It's impossible to say when I first heard of Lidia Yuknavitch, but the idea of her has been with me a long time. Her 2011 memoir, The Chronology of Water, is a masterpiece of the genre, and once I read that I had to read all else I could find by her. I couldn't easily find all her old writing, and her backstory intrigued me, too—that she'd studied under Ken Kesey, that she'd had an intimate relationship with Kathy Acker, who became her creative mentor. Since then we've shared an editor and publisher, done literary events together, shared laughter and tears, vented and schemed in multiple social media private/direct message scenarios, and been pretty dreamily intertwined in something like kinship and camaraderie.
In fact, at the conclusion of this phone conversation we realized we had both been in bed the whole time—and not just that, but both talking from within the heavy wrap of our giant Comfort-U body pillows. Which of course I only own because of Lidia. Shortly after Christmas, Lidia had posted a photo with this newfound obsession of hers. I'd been posting about my post-election depression and worrying about the future—but then before I knew it, I had a Facebook message from Lidia: did I want a Comfort-U pillow, and never mind she was sending me one and would not take no for an answer! So it's fitting that while on the phone we both found ourselves in our pillows' embrace—without planning it and not knowing until the final moment—all while talking about her latest magnificent novel, The Book of Joan.
Porochista Khakpour Can you walk us through where you got the idea for The Book of Joan?
Lidia Yuknavitch The idea has been living in my body for quite a while. I've long been obsessed, like so many people, particularly women, with the Joan of Arc figure. As a kid, I was visited by her in a dream. In the dream, my house was on fire and I was standing in our front yard. She came walking out of my house and said, "No one is coming to save you." Later in my life that line helped me get out of my father's abusive household, bad marriages, you name it.
As a young writer, I had this idea of a three-book box set of feminine figures that had visited me in my dreams, these three female badasses. One was Dora—Freud's client, Ida Bauer; the other was Mary Shelley; and the third was Joan of Arc. I wrote a novel called Dora: A Headcase, and I have a novel in progress on Shelley. I approached this one like, Okay, how am I going to reenvision this Joan story? I was thinking about celebrity culture and climate change and capitalism, and also about diversity and how we treat one another and the construct of whiteness and colonial impulses.
PK I keep seeing the word timely in relation to this book. People can't help but forget how publishing works—I mean, this was sold a while ago.
LY Yeah, it's not like I just got really mad at Trump and wrote this in four days.
PK But what that tells me is how many people have ignored the planet and the issues of women, and a lot of major sociopolitical and geopolitical concerns for so long, and they've just woken up to them now via Trump, right?
LY Do you feel this? Our work has always been about these issues. Women activists and scholars and artists have been sounding these alarms for a long time.
PK It's frustrating because on the one hand you're happy that people are awake, but on the other hand it's like, Where have you been? For so many of us, Joan of Arc was such an important figure. She was someone to namedrop in several of my subcultures, like punk rock. Before I even understood what feminism was, I understood her to be a certain feminist icon.
LY Me too. I was raised as a Catholic mammal, and it didn't work on me, but that was the first place I encountered Joan of Arc and her story, and I remember even at ten years old walking around going, There's a woman warrior? Why isn't this a bigger deal? Where are they hiding the others? And when I read about her being burned at the stake, I wasn't old enough to quite understand what that meant in terms of a whole theology coming down on the body of a woman who hears voices. But the image of the burning girl went into my body and heart because I needed an image of fierceness. I needed an image of a fighter because I was trying to live through a household that was a dead zone. That image of a burning girl is one I took into my heart like a private icon.
PK Just to break down this book, we're about thirty years in the future. It's sort of like our world, but distinct—perhaps where we're headed. We have the retelling of Joan of Arc in a climate of all sorts of environmental and political chaos. We have Earth. And then the wealthy are all at CIEL, a floating suborbital complex that's just far enough from the Sun to be habitable, but it's always in danger of burning away, so people on CIEL can no longer procreate. Sex and sexuality are banned. Basically, people can only live to midlife.
LY And their genitals have devolved. Radical changes in the environment as well as geocatastrophe and radiation have caused major changes in morphology. I was exploring the idea of bodies dislocated from reproductive sexuality.
