Interviews

The Very Edge of Language

An interview with Lidia Yukanvitch, author of "Verge."

From her home in California last month, Lidia Yuknavitch told me she was having an unusually good day: “I think the world is going to shit right now, but inside my house it was good, so I just gave myself one day to feel okay.” I told her that she had answered at least half of my questions through that response, and we laughed together at the state of the world.

Yuknavitch has a storied career spanning three decades. She’s published novels and short stories, and a treatise on war and violence, and has delivered a TED talk titled the “The Beauty of Being a Misfit” that has gone viral. Beyond that, she’s an endlessly curious intellect willing to talk about the hurt, beauty, and violence that inspires her work.

Over the course of our phone call, we discussed her new book, Verge, a collection of short stories that explores the capabilities of the human body and spirit, the concepts of exceptionalism and mundanity, as well as the truancies of characters in peril. As a fellow misfit, I also asked Yuknavtich about the themes that run throughout Verge, and the way recurrent motifs in both her literary and personal life affect the way she writes. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jordan Foti Gulino

When did you discover the short story form? Was there a particular writer or story that made you say: I want to do this?

Lidia Yuknavitch

The first short stories I read that turned me on or lit my fire were those by John Cheever and Stephen Dixon, who I ended up being a friend of a long time ago, so I’m pretty sad about his recent death. But I also admire great writers like Margaret Atwood and Toni Morison. I don’t think short stories were Toni’s strongest form but for me they were mesmerizing. What was most exciting for me about my early understanding of the short-story tradition was that everything coming out of me was in small form. So the more I studied the form the more I understood how to do something on the page.

Jordan Foti Gulino

The way you ended “The Pull,” the first story in Verge: the second to last line reads “This story has no ending.” That story was beautiful and jarring because of your playfulness — playfulness is almost an inappropriate word — but your playfulness with form.

Lidia Yuknavitch

Right. Maybe putting it into play is a better way to say it. I know what you mean by playfulness, it isn’t quite right for the content of that story. That is one of the endlessly, profoundly exciting things about form – that after having studied the tradition of the short story for so many years, I can see now the space and the walls of what a short story can do. In that story in particular, I pull back from what a short story traditionally does in order to leave the reader in this intense, vibrating space that includes them. It takes years of studying a short story form in order to be able to make a move like that. I’m not even saying I did it successfully. But it takes a deep understanding of what a story can and can’t do. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to risk a move like that, and that move is related to other moves in the book of trying to capture a character in a way a more traditional story wouldn’t.

Jordan Foti Gulino

Did you experiment with other forms before arriving at prose? Are you a secret poet?

Lidia Yuknavitch

[Laughs] What makes you ask that?

Jordan Foti Gulino

The tonality shift you do with the italics in Verge. Oftentimes, there’s this extrapolary quality that sometimes gives insight into a character’s condition. But other times, like with that use of “we” in the very last line of “The Pull”– it reminds me of Rilke’s sonnet “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

Lidia Yuknavitch

Of Course.

Jordan Foti Gulino

He switches into the second person in the last line: “you must change your life.” It felt like you were playing with the things that the short story can accomplish with form versus what poetry can accomplish with form.

Lidia Yuknavitch

Well, you’re onto me! Which is not to say I’m a secret poet, but it is to say that poetry is my first love, and poetry and poetics have most deeply informed my own writing practice. I just happen to be someone who can swim the ocean of prose, but my sensibility and my understanding and my passion all originated inside poetry and the poetic line. I’m positive Rilke influenced me in that move I made at the end of “The Pull.” I’m positive my first literary origin story can all be tracked back to poets. But I am a prose junkie.

Jordan Foti Gulino

There’s a recurring refrain I noticed in Verge — an examination of the human body. One of the things you do here is explore the body’s capabilities, both exceptional and mundane, as well as its deformities. What about the human form do you find most intriguing to write about?

Lidia Yuknavitch

I understand the body as if it were literally an epistemological site, and all I mean by that is it’s a flesh-and-bone, real place where meanings are generated and negated all the time. I think of the body as this physical form of matter and energy and competing drives and antagonisms and contradictions: pee and cum and poo and sweat. But also beautiful, beautiful hair and shapes. So somehow all of that is something I can’t stop being obsessed with.

Then I have these key bodies in my actual life. My mother was born with one leg more than six inches shorter than the other. I’m positive that had a deep influence on me my whole life. The way the world treated her. The operations she had and what form and body meant to me watching her. And then I also — you probably know this — I had a baby girl who died the day she was born, and so my understandings of love and beauty and intimacy and a body and life and death kind of got recirculated in that moment. I felt the most intense love I’ve ever felt in my life holding a body that was no longer alive, and so I had to…. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to write into the territory of the body and sexuality and life and death – you know Eros and Thanatos – trying to puzzle that out. Like, what are these bodies we have? I know one thing’s for god damned sure, and that’s I’m not buying the stories we’ve been told about what our bodies are. I’m just going to spend my pages writing other stories.

Jordan Foti Gulino

Sometimes your characters seem to communicate through a language of gestures that go beyond what speech is capable of. Certain acts, like swimming, or scarring oneself, accomplish more than words can. As a writer, what is your sense of that interconnectedness of language and gestures and action? Is there a difficulty there?

