When Lidia Yuknavitch took the podium at Powell’s Books a few weeks ago, I think all of us in the room were blushing – including her. She was nervous. “I’m bad at this,” she said about talking in front of people. She made a few jokes as she swung her long blond hair over her shoulder a few times and threw glances at her husband and son in the first row, visibly trying to center herself. She was there to read from her new novel, The Small Backs of Children. Her vulnerable presence disarmed 300 fans filling to capacity the top floor of Powell’s that evening.
After reading her breakthrough memoir, The Chronology of Water, I felt that nothing in the author’s life was spared from the reader. Feeling that engaged with her, I can’t imagine the reading being any other way. The private experience of that book could only translate into people feeling connected to both her and everyone who came to see her, like we had all been through something together. The moment was celebratory. “Your skinsongs are in there,” she said of the pages in her books. “There are love notes to you all. Look for them.”
The celebration was not exclusive to her but to the organic, palpable femininity breathing in that room, an automatic, visceral existence that Lidia is contributing to through her writing. For me personally, she has galvanized not so much a specific feminist stance, but uncovered a faith in my instincts as a woman.
Lidia Yuknavitch’s feminism is not a brand but an intuition, a way of living.
The thing is is that Lidia is quite good at speaking in front of people because she speaks how she writes, and her vulnerability, her awkward hesitations and wit are bracing, like a tonic you never lose thirst for. Not only were we blushing, we were all sweating too, as the room was packed to capacity and the night was in the middle of that ten-day string of 90 plus degree days. “I’m sweating like hell,” she said, lifting her arm to get some air, “and I’m bleeding like hell.”
This is Lidia’s writing. It comes from her body. It is a body; a mammal. It is aggressive. It breathes in heaves and sighs, it is hungry and wet. It can be elegant and brash. The form is free and without sidelines, bound only to the muscles and bones of the language and not a school of thought or guidebook determining how best to arrange her ideas and emotions. She seems to inhabit her body first and then her mind to experience the world, rather than seeing herself as a mind trapped in the body.
In a 2012 interview with Bitch Magazine, Lidia spoke about this “body language” she is becoming known for saying,
I’m trying to develop this thing called Corporeal Writing that brings meaning-making back to our actual bodies. My goal for you as a reader is, “Did you feel something in your body when you were reading this?” And if you did, then I don’t care if you liked it or not — ’cause you feeling something in your body was my goal. I’m trying to build a back-to-the-body sense of what writing can be. It’s not about the market. It’s not plot-driven, it’s not linear. It’s “Can we feel our bodies again and enjoy literature and art through them?”
On the first page of The Chronology of Water, we are in a hospital room shower with Lidia, after she’s just given birth to her stillborn daughter. She is feeling the water fall on her body, “I bled, I cried, I peed, and vomited. I became water.” “Ripped from vagina to rectum, sewn closed,” she relays, and this is how you first meet Lidia. She invites you into the moment in the way she knows how, via her senses and the reality of what’s happened to her body. She revisits wounds so that she can recall them with freshness, not only exposed later in their scabby, healing phases. In fact, she doesn’t promise healing at all and she emphasizes that water that can both cleanse and nourish, as well as drown.
Lidia’s approach t0 writing is a clear expression of her gut, the jitters, the butterflies and aches there. This is how I best understand my attraction to her. Before her mind deciphers the sensory experiences of her body, she has already written the words. She seeks to connect mind and body. In this way, Lidia Yuknavitch’s feminism is not a brand but an intuition, a way of living. Her female body – with its breasts, dry skin and menstrual cycles — is at the core of her art and her art is where she is discovering and creating a self. Her intellectual and spiritual being is an extension of her physical and sourced there — she is not in conflict with the body. Writing brings her back to it.
At Powell’s, Lidia says she is building “an image of the self through art.” “Not God,” she said, “not father.” That last statement was met with knowing nods across the room. In COW Lidia explores her memories of an abusive father and the rage-soaked woman she was for a long time as a result. When introducing The Small Backs of Children, and the girl in the book who has the “concentration of a girl that could take over the world,” Lidia says, “You know that saying, Women and Children first? What does it mean?”
A few people offered that women were weak, women couldn’t fend for themselves, they needed to be saved to reproduce, all of which Lidia confirmed by nodding her head. With the Small Backs of Children, set in a snow-insulated war-torn Eastern Europe town, she wanted to write a book that would put those ideas out of people’s minds. She wanted to write a book where a girl could take care of herself.
Ultimately Lidia seems less concerned with proving these notions wrong and more concerned with asserting female strength and integrity not as a rebuttal but for the sake of itself. This is what makes her quality of feminism distinct in addition to her emphasis of the body. It is without an intentional feminist agenda. It does not wage war against men. It doesn’t see this as valuable, progressive gor desirable in the broader scope of what she is trying to accomplish. She wants to present women’s vitality as truth, as unworthy of a debate or critique as saying a tree needs water to grow. Nor is it ignorant of historic resistance or without acknowledgement of the movements and people that have come before her on more treacherous, uneven slopes. She points to women such as Kathy Acker and Marguerrite Duras, boldly emotional 20th century female writers, as inspirations. Yuknavitch is well-aware of her position in time and her opportunity.
She writes of her experiences so that they stand in opposition of shallowness. She not only concedes self-consciousness and insecurity but her writing is an act of facing those things and the reader has the opportunity to take an active position in seeing their own. In her exposing the tragedies of her life she also exposes the absurdities which underlie and define our existence. It made us all laugh when she was able to do this at the reading at Powell’s too. One woman shot her hand up during the Q&A, asking “where do you teach and how can I get a hold of you?” Her voice sounded as if she had been holding her breath the whole time, she was exasperated and clutching what looked like a manuscript.”You see me right?” The girl paused for a sec, and then happily realized the invitation and ran up to deliver the stack of papers.
It was powerful to stand there in Powell’s among women of all ages and see the unifying effect Lidia has. When I read COW a few years ago, I isolated the narrative within my own life and emotional response, and didn’t put it in the context of feminism, politically or intellectually. I wasn’t striving for that, I did indeed feel my way through the book but that night in Powell’s changed me.
Around the world, women are exposed to varying degrees of discrimination, harassment and violent oppression. Here in the US, inequalities plague the issues, from equal wages to female sports in high school to violent crime against girls. Feminism is needed but how can we transcend it and ensure that down the road, the discussion of striving for women’s rights will become an antiquated conversation. Lidia Yuknavitch’s path is one I can get behind and one that may dismantle the old ways of thinking because it does not seek to do anything but elevate women from within.
It is not a response to the outside world or the market. She is not standing on a stage in front of millions of people, her art does not require this grandeur and it dissolves this separation of celebrity and fan. She is doing something we all have access to by inhabiting our body and creating art from there.