PK There's this interesting gender fluidity here. And then we have this whole business of grafting and altering the skin and burning. I found The Book of Joan to be in dialogue with your last book, The Small Backs of Children. I did not expect these two books would be companion pieces, but they operate so beautifully together, I almost want to do a whole course on you where we begin with Dora and look at the themes of art, sexuality, and violence.
LY For me they're all interconnected. Even though each book is completely different, stylistically or in terms of the artistic aims I take on, those themes remain endless for me, and I'm forever attempting to multiply meanings instead of distilling one meaning. In all of my books there's the story of the girl, and then the orbit, or the constellation, is art, sensuality, violence, desire.
PK You don't provide us with this nice, neat, easy answer like, Well, that's how we're going to deal with gender, or, that's how we're going to deal with sexuality. You let things stay complicated. You raise the issues and engage us in a performance of those issues, without seeping into boring, easy solutions.
LY In your work, too, aren't you interested in suspending or holding open the tough questions?
PK Absolutely. I had dinner the other day with someone who said to me, "Well, your work is really intense, but you're really intense." I'm not good at small talk. I don't know how to be casual about anything.
LY Same here. I don't leave the house. Everybody else goes, "How was your day?" And I want to go, "You know, in neuroscience, pathways correlate to quantum physics." (laughter) Every time I get home from anything social I'm like, Well I fucked that up.
PK See, this is why we look to the great women who came before us—Lynne Tillman, Kathy Acker. But I can't imagine those women would have been able to phone it in at a social event and then go home and sleep eight hours and have a balanced breakfast and feel super normal every day, you know?
LY I think they were similarly freakish, so it's going to be okay.
PK The misfits, man. Your Misfit's Manifesto is coming out in October, right?
PK That TED Talk you gave, on which the book is based, is one of three TED Talks I've ever liked. I remember thinking when I saw it, This better become a book. I thought about the hurt feelings my friends and I often have—we're constantly in this weird negotiation of how to be in this world but also be ourselves. I'm sitting here talking to you from Harlem, but I know exactly the New York City publishing elite world you felt like such an outsider to. I end up dipping into it all the time and it never gets easier. It never feels right.
LY True. When you have to build your identity, for a variety of reasons, from the pieces of wreckages, you can never enter what society calls the "legitimate environment" and feel whole. The thing that I was trying to scratch at in that lecture, and in the upcoming book, is: Does that mean we have to walk around life with big Ls on our foreheads for Loser? It breaks my heart so deeply that anyone is ever made to feel worthless, or criminal, or like they're doing it wrong. Is there another way to tell the story of misfits that's less defeating, where we can narrate what we have to give that is useful? I've been thinking lately about how some of us have identities that are crumbling at the edges, but those edges hold whatever the shape is. They define the shape. The center is where everybody else is and it's legitimized and sanctioned and beautiful. But the edges make the shape, or they are the place where the shape changes. The talk came out of some interviews I did with people I know. I asked them: Just tell me what it's like for you. If I say "misfit," do you identify with that word at all? And they would tell little stories, and I had a suspicion that if we put all the stories together, it would make a bigger story about why we're not nothing, and what's useful about us, and maybe people even need us because we have a willingness to be and do and say things that other people don't.
PK What are the tools that we're going to use to express those realities? It used to be chapbooks, then the weird recesses of the Internet, the world of message boards.
LY Or Facebook is this bizarre nexus of possibility, even as it's also a complete cesspool.
PK People have criticized me for being active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and writing for mainstream publications, like the New York Times or CNN. But for me, at a certain point, it became really important to reach people. You and I both have books at HarperCollins now.
LY Yes. Owned by Rupert Murdoch.
PK Exactly. Those two words weigh on me almost every day: Rupert Murdoch. It's so hard to think about that. And at the same time, I haven't found a place that's pure yet in America. I certainly didn't find it in Iran. And then think about all the indie world scandals. I felt like I couldn't find a home there either because every time I trust someone, all sorts of things would go down, and there is no HR department in those worlds.
LY I hear you. When I was starting out I was basically selling my shit as pamphlets on the street. And I often ask myself, Could I go back to the street corner selling my shit? So far the answer, whether anyone believes me or not, is, Yeah, I could. But there's another action, the action of infiltration. And that's not nothing. You could say, Well, you're just rationalizing, Lidia. But it's also possibly a form of infiltration through which I can reach the hearts or ears or brains of more young women or boys or men or nonbinary people than I could on the street corner.
PK Infiltration is an interesting idea and my mind goes immediately to feminine consciousness and subversion. Think about the Scheherazade story, right?
LY Yes, so paradigmatic of so many things. I love that story so hard.
PK I mean, we're Scheherazade right now on this earth, as Trump is blaring on and on.
LY And we're telling and telling. I would maintain that it's also a form of resilience to be on the edges of the mainstream and not commit to it. I'm still telling the kind of stories that make you feel vaguely ill; it's not like I've begun to tell stories about butterflies and possums or something.
PK Resilience is thematic in The Book of Joan. How much can we take and survive? I see that in the work of a lot of my favorite dystopian speculative fiction giants: Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood. They felt so alive to me in this book.
LY I had little pictures of the three of them next to my computer the whole time I was writing it. The other two who are part of my pantheon of awesome women are Doris Lessing and Leslie Marmon Silko, whose novel Almanac of the Dead utterly rearranged my DNA the first time I read it. Talk about a book that's prescient. There are all these water wars in it. There's no protagonist, only partial voices and experiences. There are two main Native sister psychics, and a kind of mythology woven with CIA-shady stuff and sex-trafficking and drug wars. It's fantastically postmodern, beautifully structured. These women were doing important social theory in speculative terms. Although today we have to shout and fight to retrieve them as historically huge and not just, "those lady sci-fi/fantasy writers."
PK For some reason people want to think that sci-fi and fantasy are not serious. There's always a suspicion of those modes. This failure to understand storytelling and the need to create analogies makes you wonder how these critics read psychological realism. Like, do they actually think it's real?
LY I think they do, it's actually quite frightening. I've moved around form-wise—with each project I decide, This is the way to tell this particular story. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is a speculative novel and he moves around quite stealthily between styles and forms, and apparently there's no problem there. But for women writers: "Well, your last book did this, and that's your thing, so could you write Chronology of Water 2? That's what everyone is waiting for."
PK I get how people would want you to write that book over and over. The death of the daughter—
LY There's a way in which all of my books are about this reemerging girl. That's the origin story: "the girl who died"—that sounded a little Harry Potter. The girl who died has been generative of a girl who will never die and who will be a vehicle for telling parts of the story of being a woman mammal that get endlessly shut down in a culture that hates women.
PK And there's a quote from The Small Backs of Children in fact that is just that:
Inside everything I have ever written, there is a girl. Sometimes she is dead, and haunts the story like a ghost. Sometimes she is an orphan of war. Sometimes she is just wandering. Maybe the girl is a metaphor, or maybe she is me, or maybe a character who keeps coming.
You know, I feel like I knew your daughter, the way you describe the lost girl through all these books.
LY I completely receive that, I understand that. If I kick it tomorrow, one of the things that I hope I convey is that loss or nothingness can be generative. Down inside difficulty or pain or struggle is not just despair or more endless pain, but for people who can pull something from the bottom and make something, it's generative. And for me that's a version of hope.
PK Yes, that idea of the hero, right? What is the hero? We turn it into something untouchable, but in so many ways I think all of us who are on this earth are the survivors of this experiment, whatever it is.
LY This misfit book has a whole chapter on my gripes with the archetypical hero's journey story. I deconstruct how it doesn't account for the bodies of women or people of color or LGBT people or children or prisoners or poor people or people deemed insane, and that's why, though it's a beautiful story, it has contributed to a series of oppressions and repressions. I'm sure that will go over well!
PK God—or the lack of God—is an interesting issue in The Book of Joan. You were raised Catholic, and the absence—or unwriting—of God here, in a Joan of Arc story of all things, is something one can't ignore.
LY Yes. I did indeed remove God from the equation, and I'm not sorry. I was trying to play around with what the Joan of Arc story was, extracted from the theological prison it lives within. We live in a time when not everyone believes in a supreme-being-type God, or a monotheistic God. But I did not want to remove a sense of the epic or the sublime or the larger-than-us existence. In my real life, not in fiction world but in Lidia-land, I am an atheist at this point, but I find that my understanding of physics and the cosmos is not that far from the way other people talk about their faith. So thinking through those ideas and my nerd obsession with quantum physics and string theory and stuff like that, it turned out, through the creative process, that the character Joan still hears voices and is brought to an ecstatic state, but it happens through the cosmos rather than a deity. And that opened up the story and took it away from the savior story I was afraid of getting locked into. So what's coming through her is still mystical and radically as large as God can get but not God.
