A Woman Standing Up

Author Lidia Yuknavitch on why the Statue of Liberty is a symbol for the misfits.

More From Lenny Letter No. 110
5 articles
GIF
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charlotte Brontë's Ghost
The Gender Pay Gap Happened to Me. Now What?
Sex and the Single Mom
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I've been thinking about heroines lately. Having lost my faith in old stories about heroes in our present tense, I've been casting around in my imagination for symbols, images, anything that might reignite a flicker of home in my hurting heart. Did you see that? I meant to say hope, but I typed home. I think we may be experiencing a crisis between those two words right now in America.

That old story, the Hero's Journey, it's a terrific archetype — that mono-myth in which a lone hero embarks on a journey, encounters crisis and difficulty, and returns home transformed, changed, glowing. But when you can be attacked and raped because you deigned to walk outside of your door for a run; when you can be shot for reaching to retrieve your book or your license from a wallet or for a pack of Skittles; when your sanity or economic status is viewed through the lens of mental instability, whether you are mentally unstable or not — these lives and bodies will not jam comfortably into the Hero's Journey.

More From Lenny Letter No. 110
5 articles
GIF
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charlotte Brontë's Ghost
The Gender Pay Gap Happened to Me. Now What?
Sex and the Single Mom
Patti Smith Gets Radical in Mexico City

And yet, what I'm saying is, there's a myth slightly to the side or underneath the Hero's Journey worth unearthing just now. It's the misfit's myth. It goes like this: Even at the moment of your epic failures, you are beautiful. Because you have risen from mud or trauma or despair or jail or grief or abuse or alcohol or drugs, you have the ability to endlessly make yourself from your own ruins. That's your beauty.  

I know. It's a weird image.

 So while I was desperately casting about for an image of hope or home or heroism in my imagination, I remembered my favorite statue of a woman, the Statue of Liberty, lodged in my childhood imagination from my first trip to New York City. As a kid, I was arrested. Stunned and frozen in front of her. Which, as I remember it now, immediately gives me pause.

I have held that moment in my mind's eye since I was five, the first time I saw it. What I saw most when I visited the statue was what I could see at kid level, the poem at the base, underneath her feet. My sister, who is eight years older than me, read it aloud. I didn't understand it at the time, but I loved my sister's voice, her body, everything about her standing there. In case you don't remember it, here is "New Colossus":

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Emma Lazarus wrote this poem for a fund-raiser auction to raise money for the pedestal upon which Lady Liberty sits. Read the poem again.

I'm thinking a lot about American statues, about commemorations of whom, of what, and why. I'm thinking of all those voices and bodies — women, immigrants, people of color — buried beneath them.

It's actually a clear critique of the tradition of the male hero's journey, with his "conquering limbs astride from land to land," and, in its place, at the bottom of things, sits a different story, one in which Liberty turns into a welcoming mother, a symbol of hope to the outcasts and downtrodden of the world. You can keep your storied pomp. She wants the outcasts, the downtrodden, the immigrants — us misfits. 

My life is filled with flaws and mistakes. Some of the obstacles I encountered were of my own making, some came from the outside and were out of my control. I started out in hell, like so many other people on the planet: I was born into an abusive household. I had to find and invent escape hatches just to keep from killing myself. I numbed my body in waves of drugs and sex just to ease the pain of failing at ordinary social paths: college, marriage, motherhood, employment. Flunked out, twice divorced, dead child, fired twice. Up against the magnitude of history, I felt like a fallen woman.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I can admire the Hero's Journey, but it has never taken shape in my life. Instead, I'm left asking: Where are the stories, symbols, and images that might welcome us home in our imperfections?

Statues have been in the news, of course, particularly Southern statues dedicated to memorializing the Civil War. Although, for the most part, the statues in question mark a blight in American history — that piece of us that tried to bury our racism by memorializing "men of war" on the same soil where African Americans were beaten, tortured, and killed. The battle to have these kinds of statues taken down sometimes turns violent, as it did in Charlottesville.

Most Popular

Even inside that chaos, part of me is hopeful; it's like a crack in the system has finally emerged, one large enough to actually, maybe engender change and a shift in national values. Because even though the neo-Nazis and white supremacists are emboldened by our current president's idiotic refusal to condemn bigotry, hate, violence, and anti-Semitism, I can see the light in the eyes of people who will not take it. People who will use their bodies to stand up in the face of hate.

It's like the light of liberty, you might say.

I think about her a lot, Lady Liberty. I've had an alarming number of dreams about her. I'm writing a novel about her. When I think about how many statues of male war heroes and racists and bigots and sexists are stitched across the United States, I am reminded of how different the Statue of Liberty is: a large, lone woman with a torch, a tiny poem against the tyranny of male power at her feet.

You heard me.

There's a bit from the poem by Emma that rings in a lot of American psyches. "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." Yeah, that bit. I'm no history or genetics expert, but unless you are a Native American, every single one of us can only track back to immigrant origins.

Mother of Exiles.

That doesn't really say "only some exiles — others of you need to watch your asses" to me.

Worldwide welcome.

That's the bit about which current White House senior adviser Stephen Miller had a brief dust-up with CNN reporter Jim Acosta. When asked if the Trump administration's immigration-policy reform bill is consistent with the Statue of Liberty's historic symbolism, Miller's response was that the original statue symbolized liberty lighting the world. No, wait. American liberty lighting the world. Because we don't want to suggest that liberty has light that is not American. He said the poem is a kind of add-on, not really part of the statue, a not very important missive. Kind of like a tweet.

Maybe there's a reason the poem is lodged under her feet.

America is built from the raw material of people made invisible or buried by history. Emma Lazarus, for example, studied British and American literature, as well as German, French, and Italian. She wrote poetry, a novel, and two plays. One of the plays, The Dance to Death, was based on a German short story about the burning of Jews in Nordhausen during the Black Death. To recap, there is a poem written by a Jewish woman activist at the base of the Statue of Liberty, symbol of light and freedom, image of worldwide welcome to immigrants.

I don't think that was Miller's objection to the poem, nor our current administration's, nor, you know, the neo-Nazi pack's. I think their objections are something about nonwhite, non-Christian immigrants, which they've somehow magically untethered themselves from. Apparently, they were all delivered to the New World from weirdly white, male spaceships.

I'm thinking a lot about American statues, about commemorations of whom, of what, and why. I'm thinking of all those voices and bodies — women, immigrants, people of color — buried beneath them.

What if we — a "we" made from all of our differences — are just now emerging as a possible American story? What if we unburied the dead. The bodies of Native Americans and African Americans. The bodies of Jews and Muslims and immigrants from everywhere. The bodies of women and children. The bodies of the poor and the mentally ill and the homeless and the worker bodies who died mid-labor with no statue or poem to name them, the weight of an entire country on their backs.

All the bodies used as the raw material in the building of an America where individual, merciless male power is celebrated.

I wish I could whisper in her ear, her giant, weird, misfit, green ear: Re-mother the exiles. Bring us back to life.

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of The Misfit's Manifesto, The Book of Joan, The Small Backs of Children, and The Chronology of Water; she founded and runs Corporeal Writing workshops in Portland, Oregon.

More from Lenny Letter: