Sometime last year, I flipped open a book I knew nothing about that had been recommended by a Twitter acquaintance. The book was Lidia Yuknavitch's 2011 memoir, The Chronology of Water, and if a rawer, more honest contemporary author exists, I have yet to encounter her. I felt myself circling further and further away from the little coffee shop I sat in and into a rebel galaxy where the rules — in life and in writing — no longer seemed to apply. Several hours later, I was still reading, hot-glued to my seat.
From her time as a would-be Olympic swimmer to college dropout and onward, Yuknavitch chronicles a ferocious life; she has a creative irreverence and a willingness to expose the ugliest self-truths that will jolt you long after the last page. She has two "epically failed marriages" and "two brief but lovely staycations in jail." But her most gutting experience arrives when her daughter dies on the day she is born. In a state of what she describes as "zombie grief," Yuknavitch lives homeless, beneath an underpass. The resilience of water to take on new shapes becomes the metaphorical thread weaving together this patchwork tale of love and loss, womanhood and willpower. Whenever I feel afraid to take risks in my own work, bumping up against the truth rather than just telling it, I return to her writing for courage and reinforcement.
Primarily a novelist — Chronology was followed up by Dora: The Headcase and The Small Backs of Children — Yuknavitch has emerged as a trailblazing literary voice that spans genres and dives deep into themes of gender, sexuality, art, violence, and transcendence. Her work is a refreshing alternative to the hero's journey, offering instead what she calls the "misfit's journey."
Over a crackly phone connection, I spoke with Lidia about her wayward path to writing, sex, suffering, art, and the beauty of sticking out in a crowd.
Suleika Jaouad: In The Chronology of Water, you wrote: "Aspiration gets stuck in some people. It's difficult to think yes. Or up." When did that absence of hope hit you the hardest?
Lidia Yuknavitch: When my daughter died on the day she was born, a traditional definition of hope was sucked out of my body. I'm not saying I'm proud of this, but it just happened. For me, what became important was learning to breathe again in a way that used regular air. The word aspiration has a breathing sense to it. It dawned on me that we have to breathe and to find reasons to stay alive on our own terms. Sometimes that doesn't come from what we've been told our whole lives.
I believe in art the way other people believe in God. I'm not trying to make a tricky sentence. It's just true. I have found reasons to breathe again by living in communities of people who choose self-expression over self-destruction. It's another way to form hope, without hierarchizing it so that you're looking up toward a God, or someone smarter or more famous than you are. It's a lateral definition of hope where you just need each other, and you need to stand up and not leave each other hanging.
SJ: I think a lot about how much pressure there is to be someone who "suffers well." There's a mythology surrounding the "survivor's story" that can be inspiring to some but can make others feel like they're suffering the wrong way.
LY: Boy, I hate that narrative so hard, to be honest. The truth is, suffering sucks and it can take you to a place of wanting to kill yourself, and there's nothing beautiful about that. Suffering is not beautiful. Suffering, from my point of view, is about a real place in a real body where you face the other side of living. How you choose to understand that story probably determines how you're going to live the rest of your life. I feel kindred with fellow sufferers, and I don't ever want to romanticize the story of suffering, because then you're just playing into making it a good story or a sellable story for a culture.