Breaking the Binaries: A Conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch

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A master of reinvention in her own life, author Lidia Yuknavitch reimagines the historical figure Joan of Arc in her just-released The Book of Joan. One of the most highly anticipated books of 2017, The Book of Joan has also been optioned for the big screen by the producers who optioned Station Eleven. The novel, a speculative narrative of resistance, describes an eerie world in which a worshiped celebrity billionaire transforms from opportunistic showman to fascistic power monger.

Lidia is the author of Dora: A Headcase, a contemporary coming-of-age story, as well as the award-winning memoir The Chronology of Water and the bestselling The Small Backs of Children. Lidia’s TED Talk, “The Beauty of Being a Misfit,” has garnered over a million views, with a book version, The Misfit’s Manifesto, forthcoming in October 2017. A passionate writing instructor, Lidia recently launched Corporeal Writing: New Methodologies, featuring online and in-person workshops that explore the essential relationship between writing and the body.

In her workshops, as in her writing, Lidia embraces the misfit, shifting that character—as she has in her own life—from outcast to center stage. Her novels and memoir reflect the archetypal outsider and heroine and introduce readers to new constellations of self-discovery. For many readers and students, to experience Lidia is to experience a force similar to the one possessed by the child warrior and protagonist in The Book of Joan.

I am not afraid; I was born to do this” is a famous line attributed to Joan of Arc. As I read through Lidia’s prescient book, I couldn’t help but think the same of its author: Lidia Yuknavitch was born to write this book, and I was honored to interview her about it.

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The Rumpus: I didn’t realize I had scheduled this interview on International Women’s Day and I couldn’t be happier with the synchronicity. What does it feel like to be putting Joan out into the world post-election?

Lidia Yuknavitch: Oh, I have so many feelings about that question because when I first wrote it our current situation in America hadn’t happened yet. When I was making these characters, thinking up this storyline and these themes, I was super worried and pissed off about consumer culture, celebrity culture, environmental disasters, and money, and so I was driving the narrative down into these tensions, and rerooting the Joan of Arc story around these fears and violence. After what happened politically in the last year or so, it’s thrilling to be putting the book out right now, and also a little scary because of what came out of my fingers.

Rumpus: There’s a particularly prescient quote regarding the antagonist Jean de Men, “His is a journey from opportunistic showman, to worshiped celebrity, to billionaire, to fascistic power monger.”

Yuknavitch: That’s the line. That’s the line that makes me scared. I was thinking about figures like him. I wasn’t thinking about Trump every second of the day, but he was definitely in the stew in my head. So, the way things have played out I believe that we’re always writing within our present-tense zeitgeist, so right now what’s coming through artists, musicians, and writers is a version of all the tensions, all the fears, all the hopes, and all the desires that are moving through our specific time period. The stories that emerge are like an echo effect of living our lives right now. I’m glad that the one that came out of me was a resistance narrative.

Rumpus: Well, of course, it is, for many reasons. I wanted to congratulate you on your recent successes, including The Book of Joan getting optioned by Stone Village Productions for the big screen. You are hitting it out of the ballpark. I think all of this coming together is the result, in my observation, of your persistence over decades.

Yuknavitch: Oh! She persisted! I love it. I appreciate you saying that. I take that to heart. Especially the part you just said about “decades.” Because I often think when somebody’s getting a tiny bit of light, people believe it happened quickly, and it’s taken my whole life.

Rumpus: You’re welcome. You’re a real example and role model for those of us who are out here in the trenches writing.

Yuknavitch: We need each other. We have to keep saying out loud that our art is also creative labor, but for some reason when women or people of color are doing it, we don’t get acknowledged or recognized for the labor part, you know?

Rumpus: Yes. The figure Joan of Arc shows up in early works of yours, and later, in your memoir Chronology of Water, the narrator says, “that image of Joan of Arc burning up in fire burned inside me like a new religion.” What was the genesis of Joan for you? How did she evolve into this protagonist, this reimagining of her story?

Yuknavitch: Joan is one of three figures in my lifetime that has come to me through a haunting, and what I mean by that is, along with two other women, she visited me in a dream. I was pretty young, and it might have been triggered by the fact that my sister—we were raised Catholic—chose Joan of Arc as her saint, and middle name. I adored my sister more than God. I thought she was magical and amazing.

