Sometime in 2011, at the house of friends in Portland, Oregon, I idly picked up and began to read the book sitting on the side table. It was a paperback bound in a strip of gray paper by an author whose name was unfamiliar to me. Within the hour, I looked up and said to my host, “Either you are giving this book to me or you’re going to need to walk me to Powell’s, because I’m not getting on a plane back to Boston without this book.”
The book was Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water, and it was the most gripping, honest, and commanding book I’d read in years. For those of us who have spent years of our lives pursuing degrees in how to tell a story, there is nothing like coming upon a writer who clearly couldn’t care less about the rules, but fashions a narrative by what appears to be pure, intuitive skill with a heavy helping of stripped down honesty.
Yuknavitch followed up The Chronology of Water with the 2012 novel Dora: A Headcase, the story of the young Dora, Freud’s famous subject—but this time, it is a story Dora controls—and her posse of radical teen artists. Now, her novel The Small Backs of Children takes us on a harrowing journey that begins in a war-shattered town in Eastern Europe, where an American photographer captures an image of a young girl blown forward by a blast that kills her entire family. The photograph wins “The Award” and the girl retreats into anonymity and art, taken in by a widow in her farmhouse. Soon, a group of American artists decide they need to find this girl and bring her to the US. This is the part of the plot I can distill neatly in an introduction. Packed in around this narrative framework are fractured stories of devotion, art-making, sex, power, meditations on love and the gendered experience, and—as always with Yuknavitch—the life of the body. The Small Backs of Children is balanced on a sex-art-death trifecta that has become the Yuknavitch signature.
The Rumpus: Your 2011 memoir, The Chronology of Water, has a bit of a cult following. Readers coming into your new novel, The Small Backs of Children, may well be bringing in associations with the details of your personal life. Within the first ten pages of Small Backs, you lay out a history for the main character, “the writer,” that’s very similar to your own: competitive swimmer; former heroin addict; mother of a dead daughter; mother of an alive son; married to a filmmaker; etc. You end the chapter with the statement: “Every self is a novel in progress. Every novel is a lie that hides the self.” Can you talk about your own ideas about writing fiction vs. memoir?
Lidia Yuknavitch: It does? A bit of a cult following? HURRAY!
You could say that The Chronology of Water and The Small Backs of Children ARE my ideas about fiction vs. memoir. And what I mean by that is, the two books together are a representation of my answer to a question I am asked eternally: What do you think the difference is between fiction vs. nonfiction? My answer is laid bare in these two books. My answer is: the membrane between fiction and nonfiction is thin as infant’s skin.
I think our identities—the ones we live in the real world—are really made partly from stories that we build up around ourselves—necessary fictions—so that we can bear the weight of our own lives. We like to call these “truths” or “facts” or “selves,” but I maintain that they are fictions. Fictions for instance called “mother” or “wife” or “lover” or “teacher” or “writer.”
I think we understand our own life experiences in narrative terms. If you consider that idea for a moment, we are walking novels. No one has a pure identity. Everyone has an identity made from everyone they’ve ever known and loved or hated, and from every experience they could process and withstand, happy or sad, arranged in memories, otherwise known as stories.
So writing my anti-memoir meant creating a composition and inventing narrative forms to convey some experiences from my life.
And writing a novel meant creating a composition and inventing narrative forms to convey some experiences—some imagined, some real—from life. The only difference involved the fact that some content doors remained closed in nonfiction, but even that’s a hoax. I opened them anyway.
I’m thrilled the two books can co-exist now. In some ways they complete one another. Fiction multiplies the possibilities of nonfiction. Nonfiction deeply informs the fiction writer’s desires and impulses and limitations. In a way, nonfiction is simply a snapshot of the edges around any given writer’s imagination.
Rumpus: The identity of being an artist, and the act of art-making, is important in The Small Backs of Children. There is a singularity to your characters’ identities: there is the writer, the photographer, the filmmaker, the poet, the painter. Can you talk a little bit about this singularity, and about your decision to identify characters by their titles vs. proper names?
Yuknavitch: GAH! That’s such an interesting way to put it! “A singularity.” I love that idea. I have to go think about it—okay, I’m back. Here’s why I got so excited by your idea (besides the fact that I love ideas): Look at this!
