Lidia Yuknavitch is known for placing those we don’t see or choose not to see at the center of her work. In novels such as The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children and her memoir, The Chronology of Water, she gives life and agency to characters who struggle on the fringes, suffering and occasionally thriving; the Oregon-based author writes about people and situations that would otherwise be absent from literature, just as they are marginalized in life. In her first collection of short fiction, Verge, Yuknavitch continues to uncover possibilities where we might least expect to find them. You’ll be wholly unsurprised that her favorite color is blood.
The stories in Verge interrogate the spaces between beauty and violence, especially “The Organ Runner” and “Second Language.”
In “The Organ Runner,” parts of the girl’s body have been dislocated and relocated. Her hand doesn’t work the way other people’s hands work, and she lives inside an economy of underground organ markets in a country ravaged by old wars and patriarchal power structures. Yet this girl retains a passion for the bodies of primates, real and imagined, and the bodies of other girls. The girl in “Second Language” is dislocated from her home into an economy of girl bodies bought and sold on the American market. I am…trying to scratch at the idea that girl bodies and women bodies have untapped energies worthy of deep exploration. I see resourcefulness and creative energy as real places…radical change at the site of the body.
In “Second Language,” one character says: “Well, at least my body has meaning.… Value signifies meaning, right?” These stories complicate the idea of “body worth.”
Most of the characters in Verge are trapped inside a story of capitalism, patriarchy, or the cult of binary meaning-making that codes some bodies as more valuable than others. Why are we assigning economic values to human bodies in the first place? Why are we brutalizing some bodies and populations to sustain others? Why are we locked inside stories of power and money? What if we asked what our “worth” was to the planet and collective existence, including plants and animals?
These questions are part of a conversation that has gone on for a very long time, including but not limited to indigenous theory and practice, feminist, Marxist, environmental, and queer theory and practice. Those conversations have mostly taken place in academia and other privileged realms. It would be thrilling if these conversations were raising the roof in living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms and bathrooms. I write books because there is at least a chance that stories in someone’s hands might help us talk about the things that matter.… I still believe art is a language that can speak to anyone anywhere and create radical change.
You talk about story as currency. How do you think story operates in our current climate?
I think storytelling is a real energy, not just a symbolic thing (although it is that, too). Storytelling is like an electrical current—a piece of matter and energy. Just like we are, just like everything in the universe, just like what I think love could be if we dislocated it from the stories we’ve been told and relocated it. Art and storytelling work against the grain of cultural forces meant to keep us clean and proper and sleepy and “fake safe.” Art happens to you. If it’s doing its job, it shakes you to your core. That discomfort is tantamount to the choice to fight for life.
Resilience is often considered a synonym for strength, but this is incorrect.
The characters I want to plant inside literature are the misfits and outcasts whose social positionality means their strength doesn’t look like other people’s. The story of their resilience does not make them “transcend” material conditions. A refugee in a boat escaping a war-torn country doesn’t give a shit anymore about social rules and laws. They want to save their children. A person living underneath an overpass finds life even as their culture tries so very hard to kill them. A body at the edge of crisis is in a liminal space where social codes and rules and laws fall to pieces. In some ways, these are the strongest bodies and beings on the planet, because they show the world how to survive inside the conditions meant to destroy them.
You write about people in exile—from the world, from their families, from themselves. How do you avoid fetishizing these characters, allowing them to preserve the dignity of their own choices, no matter the result?
It’s a very important question you ask—about avoiding fetishizing the struggles of others, or falling into the bootstrap myths or hero’s journey transcendence tropes. I am trying with my whole body to write characters who do not transcend jack shit, because that mythology is ludicrous and dangerous. The characters will not show us how to overcome ourselves. They are meant to illuminate briefly how we might live with ourselves and each other, alongside one another, even inside the chaos. Beauty and brutality are always right next to each other. I’m trying to write about the real place in between them, where possibility still exists.
• By Lidia Yuknavitch
• Riverhead Books, 208 pages, $26