the idea that bad, threatening, run away, kill it. But not for me. I always wanted the monster to live and like, “What is wrong with everyone? They see the light. It’s the only way.” A different way to talk about it would be, one of my favorite images to meditate on is I have a really great photo of a tadpole moving toward frog but it still has its tail and it’s just gorgeous. It’s a reminder to me even now in the situation we’re all in, this moment of adaptation, it’s not the first thing and it’s not the thing it’s becoming yet, but it’s that in-between form. I guess what I want to say is, I hope we can come out of these crises and traumas with an idea or a little hope that we’re in an in-between form, and we could reach for the new form, or we could go back to the status quo and repeat everything all over again. In this way, the person or the animal or the tree, the creature that is different in some way, to me, that’s the vanguard of existence. Those are the people we should be listening to. We’ve really blown it by giving power and celebrity to a bandwidth of idiots who just want more power and celebrity. The vanguard of existence is inside the body of the creature who is reaching for new form.

DN: Wow. I so love that.

LY: It makes me cry though. [laughter]

DN: We’ve been talking today to Lidia Yuknavitch about her latest story collection, Verge. This also makes me think of a mantra of yours, “I’m not the story you made of me.” I wanted to take that into the realm of gender. I want to read something you’ve said and then hopefully have you elaborate on it. “Women have never 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.”

LY: Related to what we were just talking about, I think women—and when I say women, I don’t mean exclusively, biologically determined, I mean the space anyone could inhabit that we call women—I think women are in that reaching-for-form space. Time is long, the story is long, we could speak historically of moments in women’s history movements and moments of liberation. I’m not saying those don’t exist. I’m not saying women aren’t badass and doing amazing things in the world. I’m saying the cultural stories placed upon them limit their full agency and presence and we get to watch that movie over and over and over again every time one steps towards power in any way, shape, or form for example—we have some really nifty recent examples. [laughs] So I’m not saying that women don’t have it in them, I’m saying culturally, it is disallowed, erased, or distorted. This work is long. It may not happen in my lifetime but that doesn’t mean I should throw the baton down, because there are people standing behind me waiting for the chance at change. If any of us drop our batons or shovels, or choose your tool for the work that’s ahead, it’s going to make it harder for them. So I try to write stories where the women and other kinds of identities, not just women, people who have been erased, oppressed, or repressed emerge as possibilities. I often will not present a solution, a perfectly changed world, or a utopia, but I will present the labor involved. When the girl in Small Backs of Children comes out of war by becoming an artist, that’s as far as that character got. When the woman gets on top of the building in Verge and does what she does, that’s as far as that character got. Little by little, if we understand ourselves as part of the collective and not just individuals, change is conjured.

DN: It makes me think of one of the longest stories in this collection which is in the middle called Cusp, which you’ve already referred to with the woman who lives near where a prison is being constructed. The prison is changing the town, and instead of her seeing herself separate from the prison, she wants to venture in and interact with the incarcerated men, and she gives them comfort with her body. Her own self-narrative, her own subjective experience of desire doesn’t overlap in any way with the way she’s perceived. There’s this disconnect between her own agency and self-story and then the way it’s viewed, judged, caricatured, and characterized. Even though the men are imprisoned, it feels like it’s about a woman, and women being imprisoned in a double bind, that she would have felt trapped by being “good” and ignoring the prison, like probably most of the people in the town, and yet she’s equally trapped and defined by someone else’s story when she follows her desire. That’s not even a question. [laughs]

LY: I’m just over here shaking my head vigorously yes. In that story, I was very interested in something. Andy and I rewatched Blade Runner 2049 last night. I think I’ve now seen it maybe 12 times. [laughs] It’s just sad how many times I watch movies I love. But when we got to the end this time—and I’ll cop to the fact that I had a lot of wine—I busted out with a sentence, “That’s true for me in this Cusp’s story, too,” which is that part of the problem for the men is that they can’t reproduce or create. Part of the problem for the women heroes is that they can never be the chosen one or prodigal son. So when the girl in Cusp steps into what she thinks is her brother’s position and there’ll be devotion and she’ll be legitimized, it’s a space she can never inhabit and she will be punished. So I am constantly re-attracted to that thematic in terms of gender. It’s all in The Book of Joan too, the evil or the antagonist space is all about reproduction potentialities. The woman as heroine is all about a story that won’t let her in the door. She’s perfectly capable of saving anything and everything or killing anything and everything. But the storyline won’t accommodate her creating that change. Apparently, I’m writing the same stories over and over again. [laughs]

DN: When you read the beginning of Second Language at the beginning of the show, it begins with the line, “Sometimes she understood herself in this new place as a body inside out.” I feel like that’s echoed in other stories in here. If to go on this motif of the way in which your stories are in some ways the same story written in different ways. Because you could say, the story a woman’s signifying of the woman burning her face, it’s also an example of a woman who’s turning her body inside out. She’s taking a wound that is invisible and interior. Then she’s putting that wound on herself externally and physically so that people can see it. I was hoping you could, in light of everything we’ve talked about, of returning to the body, this gesture of taking something emotional and interior and then putting it on the surface as a wound.