PK You talk about how you opened it up. I like your world for its inclusivity. And that links to this idea of gender and sexuality in this work, too.
LY One of the reasons why we're so stuck trying to figure out how to understand each other and talk to each other is partly that we're trying too hard to close meanings down, like, "No, you can't say this anymore. You must say it this way." And I'm not talking about some problem I have with political correctness, but part of what we have to radically reimagine is the terms and definitions and meanings of what we're walking around calling each other. And the stories that need to emerge are new and different and complicated. So I'm never going to write a book where I say, "Here is the answer to how we fix this." I'm always going to say, "How else can we open up these stories that have so incarcerated us?"
PK Yes, you're never prescriptive. You have that rare quality where people go into your work and emerge the most human, the least misanthropic. There's a funny misunderstanding, where people sometimes think misfits are misanthropes, just like they think suicidal people are selfish, for instance.
LY Both dunderheaded ideas.
PK And people often think that those who are depressed don't want to be alive. I've struggled with depression my whole life. Depression for me is wanting badly to be alive.
LY That's right. It's exactly the opposite projected onto us. It's such an acute hunger for light.
PK This brings me to the idea of the haven of the body, and this workshop you teach, this concept of Corporeal Writing...
LY It's this thing I'm trying to make a practice, a corporeal way of creating art that is no longer tethered to older notions of writing practice. I'm taking steps away from academia, where I've been for so long, and asking completely different questions about what it is to collaborate without having to teach to outcomes and to administrators and to a certain curriculum. I'm opening up to the idea that groups of people in a room generating artistic practice together actually form something like kinetic energy. I don't know what else to say about it yet because I'm sort of right in it, paying attention and trying to figure out what it is.
We all carry our life experiences in our bodies. You might say that we are walking body stories—our own as well as stories that came before us and stories that will come after. I'll ask participants in a workshop to close their eyes and locate where on their bodies they carry, say, trauma or pain, and to put their hands there. They locate a place where stories live. And I then ask, "Okay, what story has been hiding out there, in your... gut, or shoulder, or spine? Can you tell a story from that place or that reality, through memory or an invented point of view?" This way we can access a different model of storytelling than the ones we've inherited. I'm convinced that there are hundreds of ways to tell stories. Hundreds of forms, themes, and methodologies.
PK Selfishly, I hope one day you might write a book about that.
LY I'm trying, but like TED Talks, which I have a real love-hate relationship with, writing a book about writing is one of those things I'm cynical about. But if I can find a way to write it that is not the thing I hate, then I'll do it.
Writing is a living practice, and I also think that to live a writer's life fully means to collaborate with other writers—to create kinetic energy so that storytelling survives us all. So no one writer is ever more important than any other writer. The market tries to trick us into believing in the cult of the author or the shiny thingness of a book, but we have to remember that we are nothing without each other. That we are all pieces of each other and that we are all contributing to that beautiful motion called storytelling that comes from all times and all places. We enter. We leave. We become dead light in the sky. But that's not nothing.
PK If you were to say, "I'm not going to write another book," and just drop out, that would be the sort of loss that a lot of us women who owe you so much would not be able to recover from. We'd be like, Wait. Should we just leave, too? And I don't usually think like that, but I remember in high school when I was this nerd editor-in-chief of my school paper, we had this horrible nightmare with the administration trying to censor us, and I walked out and the staff walked out with me. So if you ever walked out, know that we'd all walk out.
LY That's so sweet. Back at you, hot pants.
PK I'm literally wearing my pajama bottoms that have a giant hole in the butt, so even there you nailed it, timely mention. (laughter)
LY That is perfect. Put that in there! Through God and holes in the butt.
PK It's in! Oh Lidia, I'm so glad we've been brought together again. It's nice when people get to know what we are about. The more that they get us, I think we must be doing something right. Being brutally ourselves, ferociously ourselves, has a generosity to it that's maybe important.
LY No kidding! I think we've spent enough of our lives fitting in or something, so fuck it.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of the memoir Sick (Harper Perennial, 2018), as well as the novels The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove, 2007). Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bookforum, and other publications. She is currently a writer-in-residence at Bard College.