On a blustery, wet December night, Lidia Yuknavitch snuggles next to me on a loveseat. We’re in a low-lit Portland wine bar, tucked under the stairs. We order wine, and agree that when there’s burrata, you order burrata. (There is; we do; it’s delicious.) She’s only been home for two days from a semester-long residency in upstate New York, and graciously agreed to chat with me about her new collection of short stories, Verge.
I first read Yuknavitch back in 2012, when half of the members of my writing group were obsessing over her memoir, The Chronology of Water. I googled, like a good millennial, and found her essay, “Explicit Violence.” I swooned. It’s fair to say she is one of my largest creative influences. She’s a phenomenal teacher, unlike anyone else, and her workshops at Corporeal Writing regularly sell out.
A story collection that captures its characters mid-motion, Verge as a whole actively resists resolution or explanation. The characters never overlap, no tidy device pulls them all together, and the stories take place both all over the world, and in no particularly identifiable place. It feels as if these characters would continue living their messy, often unnoticed, deeply human lives long after the final page. Thematically, Verge fits right in with Yuknavitch’s other work, which has always centered misfits and weirdos, people on the margins, and those lives that resist conformity and categorization.
Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of the bestselling novels The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children. Her widely acclaimed memoir The Chronology of Water was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award for creative nonfiction and winner of a PNBA Award and the Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice. She founded the workshop series Corporeal Writing in Portland Oregon, where she teaches both in person and online. She is an excellent swimmer.
The Rumpus: So much of what I’ve been interested in lately is the way that queerness is showing up in literature. Like, in its forms on the page.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Like queering? Like a verb?
Rumpus: Yes! I noticed that happening in your book, in Claire Rudy Foster’s Shine of the Ever, Katharine Coldiron’s Ceremonials, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. All of these books from queer writers deviating from what we’ve been taught to expect, even within their genre. So, not the traditional literary version of memoir or novel or short story. It seems like there has to be something about growing up without a narrative for your sexuality and having to make your own stories and story forms.
Yuknavitch: That resonates for me. I don’t sit there at a desk and go, “I’m going to do this.” It’s a motion that’s bigger than individual identity and orientation. A lot of us are insistent on, and not apologizing for, this queering of the forms. And it’s not the first time it’s happened, historically, but it’s happening now. I don’t think in cause and effect terms; that’s too black and white for me. But the oppressive pressures must have something to do with the way these voices and bodies and stories are urgently rising up in the Foucault way. The repression actually breeds an incitement.
Rumpus: As someone who has read everything you’ve published, this collection was both totally different and totally familiar. I really loved the numerosity of characters that you could bring in, watching you work in these micro-stories (some of them are like, one page long). When you sold the book, was it supposed to be a story collection?
Yuknavitch: Yes. What was urgent for me here was the multiplicity of voices breaking into a million pieces with no resolutions. I was working on letting the story of each body hang there. The benefit of a series of short form things is, you can really amplify the hang there thing. Where the expectations in novels—even though I write experimental-ish novels—
Rumpus: But you still carry the characters through.
Yuknavitch: Well, and because my publisher was okay with this, I really let these characters hang on the verge. Many-voiced instead of mono-voiced. Refusing to resolve, catching a story mid-moment before the fall, or before the terrible mistake, or before the good thing, or the climax. And letting that be the story.
Rumpus: So that is both very queer and very you: to reject the structure where there’s going to be a climax and a resolution and a denouement. To reimagine or alter the perfect short story form.
Yuknavitch: Which is very heteronormative. Whether people want to admit it or not. And it was hard, because I’ve been in the long form for a long time now, and so that’s kind of where my body was. It was both really challenging and that part where I got to let these stories be what I really believe? That part was cool.
Rumpus: There were many women in this book that reminded me of pieces of you that I know. Not all, but many of the women in the stories titled, “A Woman [blank].”
Yuknavitch: They are pieces of me. They’re also pieces of the women I love and respect, and they’re pieces of story we’re not supposed to voice. I don’t mean it’s extra radical; I mean they’re the pieces that don’t get reinforced or given attention in lots of us. And they’re the contradictory pieces, or the pieces where we’re making terrible choices, but that’s really real. When we’re really pissed.