Joan’s story was not only a story of a girl creature I discovered who was defying all things feminine right when the world was giving me the message about how to be a girl but was also a tortured body story, and so it got bigger in my imagination. The other tortured body that we’re supposed to pay attention to was the Christ body. A whole belief system came out of the suffering of the Christ body. But I didn’t identify with the Christ body. The only thing I thought about that image of Christ on the crucifix was that he was awfully androgynous and kind of sexy looking, and that confused me because he had pretty long hair, and the violence and the beauty of his body pinned to the cross were super confusing. I didn’t think, “Oh, I shall believe in God,” Instead, I was like, “that’s a sexy, violent, weird image.” And I didn’t know what to do with that.

And so when I came across Joan’s burning body I thought, “This body does make sense to me.” And what they did to her to shut her story down and shut her power down made sense to me, so I took the burning body of the girl into my heart, and turned suffering into something more like girl power. And I think she’s part of the reason I was able to get out of my father’s house.

Mary Shelley was the second visitation in my teens and changed my life forever. I hadn’t figured my life out, or what I was doing yet and Mary Shelley said to me, “Motherhood is not monsterhood,” and I had no idea what that meant at the time, but then after I lost my daughter, that phrase and that moment became everything to me.

The third female figure that visited, Emma Goldman, doesn’t make complete sense to me, but then in some ways does. I’m still waiting to figure that out. I think I’m going to discover in my sixties what the hell it was she was talking about.

Rumpus: I can’t wait for that book! And the heartbreaking story of losing your daughter Lily is so beautifully rendered in The Chronology of Water.

Back to the Christ figure for a moment, I heard you say in your interview with NPR that although the novel puts Joan of Arc in the center and reimagines her story, you took God out of it. 

Yuknavitch: Part of what’s going on with the historical Joan of Arc story is that it’s locked inside a theology, a Christian belief system that keeps you from asking questions outside of that. What was her body story, or what was the violence and the war outside of theology? What was her love outside of theology? One thing, she heard voices, and the story is that they were the voices of saints and God. When I was growing up, and up until I was forty-something, I too experienced clinically diagnosed auditory hallucinations and was hearing voices. When I was in my teens and early twenties I was prescribed lithium, because at the time that was thought to be an effective way to treat those voices. I don’t know if you know anything about lithium, but it’s a terrible thing to give to teens and young adults. It’s horrible.

With therapy—specifically art therapy—and when I became a writer, the voices almost went away. Out of the voices left, one of them was a father, literally my father’s voice. That took longer to exorcise. But this idea of hearing voices is very real to me; it’s not a story about a magical, mythical heroine that’s in the past. Finding a figure in history and literature that heard actual voices made me feel less wrong, another reason she was such an important figure for me. Instead of punishment or medication being necessary for hearing voices, it gave me another storyline, that perhaps the voices are generative of something besides illness. And so this is partly why this was such an important story for me to tell and refigure because I’m not the only one who has that experience. And I forgot the original question.

Rumpus: You were taking God out.

Yuknavitch: So I took God out because God has nothing to do with my personal experience. I am an atheist mammal. I do not believe in God. However, I think we call the ineffable different things. When I describe my belief systems, they have to do with the science-oriented idea that we are a part of everything that’s around us, that we are energy and matter exactly like when you look up in the night sky. There’s kind of an astrophysics reality for me that makes us all pieces of each other and everything around us. I don’t think that’s completely divorced from what people think of when they do believe in God, it’s just in the God narrative or the theistic narrative, there’s a creator, and there’s a belief system and a value system. In Lidia Land, there isn’t a creator, but that doesn’t mean there’s no belief system or value system.

Taking God out meant I could ask more questions than the historical account of Joan allows because it’s locked in that theology. One night, Miles and I were outside talking about God and belief and stuff like that, and he looks up at the night sky, and he goes, ‘The thing I don’t get is why people say, ‘If you don’t believe in God, there’s no magnificent wonder in the world.’” And he’s looking up at the stars, and he’s like, “What’s more wonder than that?”

Rumpus: In the book, Joan finds a boy she names Miles who brings her an important message: “I’m going to tell you a story. You’ll like it. It’s about a girl who turns into a song.” What part did your son Miles play, if any, in your writing this novel?