LY: It’s actually true for a lot of the characters. They’re doing a version of that. You’re right. It’s a little bit like me trying to explore, “Well, okay. If our interior realities are being erased and murdered, what would it take to get the people who can’t see or admit we exist and that we count? What would it take to get them to admit it?” So putting the wound from the inside onto the outside of the body, there’d be no way you could miss it, especially in that story. I think I even put that line in there, “There was no way you could miss it.” To be honest with you, I think that the civil unrest happening right now and the civil disobedience happening right now is a form of “This is what you’ve asked me to carry on the inside enough. This is the violence you’ve asked me to carry in my body. I’m going to put it on the outside.” I’m interested in that space. That’s another liminal space where someone is reaching for form, they’re reaching for expression because self-expression is possibility. Self-destruction means it eats the personal life.

DN: I want to take this question around women and leap to a really wonderful exchange you had at The Rumpus with Marissa Korbel. You start by saying, “I’m uber feminist.” and she says, “I’m with you.” “Feminista,” you say. “Yes” she says. “Left of feminism,” you say. “Sure,” she says. Then you say, “But boys need stories, too. This isn’t the moment to talk about helping boys but to me it is. This is the first time it’s showing up in my writing, so that interests me.” I was hoping you could talk about this recent appearance, how it appears for you recently and what you think of it.

LY: It’s no big secret how it emerged in my life. It emerged literally when my son was born, and I, of course, became instantly in love with him. However we proceed from here and whatever we decide feminism is or isn’t—and I’m of the opinion there are many feminisms with an S, not one monolithic voice and that feminism is a verb that’s in constant flux and change—but whatever we decide, I’m unwilling to leave males of the species behind. I’m not a separatist. I want for my son that he can be in a world where his existence contributes to other people’s existence, toward the existence of the planet in community, and if that’s a feminist lesson, great. But we need all of us, not just some of us. I think a question we have to keep turning over, “as angry as we can be at men,” as angry as that gets and patriarchy and male power, all of that rage is also a possibility space. That rage could be used for something, generative of something. Maybe part of what it should be used for is raising children who understand each other differently, and in terms that they take into the future because we’ll be gone. I’ve learned more from my son than I have learned from any PhD program or any book or any other source of knowledge. I have learned from watching him that he’s in that adaptation space, too, like the tadpole turning into a frog. He’s like the epitome of that, and what we tell him and what we give him as stimuli for moving into his own life in the future will determine what shape comes. I’m tired of pronouns and gender altogether. I am getting to a place where, if we’re going to talk about what it means to be a human, we should also be talking about trees and the planet and water and what kind of world we want, if there’s even a chance. There’s every possibility we already blew it. If that’s the case, if my whole life has just been to make space for whoever’s left and they can make their choices after that, then it’s worth it. I’m okay with that. I got half of that from Ursula Le Guin and my friendship with her because we had conversations about eco-democracy several times.

DN: Let me ask you about Ursula and you. I was going to ask you about the fictional and the non-fictional, if people have watched your Ted Talk or read you, they know that you’ve been homeless. They know you’ve been in jail, in rehab, that you’ve had two failed marriages, a lost child, and grew up in an abusive household. That these people in the book are not far from the life that you’ve lived, and you’ve also talked, already in this conversation and elsewhere, about crossing spaces that you don’t have to cross, whether that be going into a church when you don’t believe in God, whether that be having conversations with a Republican, but finding ways to find connection and things that happen to you, both of your bodies as women or going into jails. But I wanted to take that into this question about writing in the real and the imagined, or the real versus the imagined, because you’ve said for instance for you, that film and the water let you leave your life and enter a reality, a real place where imagination endures. I love that paradox that you are leaving your life, but not leaving reality and that entering a world of imagination is a real world, or at least that seems to be something like what you’re saying, but also like something that Ursula K. Le Guin says, which is that the real without the imagination isn’t real.