So they are me, and they’re the piece in so many women I love that doesn’t get glory; it doesn’t get a light on it; it just gets like, “Oh, look. She fucked up.” So the story will be how this woman fucked up. And then she transcended.
Rumpus: Well, you’ve done such a good job of resisting that. Nobody in this book fucking transcends. In “A Woman Apologizing” she cuffs herself to the bed.
Yuknavitch: Her big move!
Rumpus: Because she thinks he’s going to be right back, and she thinks like… it’s all going to be forgiven, baby. And then he doesn’t come back. And what I loved so much is that we actually never get to know if he ever comes back.
Rumpus: And the horror of it!
Yuknavitch: Just, can’t you picture doing that?
Rumpus: Fuck yeah, I can. It’s the exact kind of stupid thing that I would do. It’s a nightmare, and what I loved so much about it was that the story stopped before the resolution, and so what is going to happen to this person?
Yuknavitch: I tried to pull back in every story. Maybe I failed on some of them, but I was trying to pull back to the moment before the expectation of a resolution or where you get to find out, on purpose. Because nobody’s life has perfect resolution, ever.
Rumpus: No! We only make stories up. Well, people want to talk about the past as though it’s a container. But the problem persists… It’s not even a problem; it’s just the reality.
Yuknavitch: I would love it if our forms kept opening up. I want our forms to open up tenfold, thousands of new forms and stories.
I’m not a subscriber to the idea that, “Oh, good. The children are going to save us,” because how fucking sad? But the amazingness of the youth culture right now, in terms of gun control and climate change and voter suppression, it’s fantastic. Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler wrote about youth culture becoming the vanguard in sci-fi stories. And it’s happening right in front of our faces, and so I’m not saying, “Oh, good, I can take a nap now because the youth culture is going to save us,” but I am just like, “Fuck yeah. You scrotal sacks. Your white power structure. You’re going to be eaten alive by your own children, you idiots.” And they deserve it.
Rumpus: That’s poetic justice right there. I notice, in your work, whether it’s The Chronology of Water or Verge, or your novels, you always write at least one girl that saves herself. And you always write these women who manage to hold complication and contradiction. And it makes sense to me that those characters are recurring. Because that’s kind of you, and also who you grew up to be.
Yuknavitch: Thank you for noticing that, just in general, because it’s super important to me, what you’re saying. I keep trying to write girls who save themselves to try to convince girls they can save themselves, and I keep trying to write women who hold the contradictions because that’s closer to who we really are than the heroine that we’ve inherited. We can reclaim that word and make it different. But the idea of heroine we’ve inherited doesn’t match any woman I’ve ever met in my life. And so, that we grow up and get older and hold these conflicts and contradictions and we don’t explode. We’re carrying the culture. And we still haven’t had a day where anybody’s willing to stand up and say, “You’re welcome that we carried your culture, you fuckers.” We might be getting close to being done. Because then you know, women and children carry the contradictions and tensions of all of human culture, and someday enough of them are going to stand up and say—Well, I mean, when I look at Greta [Thunberg] or a whole variety of young people from a million different cultures, including Native American cultures, who are standing up and going, “I don’t want to carry this anymore.” I’m interested in those characters; I’m uninterested in the classical characters we’ve inherited.
Rumpus: Well, they’re so mutilated.
Yuknavitch: Yeah, men have to kill the feminine in themselves to be the hero. And women have to pretend they have no agency to be a heroine.
Rumpus: I sometimes feel like girlhood, or womanhood, or whatever this indoctrination is that we do, where we’re taking a person that had a wholeness and cutting pieces of them off. “Not this, not this, not this, not this, not this, not this,” until there’s just this thing left that is so mutilated.
Yuknavitch: That’s right. And we’ve done it to men, too.
Rumpus: Yes. You know, it’s girls that save themselves that grow up to be women that can then manage all of these pieces. Because if you can’t save yourself, you’ll never be able to reclaim or pick all of the stuff that you dropped or that was sliced off of you. That’s a brutal metaphor, but it really feels like that.
