I Will Never Tire of Swimming Inside Language: The Millions Interviews Lidia Yuknavitch


This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2011 The Chronology of Water breathed new life into the memoir genre. It won a slew of awards and amassed a loyal following of readers who will forever champion Yuknavitch’s work. Prompted by a dare from author Chuck Palahniuk—”I’m not a big fan of memoir, but if you wrote one, I’d read it”—she wrote a story that had lived in her body for 20 years.

Yuknavitch’s memoir delivers fearless prose and lays bare the truths of survival and its many facets. The opening holds nothing back as we learn that her daughter was stillborn. The memoir ends on a note of real, messy ongoing-ness, along with its profound beauty. The reader is assured that Yuknavitch, once a competitive swimmer, is now learning to “live on land,” a small and tender thing.

Rhonda Hughes, publisher and editor of Hawthorne Books, said there are myriad reasons why Chronology went viral. “Number one being talent. Lidia’s one the most talented writers I know. How she played with form, language, and theme in The Chronology of Water was compelling. She writes what we want to say and talk about but are often afraid to. Her words burrow under your skin, lodge in your heart.”

In addition, the book’s cover, featuring a naked woman’s body in water, with full frontal nipple submerged, kicked up a “boob book” controversy. Booksellers worried about displaying the nudity and that readers, if they did buy it, would not read it on subways, at parks, or in coffee shops.  Hughes handled the clash of censorship and commodification by standing strong with Yuknavitch’s vision. “This is not your mother’s memoir” was a truth, not merely a sales slogan. Hughes added a belly band, a charcoal gray “blanket” for buyers wanting to shroud the breast. The author also responded with aplomb in an interview at The Rumpus, and the book’s opening epigraph by Hélène Cixous clarifies the choice: “Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard.: Lidia Yuknavitch is pure corporeal-centric. She herself won’t be shrouded or placed in a box, especially one she fought her way out of.

The Millions: At the age of 48, you wrote The Chronology of Water. Earlier works of yours were published, but this book blew the doors open to a larger readership. Why do you think that was?

Lidia Yuknavitch: Well, it’s hard to ever know for certain, but I suspect that it had something to do with the way I wrote about my life experiences. I challenged the traditional memoir by breaking down narrative form. I think the fragmented, non-chronological form put something different into readers’ hands. I also experimented with the authority of voice—I broke that down into physical, emotional, intellectual, narrative, and lyric terms. I also suspect that something about telling the truth about one’s failures and mistakes and fuck-ups without then moving to celebratize the self—without saying I transcended anything or became a magical person—I think at least some readers identified with that. The idea that we endure and keeping going rather than transcend and become unicorns.

TM: In a creative writing workshop you compiled a “rush of fragments” that prompted Diana Abu-Jaber to say to you, “I think it’s the story of your life, maybe.” What did Diana’s mentioning of “water” being the common thread within your fragments bring up for you?

LY: Oh my god it was a HUGE deal. The workshop had not gone very well because I’d placed a string of lyric fragments together and insisted that it was a story—this was before lyric essays had become so very popular. Diana pulled me aside after class and she said that the fragments might be a book. Frankly I went a little numb and just retreated into my own rage and the self-destruction I was involved in at the time. I did publish the story, but I didn’t dare approach something as terrifying as a book project. I wasn’t even an MFA student. I was an English major infiltrating the creative writing classes because I couldn’t help it. But her words came back to me later in life. Right when I needed them.

TM: How did the “kaleidoscopic” rhythm of the book, where chapters swim in and out of focus, or as you stated “work like a kaleidoscope—moving in angles and fragments around things,” come into being? Were you mirroring how memory and mind play off one another? And was kaleidoscopic navigation intentionally implemented as a thru line in the book, or did it organically develop as you wrote?

LY: Definitely the kaleidoscopic form emerged from the creative process of writing. I did not know that form would emerge when I began. But writing COW is where I learned that a writer can FIND the form from the process of writing—a writer can trust the creative process to yield the shape and patterns. I’ve been trusting that idea ever since. I did however know that I was aiming to reflect how it is that memory works. When my father drowned in the ocean he lost his memory of what he did to us. That crisis in representation and in my life (where does one put murderous rage when the abuser has no memory?) sent me into intense study on the topic of memory at the level of neuroscience and biochemistry. The book is shaped in the kinds of retinal flashes and layerings and synaptic firings of an actual brain. Each reader “resolves” that on their own terms.

TM: In an online interview you mentioned “You could probably go through this book and literally chart the moments of emotional intensity by watching where the language—to quote Dickinson—goes strange.” How did you develop the trust in “Dickinson-goes strange” language to exist without tampering with it?

LY: I started out strange on the page, so that wasn’t very difficult. My difficulty was writing a straight story. A traditional story. Which I did learn eventually. But by the time I wrote COW, I was old enough to see my own practice, my own creative vision and process. So you might say I had something like a “now or never” moment. There simply weren’t any reasons left to hold back. The desire to tell outweighed the fear of telling. Also Chuck Palahniuk dared me. In a parking lot. True story.

TM: Is there anything specific that you recall in the editing process with Rhonda Hughes?

LY: Rhonda (the great and wonderful) Hughes literally came up with the order of the fragments. She ordered them on the floor of her house. To be honest, especially then, I would never have put them in the order that they are in now. I couldn’t see that. So without Rhonda Hughes, I’d have a pile of mess. Like my life.

