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Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty's Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence. Her first novel is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books.

Blurbs

"This is the book Lidia Yuknavitch was put on the planet to write for us."

– Rebecca Brown, author of The Gifts of the Body

"This intensely powerful memoir touches depths yet unheard of in contemporary writing."

– Andrei Condrescu, author of The Poetry Lesson

"Reading this book is like diving into Yuknavitch's most secret places."

– Kerry Cohen, author of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

"The book is extraordinary."

– Chuck Palahniuk, author of Pygmy

"This is the book I've been waiting to read all of my life."

– Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch

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The Chronology of Water

An Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch

06/02/11

1.

WHO IS LIDIA YUKNAVITCH?

MOLLY GAUDRY: Hi Lidia, thank you for allowing me to showcase your incredible memoir, The Chronology of Water, as one of The Lit Pub’s inaugural Book of the Month features. I think the first thing a lot of readers would like to know is: Who is Lidia Yuknavitch? Why did she write this memoir?

LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: Well I think in most ways I’m like anyone who lives a rather fragmented, speed oriented, media saturated existence right now. . . . I’m a global citizen! Ha. But more to the point of this book and why I wrote it, I’m a body. Something that has always bugged me about mainstream and conventional literature is that the body is in the background and the personality or psychology is in the foreground. In my book, while I was chafing at the confines and conventions of “memoir,” I decided to write a body story. So you could say the body holds the point of view in this book.

But I also wrote this book to get what was inside of me out. I had a hunch there were others like me out there. Some people sing or kick ass on an instrument, some people paint or dance or make films, I write. . . . It’s all I’ve got.

MG: If The Chronology of Water is a book about “the body,” then who should read it? Who is it for?

LY: Anyone. I say that because I am moving from ordinary experience through the body. We all share in that story. It’s a Whitmanesque desire — to contribute to the poetics of bodies. Only in my story some of the bodies ordinarily hidden or repressed or transgressed or ignored or made to feel ugly or bad or wrong, get a voice. People who share that experience might want to read it, and people who don’t share that experience might learn something about the rest of us.

MG: I agree with you that anyone who has been “ignored or made to feel ugly or bad or wrong” should read The Chronology of Water. This is one of the reasons I’m so in love with what you’ve done here. Was it difficult to write a memoir? To expose yourself? Do you feel vulnerable? What are you feeling now that this book is available to readers worldwide?

LY: Like my vagina is on my head. The writing didn’t make me feel exposed. The process was one of the more important artistic productions of my life. But the letting go of the book . . . the putting it into the hands of others . . . that part is terrifying. What if someone tells me it smells of poo? Or that I suck?

Still, I’m one of those people who holds no territory in terms of my own books . . . once they are written, they are not “mine.” And since I wrote them I must want to tenderly hand it over to an other, so maybe that’s the important gesture.

It does feel different from other books I’ve written because in the past I’ve inhabited a sort of alienated place as a writer and projected a playfully antagonistic voice out to the reader. In this book I felt an overwhelming sympathy for whoever my reader is, since she probably understands some of my story, and so a little bit I want to tell her I love her.

Him too.

MG: Nobody is going to say your book “smells of poo.” I’ll see to that. Now that we’ve covered that, what is your greatest fear related to this memoir?

LY: I suppose that some critic of note will slam it and forever relegate it to the shit pile. But when I really consider that, it seems like a silly fear. So that leads me to believe it isn’t real. I didn’t write the book for any critic who may end up slamming it. And I’ve been slammed by some heavy hitters in terms of male authority (the critic’s symbolic place in society), so who cares? If I survived this life, I can survive a surly critic.

I’m guessing the fear under all fears that I don’t particularly want to name is already named in the book. It’s the fear of standing up. It’s the fear of having heart.

MG: What is your greatest accomplishment, related to this memoir?

LY: The cover! Ha. Seriously though, the cover is a big deal. You know the story. But something I’m proud of in terms of how I structured the story is that I THINK readers can enter and exit it without feeling bound to my personal saga. I THINK the structure has fissures where any body can slip in to the water or leave with their own stories. At least that was the aim of breaking all the conventions down.

MG: What is your greatest hope for The Chronology of Water?

LY: That someone will hold it in their hands, read it, and feel less alone.

2.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER and WOMEN

MG: The Chronology of Water incorporates a number of themes that seem universal to so many young girls’ and women’s lives. Do you see this is a book for women?

LY: Well I do, but not exclusively. I think I’ve attempted to give voice to some things in the lives of girls and women that get repressed by culture. No doubt. For example, our sexual development. Our emotional intensities — particularly in the areas we are not supposed to talk about like rage or violence or sexual excess. Our power(s). The fucked upedness of some of the models of “empowerment” that are options for us that are really big fat booby traps.

But I do not think it is a book for women exclusively. In fact I know it’s not. I know it because my close male friends whose bodies have also been transgressed, or men I know who have suffered prison time, or gay, bisexual or transgendered men I am close to, or hunky heteros like the guy I’m married to, or fathers, brothers, sons, junkies, musicians, artists, filmmakers who are men — they all seem to find themselves in these stories too.