1) the state, fact, quality, or condition of being singular.
2) A point at which a function takes on an infinite value, especially in space-time when matter is infinitely dense.
3) A hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence and other technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.
I’d say that my decision to identify characters by their labor (not titles, but artistic labor practices) includes nearly all of those definitions.
But in terms of my own artistic practice, you are right; I distilled each character to their art-making.
Instead of creating characters vertically, with ye ole psychological realism depth (the tradition we inherited from realism that refuses to die), I created characters laterally. I selected a moment or two of emotional intensity and put those emotional intensities in motion. I limited their characterization to their bodies and their labor (the labor of making art, the labor of making love, the labor of being and thinking).
By the way. This is something I learned from writing The Chronology of Water: that the body has a point of view.
Their proper names thus became unimportant. Subordinate. Emotional intensities were prioritized. The cult of the individual dropped away in favor of the body in motion, seized by a series of emotional intensities.
This technique also allowed me to fully “play” with two ideas: 1) that the sense of ourselves as unified individuals strolling around in stable meat sacks has given way to a sense of ourselves as plural and always moving subjectivities, and 2) that content can be rendered in a gazillion different ways (we know this about novels, we just like to forget that we know it because difficult content makes us uncomfortable and itchy and accessible content makes us feel swell). What Willem de Kooning described as content: “content is a glimpse of something. It is very tiny, content.” I’ve always been equally influenced by painters and writers. I wanted to see what would happen if I rendered content without allegiance to linear narrative or psychological realism or the cult of character.
Yes, partly those ideas come from literary and art theory, but who cares? As a creative writer I only care about that so I can PLAY. Create.
It’s not as nutty as it sounds, either, if you stop and think about it. We are always experiencing ourselves as fragmented and fucked up rather than stable, well-adjusted, together. We are ALWAYS experiencing life as a series of chaotic retinal flashes. Then later we smooth it over by making narratives that make sense. We call this memory. We give things a beginning, middle, and end. But when we are experiencing them, they are disorienting and weird. Narrative gives us a way to live with the chaos of experience.
Some writers give us that comfort. Other writers remind us that life really is chaotic and flabbergasting, brutal, and frightening, but that beauty is possible there, too.
I made the choice early on to abandon the traditions of psychological realism that have so dominated the 20th and early 21st century novel because I want to venture into unknown storytelling, unknown formal territories. You could say I wanted to break the novel. Open.
Rumpus: I see this at work in Small Backs: You are clearly defying the literary tradition of realism; beyond that, you don’t seem bound by whether or not this story is possible in our “real” world. In Small Backs, a group of artists plot to “steal” and bring to the United States an orphaned girl in an unnamed Eastern European country who is made famous by a photograph in which she is seen being blown forward by a blast that kills her entire family. The act is referred to at one point as “performance art.” How much research did you do about the logistics of such a transaction? Did you have a particular country or armed conflict in mind when you wrote this girl’s story? Tell me about the importance of historical or political research in this book.
Yuknavitch: Well, yes, I see what you mean; however, in the horror world of human trafficking, such transactions using children as commodities on the international open market happen every nanosecond. So the only fictionalization I employed had to do with the American artists being deluded enough to think they could turn that process on its head. I mean, yes, I left realism long enough to illustrate the terms of trade: art: the body of a girl: American “benevolence”: money. But is that really so far from realism? We are very good at clicking “like” and exhibiting sympathy and compassion from afar. We are very bad at—with the exceptions of charities and micro–human-rights efforts—taking action unless it’s war. I think it might be more accurate to say I set realism against itself and I gave fiction a megaphone.
My research into war and history and the bodies of girls has its origins in my Lithuanian family history. One of my relatives was sent to a Siberian gulag for taking an illegal photograph of an even more illegal massacre perpetrated by Russian soldiers against Lithuanian civilians at a hospital. And my doctoral work was on war and literature and narrative form.
The reason the country and conflict remain relatively unnamed in the novel is a reflection of how many conflicts and bodies do not make it into American “news” cycles. Thus they are not part of our consciousness or the story we tell of ourselves. All over the world the bodies of children in particular are being left out of national “storylines.” News-less. I find that obscene.