Yuknavitch: Ever since he was born I’ve been putting Easter eggs in everything I write that are clearly connected to him, so it’s just a thing I’m going to do my whole life. There will be Miles in everything. But also, when I was writing the book, I would run into creative roadblocks or problems that would frustrate me. We would go on these long walks and, because he was working on a story too, and they were both science fiction stories, we would puzzle out creative possibilities in the coolest way. He helped me keep my imagination open, and he was pivotal in that way because when you get stuck in a long work, it feels frustrating, and to have somebody brainstorming with you instead of critiquing you is incredible. The minds of kids and teens are the most open and magnificent of anyone on the planet.

Rumpus: Song runs through the entire novel from the time that Joan, as a girl, begins to hear it.

Yuknavitch: Well, back to the God question. The song is entirely about string theory and how there is such a thing as cosmic music. (I was all up in Neil deGrasse Tyson, who’s an astrophysicist, and Michio Kaku, who’s a theoretical physicist.) That’s another place the song stuff comes from. Instead of God’s voice, I had Joan hear the universe’s music.

Rumpus: Early in the book we read, “It still strikes me as absurd that all our mighty philosophies, and theologies, and scientific advances were based on looking up.” There’s a dichotomy of earth and sky that comes undone and something about opposites, too. You take all the dominant narratives regarding God, love, science, history, sex, gender, and you turn them on their heads.

Yuknavitch: I love you so hard for noticing that because I was literally trying to break the binaries. You know, break them, so they’re not either/or, and the high/low binary is one of the most singularly—I’m trying to think of a way to say “we are so fucked.” Most systems including economics, sexuality, geography, theology, philosophy, are based on this construct we made up about high/low. This thing you’ve zeroed in on about me trying to get inside that story of high/low ascension and pull it apart and break it in some places so I could let other stories and possibilities narratively exist was paramount to me. Now, did I come up with some conclusive, awesome other model? No, not really. But I’m pretty thrilled by what happened to me in the creative process as I went in and tried to break those binaries open.

Rumpus: Somewhere, somebody in a blurb about The Book of Joan mentioned brain-blooming or mind-blooming, and that’s what this book is doing for me, it’s just amazing the way it’s opening up these alternative narratives, and that’s so exciting.

Yuknavitch: Oh my God, that’s the coolest thing you could ever say to me. What you just said right there, I can go home now, that was good.

Rumpus: I just love how you did that. Speaking of narratives that you turn on their head, there’s one about love. This took my breath away: “It isn’t that love died, it’s that we storied it poorly.” That brings us to Christine Pisan, another one of the iconic female protagonists in the book. There’s a historical figure, Christine de Pizan, one of the earliest feminists, credited in the back of the book.

Yuknavitch: Yes. I was obsessed with her. She wrote this amazing medieval, early lady book called The Book of the City of Ladies and for people who haven’t picked it up, oh my fucking god. It is the greatest book. I invented the Christine character absolutely off of this early medieval woman writer who was, that far back, exploring what happens when you open up these tropes that we run our society by and asking “are there different narratives available?” She was particularly, of course, interested in women’s narratives. One of the things that she opened up was courtly love.

That idea got me all fired up about how we are locked into how we behave with one another and how we understand our feelings by this sickeningly old trope of the love story and the romance as it’s shown up historically in literature and philosophy. And in the love story, in that trope we’ve inherited, there are very few deviations from the traditional love story. Not that this is ambitious at all, but not only did I try and unravel the God story, I was also trying to take apart the love story as it’s trapping us. None of us live love stories the way love stories in representation happen. Nobody’s marriage or partnership or fling or affair happens the way the stories we’re presented with are asking us to buy. The main thing I was interested in was what would happen if we learned to love the earth the way we claim to love our lovers, husbands, wives, parents, and children? What if we rerooted the energy that is love, and understood it as energy, and learned to re-story it in both how we treat one another and how we treat the planet and existence and our place in it? That was at the core of Joan and taking apart the love story. But then while I was in there writing it, I love love stories, so I tried to make multiple love stories just to remind the reader that there are a gazillion love stories and love is happening all the time, and we shouldn’t feel like endless failures because our stories don’t match the romanticized, idiotic, locked version we’ve been fed.

Rumpus: Your Joan, in so many ways, on so many levels, takes us out of those stories that we’re confined within, just as the historical Joan was confined. Christine remarks, “I felt a sense of messianic time, of life that was not limited to a lone human being detached from the cosmos.” And so I felt this arc of history running underneath.