I think that is because the culture crushes all of us in terms of our best selves and bodies and spirits. So that I use a woman’s body as the metaphor for experience should not be read as an exclusivity.

Besides, that male body used to universalize experience, that jesus dude, turns out his body story just doesn’t cover everything. So I’m aiming to get the bodies of women and girls back into the line up to cover the rest of us.

MG: I like that you say this book is bodies, not just women or women’s bodies. While we’ll get to each of these many kinds of bodies later in this interview, I want to talk about women and the bond they often share. I’d like to talk about sisters — yours, yes — but also about sisterhood in general. First, let’s talk about your sister. She appears quite frequently in The Chronology of Water. One of my favorite passages follows:

“One morning my sister heard me sobbing in the shower. She pulled the curtain back, looked at me holding my empty gutted belly, and stepped inside to embrace me. Fully clothed. We stayed like that for about 20 minutes I think. Possibly the most tender thing anyone has ever done for me in my entire life.”

Please tell us anything you like about this moment.

LY: It really is a big moment in the book for me because it was a pivotal moment in my life. A life or death moment, to be honest. I was thinking of calling it quits that day in the shower. It was a simple thought, and for those who read the book, a recurring thought, but that day it was particularly stark. I just thought, I can’t do this. I don’t know why or how she did what she did except that she says it was what to do. That tells you something about her and why writing about her should be its own book. The kind of “love” born between our two bodies and lives in the shower is not one I’ve ever heard of or read about or seen in a movie. You are just going to have to trust me when I say it was an altered state. Or one of those lifedeathbeingnotbeing horizons.

MG: This is one of the hidden joys of reading The Chronology of Water. So much goes unsaid, and it’s up to the reader to make connections. I didn’t know this about that moment in the shower. All I knew is that the power of your words blew me away. I am thankful to your sister for being there for you then, because I believe this book has the potential to keep a lot of others from “calling it quits.” I believe this book is a sister for all of us — a sister who will come along at just the right moment and save our lives . . . because you survived. And this book is proof. And people need proof of others’ survival to know that they, too, can get back up and try a little harder today. And tomorrow. And the next day. One day at a time. Should anyone come here in need of such reassurance: What would you like to say to that person?

LY: I’d say art is with you. All around you. I’d say when there doesn’t seem to be anyone else, there is art. I’d say you can love art how you wish to be loved. And I’d say art is a lifeline to the rest of us — we are out here. You are not alone. There is nothing about you that scares us. There is nothing unlovable about you, either. Let’s make some shit up.

I think too you are right — that I was secretly trying to make a sisterbook.

MG: Let’s get back to your sister. What questions did you ask yourself or struggle with when it came time to depicting her on the page?

LY: With my sister — this is kind of funny — I have about nine chapters about my sister. They are not in the book. Writing about my sister quickly turns into a big fat HOMAGE because my love for her is so intense I immediately start writing her story instead of my own. If you saw us together you’d see — it’s the intimacy and iron bond of sister survivors, certainly. But it’s more. She was my first love. My other better mother. She was my first loss when she left home. She was who I fled to when I left home. Ocean and shore and beautiful other.

My mother and sister are not depicted fully or even authentically on the pages. Though my sister seems to think I got my mother pretty well pinned/penned. In the end I could only tell a certain part of a story in which they figure.

So I decided to write another book someday about this sister experience. And ALL the HUGE VARIETIES of ways women are in relationship to other women. It’s ungodly and someone needs to write about it properly. Hope I survive it.

3.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER and MOTHERS

MG: Here’s an excerpt you wrote about your mother:

“Sometimes I think my voice arrived on paper. I had a journal I hid under my bed. I didn’t know what a journal was. It was just a red notebook that I wrote pictures and true things and lies in. . . . I wrote about my mother . . . the back of her head driving me to and from swim practice. Her limp and leg. Her hair. How gone she was, selling houses, winning awards into the night. I wrote letters to my gone away sister that I never sent. . . . When I was 11 I wrote a poem in my red notebook that went: In the house/alone in my bed/my arms ache. My sister is gone/my mother is gone/my father designs buildings/in the room next to mine/he is smoking. I wait for 5 a.m./I pray to leave the house/I pray to swim.”

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read this passage?

LY: How I was, even then, trying to write a counter-story to the story of family. I also think about how daughters inherit the pain of their mothers. . . . I first thought and read about that with true understanding when I read The Lover by Duras. The mother’s pain drifts down the DNA into the daughter in a maternal line that I understand. My mother’s depression and anger and pain crept down genetic lines to my sister and I and embedded into our very bodies — though differently in each of us. There is a grief reserved for mothers. Something about bearing children corporeally leaves a trace of sadness that is never quite sutured.

When I look at that passage I can see all three of us — little women — doing what we each had to in order to stay alive literally and figuratively. And then I see and feel the “weight” of father, literally and figuratively. There is the whole symbolic order. The difficult version. Not the loving possibility of family but the wounded one.

I also see a violent hope though. Is that weird? My sister and I are alive. We are both writers. My sister is a poet. She is also a healer, and I am a teacher. We are choosing to give of ourselves in spite of what was taken.