LY: Correct. [laughter] Good woman that Ursula. I miss her wisdom dearly. I also just miss her physical presence. I loved her body. We had a great conversation one time about peeing our pants that I’m going to remember the rest of my life because it was so visceral. [laughter] But I love the way she put it and my understanding of walking around in life on the ground, out in the air is that we’re bombarded constantly by life pressures, by stories, by events, by difficulties. My understanding of the imagination could happen while you’re asleep, or while you’re creating art, or meditating, or swimming, for me, other things for other people, and that when those two things are cut off from each other, both suffer. When there’s a relationship between them, there’s a possibility for a thriving, or growing, or changing to happen which is why I write both nonfiction and fiction, and why I have to write them simultaneously. So if in nonfiction, there’s what happened and the story of the real, in fiction, there is what could happen, what could be imagined. When I’m inside nonfiction, I’m looking for the imaginal moments. When I’m in the fictional world, I’m looking for moments of the real. If I can’t make a chiasmus between, then both projects will suffer. [laughs] Maybe it’s because I’m a Gemini, but it’s also how I stay sane.

DN: So you have a birthday coming up. [laughs]

LY: Oh, yeah.

DN: So I want to talk about one of the largest leaps across borders that happens in the collection, which is the border between species. We get comparisons between humans and birds, humans and wolves, humans and other primates, humans and sea creatures, like this series of lines for instance, “An electric eel swims by you, arched like an S, spotted yellow and blue. Look at your hands, can you imagine fins? Spread your fingers wide. There was a time before fingers, arms, legs.” So reaching for that space where you can find cross-species connection, and shared history, rather than difference seems like another part of this project? That the Cusp or Verge between species isn’t as bright and clear as we want to think it is. I was curious if you could talk more about that. The way you’re troubling human exceptionalism essentially in the ways in which you bring us in connection with a shared history around the origins of a hand in a fin.

LY: Right. Lots of people have probably looked at images of fetuses and embryos before we turn into whatever we’re going to be. It’s that fascinating moment when differences are small and the forms become more and more distinct as whatever this grows into whatever it’s going to be. So  those images endlessly fascinate me. But I’m also all about, in Verge, and you should see this next novel I’ve written, I’ve gone entirely overboard, with the idea that a de-hierarchization of human over all other species is in order now, that we’ve killed off enough of existence. I don’t know how much life I have left, but all of my stories are going to keep tapping people in the gut about that. I hate to go all Bukowski in this moment, but it’s that great line, “Humanity, you never had it from the beginning.” Not only have we brutalized each other but what we’ve done to the planet and animals is just repugnant and horrific. I love watching the Venice canals opening up to the underwater life, and animals in the streets. It’s like images from sci-fi that we’re seeing, only this is exactly the world we’ve made and there is no sci-fi. That move to put people in different relationships to animals again is similar to the move to put the stories of what happens in between people, in their actual bodies, and material conditions. It’s a similar move to ask you to be dehuman, not dehumanized, but dehuman for a second to ask what is existence.

DN: Well, that’s what I was gonna say a minute ago, was you can see in our language our denial about our relationship to others in the way, or like our infinite self-regard as a species, that to be humane and to be inhuman and the connotations we have with humanity essentially being good, and it’s okay as a scientist to start from the starting place that animals are competitive, but to suggest that they have empathy would be to suggest you’re romanticizing.

LY: Oh, yes, my anthropology friends, I have a great writer friend named Barbara J. King who’s an anthropologist and primatologist and she’s written great books on “do animals feel?” and the possibility of emotion in animal species. It’s not the question of who gets to win the species triangle that interests me anymore, it’s more what have we done to ourselves in the process of standing on the top of whatever pyramid that has led to our possible destruction of ourselves? Because we couldn’t imagine a story where interconnected existence would give us life on a planet. We couldn’t get that story. We couldn’t get there. Some people keep reaching for it, but the other story won.

DN: Yeah, I guess I wanted to return, as we come nearer to the end of our conversation, to this question about collective action and solidarity, which as we discussed, I think that Verge enacts in a way that I haven’t felt many other things enact. Starting with our complicity, in the beginning with the first story, bringing us in our bodies through various crossings of boundaries of gender, race, class, and species. But I wondered if part of the reason you hold your characters in a vibrating space is also to question the notion of a stable self. I also wondered about this notion of self, and what your views are around a stable self, if that’s somehow connected to the way in which your weirdly-shaped stories depend upon each other, that the solidarity of the stories must have and somehow, maybe suggests the solidarity that we all must have the way you’re talking about how we destroy all these other creatures that aren’t allowed to live on their own terms, or for that matter, other humans who aren’t allowed to live on their own terms, what is that doing to us because ultimately, maybe selfhood is differently conceived by you.