You could say that the historical and political research that went into this book took my entire adult life.
Rumpus: How much were you influenced by such photographs as Nick Ut’s photograph of Phan Thị Kim Phúc—know as the “Napalm Girl”—and Kevin Carter’s photographs of the vulture poised in front of the starving child in the Sudan? Or even Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl”? You speak of art as an act of salvation, but you also acknowledge the “cannibalism” of turning other people’s experience into art. Is Small Backs a kind of condemnation of the photographers who achieved fame by exposing the dire situations of young people without offering them any practical help?
Yuknavitch: Yes all of those photos served as a kind of nexus for me. A nexus that formed a big fat question mark: what are we doing when we make art? I enjoy difficult questions infinitely more than so-called answers. I wouldn’t say Small Backs is a condemnation of the photographers who achieve fame by exposing the dire situations of children, but I would absolutely say it is a good question to raise and think about. Especially in America. Is shooting for a bestseller more important for an American artist than diving into the wreck of the world and trying to find a way to help in terms that matter to the actual bodies of children? You tell me. That’s a question I’m interested in. Why do we make art? What does it have to do with money? Whose body and story counts and for what?
Kevin Carter’s suicide note read as follows: “I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…”
I am interested in this place he found himself within. I feel both compassion and disdain. I think these kinds of questions are worth thinking about. I don’t ever want to be a writer who is not thinking through the knot we’ve made of our conflicting desires and fears.
Rumpus: I don’t think anyone would say you shrink from human conflict, desire, fear, or the general complexity of what drives our actions! While I was reading Small Backs, the word “brutality” kept bubbling to the surface of my brain. There is so much brutality in this book, which is largely the story of people who suffered or inflicted brutality. I was beginning to think about audience, and if you had any concerns about readers turning away from the material because it can be uncomfortable to immerse oneself in a world of brutality. Then I came to the lines: “You wish I would stop speaking of all this blood, but I’m afraid it’s the point. Stop wishing it wasn’t. Just once, the story will keep its allegiance to the body of a single woman.” I think this is my answer, but I’m going to ask you anyway: What, if any, are your concerns and ambitions regarding audience? Do you have an ideal imagined reader?
Yuknavitch: The problem I have is not with my novel, which depicts, among other things, how a child survives in a war zone no one cares about. My problem is the brutality of a world where the fate of children is so ignored and underrepresented in news cycles that devote more time and energy to Keeping up with the Kardashians. I’m concerned about the brutality of that, to be honest. I guess you could say my problem is with the ways in which we turn away from difficult realities; my novel merely puts that idea into representation.
Too, I think that brutality and beauty are always resting right next to one another in our actual lives, and to turn away from the suffering of others because it’s too difficult to live with is to disappear and abandon them, to dislocate them from our human existence with them.
My novel is meant to agitate. I have deep concerns about how anesthetized we have become to the suffering in the world we help to create every moment of our lives.
But my novel is also about the profoundly creative ways that people figure out how to not only survive, but endure, thrive, live, love, heal. The girl and the woman at the center heal themselves. Sometimes healing is complex.
Some books entertain. Some books are comforting. Some make us feel good about ourselves, some help us escape the difficult world, some are uncomfortable or seek to agitate. I don’t see a problem with that. There’s room for all forms and themes. Since I studied novels of war and violence so intensely during my doctoral work, I can say with some confidence that my novel belongs to a large body of literature devoted to exploring the relationship between historical violence like war, and those more invisible violences written across the bodies of the suffering or oppressed every day of our lives. Slaughterhouse Five has brutality woven through it. The Things They Carried. Bastard Out of Carolina. Beloved. Almanac of the Dead. Empire of the Senseless. A Clockwork Orange. Trainspotting. Zazen. Gazillions of other novels tackle difficult subject matter, on purpose, without apology, because to work the art of dark material is to engage in a transformational act.
I understand not all readers will be engaged by my novel, but I’m hopeful that some will find resonance. I don’t think I’m the lone woman who thinks about these things or risks opening them up for question. Oh and I don’t think I believe in “ideal readers.” I’m a reader who was made by the books I loved. I think all readers are made by the books they love.