MG: In terms of “what was taken,” you share in your memoir that your father would not allow you to go away to college, that offers came in the mail but he refused to let you leave. However, your mother intervened:

“A week later, when the papers came to sign, my father was at work. My mother signed them. I remember watching her hand, a little stunned. She had beautiful handwriting. Then she put them in the envelope, grabbed her car keys, and told me C’mawn. In her southern drawl liquor voice. In her real estate station wagon. Driving to the post oce with her and watching her drop my freedom into the blue metal mouth of the mailbox — I almost loved her.”

What does it mean that you “almost loved her”?

LY: My mother and I fought a lot. I’m actually grateful for it — we had a very real relationship partly because we fought. But at the time those letters about college — or my impending possible leaving — were coming in the mail, I was caught in a deep feeling of anger, mistrust, and betrayal where she was concerned.

Why hadn’t she taken her daughters out of his house as children? Why didn’t she save us? Why was she so busy building her career in Real Estate and creating a life outside her home that the pain of her daughter didn’t signify? That part of her I hated.

Much later of course I came to understand her story.

And I came to know the women at the door: pain, depression, loss, despair.

When other women tell me how much they loved their mothers, I am filled with a strange wonder. I stay quiet, because I know my “love” was different. It was fierce and loud and the moments of tenderness were quiet, something between our eyes, something in the way she called me “Belle.”

MG: What sorts of challenges did you face as you were depicting her on the page?

LY: I could write a book about that. Wait. . . . I just did! Ha. I know what you are asking though. What I had to deal with as a writer confronting the page in terms of my mother was the vastness of her pain (physical and emotional), and how to get her unbelievable imagination and joy to surface. Pain was the overriding presence in her life. And yet she had moments of joy that I witnessed that could not be outdone by even the happiest child. And in the tiniest of moments she could muster a strength that could shatter a world. A strength that could free a daughter from a father’s house.

MG: You write several times of your mother’s body, about how one leg is shorter than the other and how she shouldn’t have had children. But she did. Why do you think she did?

LY: Yes it’s an interesting question to me, still, since Dr.’s told her if she carried to term she risked injury to the infant or even death. Because of how tilted her hips and birth canal were. So was she doing something loving and miraculous and wonderful? Or something sadistic? I know that’s an odd thing to say but I do wonder sometimes, you know? WHAT was she thinking?

But maybe I know what she was thinking. She was thinking what they told her didn’t signify. Like when they told her she was crippled, she danced. Hard. In high school. She danced her heart out she danced her leg right she danced her sexuality.

And when they told her no one would want her or marry her so she should become a librarian and shut the doors of woman she hot night seduced a rodeo boy and an artist and a musician.

And when they told her she couldn’t run or swim or ride a bike she became the “could not” — she shattered it like broken bone piles — she remade meaning in the image of her imagined body.

So I guess what I believe is that she didn’t think the regular lexicon on rules or realities applied to her. Until the day she died she swore she saw a sea serpent over the side of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a UFO in Port Arthur, Texas, and she swore she loved her children.

MG: If you could say anything to your mother right now, what would that be?

LY: What I said in the endlines. Mother, rest. I am home.

4.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER and STILLBIRTH

MG: What is the greatest sorrow you have experienced?

LY: The death of my daughter, Lily.

MG: How do you live with it every day? I mean, how do you cope?

LY: Well I have learned to let grief live with me like a little girl in the house. And I am a writer, so storytelling is how to keep going. To open my self up, my grief, my love, my difficulties, my joys, to share my life and body and words so that they join the human story greater than my own.

MG: Why does this book open with the birth and loss of your daughter?

LY: Because that is the body event that “opened” me. I mean it broke me. Utterly. But it broke me OPEN. I became a writer from that experience. Not instantly, in the moment I went fairly insane, as I wrote about. But later. The first thing that came out of me when my wits and emotions settled back toward something bearable was writing. As it turns out, there was a lot in there. . . . I think I have many, many books to say.

I also opened at a birthdeath moment because I no longer believe in the idea that birth is a beginning and death is an end. In terms of life or narrative. They are merely continuations and changes in matter and energy. Energy never dies. It just changes form.

Lastly, because of what I know about how memory works from reading about biochemistry and neuroscience. There’s nothing linear about it. At all. That’s just a comforting conceptual shape we bring to the chaotic processes of memory that are generated in our bodies from a variety of sources and systems.

MG: You share that you lied to people when they asked about your daughter:

“I lied without even hesitating an instant. I’d say, “Oh, she is the most beautiful baby girl! Her eyelashes are so long!” Even two years later when a woman I know stopped me in the library to ask after my new daughter, I said, “She’s so wonderful — she’s my light. In day care she is already drawing pictures!” I never thought, stop lying.”

Where did this urge come from? Is it with you still?

LY: The urge to lie? Aren’t all writers liars? Maybe all humans? Lying has gotten a bum wrap. Narrativizing, storytelling, those are human qualities that are amazing. The urge to make stories up. If I hadn’t made stories up my whole life I’d be dead I think. I think that’s an admirable quality, if by “lying” we mean creating fictions beautifully against the grain of culture’s physical and psychic atomizing tendencies.