Lidia Yuknavitch

There’s a huge difficulty there. It’s like a central tension. It’s another thing I’ve never been able to quite let go of or finish puzzling out. It’s interesting in some ways — it tracks back to your poetry question because poetry, in that Emily Dickinson way, is making language go strange. It’s doing something different with language than grammar or communication or description – it’s like the language has to break. That’s what I think happens to me when I’m reading poetry. And so when I’m moving toward – and you rightly noticed, thank you for noticing – when I bring a body close to silence, or a gesture, or language falling away, it’s usually in an emotional intensity that’s ineffable or so intense that language itself breaks down. I’ve had those experiences. I’ve chased those experiences, but sometimes they just came to me, like when I mentioned what happened with my daughter. There was no language. There was just our bodies.

Jordan Foti Gulino

If I could return to the ideas of beauty and the grotesque for a moment, you find ways to dichotomize them through many fields of study: Jane Goodall with anthropology, Bosch and painting. There’s a complexity to the aesthetic design of your characters. What are your thoughts on beauty and grotesqueness when coming up with a character? Can they be both? Are they both innately?

Lidia Yuknavitch

The short answer is yes. The impulse, creatively, comes from the idea that I can’t accept the binary holding still. I can’t accept that beauty and the grotesque, or whatever we want to put on that other side — the abject, or even violence — I can’t accept that that’s a stable binary. Everywhere in my life and in the world and the art that I love that binary doesn’t hold. They collapse into each other. They double back, they interrogate each other, and they coexist in a kind of [energy] because it seems like they’re moving. They speak to each other and inform each other. And I guess I think the same thing about other binaries, like creation, destruction. I don’t see a binary; I see an interplay. It’s moving and vibrating. And so sitting there thinking characters, the more problematic the character is, the more I fall in love with them. The more mistakes they make, or the weirder the things they do, or somewhat caught in the moment of their failure or their ugliness: that interests me because, to be honest with you, I think it’s in all of us. I don’t think it’s just in some odd characters I make up. I think it’s the piece of ourselves we don’t want to admit. Or [like] Shakespeare, this thing of “Darkness I acknowledge mine.” It’s in all of us. It’s that holding it as a binary helps us be less scared.

Jordan Foti Gulino

Going back to the first story, “The Pull,” it’s about two sister swimmers who pull a raft of refugees toward land. I come from immigrant heritage, and there’s obviously a geographical trajectory for those girls: they seem to be moving from Syria into Turkey, to Greece then to Germany.

Lidia Yuknavitch

Correct.

Jordan Foti Gulino

The story ends with the line “We put children into the ocean.” You once said that “Sometimes telling the story is the thing that saves your life.” Is it hope or grief, or perhaps neither, that as a storyteller, put those sisters in the ocean for you?

Lidia Yuknavitch

Can it be both? I liked the way you asked that, because it’s coming off the last question about binaries: could there be a kind of hope that carries deep grief with it, instead of drowning in it? I think it might be both. My understanding of hope is fraught with difficulty and enduring violence, even from my own family. I come from immigrant passage too, and some definitions of hope rely on some fantasy story where somebody transcends their difficulty. My understanding of hope is a little more complicated in that it carries the hard parts with it. You don’t really transcend the material conditions.

Jordan Foti Gulino

It can be difficult on the publishing side of things to release a collection of short stories these days…

Lidia Yuknavitch

[Laughs] Yes.

Jordan Foti Gulino

There’s often the pretense of presenting a collection of short stories as a novel. Maybe it goes back to Sherwood Anderson and “Winesburg, Ohio.”

Lidia Yuknavitch

Maybe. That’s a pivotal moment.

Jordan Foti Gulino

And then what Jennifer Egan accomplished with A Visit from the Goon Squad, that could be argued as a collection of short stories. Yet you’ve found success in publishing singular stories in short story collections. From an industry, authorial, or simply taste standpoint, what do you think is the current regard for short stories?

Lidia Yuknavitch

Short stories and novels are such profoundly different forms for me. What happens to me is the story sort of instructs you, or even demands from you, the author, what form it should take. Sometimes the forms scare me — there’s a play that is coming toward me and I don’t write plays, so I’m terrified about it. Why is it coming out as a play? I don’t know how to write one. I’d probably just pass out if a poem started coming. It’d just be too much for me. But what I find interesting about audience, or readership, or the market, which is a different category [but related] is that we all have shorter attention spans. So you’d think short stories would be doing great right now. It’s like the perfect forum for our busy, hectic, dangerous lives.

And yet readership doesn’t necessarily reflect that, you know what I mean? I think something is shifting about what a reader is, so much so that I’m not even sure we know what a reader is anymore, much less what a short story, a poem, a novel is. I think the forms are experiencing a plate tectonics. That’s probably why I’m so attracted to hybrid forms, where there’s a mashup of form, because that seems more precise between writer and reader right now: that the forms themselves would be moving around and changing.

Jordan Foti Gulino

Since you first began to publish, more and more writers have embraced creative nonfiction in order to share stories and perspectives that the public has overlooked. Despite this, do you feel like there’s a glut in the genre right now?

Lidia Yuknavitch

I feel like there is something of a glut in the genre right now, but at the same moment I also feel like there are cracks and fissures through which the profoundly important vanguard of what the genre could be are pushing through. Yes, maybe there’s a super-saturation, and yet at the same time writers are creating these — like I say cracks and fissures — through which a book like Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries gets through. The answer is yes, there is a super-saturation, but I’m okay because it’s making earthquakes and tectonics at the same time and these other voices are just exploding up and through. I think that’ll change the genre forever. And I’m down with that.

FICTION – STORIES
Verge
By Lidia Yuknavitch
Riverhead Books
Published February 4, 2020

Jordan Foti Gulino is the Features Editor for the Chicago Review of Books. He is a poet, essayist, and translator based out of Chicago (and sometimes Greece). Follow him on Twitter at @fotakigulino.

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