The Rumpus Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch


Feminists, poets, and dissenters gather round. This is the book for you. Dora: A Headcase is the contemporary retelling of Freud’s most famous case study. In her new novel, Lidia Yuknavitch delves into the doctor/patient relationship that laid the foundation of psychoanalysis. In her reimagining of the events, Yuknavitch brings us fierce, fire tipped prose and lights up the inner life of an alienated girl who looks startling like you and me and the hundreds of other anger bitten teen chicks who refuse to endure another minute of silence or shame. Yuknavitch peers into the world of Ida, a sensitive, intuitive, and bold girl who is taking back her life one audacious decision at a time. Run to Dora: A Headcase. Read it until the last word. But be warned, this book will leave you smarter, better, braver.

In addition to writing the award-winning memoir, The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch is the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. Her work has appeared in Ms., The Iowa Review, Exquisite Corpse, Another Chicago Magazine, Fiction International, Zyzzyva, and elsewhere.


The Rumpus: So much of your writing is grounded in the body, the female body especially. Your prose inhabits the experience of living inside of limbs and guts and skin. As a reader, it allows us to feel the experience in a tangible way instead of just noting the emotional register in the character from afar. Will you talk a little bit about your willingness to shove us inside the body of your characters?

Lidia Yuknavitch: I’d love to. One of the things that bugs me about the Western Literary Tradition is that the conventions of narrative in particular seem to confine the stories you can tell about characters to tropes of bone-headed action and old models of psychological realism. And as readers, too, we have been conditioned to understand characters as—and forgive me for saying it out loud—what the market says they should be. Namely, safe, clean, proper.

Every once in a while a messy character who manifests a REAL body emerges, for instance, Lisbeth Salander—and certainly commercial genre fiction is full of examples of real bodied sexual encounters or violence encounters—but for the most part, and particularly if you are a woman or minority author, your characters’ bodies have to fit a kind of norm inside a narrow set of narrative pre-ordained and sanctioned scripts.

The chief reason I shove the reader inside the body—or more specifically, the chief reason I try to get the reader to feel their own body while they are reading, is this:  we live by and through the body, and the body, is a walking contradiction. I love the walking contradiction of the body. I want to make corporeal characters, corporeal writing, I want to bring the intensities and contradictions and beauty and violence and stench and desire and astonishing physicality of the body back into literature.

Certainly I’m participating in an already established and awesome tradition, but it’s a tradition that sort of shoots up and through the mainstream in short bursts and pulses and then gets diluted. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson shot up and then got sucked back down underground under more entertaining and less radical versions of body and self—poetry and prose that posited bodies in more perfect union with good citizenship. William Burroughs and Kathy Acker screamed a body electric and then got sutured shut by best-selling smarmy good feeling couch novels where you don’t have to think or feel anything. Marguerite Duras got ghettoized into “that French stuff,” and Dennis Cooper gets misplaced inside an aging history of punk and perversion… Or all of it gets collected into something called “transgressive” and thus loses any chance it ever had of just telling the truth:  The body is a metaphor for experience.

Worse, the bodies of women, minorities, children, disenfranchised bodies (prisoners, so-called nut cases, etc…) and their truths don’t “count” as either present and important in society or worth Pulitzer prizes as characters in literature.

Well, fuck that. You could say I think the body is the first novel. I take my cues about form and content from her.

Rumpus: Body as the first novel. Sounds about right. You mentioned to me in a previous conversation that you wrote Dora while finishing Chronology of Water. Such different books! I wonder if Dora didn’t help to diffuse some of the memoir writing of COW. What was the experience like: writing such dissimilar books in tandem? Was it necessary for these two to grow from each other?

Yuknavitch: Yes, I was finishing COW when Dora started coming out of me—though I did not write them on top of each other… I absolutely think I had to write COW in order to write Dora. I don’t actually think they are very different at all, though I respect your reading experience. From my point of view, COW is in part the story of how I survived the space called daughter and woman, how I had to invent a self and a means of survival in my own terms, how art saved me. In Dora I created a daughter character who journeys in similar ways, passes through similar life and body and heart crucibles, and who finds she must create a self and reasons to live in her own terms.

Too, COW was a psychosexual narrative; Dora is absolutely a psychosexual narrative. In my real life I had to confront the sins of the father, but it’s also a symbolic journey—a social, psychological, sexual journey for women and minorities who must pass through patriarchy and the symbolic order in order to claim a self.

In the novel I had a chance to re-enter the land of fiction—my first love, and the most radical of writing forms from my point of view—Dora is the flag of disposition for outcasts and nerds and alienated people. She is my loveletter to everyone who ever gets told they are doing a self wrongly, or a life wrongly. She is my funny fuck you to authorities that try to convince those of us with the MOST imagination and promise that something is wrong with US, when really, something is more wrong with a culture that tries to reform us.