I don’t like lies that come from places of power and oppression. I don’t like politicians or cultural “authorities” who lie. I don’t like the lies born of “gender” or “religion” or “family” or “criminality” or the cult of good citizenship that cause an individual to believe there is something wrong with them. I don’t like the lie called power, or the lie that some people are inferior to others, or the lie that humans are superior to the environment or animals.

The best liars I’ve ever met or known are my favorite writers, musicians, artists and filmmakers. They are of the first variety. I hope they lie their asses off.

5.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER and WOMEN’S REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS

MG: Is it true that you had three abortions before you were twenty-one?

LY: Yes. And I am not in the minority here. But it isn’t a story women are particularly allowed to tell. Certainly not truthfully. It is a story entirely unsanctioned by culture and it points to one’s fall from the cult of good citizenship, the cult of the clean and proper body, and a certain definition of “ethics” and “morals” that, coincidentally, relegates the body of a woman to an inferior and powerless position inherited from patriarchal religious mythology.

I know this is not a popular position to express but our bodies, like all of nature, energy and matter, are killing and reproducing all the time. The union of sperm and egg is a process generative of new life and yet lethal to both sperm and egg. Compost piles breed life. Study quasars. Black holes. Cosmic string. Study ecosystems. Animal populations. Chemistry. Even the cult of Christianity is based on a lifegiving death.

On the other hand, I feel like RIGHT NOW is also an important time to discuss precisely and openly how important women’s reproductive rights, women’s health, and women’s control over their own bodies are. I don’t want MORE abortions. No woman is happy having an abortion. It’s an emotionally wrenching decision. But from my point of view it is not a scientifically wrenching decision.

But I also don’t want old white male corrupt legislation crawling up the cunt of a woman’s being, nor do I want women’s bodies to be the “site” of political battles as if we were breeding livestock, slaves, or meat sack commodities. So fighting (again again again) for women’s reproductive rights, rights to health care, and the right to be self determined bodies free from economic and morality fictions is (again again again) violently vital.

6.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER and BISEXUALITY and MEN

MG: Can you tell us about your first experience with another woman?

LY: Yes. I think you mean sexually though. Do you? If you do, then I’d say my first sexual experience with another woman was with my mother. Specifically at the pre-linguistic stage with her breast and body, and later, post-language acquisition, I’d say the the erotic object attachment to the scar on her leg.

When she would get out of the bathtub or shower and dress, I was often in the bathroom with her. And the great white pearling scar railroading up the side of her leg mesmerized me. I’m positive I experienced erotic feelings, though I hadn’t an understanding of it of course. But I remember sweating. And feeling very antsy. And being unable to keep myself from reaching out and touching it. I remember my hand on her leg and I remember shaking. Dizzy. Almost passing out. I think she’d just laugh, say “Oh Belle,” and sort of brush my hand away, dry off, and get dressed.

Then I suppose it’s true too that I was attracted to my sister — she was eight years older than me and she looked a little opposite to me — she had long, auburn hair and a full figured body. I had white non-hair fuzz from swimming and a boy body. Her distance in age made her mythic to me. Her bedroom was mythic to me. Everything about her — mythic. When she left I had nowhere to put any of those feelings about my body and my love and devotion, and she left when I was ten, so puberty was just around the corner.

But I’m guessing the question is more about my first experience OUTSIDE of or beyond my mother and sister. I just feel it’s important to name those before I move on.

And here the answer is easy.

I was competing with a poolful and lockeroomfull of girls and women from the time I was six years old on. All that gorgeous naked flesh in steamed up or watery places nearly made me faint on a daily basis. I was probably oversexualized at a young age because of my father, so my drives — my pistons were firing way before I understood what they meant.

I was attracted to my two best friends when I was five. Six. Seveneightnineten.

I was in love with my teacher when I was eleven.

I wanted to be Joan of Arc at twelve — I cried in bed thinking about her body while humping pillows.

In seventh grade, my childhood best friend and I took to soaping up each other butt to butt in lockerroom showers. And liking it. A lot.

I had my first orgasm WITH another girl when I was thirteen. There was lot of . . . hmmm. Twinkie mashing. And finger-fucking. We had no idea what we were doing. I’m not even sure we knew what “orgasms” were. But it was hot, and wet, and slippery, and very, very good.

And nothing about my father.

MG: Of the many men in your memoir, who was (or is) the most influential in your life? Why?

LY: My father, because he gave and took everything simultaneously, and my son Miles, because from him I know what being alive is for.

MG: I totally expected a different answer. Can you elaborate? Perhaps you could offer a representative excerpt from The Chronology of Water that best captures how your father “gave and took everything simultaneously” and how Miles teaches you “what being alive is for”?

LY: Yeah I can see why that answer is counter-intuitive. But as I write about in the book, the fact of the matter is that my father showed me art. He introduced me to Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture — to the seriousness of space and light and form. He introduced me to classical music. To painting. To film. He spoke in sophisticated ways about aesthetics and themes and archetypes and the power of artistic production. He explained to me what the Guggenheim and the Tate were. He took me to see Shakespeare’s plays in Ashland, Oregon from the time I was eight until I left the house.

I saw The Deer Hunter and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Silkwood, with him.

He bought me a Selmer Series 10 clarinet.

He gave me my first typewriter, my first drawing pad, my first set of sophisticated pens.

