Two pages into Lidia Yuknavitch’s story “The Pull,” a young girl recalls her childhood as “the kind of story that makes your chest grow tight as you listen.” This would be a fitting description for most of the stories in Yuknavitch’s new collection, Verge, a bracing and frequently brutal book that explores the darkest margins of human desire in hybrid, fragmentary prose.
As the title suggests, Verge is a book full of precipices. The protagonists include a child trafficking organs through an Eastern European black market, a teenage girl fantasizing about the men at a prison near her house, and a boxer with a threatening heart condition. Despite their differences, Yuknavitch’s characters share a certain precariousness. They are at moments of transition, standing on ledges of various kinds—emotional, societal, ethical and, in one case, literal—grappling with whether or not to jump.
I first encountered Yuknavitch’s writing in college, when a friend thrust her memoir The Chronology of Water into my hands at a party. “You have to read this,” she insisted. “It broke my brain.” The book, which has developed something of a cult following, opens with Yuknavitch standing in the shower after the stillbirth of her daughter. The intimate account of sexual abuse and drug addiction is as formally innovative as it is harrowing. It broke my brain (and my heart), too. In addition to her memoir, Yuknavitch is the author of four novels, including the best sellers The Small Backs of Children and The Book of Joan. Verge is her first collection of stories.
Yuknavitch writes about the body, particularly the ways bodies function as sites of emotional experience, intelligence, and memory. In an essay in The New Yorker, Garth Greenwell writes: “Yuknavitch’s sex scenes are remarkable among current American novelists, not just for their explicitness but for the way she uses them to pursue questions of agency, selfhood, and the ethical implications of making art.” Whether depicting sex or trauma or splendor, her writing is visceral. At several points while reading Verge, I found myself curled into a ball, my fingers gripping the pages so tightly they almost tore the paper. It was as if the words had crawled off the page and under my skin.
For this interview, Yuknavitch spoke with me over the phone from her writing studio in Portland, Oregon, a room she describes as “a big mess full of all sorts of trinkets and talismans—bones, rocks, hair, weird shells, and other witchy things.” She was generous and precise, frequently pausing midsentence to clarify her use of a particular word or phrase. “The way we say things matters a great deal,” she explained. “But I’m longing for the day when we invent beautiful and agitating new words for all of it.”
The title of your new collection, Verge, calls to mind boundaries, edges, thresholds. Many of the stories are oriented around moments of transition or anticipation—all thresholds of a kind. What interests you about these liminal spaces?
Yes. Yes. Yes. I’m really interested in in-between spaces. In our real lives, we are constantly confronted with choices. But, before we make a choice, we exist for a moment in this sort of generative in-between space where anything is possible and nothing at all is closed off. In different ways, all the characters in Verge are positioned in that in-between space. Sometimes that is literally an alleyway or the edge of the ocean where the water meets the shore, or sometimes it is more interior, a decision or conflict. I’m not sure exactly why I find these wavering, anticipatory moments so exciting as a writer. I think it’s connected to my interest in parallel universes. I just love the idea that every moment contains nearly infinite potential. That there are a thousand possible offshoots and outcomes of any action. I like the idea that a story could live in that space of potentiality, that it wouldn’t have to choose one or the other, but that it could be activated with all those possibilities at once.
You have written several novels, including a work of speculative fiction, and a memoir. This is your first collection of short stories. What, if anything, did you find uniquely challenging or surprising about the form?
Well, I am a bit of an outlier in that I don’t see as great a distinction between forms and genres as other writers do. I think the membrane, even between fiction and nonfiction, is quite thin. Most of the differences have to do with compositional avenues and strategies. But, in my heart, I am devoted to the literary fragment. I think of that as my primary form, though I can expand or contract it to meet the needs of the story. Sometimes, I string fragments together and they just won’t stop, and those become novels. And other times I am writing fragments from my life and they begin to have a gestalt and those become nonfiction projects. As for the question about surprise, I can only keep writing something if I feel there is surprise in it. So I have to keep scratching at the layers until I find surprise. When I hit the stratum where I don’t know anything, that’s where I want to be.