It’s like COW birthed Dora. She’s the logical outcome. She’s loud, noisy, unflinching, tender, smart, creative, confused, contradictory, and most importantly, “other” to society’s version of a clean and proper girl. Which is exactly why she is the ONLY figure who can take that same culture on and… well, explain to the authorities how their junk is hanging out inappropriately.

I do have one regret though. I wish Kathy Acker was still alive. I wish I could go swim with her again. My literary indebtedness to her is enormous. She’s a more important mother to me than anyone can possibly imagine. In language I became a daughter worth a crap because of her. In language I redefined daughter, woman, I became a writer. Dora is an homage of sorts.

Rumpus: You have your Ph.D. in English Literature, how does your academic background infiltrate your writing? Do you ever feel the need to shove away the theory in order to get down and dirty with your art? Your work, though it happily destroys convention and lives in the world of the reader, seems informed by an intellectual curiosity. Do you think so? Do you think some of this came from spending some serious time writing a dissertation and living inside academia?

Yuknavitch: I’ll say this about academia—though when I left I burned the bridge—it DID give me a “place” to set my intellectual curiosity on fire. It may be true too that I would not have encountered the most important books and art and ideas of my life had I not chased down a Ph.D. I’ve thought about that a lot… MAYBE I would have found the same books on my own, but I can’t know for sure. Too, some of my teachers helped me to navigate those books, showed me the maps and paths and secret decoder rings—people like Linda Kintz and Forest Pyle and Mary Wood and Diana Abu Jaber. They didn’t treat me like a messy writer girl in combat boots who had infiltrated the smart people room. They treated me like I deserved to be there, potty mouth and all, they helped make a space for me to rage and ride my own intellect. That’s why I’m saying their names out loud.

I’ve noticed over the last twenty years or so of my writerly life that women writers in particular are discouraged in cleverly disguised forms from including the intellectual in their creative material way more than you would believe. Let me clarify—you can bring as much intellectualism as you’d like to your poetry or fiction or nonfiction—but if you want it to see the light of day, if you want to prosper in name or financially, if you want to win prizes for your novels, you’d best dumb that shit down. Particularly in America.

Which is mightily ironic since one of the most common criticisms of American women novelists (it’s a load of crap but it gets bandied about a good bit) is that they don’t write the “big” stories about “universal” or “worldly” concepts… Jesus. Um, when we do? We get told to get back in the kitchen and bedroom—go back to writing about love-y wife-y mother-y things.

Right. Tell that to Elfriede Jelinek or Herta Muller.

That’s probably part of the reason why most of my favorite women writers are not rich and famous.  These words “accessible” and “emotionally available” get thrown at us from agents and editors and publishers—or the reverse—if it’s not all gooey and sentimental we’re told it’s “cold” or “uncaring” or “emotionally vacant.” In other words, responses to women’s writing in particular continue to be “gendered.” If I hadn’t spent a big chunk of time in academia I might not have the depth of consciousness I do about ideas like that. I might think, for instance, that Freud was no big deal in terms of the shape of social organization then or now. I might think that the discourses of politics and law are real and stable and fair. I might think that equality has been achieved, there is no power relation going on in terms of class, race, or gender, I might just want to drink my latte and buy pretty shoes and write books about girls who marry, die, or go insane, then go get my nails done.

But I can’t do that. I read The Madwoman in the Attic, like a gazillion years ago, and call me crazy, but I think we’ve not come all that far. Yet. I think we still have work to do. I think we are still writing our way out of that attic.

Rumpus: The attic, of course. Feminine forms and domestic private spaces in literature. Let’s get into this. Dora doesn’t fit into convention, and she doesn’t subvert in expected ways. One of the things most obvious about Dora is her willingness to be violent. Why is this so shocking to see in a female narrator?

Yuknavitch: I’m kind of still down with Virg Woolf on this one:  “women must kill the aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been ‘killed’ into art.” But my friend the amazing writer Vanessa Veselka claims that Dora’s violence is totally tame. I love Vanessa… but anyhow, to recast your question a little, why was I so excited to see Hannah? Why did I nearly pee my pants when Ripley takes on the alien and kicks its motherfucking ass? Why did the scene where Lisbeth Salander restrains the dude who is psychologically, emotionally and sexually abusing her and tortures him by tattoing “I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist” on his gut make me feel elation?