MG: You know I expected the answer to be Andy, right? Can you give us a representative excerpt for how you feel about him right now?

LY: Who, my father? Or Andy?

Miles is my lifesource, and Andy is my being equal. It’s a little Jungian to me — his masculinity stands up to my feminine, but his feminine also draws out my masculine — I don’t know how we found each other but it’s like an energy loop. That doesn’t sound very romantic I suppose but in lidiaworld it’s a lot bigger deal than a Hollywood romanticism.

You know it’s true though that I don’t think I’d be alive if I hadn’t met Andy and Miles. And I mean that both literally and symbolically.

MG: What can you tell us about divorce? It’s not uncommon, but it is definitely a scary and unique experience for anyone going through it for the first time. Screw it. Let’s not call it divorce. Let’s call it “breaking up.” What can you tell us about that?

LY: It’s death. It’s exactly death. But the thing about it is, you can’t get through a life, and by that I mean a rich, fully lived life, without experiencing deaths of all sorts. The death of a relationship the death of an idea the deaths of people the death of truths the death of desires the death of animals the death of planets and stars and, well, everything.

Divorce or breaking up is particularly hard on us because loving is such a huge risk. You risk everything, loving all the way. You risk your world. Your selfhood. Your ability to know. Your individual being. Your reality.

I don’t really give a hootie about the part of “divorce” that is attached to the marriage contract. But our hearts and bodies and thoughts. Our being. Breaking up is a death. The hardest part is to admit it’s worth it. To experience a full love, even unto death. It’s worth it.

There’s no such think as a fully lived life without pain. Honestly I could another book about how clusterfucked American culture is on the topic of pain. Talk about an undiscovered continent. We’ve coded pain in ways that keep us from learning jack shit from one of the most profound experiences available. Wish we could undo or redo that.

MG: How were your marriages different from each other?

LY: In my first marriage I was a confused ball of nuclear rage and creative fire without a form. In my second marriage I was insane with grief and numbed myself with laughter and every excess imaginable, including writing. In my third marriage I am learning what being is.

I can’t speak for the three men. I loved them. I loved them differently. I would not change anything about them. But my relationship with Andy is the most real to me. It changes and grows. It’s alive. And I’m fully present.

As for marriage, I’m for it!!! Get married as many times as possible!!! I think anyone who wants to, should GET TO. NOW. And I think it is possible to invent it from the inside out, rather than live it from the scripts we’re handed.

MG: Will you tell us something uplifting and wonderful about your current marriage? About a moment that you’ve experienced recently, that you wouldn’t mind sharing?

LY: With the Mingo, it’s perpetually epic. He’s better than your favorite novel or film.

7.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER and PROMISCUITY

MG: Kerry Cohen blurbed The Chronology of Water, and I love that she did. I remember reading her memoir and thinking how incredibly brave she is for writing it. I feel the same way about you, though in many ways I think Chronology is a different kind of memoir. Let’s do some one-word answers. Are you ready? Just give me the first word you think of.

Sex is ________.

LY: exploration

MG: Sex can be __________.

LY: revelatory

MG: The first time I had sex, I ________.

LY: exploded

MG: When my son has sex for the first time I hope he ___________.

LY: supernovas

8.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER and DRUGS & ALCOHOL

MG: Why drugs? Why alcohol?

LY: To leave planet Lidia, to anesthetize, to dream, to discover.

MG: I am positive that people — young and old alike — will find this interview on the Internet, perhaps in times of pain and in need of guidance, particularly where drugs and alcohol are involved. I don’t doubt that parents, too, might find this site. What would you like to say to them now — either to the individual who is looking for help or to parents?

LY: I can’t parent anyone’s children but my own. I am not a parent of anyone else’s children. I am a writer. But my stories are not unique, and so by reading them, perhaps there is some insight for someone moving through life with difficulty about how not to give up. Or how to get hold of your own story. But too, my parents failed us in some important ways. And if a parent can “see” the me’s that were struggling, and how I needed some help, maybe they can admit that we are all living out stories of ourselves.

I have a close friend named Cheryl Strayed. Her mother saved she and her siblings — meaning she got them away from an abusive father. My mother did not. But Cheryl’s mother also died at the age of 46, and left such a tremendous grief inside her daughter; Cheryl loved her mother deeply. I don’t any longer blame my mother for not getting us away from my father. I can admit she had a story too, one that came before me. I can admit her story.

Cheryl and I both turned out to be writers. And mothers. And people who can feel and receive and give compassion. Love. So maybe part of what I’d say is about stories. Find the stories you identify with. Find the stories that challenge your world view. Tell your story to anyone who will listen. Never suppress an other’s story. Let lifestories exist alongside one another. Bear witness to them. Do not ever let your own story drown out someone else’s. Find the people whose stories make good companions to your own. Make a braid.

9.

THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER and WATER

MG: What does water mean to you? I know it took a whole book to answer this, but if you can give us an excerpt or a short answer here, that would be fantastic.

LY: Water provides me with a central metaphor for my life. I guess I think that’s kind of important. To explore and discover metaphors that help you live with your life and how it is and what it was and what it might be. I like metaphors a great deal more than sentences. Within metaphor there is still the resonance of image, play, varied meaning and interpretation. Never only one meaning.