LY: It is my hope that every single thing I ever write pitches out a possible different selfhood. I’m always trying to pitch forward out into the world stories where there are different kinds of selves, and chances, and changes available that move away from ego and individualism and exceptionalism which are, of course, core American values. I don’t really mean to demonize American values because I think there are global correlatives that have to do with power and capitalism, and different forms of money and force vying to own the story. But what I do mean to suggest is that it has been time for a long time to re-story what we mean when we say self, away from self and other, and toward self and everything.

DN: I want to read another thing that you’ve said. I don’t even know if it’s a question but I just feel like it needs to be out on the air. Maybe it’ll provoke a response from you but I loved this. You said, “I blow it all the time but I’m starting to realize, ‘Okay, we’re all going to blow it, or quit, or falter’ and somebody else has to hold it up for a minute. Then that person’s going to start shaking, and somebody else has to hold it. We have to remind each other we’re taking turns. Nobody’s going to carry the whole thing. Not even a group is going to carry the whole thing. But they can take their turn when they’re up. Indigenous cultures, trees, mountains, oceans, they’re all here to remind us every day of our lives that we’re a puny part of the story. The stories started before us and they’re going to go on after us.” You’ve talked before in many conversations about your problems with the hero story and it feels like that’s the great articulation of the alternative.

LY: To me it is. My understanding of what would happen if you let go of the hero story would be these other possibilities could emerge, and I don’t consider that to be a dangerous or bad thing. I consider it to be the only chance at change we’ve got. This is the tiny thread where storytelling can have a socially vital and an existence vital role. It’s a little piece of something much bigger, but we need all the pieces.

DN: Yeah. Since we started with Sheila Hamilton as a student in one of your workshops at the Corporeal Writing Center, I wanted to circle back to you as a workshop leader in light of this question of heroes also. I know that many teachers are dissatisfied with the conventional workshop model, and I would love it if you could talk about the workshop model for you as the founder and one of the main teachers in the center you’ve developed. A process that you’ve described as collaborative and lateral rather than centered around a writing guru or charismatic central figure. How does this happen? How does this look? What are your thoughts when you construct a group writing scenario?

LY: It’s not like I’m absent and nothingness. I’m more like a node because, in our collaborations, it’ll be 18 to 20 people in a room and what we’re doing is creating kinetic energy by putting ourselves through writing portals together that are connected to body stories. You have to believe me, you can feel the heat coming off the body of the person next to you, and when we read our pieces aloud, you start to hear echoes between people of what they’re writing about in the language. So this wild intense kinetic energy emerges. So when I say we move laterally, that’s what I’m talking about. We’re making a storytelling energy and I suspect this is a very old process, culturally speaking, that we’re reimagining in the now. So I’m still there. I’m still facilitating. I’m casting out weird questions and opening portals. But it’s the group that produces a narrative, and physical kinetics, and that’s what by lateral. Whereas most of the writing workshops I’m familiar with, or the tradition we inherited is, there may be sharing of work and there may be people sitting in a group making creative community, but there’s almost always a fancy person who has the knowledge and legitimacy and expertise and there’s also a top-down structure, and a favoritism structure. There’s also the idea that if you could just hit these craft notes, you will ascend into the great building of fanciness, in terms of writers and at Corporeal, anyone can come in the door, anyone. They don’t have to have experience, they don’t have to have credentials or degrees or anything, and they do. So that’s what I mean by lateral and that’s what by a de-hierarchizing again of knowledge and talent and creativity. Everybody has creativity in them. Everyone has stories inside them, and it’s by sharing stories next to each other that we can create the energy that’s bigger than us, not that’s going to make one person famous.

DN: I was hoping we could end with a final story, the one that you mentioned near the beginning, [2 Gyrlz].

LY: I’d be happy to. Sometimes I fuck it up. It’s a little bit hard to read, but I’ll try.

[Lidia Yuknavitch reads from (2 Gyrlz)]

DN: It was great having you on Between The Covers again Lidia.

LY: I adore you.

DN: [laughs] I hope we get to be in a room together, someday in the future.

LY: That would be nice. [laughter]

DN: Thanks so much. We’ve been talking today to Lidia Yuknavitch about her latest collection, Verge from Riverhead. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.