I’m interested in that language. When you say that you are looking to capture a “vibration,” what does that mean to you? Is it a sense of possibility? A wavering between two points?
Oh, I love that. Yes, I think of it as a kind of physics within the text, a formal energy. But it also applies to emotional states, a wavering between binaries, a shivering between forms. The space between possibility and demise.
Can you walk me through your process a little bit? When you’re working on a story, do you map the whole thing out in your head? Do you begin with a character or an image and work from there? What happens first?
For me, the form always comes first and the story follows. In that way, I probably have more in common with poets than I do with prose writers, because the one thing I never consider is plot. There is a French writer, Nathalie Sarraute, who wrote a little book called Tropisms that I read when I was about twenty-seven and it changed my life and writing style forever. She had this theory that you can build a story around a sequence of emotional intensities rather than a traditional beginning, middle, and end. I am a person who has been arrested and hospitalized and even spent some time living in a state of psychosis under an overpass. My life has been a series of intensities and so this idea really resonated with me. The first book where I really did this was Chronology of Water. I just put those experiences in a sequence and let them be what they were. It freed me from the feeling that I needed to clean them up or make them more coherent or palatable by fitting them into a typical satisfying story arc.
You write very explicitly and expressively about the body and desire. In a way, it feels as though the body is almost a kind of setting in which the drama of the stories unfold.
Well, first I just want to thank you because it makes me giddy that you noticed that. I care about that probably more than anything. For me, the body is a real place. It is a place you go to, a place you inhabit. It is the fundamental setting of every experience you have. And it is sometimes a place you leave in moments of fear or crisis or grief or depression or pain. I am working toward creating art that happens to a reader in their real body. So, in each story I was playing with bringing the body out of its material circumstances, giving it a consciousness. Letting the body have its own point of view. While writing Chronology of Water I literally had that question taped to the wall above my desk. A little note that read, What if the body had its own point of view? And I don’t mean in the ye-olde-philosophical binary of mind/body split sort of way. I mean that we don’t often enough consider the experience of the body as equal to, or inextricable from, the experience of the mind. For instance, if you have a pain in your back for your whole adult life, we don’t ask often enough what story lives there. And what is your spine trying to tell you? I believe that we are all walking around carrying every experience we have ever had written on our bodies. Our physical bodies. And in my work I want these bodies to signify—not as traditional characters—but as if those stories inside the bodies were, momentarily, activated.
Throughout the book, sex and art-making are depicted as ethically fraught endeavors. I’m thinking in particular of the story “Street Walker,” when a woman writer experiences a flush of creative inspiration after hiring a prostitute. In the story, her inspiration is amplified by both sexual arousal and a kind of self-righteous fervor. It’s a really compelling, morally complicated moment, and one that I found myself thinking about for days after. To what extent do you consider the erotic and the creative to be linked? And is that relationship inherently exploitative?
This is a question that I come back to again and again. What are we doing when we’re writing? It is exactly the question I was holding in my mind in that story. I don’t know that I have an answer, but I like the question. And in some ways I like that I can’t resolve the question. I like that I have to go puzzle on that every year of my life. You know, writers are assholes. And the trick is to occasionally turn that laser eye back in on your own practice. I’m unconvinced that any of us do that enough. For better or worse, I was trying to stage something in that story … a kind of narrative battle. She literally invites this character into her home. She feels so superior and self-righteous, the way artists often do. And you’re right, the writer in that story is literally getting off on her bad self. She is! Which we are all probably guilty of in some ways. But, without giving too much away, the other woman is also writing.
In past interviews you have discussed the influence of queer and feminist theory on your work, particularly writers such as Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper. You’ve described these writers as “the underbelly of literature.” I’m curious what you mean by that and how you see your work drawing upon and fitting into that legacy.