But there is a literalness to it too. In water I am without physical pain. It’s the only way to be pain free at this point in my life without medication. I have a 22% scoliosis — chronic back pain, also hip pain. So being weightless is freedom from pain.

It’s also a meditative space for me now. The MOMENT I enter the water, I mean it’s almost Pavlovian — I can enter a trance or meditative space. Which is why I like to be in it as often as possible!

And even though it smells way to poo poo Christian to say this, there is a baptismal feeling you get from entering and leaving water. So maybe I can say I am FOR the secular baptism. May it bring you love. May it wash you clean of cultural scripts and religious mumbo jumbo. May it carry us like the sediments that rocks become.

MG: You share in your book that you sort of collect swimmers. Who is your favorite person to swim with?

LY: My sister. But hardly anyone agrees to swim with me . . .

MG: When were you last in the water?

LY: Yesterday.

MG: Tell us about the first time you were in the water.

LY: Well like you, I was in amniotic fluid. Flip turning, no doubt, in the womb of my then world. They tell me when I was two I would jump in pools or off of the side of lake docks. I think something about water always drew me. I’ve yet to locate something genetic about that . . . but I do believe quite firmly in mermaids. And seals and whales are very magical to me.

MG: How has water changed for you over time?

LY: As a child I played in the bathtub with my sister. At the pool I swam laps, but I also goofed off, like kids do. The pool — its colors and smells and sensory reality — its Whitmanesque community — the “I” in the “we” — a body alone in water and all the otherness — swimmers — is more familiar to me than any other sense of “place” in my life.

Water was my space of joy, freedom, play. My sense of self, competition, surrender.

I still go to the ocean or rivers to both complete my self and let it go to everything which is larger than self. It takes about ten second of staring and listening and smelling for the ocean or rivers to remember me.

For me, water is the perfect metamorphosis environment. It’s life giving. Macro and micro. Water has changed me like the great waters made paths into earth and mountain. Water has rebirthed me hundreds of times. I go to water to feel the truth of things beyond a self. All the colors of water arrest and open me. I hope everyone finds what it is that makes them feel the way water makes me feel.

MG: Can we go swimming together when we finally meet in person?

LY: It would be my distinct pleasure.

 

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32 Comments

  1. Chris Newgent said on 06/02/11 at 10:37 am Reply

    This is such a thick, hearty interview–so much to stew on and digest.

    Lidia’s thoughts on divorce/breaking up being a death is a metaphor I’ve always thought as well–the sense of loss, ghosts of memory, and even to the literal sense if you go such separate ways that you never see or talk to each other again. I’ve remained friends with some of my exes, but the break ups where that person just no longer exists in my life, the feeling of “getting over them” was very, very similar to the feeling of “getting over” the death of my mother.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 2:39 pm

    Chris, I knew about this but I did not know you lost your mother. I’m sorry.

  2. Mark C said on 06/02/11 at 11:19 am Reply

    Love what Lidia has to say about lying and its relation to art and storytelling. It has me thinking about the times I myself have exaggerated the truth for the sake of narrative arc of my writing. When I think about any form of storytelling (even in casual social settings), it amazes me that we human creates have such a flair for the dramatic.

    But all this is funny, I think, because “Chronology” comes off as such an earnest book, and that’s what’s made it emotionally resonating for me. Maybe that’s just how Lidia is.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 2:50 pm

    Mark, that’s interesting, because some of the reviewers at GoodReads aren’t sure they like the lying (maybe they feel emotionally manipulated), and they aren’t sure they feel that same earnestness coming through. I do, despite the fact that I’m not even sure I know when she’s creating truth or fiction. It brings up a really interesting issue, though. James Frey territory.

    Kristina said on 06/02/11 at 3:05 pm

    The James Frey thing always pissed me off. Like, the guy comes off as a bit of a shit and everything, but since when do memoirists sign a contract saying everything they put in the book has to be 100% true? Or even true at all?

    Many of us have learned to view media that is supposed to be true – the news – through a critical lens. Why can’t we do the same with memoirs? Why do we hold writers to a higher standard?

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 3:16 pm

    Kristina! I think that prose nonfiction (chapters and paragraphs) gets a much tougher time of it than the experimental essayists/poets that write nonfiction. I’m thinking of the work of Eula Biss and Bernadette Mayer and even Evan Lavender-Smith . . . do you think it’s different for “poets” or “memoirists”?

    Mark C said on 06/02/11 at 3:21 pm

    That’s a good analogy between news and media that Kristina made. I think much of it comes down to individual preferences–reading for me is less about the truth and more about honest, human conflict/experience. Art doesn’t happen in the fact, but in its fictionalization. Otherwise, we’d all be journalists.

    anyone ever see that “Catfish” movie? There’s a good example. A lot of people went apeshit trying to figure out whether or not those events were staged; I didn’t care because I was compelled for the 90 minutes I watched the film.

    Kristina said on 06/02/11 at 3:51 pm

    Molly: I think those of us who write in prose paragraphs definitely have a harder time of it. It’s like people are hypnotised by their own automatic visual associations. They see paragraphs which are what essays are written in and essays are always true so these paragraphs must be true! Or something. It’s weird.