TM: Sexual abuse by your father is brought up in the opening chapter: “the day my father first touched me.” Then it exists within its absence, returning in a chapter towards the end of the book in a scene with your third husband and life partner Andy Mingo. “My father was abusive.” When asked what he did to you, “Sexual” says everything we need to know. How did you determine that not detailing specific acts was the best choice for this book?

LY: Although I do not believe this is always the best writing strategy with traumatic material, in my specific case there was more energy in letting different narrative modes carry the intense content. Sometimes when you write directly at content or action it flattens it or overdramatizes it. Not always, but sometimes. Or too much pathos dulls and weighs down your page. Think of the way poetry works on us—distilling intense and enormous experiences into poetic language, image, repetitions, accumulation of meanings. Too, I knew that if I could get a reader to feel the truth in their body while they were reading, whether or not the explicit detail was on the page didn’t matter.  I was speaking body to body. Because there are legions of us.

TM: Each of your books tackles language in completely different ways. Is there something you’re looking to discover in language and narrative that can only happen when it’s unearthed from a new and unfamiliar origin?

LY: YES! [Laughs.] For me it’s like jumping into the ocean or into space. Pretty much exactly like jumping into the ocean or space. Like giving over to matter and energy and signification. I will never tire of swimming inside language, or drawing or painting for that matter. I will never tire of entering artistic practice. I wish I could stay there.

TM: The Chronology of Water is broken into five sections: “Holding Breath,” “Under Blue,” “The Wet,” “Resuscitations,” and “The Other Side of Drowning.” For me, these sections represent crucial poetic placeholders. How early on in the process did you establish them? Can you briefly describe what each of each of them means to you?

LY: They are my alternative to the so-called hero’s journey. They are my understanding that life and death, creation and destruction, beginnings and endings are always moving inside one another, and not in some line. I learned that the day I held my lifeless daughter in my arms the day she was born.

TM: COW was originally published as a short story in The Northwest Review. How does that differ from the book published by Hawthorne?

LY: Well you can find the sediments of the short story in the memoir. In fact, you can find the sediments of all of my short stories inside the books I have gone on to write. So I’d say that’s the key, and I teach about this too: we are always working with narrative and poetic sediments. On the page and in life. Reaching for forms.

TM: Your interview with Rhonda Hughes at the end of the book felt necessary, as in completing and giving closure to the book.

Hughes shared:
COW was breaking the usual memoir format. I wanted to address some of the things I felt readers would want to better understand after finishing the book. There were also questions and a discussion I wanted to personally have with Lidia after I read COW, so I thought if I wanted to know the answers to the questions I asked, so would other people. Working with Lidia on COW was one of my most treasured experiences as a publisher and an editor. It was the collaboration of extraordinary measure.
[Note: This is the only interview that Hughes has ever done with an author in Hawthorne’s entire catalog.]

How do you feel this interview served COW?

LY: Holy oceans, I count collaboration with Rhonda Hughes as one of the most important experiences of my life. What you want is an editor who is dying to go with you into your material, to ride the waves, to dive down or kick up, to swim the waters of your imagination. The interview was a chance to show readers that no book happens without collaboration. All books take many mammals and I count my lucky stars I crossed stardust paths with Rhonda.

TM: Who championed you on while writing COW? And who was your first reader?

LY: Monica Drake, Chelsea Cain, Cheryl Strayed, Chuck Palahniuk, Mary Wysong-Haeri, Suzy Vitello Soule, and Erin Leonard were in the writing group when I wrote COW. Every single one of them helped me to “see.” I will never forget that year for as long as I live. They helped me breathe life back into my life, not just the pages. And yes, the Mingo is my first reader, always and forever.

TM: Is there a question you wished someone would have asked, but didn’t, about The Chronology of Water?  If so, what was it? What would your answer have been?

LY: I wish someone would have asked me what alternative sexualities I was scratching at as I made my way through those body stories. I think that we have very many more sexualities than we’ve discovered so far. Whole planets.

TM: Were there advantages to entering the publishing world in your 40s instead of 20s?

LY: Holy mother of oceans, yes. Although it’s not true. I entered the publishing world in my 20s. I’ve been working my ass off for 30 years. I mention that because I see the creative labor of women disappeared too often in discussion of their work. We put our whole lives into making art. Our bodies. But I’d still say that there are major advantages to writing in my 40s (and now 50s…I turn 54 in June!). My hunger is toward evolving my own vision, and not toward being liked or accepted or getting attention or fame, for one thing. That’s huge. My hunger. I have whole worlds to create. I don’t have time for the fragmented and displaced energies of youth. You couldn’t pay me money to go back. Youth is good for intense experience, unflinching exploration and discovery, beginning your creative path, learning how to step into your own intelligence and creativity from the whirling chaos and the intensity of emotions.

TM: Your upcoming TED Talk book, The Misfit’s Manifesto, is soon to be on shelves. Did you approach this book in a different way?

LY: Completely. There was a topic or a theme ahead of time. I decided immediately nothing would be more repugnant than having to read me going on and on and on about a topic for that many pages, so I did what had to be done: I multiplied voices and mammalian bodies. Now it’s us. We are the rest of you, reader.

The perfect complement to The Chronology of Water is Lidia Yuknavitch’s TED Talk, “The Beauty of Being a Misfit”—ranked as one of the top ten TED Talks of 2016.