Yuknavitch: I don’t believe in the linear version of the story of history, and so not only did I bring historical figures into the present and undo their stories and re-story, I was trying to highlight the idea that there is no past, present, and future. Those ideas that we’ve clung to for so long in a linear way move quite differently than linearly. How can we tell stories differently and understand our lives differently if past, present, and future isn’t what we thought it was this whole time? That’s another physics question because in physics they don’t believe in linear time anymore either. It’s just regular Joe people, most of us, that are still clinging to the idea that time works like an arrow but science has undone that idea kind of a long time ago.

Rumpus: All forms of writing are forbidden in this new paperless world. There are no trees, and people have to find subversive ways of telling stories. We read, “In the beginning was the word, and the word became our bodies.” A question for those of us who are writers especially, how does the word become our bodies?

Yuknavitch: What’s happened to us in our “evolution” is that that relationship has been broken. What I’m interested in is bringing word and body back together and asking questions about what story emerges. You know this from all my obsessions and efforts in the world to help people reconnect their bodies to their body stories. When the theology of Christianity convinced us that the word was God, it severed the personal relationship one might have had with the word and replaced it with a belief system. That’s one of those hierarchies that I was interested in un-writing.

I’m not saying that’s good or bad. I’m just saying I noticed it. For me, that’s a lifelong question: what is our relationship as beings, as mammals among other mammals on a planet with trees and other organisms to language, sign systems, and representation? We know from primate studies that apes and chimps have already approached some relationship to sign systems and representation, and we know this about dolphins and whales. I’d like to ask questions about language and representation that are not locked into the “humans are on top and God is above them” narrative.

Rumpus: Art making is a subversive action in your life as well as in this book. There is a line, “We’ve become signs dislodged from plot and action in our own lives.”

Yuknavitch: You’re zooming in on all my private obsessions. One of the reasons I love language is that concerning semiotics, language is an arbitrary sign system, which means the signs within it are free-floating, but we put them in a certain order to get them to have meaning for us. If we left them alone, they’d be like water, like the ocean. It would be just this vast field of free-floating matter or signs, so in this way, I think language and water have much in common. It’s only us bringing grammar and syntax and diction and the human need for meaning that orders language, hierarchizes it. What’s beautiful to me about language is that at any moment, some other group of people could come along and put it all in an entirely different order and order all the signs differently, and it would still be a language, but you and I wouldn’t be able to understand it. Which is why I hope aliens come sooner rather than later.

Did you see the movie, Arrival?

Rumpus: I did. I loved it.

Yuknavitch: So that’s exactly, precisely the image of what I’m talking about. They brought a language, and we’re all like, ‘What’s that? What are those pictures of?’ But then Amy Adams, because she’s awesome, figured out that it’s a language and a sign system. And that’s so beautiful to me. Also, I love that movie because the aliens didn’t come to kill us. I’m sick of that trope.

Rumpus: Bodies are storied in this book, stories scribed on flesh, which brings to mind self-mutilation and the art of tattoo, also ways of telling stories. I’m reminded of your approach to writing. Corporeal Writing bypasses or explodes, the myths of how to write or story or learn as writers.

Yuknavitch: Right. Like when we do those exercises where you have to figure out where you are in your body right that moment and then write from that place. That’s such a different idea than the narrative prompts we usually inherit when we’re trying to write a story. If you’re asking, “What is the story of my kidney right now? What’s it trying to say? What’s the story it’s been holding?” 99.9 percent of the time this astonishingly weird and cool and bizarre thing comes out of you like, you didn’t even know was there.

Rumpus: Changing subjects, or themes, again. War is not romanticized in The Book of Joan. I started reading your doctoral dissertation, “Allegories of Violence,” because— 

Yuknavitch: Oh good God!

Rumpus: Well, it’s beautiful. In your dissertation, you address the discourse of war. We read in Joan, “But then the world has always made violent use of children.” That also brings to mind your novel The Small Backs of Children. In The Book of Joan, Joan is a child soldier, in fact.