    Mark: I saw Catfish and while I didn’t necessarily think it was the greatest thing since grilled cheese, I enjoyed bouncing back and forth between believing and not believing as I was watching it. I don’t need to know the answer. In fact, that would spoil all the fun.

  3. MM Wittle said on 06/02/11 at 11:32 am Reply

    This is a great and informative interview. The fear with writing Creative Nonfiction is now everyone is reading about your life. Thank you so much for sharing your life and your thoughts on writing the book. I really enjoyed the line “Like my vagina is on my head.” Writing creative nonfiction does make you feel like your most intimate areas are exposed and the line also made me laugh out loud. Now people on the bus are looking at me. Maybe it’s my vagina on my head showing.

    Reply

    Mark C said on 06/02/11 at 1:34 pm

    Yeah, I liked that “Vagina on my head” line too–not only because it’s true, but because good writing does expose its author. May we all let our figurative genitalia flop around freely.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 2:52 pm

    TLP should buy hats with dangling genitalia in honor of Lidia.

  4. Kristina said on 06/02/11 at 1:26 pm Reply

    ‘The fucked upedness of some of the models of “empowerment” that are options for us that are really big fat booby traps.’

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately, mostly in regards to the Slut Walk movement, which came to be after a Toronto police constable said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized” to a university classroom.

    What Const. Sanguinetti said is fucked up and reflects the shitty views of a lot of people. A few days ago, I read a story on Gawker where an 85-year-old woman was grabbed in the street in New York and forced to perform oral sex on her attacker. In the comments section, some people (sarcastically, and I think to make a very good point) said, “Yeah, but what was she wearing?” Point being, if it’s not okay to ask that question about an 85-year-old rape victim, it’s not okay to ask it about any rape victim.

    So that all sucks, but what are we (ladies) doing to respond? We’re not seeking punishment for Const. Sanguinetti. We’re not pushing for legislative changes. We’re marching in our underwear, because the only palatable feminism is the half-naked kind, and we’re trying to reclaim the word “slut” – a word which, to my mind, is irreparably misogynist and gendered – because the only palatable feminism is the pro-objectification kind.

    I love how many forms sex takes in The Chronology of Water. It can be abusive or medicating or ecstatic/exploding. Sex isn’t inherently one thing. I am just a person like you. Having and liking sex doesn’t make me a slut, and I don’t want us to be complacent with that word.

    Reply

    Mark C said on 06/02/11 at 2:02 pm

    All of that is beautifully put, Kristina. My ignorance of contemporary women’s rights issues (well, beyond the surface-level things, like the recent attacks on Planned Parenthood) forbids me from commenting on what legislative changes need to be made, but I can say books like Lidia’s feel more “empowering” to me because they do help us realize that individual empowerment can help us find a collective solidarity.

    I’m thinking specifically about the “Metaphor” chapter in “Chronology”– we all share similarly tragic/unjust experiences because we’re so often see things through only our own point-of-view. But we’ve all been hurt, and we’ve all felt pain, and we’ve all been treated unfairly at one point or another. Maybe this is too blindly optimistic of me, but I’m convinced that it’s in sharing this empathy for one another that can potentially lead to appropriate change.

    I hope that happens in my reading of Chronology. And I hope it happens in other everyday situations, too.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 2:56 pm

    Kristina, I love you for writing this: “Having and liking sex doesn’t make me a slut, and I don’t want us to be complacent with that word.”

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 2:58 pm

    Mark, I feel like COW empowers me to believe in love – in the possibility of finding it and accepting it. I mean, I feel like . . . if Lidia could, maybe I can, too.

  5. DK said on 06/02/11 at 2:26 pm Reply

    Wow, great points made from everyone. Most of what I wanted to say has already been said, but there are two moments that called out to me that haven’t been discussed yet. Lidia is absolutely right when she says that American culture has “coded pain in ways that keep us from learning jack shit from one of the most profound experiences available.” I think it has a lot to do with pain and catharsis being treated as public commodities (for which sufferers must be eternally punished), which robs them of anything genuine.

    I also think her stance on criticisms of her work is a healthy one. Compared to what most people have gone through by the time they’re ready to write a book, a bad review should hold few terrors.

    Great interview, Molly!

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 3:03 pm

    I was TERRIFIED that WTMA would get bad reviews. And the first one to land, at decomP, wasn’t totally head over heels over it. Someone had told me that it would be important to finish my second book manuscript before any reviews came out for the first, so that any potential bad reviews wouldn’t scar me. I bought that load of crap full hog. Thankfully, there were no bad reviews. And having one book taught me a lot about what I can “handle.” What I’ve learned is what I’ve alway said — as long as you stand behind your own writing and you’re ready for it to be out there, it doesn’t matter what anyone says about it and it doesn’t matter where it’s published (whether The New Yorker or a little online blogzine). You’ve shared it. And that’s enough. That’s the kicker. (Am I rambling? Feels like I’m rambling. I’ll end here.)

    Mark C said on 06/02/11 at 3:25 pm

    Wow, I completely skimmed over that “coded pain” line. Absolutely awesome. It’s even more awesome considering that will all the physical pain in this book, Lidia brings that up about going through a divorce. That’s telling.