Yuknavitch: It is brutal. It’s always been brutal to be a woman or a person of color or a child in the culture that we know. And so some of us are writing about how it’s brutal. And some other people are writing about prettier things. There’s room for all of it. But it is brutal, and it’s more brutal for people who have not been me, who are different from me. But “brutal” is the right word. And you know, I keep insisting on including “brutal” in ways that I will never let go of. But I will tell you an interesting thing in this new novel work that I was doing while I was away: a fascinating thing has happened. There’s another girl who’s doing the things you’re talking about; there are other women who are doing the things you’re talking about, but there’s now a boy.
Rumpus: Is that a first for you, to have a boy show up?
Yuknavitch: Well, I mean there’s an important boy. Here’s a shocker: it’s my son.
Rumpus: Right. It only took you twenty years to get there.
Yuknavitch: No, that sentence is so true. It did take me twenty years. He’s been around for eighteen years, but it’s taken me this long to even try. I didn’t dare make a boy character the corresponds to what I think and feel, until—
Rumpus: Well, your heart was forming. You don’t have the distance from it. So it makes sense to me that it’s taken this long.
Yuknavitch: I’m going to say something that may or may not be part of the trajectory, but given where we’re at culturally in America and globally, what are we going to do? Give up on boys?
Rumpus: I mean, sometimes I think that we are.
Yuknavitch: I know. I know. Well, we have. We’ve blown it terribly. And so something about hearing that, and as a mother of a son, I’m like, that’s not a luxury I have.
Rumpus: And it’s not like you’re the only mother of a son out there, so that’s the thing: All of these mothers are not going to give up on their babies.
Yuknavitch: No. Right, and they… okay, I’m über feminist.
Rumpus: I’m with you.
Yuknavitch: Left of feminism.
Yuknavitch: But boys need new stories, too. And so this isn’t the moment to talk about helping boys, but it’s… To me, it is.
Rumpus: I get it. I mean, you know I’m full of rage
Yuknavitch: As am I.
Rumpus: And I really blame a lot of men for a lot of this shit.
Yuknavitch: As do I.
Rumpus: And, there continues to be a responsibility to find new stories.
Yuknavitch: That’s right.
Rumpus: It would be very easy for me to keep the story that men are trash and they’re not going to get better, and that I can’t do anything about it and I don’t have to, so why would I? And a lot of people are in that place, and that’s okay. But where are we going to go with that? Because it’s not like we’re going to stop making boys.
Yuknavitch: Unless we bulldoze them into a pit and set a bonfire.
Rumpus: No, I mean, that’s the thing, right? Feminists say this thing all the time: you’re just lucky we don’t want revenge.
Yuknavitch: I know!
Rumpus: We don’t want to treat you the way we’ve been treated; we just want equality and like, take your boot off our neck.
Yuknavitch: But this is the first time it’s showing up in my writing, so that interests me.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the stories that you will find for boys. They need them.
Yuknavitch: Right? And it’s the least I can do for Miles. It’s the absolute least I can do, is to open the door into story.
Rumpus: Well, yeah. And I mean, Twitter is full of the joke “Are the straights okay?” I often think, I’m pretty sure they’re not. I’m pretty sure they’re all fucking dying. Because of this mutilation that has happened. And you can’t fix “the straights” without dealing with the men. All those straight women are not going to just all of a sudden stop with men.
Yuknavitch: Well, and you know this, 70s and 80s feminism pointed out men are being mutilated by having to kill the feminine in themselves. And it was like, all over academic realms, but it didn’t quite bleed over into regular-life realm.
Rumpus: Right. Well, because fathers still hold a huge amount of control, and in most heteronormative families people with boys turn to the dad and go, “You deal with this.” When I was pregnant I was very freaked out about the idea of raising a son. I was like, “What am I going to do?” Because I don’t know how it feels to be a boy? And so traditionally, we give boys to their fathers, and their fathers have been given to their fathers. It sucks. We can’t keep doing it.
Yuknavitch: And you know this about me: to greater and lesser extents of failure, I’m always just searching for or inventing languages that cover more things that we feel and think. And the never quite reaching it is fine with me. At least I’m making some dirt clods for whoever’s next. It’s fine with me if I don’t fully achieve it; it’s more important to me that I’m trying and I’m part of the effort.
Photograph of Lidia Yuknavitch by William Anthony.