Yuknavitch: The war story is another trope that is in dire need of opening up. We’re used to the war story being about soldiers and combatants, and then there’s a place for the victim’s story in the traditional war story too, but no one on the planet has more experience inside the activity of war than the world’s children who have endured it and not died. There’s no army bigger than that. There’s no tragedy greater than that. We’ve let the soldier story overcome the story of what happens to the bodies of children. That’s mind-boggling, and it speaks to our obsessive need to make heroes of our most brutal actions and to disappear the story of the actual bodies who are suffering the most.

Joan really was a child warrior, but her story was subsumed into historical and theological tropes in ways that piss me off. I wanted to bring the child warrior story, the child suffering body, the child heroism and children being used as raw material for building culture all back. Because those aren’t things I’m making up, I mean those aren’t fictionalized things that I’m bringing into the story. Children have been used in this way since the dawn of time, but where are the novels that highlight that and de-prioritize the winners and losers or the soldier story? I’m probably going to write about that the rest of my life because I can’t bear it.

Rumpus: At times, while reading the book, I had to put it down because I found the images so disturbing. I saw it as a movie, cinematically, as I read and sometimes I couldn’t breathe. Was it disturbing for you to write it?

Yuknavitch: Absolutely. And same with Small Backs, which has some of the most brutal imagery I’ve ever written, both of them do. I completely understand that one can’t look at that all the time, which is true even on television and social media. When you see the photos of what we’re doing to children, we all feel revulsion, we all can’t keep looking at it, we all want to turn away. Yet, we’re doubling down on harming them. Every year of our existence it’s getting worse, what we’re willing to do to children. I’m willing to go inside those images and suspend them longer than the amount of time we usually spend when we see an image, say, on Facebook or something, or in the news. We look at it and turn away really fast. And I’m interested in that time span where we turn away, because if we held it open long enough to finish feeling what we’re doing, maybe we’d stop. What we’re doing is treating those images like commodities.

Rumpus: It also reminds me of what I’ve heard you say in a variety of contexts about beauty and brutality coexisting side by side and how we want to look at one at the expense of the other. 

Yuknavitch: That’s right, that’s right. And they’re sitting next to each other all the time, but because we’ve become the world’s greatest consumers, particularly in our country, we’ve divorced ourselves from the deeper emotions it would take to change our lives so that we stop doing this.

Rumpus: Creation and destruction are juxtaposed in the book, as well. For example, Trinculo, one of the characters, says, “Destruction and creation have always been separated by a membrane as thin as the skin on a scrotum.” I had to write that down.

Yuknavitch: I forgot about that! Well, that’s another one of those binaries that is bullshit, right? I mean, creation and destruction make a helix, and creation isn’t always good, and destruction isn’t always evil, which is another binary, right? I was trying to make the verb of that helix between those supposed oppositions come alive again. So, without giving the plot away, Joan is carrying both of those forces, I’ll just say that, and that seems true of all of us.

I’m willing to go in there and find those stories about how creation and destruction form a helix and are not binaries or oppositions. We turn them into binaries and oppositions so we can, again, feel better about ourselves and make value systems that seem to give us clear ways to go through life when in reality, in the natural world, creation and destruction are not opposites. And they’re not opposites in our own bodies on a daily basis. We are creating and destroying every nanosecond of our lives in our actual bodies.

Rumpus: I noticed that in The Chronology of Water you have the element of water and then here in The Book of Joan we have fire, and the sun, and dirt. So there is a connection there.

Yuknavitch: Yeah, and you’re already saying it, that they’re the elements, right? So, it’s as simple as that, although the working title of this Joan book used to be Joan of Dirt, which Miles and I still prefer, so in my house, we call it Joan of Dirt. I didn’t think this up, but I am convinced that we are part of matter and the elements and everything around us, and not separate creatures from it. So you’re probably going to see me the rest of my life writing characters back into dirt, and fire, and water, and wind, and rock, and space. Because that’s my belief system, that’s who I think we are.

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Author photograph © Andy Mingo.


Kelly Thompson's work has been published or anthologized in The Rattling Wall, Entropy, Oh Comely, Dove Tales, The Rumpus, Proximity, The Writing Disorder, Witchcraft, Manifest Station, 49 Writers, and other literary journals. Her essay "Hand Me Down Stories" was recently nominated for a Pushcart by Proximity. She is also a contributor for The Rumpus and curator for "Voices on Addiction" at The Rumpus. Kelly lives in Denver, Colorado and is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. More from this author →