Rumpus: You’ve previously had your books published by small, innovative presses like FC2 and the fantastic Hawthorne Books. This is your first book with a major house. Does the experience of publishing with Harper feel different, and how?
Yuknavitch: You know what? Not really. I had exceptionally wonderful people to work with at FC2 who helped me nurture and grow my writing practice. I had the extreme pleasure of working with Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne Books, a collaborative wet dream between editor and writer, truly. And most recently, I have been profoundly happy to work with my agent Rayhane Sanders, who is a force of nature and who helped me to bring more than one manuscript to its fullest promise, as well as editor Calvert Morgan at Harper, who has been an intellectual and creative thrill to work with. For me, the artistic collaboration is everything. The only adjustments I’ve made so far have to do with processing my own junk, my doubts and fears, but those go with me everywhere.
Rumpus: You offer us this meta element in the beginning of Small Backs, an image of the writer writing, thinking: “I am in the room I write in… I think things like, Be brave. Hold onto voice. It’s your only chance… Move your goddamn hands before your mind makes a mess of it.” Your writing is so from-the-gut, and so powerful for its organic qualities, that it seems possible that you are a writer who hits the vein the first time and doesn’t look back. Yet you are a writer working not just from experience, but with global ideas, from an academic background, so I imagine you have some premeditation about meaning, interpretation, and the story’s trajectory. Can you talk about your process in terms of revision and plotting?
Yuknavitch: Yes, it’s true, I absolutely move forward more through intuition than logic. Is it weird to admit that sometimes I kind of go into a trance-like state to write? Or that I close my eyes?
Plot is not where I begin. I begin with image and form (language and the shapes it can make), sometimes with voice. I am much more like a poet in terms of my relationship to language I think, because I am always invested in creating a poetics in everything I write. In fact, an essential process question for me with each book or story is, what poetics must I invent in order to tell this kind of story?
I distrust plot even as I search for non-traditional ways to build it. My work is rarely, if ever, plot-driven. But it’s not plotless, either. In fact I take composition very seriously, I’m just not very interested in traditional form in terms of my own artistic practice and focus. Plot, or the main events arranged in a sequence, can be rendered many different ways. The sequence does not have to be linear or horizontal to convey meaning. It could be nonlinear and vertical, like poetry, which relies more heavily on figurative uses of language like repetition, image, metaphor, or completely abstracted, like in abstract expressionist painting or certain improvisational music.
You could say I am always searching for patterns and echoes, emotional intensities and flashes of meaning, tiny jolts and seizures and wounds of pleasure and pain within experience that show us something about ourselves. You could say I like to invent languages and storytelling forms that correspond not to plot, but to our corporeal, lived experiences. Plot is something we bring to experience to help us make sense of it.
There is a point of view in The Chronology of Water that is the body. And the bodies of women and children are at the center of The Small Backs of Children. Underneath what we call plot and the shiny star of a main character, if we loosen the ground even a little, a multitude of stories and bodies yet exist. Other ways of seeing or saying. Sometimes whole worlds.
Rumpus: Structurally, the end of Small Backs offers multiple resolutions. Or perhaps it’s an anti-resolution. What are your thoughts on closure, how this book ended, and how a story should end?
Yuknavitch: There is no such thing as an ending. At the conclusion of any work of art, just like at the conclusion of any experience, what we arrive at is a site of interpretation. Every reader commits a creative act at that site. Every reader creates a version of their own artwork within their act of reading. No author can ever succeed at holding a singular ending in place, stable, unwavering. And thank oceans, because then literature would be static, dead. Look at the fuss we make at each other over pop culture interpretations at the conclusion of Mad Men or about the imagery and themes of Game of Thrones. We don’t agree. We get feisty about our interpretations. We love novels because we can read the same one more than once and experience meaning differently. Isn’t that glorious? I’ve been rereading The Lover and Beloved and Bastard Out of Carolina for years. I’m just reminding readers of something that is always true, about language, about novels, about interpretation, about meaning. It moves.
And this: a girl is what we make her. Maybe we should look at that harder.