So many of the writers I admire have dared to dive over the edge into what might reasonably be seen as “troubled waters.” When I read the work of Acker and Cooper and many many others, I feel like the art happens to me inside my body. I think that, like Sarraute, they demonstrated that it was possible to break all the rules I had believed existed in literature. They showed me that writing could be violent and physical and polymorphous and messy and still qualify as “literary,” still be transcendent. That there are different narratives available.
I am one of the artists who is trying to use part of her time here to hold open the spaces other people feel uncomfortable looking at. So much of my life and the people I have loved exist inside difficult spaces, like the birth/death space of my daughter, who died the day she was born. Those spaces are no less real, not lesser literature, not lesser beauty to me. For me beauty is complicated and contradictory and a space where binaries are held in suspension. Beauty is troubling.
I love the language that you use to describe that work—that it happens to you in your body.
Yes. I don’t mean to sound like a broken record but, really, this all connects back to my thoughts about the human body as an epistemological site, a physical place where meanings are endlessly generated and negated. For me, the problem with traditional Western philosophy was that the body was missing. It was only in feminist and nontraditional writing that I found a place where I could engage meaningfully with the experience of living in a body. And all the discomfort that comes with that. Women in particular—and, to be clear, I don’t mean biologically essential women, I mean anyone who inhabits the space of woman—find immediately that the one problem area is having a body. Because the entire culture will try to write that body away from you. We are still in that crisis. We haven’t transcended very far away from that crisis. So we need more writers who are interested in writing into that experience, with all its multiplicity and contradiction.
At several points in the book, we see women hurt themselves. The most obvious example being in the story “A Woman Signifying,” when the narrator, who believes her boyfriend is having an affair, intentionally burns her face on a radiator. I am interested in these moments for the way they represent female rage—how it is internalized, transmuted, and sublimated.
Absolutely. We are in a bit of a zeitgeist where the story of female rage is having a fire-up opportunity, I’ve noticed. But, I am going to be fifty-seven soon and I can tell you from experience, and a really really expensive Ph.D., that women’s rage is nothing new. It has surfaced and resurfaced in art and literature for thousands of years. And it seems to get reinscribed every time the culture gets concerned about women getting richer and more powerful. I’ve seen it in literature and art. I’ve seen it politically. Of course, it’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to resolve the moments of rage in the book. So often, it’s the myth of resolution that is actually damaging. Rage is natural. Rage is inevitable, particularly in a world that polices bodies with such zeal. Rage can be healthy and productive. But the idea that rage can or should be solved or soothed in any simple way is a means of shutting women and queer people down and it keeps us from exploring the ways in which that anger might be generative.
One of the things I find compelling about your writing is how adamantly it resists traditional resolutions. There is conflict and tension and, in certain cases, that tension is released or transformed, but rarely does the reader get the sense that the story is “over” or solved in any clean, final, way.
The more I read writing by voices that are outside, meaning people of color, and the more I learn from global literature, the more I can see that new forms are emerging that correspond to different bodies and different experiences. A brief reading list of recent books that I feel challenge the traditional notion of plot and resolution are: Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries, Tommy Orange’s There, There, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness. These are all examples of a narrative forms being intentionally fragmented or extended or expanded or reconstructed in radical ways. All the resolutions are polyphonic, or they insist on an intimate relationship to an actual body in a state of vibration, not a universal body. As though such a thing exists.
You know, I’ve mouthed off before in really slutty ways about how I think the resolution of plot is a political hoax designed to keep some voices and bodies thriving and other voices and bodies silent. Not everyone’s story gets to be tied up neatly with a bow at the end. And I could talk for hours about why I think that is. But in my puny contribution to all the literary streams that lead to the bigger literary ocean, I just want to suspend us for a moment inside the question of what is at stake in each of these stories. That’s more interesting to me than whatever the answer is.
Cornelia Channing is a writer from Bridgehampton, New York.
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