Because rage and violence are human emotions and drives and capacities that inhabit us all. SEE CARL JUNG. Or that hipster Joseph Campbell. Because we all take archetypal journeys in a million ways—literal, symbolic, you name it—that figure, disfigure, and refigure violence. HOWEVER. Only the violent acts of men “count” toward something besides evil in a patriarchy. It is the male story of violence that is sanctioned both socially and aesthetically. The male hero and acts of heroism require violence. Everyone is okey dokey with that. We are only beginning to see that constricting set of truths open up a little.

Why it’s taking so long is a little mystifying to me. Never underestimate the power of power relations.

Rumpus: Speaking of Vanessa, (I love her, too) in a conversation you had with her, you say that in both of your writing “there is an insistence that violence is available to women in ways that are both generative of new meanings as well as negating of them.” This is a fascinating concept. In what ways can violence be available to women to generate new meaning? Where else do you see this being done?

Yuknavitch: Let’s go back to the body for a second… and the fact that women carry life and men do not. At least not yet exactly. First of all, reproduction in biological terms is VERY violent. The union of sperm and egg to create a third term is LETHAL to both sperm and egg. If that’s not violent I don’t know what it. And yet it’s generative of life.

Birth is of course violent. I mean JEEEZ. Right?

Menstruation is violent. Trust me, if men’s penises opened up once a month and shot blood, we’d be hearing about the violence of it.

The maternal impulse in animals to protect their young—that kind of instinct and subsequent violence is quite beautiful. Mythic even.

There is a complex violence to sexuality and the act of having sex—I don’t mean in terms of destruction or power or abuse but in terms of animalism, the loss of ego at the moment of ejaculation, penetration and radically receiving the other and the drive to fuck—you only have to tweak your understanding of the word “violence” a tiny bit to reimagine its energy as alternately generative of meaning.

When a female character sets herself on fire in an effort to interrupt her culture’s violent abuse of disenfranchised people, or physically tortures and punishes her guardian rapist, or picks up a gun and fights back in ways that make her not pretty, or aggressively rejects her role as the object of desire, or when she balances the scales in terms of power for herself or the people she loves through killing or war, or even when she waddles off into the woods to squat and have a baby without (gasp) the safety and expertise of hospitals and doctors, these are the kinds of violences and stories we can learn from.

Who wants to sit at a table with me, share a scotch, and convince me that those stories should go away, but rape, abuse, slavery, exploitation, and human rights violations against women should remain? We can’t handle violence in women characters but we CAN handle what’s done to women in our present tense every second of the day worldwide? Or next door? Or in political or medical discourse? Please.  That idea just makes me want to crap on a table at a very fancy restaurant. You know?

Rumpus: Ha ha! I do know, and I love how you put it. What authors did you read in your formative writing years? Who did you read that made you say this is what I want to do? Who spoke about the female experience and the feminine space (for you) in ways that stirred the soup?

Yuknavitch: Marguerite Duras. Kathy Acker. Gertrude Stein. Walt Whitman. Dorothy Allison. Toni Morrison.  Joy Harjo. Leslie Marmon Silko. Mary Gaitskil. Elfriede Jelinek. Herta Muller. Carole Maso. Helene Cixous. Adrienne Rich. Christa Wolf. Clarice Lispector. Laurie Anderson. Patti Smith. Emily Dickinson. Lydia Davis. Margaret Atwood. Ursula K. Le Guin. Flannery O’Connor. Jeanette Winterson. Ai. Katherine Dunn. Virginia Woolf. Anais Nin. Rikki Ducornet.

Wanna know what about all those women (and Walt)? Every single one of them moved from the fact of the body out toward story. Every single one of them rejected the story her culture handed her about who her “self” should be and made up a new one.

Rumpus: You wrote an essay recently for PANK on being a woman writer. In this fantastic piece you talk about editors, or just others in-the-know, telling you to take the “I” out of your work. Too much I. Does this happen to you often, the higher up trying to get you to distance yourself from the page?

Yuknavitch: Only when I make movements away from the tribe of indie art and literature. Maybe that’s something important for me to keep thinking about. What you gain, what you lose, why and how. Maybe the edge of the page is the place for me. Maybe that’s okay.

Rumpus: Why Freud? Why Ida? Did you do much research for the book?

Yuknavitch: Yup. About twenty-five years worth… ha… what I mean is, I first read Freud’s famous case study on hysteria based on his client Ida Bauer when I was in my twenties. It pissed me off so badly it haunted me for 25 years. But I had to wait to be a good enough writer to give Ida her voice back. And I had to go get my own first too. I not only know the case study inside and out, like most women, I lived a version of it. Maybe it’s time for us to tell our versions.

Genevieve Hudson is a writer living in Amsterdam. Her work can be found in Catapult, Tin House online, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Joyland, No Tokens, The Rumpus, Bitch, and other places. Her writing has been supported by the Fulbright Program, Caldera Arts, and the Dickinson House. More from this author →