  6. Heidi said on 06/02/11 at 2:43 pm Reply

    Reading things that Lidia says make me feel like a black hole — only in the best of ways. When I was little I had a favorite blanket that I loved intensely. I would hug it all the time, but would never feel like I could hug it hard enough. The power of the hug was just too weak to stand up to how much I loved that blanket. Lidia’s writing invokes a similar emotion — I want to be able to read *harder*, to take more of it in — I want to chew on it and stuff it in my ears. All I can do is read, though, and it still doesn’t feel like enough, even after the fifth time.

    I have to read Chronology in bits and pieces, because I am overwhelmed by it and spending too long there, I don’t know if I’d make it back.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 3:07 pm

    Heidi! When I read about your blanket I feel as if I’m reading Lidia all over. Oh man, remember her line about the little stork-like human L for Lidia? That’s what your blanket-hugging reminds me of. I wish little you and little Lidia could have been friends.

    Please keep coming back and reading along with us, once we get started Monday. I’m not sure what to expect, but I hope we’ll all be sharing our own blanket stories.

    Mark C said on 06/02/11 at 3:27 pm

    I’m having the same sort of reading experience, Heidi–a couple of chapters at a time in very quick, short bursts. I think this book could ruin my life. I don’t want to ruin my life.

    Heidi said on 06/02/11 at 4:37 pm

    How amazing are all of these people for reading and sharing? I’m in awe.

    That’s what strikes me the most, I think, with how affecting, not just CoW is, but Lidia’s writing/voice in general. You — I should say you, because you (Lidia) are reading this :) too — just throw yourself headlong into the uncensored feeling of everything, and it’s uncomfortable, and amazing, and embarrassing, and inspiring, and vindicating. We get slapped in the face with “the fucked upedness” every day, and I guess we need permission to accept the hurt of it, and to feel properly, and even further, to be okay again after. I think a lot of us are afraid of that. I know I am.

    I’m kind of rambly. Stopping now. But I may have questions at some point — maybe others will too? Is this a good place for that? I don’t want to presume.

    Thanks so much for this, Molly & Lidia, and for embarking on this project. Can’t wait to see where it goes.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 4:43 pm

    Heidi, we’ll never require our authors to interact with everyone, but I’m optimistic that Lidia, particularly (and Ethel, too) will be happy to answer questions. And it is part of our mission — to introduce readers to authors we know and love! So yes, please do ask your questions here! This is absolutely the place for them.

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/03/11 at 1:55 am

    Heidi, if you see this (I hope you do!), email me at molly@thelitpub.com because I want to send you a few TLP goodies (just tell me where to send them!). Truth is, I haven’t been able to get your blanket out of my head all day. I’m so glad you found us here, and I’d love to hook you up with a little token of appreciation.

  7. Lidia Yuknavitch said on 06/02/11 at 3:40 pm Reply

    you guys! i swear or Miles’ head the book will not ruin your life. it actually gave my life back to me writing it. maybe it will sound a little persephone but writing it was like diving down to the bottom of the ocean and re-collecting what’s worth a crap. isn’t that what we all do? from time to time? don’t we all have to move through certain “crucibles” — love, pain, joy, terror, pleasure — and resurface?

    i SO SO SO SO love reading all of your responses! it’s as if the book can be made “alive” — between people — in our hands. from mine to yours.

    well jeez now i just made myself choke up!!!

    Reply

    Mark C said on 06/02/11 at 3:56 pm

    Yay!

    I should clarify, Lidia, that I mean Chronology might ruin my life in a good way–one that makes me a more aware and considerate human being. I sort of hope it does ruin my life that way.

  8. Jordan Blum said on 06/02/11 at 3:54 pm Reply

    I really love Yuknavitch’s hope for her book–”That someone will hold it in their hands, read it, and feel less alone.” I think that’s a unique way to express the broader goal of all writers: to reach a specific audience and illuminate their lives. Also, I think the passage about her mother is a great example of how the book does that. Even though I’ve never felt like that, I can sympathize with the emptiness, and I’m sure readers who HAVE felt like that will find a kindred spirit in Yuknavitch.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/02/11 at 4:08 pm

    God I love that, too. And I did. I held it, I read it, and I really did feel less alone. So honored to be representing this book. So in love with Lidia! :)

  9. Dawn. said on 06/05/11 at 1:25 am Reply

    There is so much fabulous in this interview I can’t even begin to respond adequately. Thank you Lidia and Molly! COW makes my heart swan-dive. :)

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/05/11 at 12:00 pm

    Hi Dawn! Yes! Please please come back tomorrow, when we’ll begin with chapter one. I promise, it’ll be great to revisit COW with us. Hope to see you this week! :)

  10. Jordan Blum said on 06/06/11 at 12:58 pm Reply

    I’m afraid of how emotional this will get as we dive into it further :/. But hey, I’ve always held that the best art is the most affective, so this definitely succeeds.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/06/11 at 1:04 pm

    This is definitely going to get emotional as we work our way through the book. Today’s post is definite proof of that. But this is why we’re here — for anyone who reaches out to us as we continue to discuss Lidia’s memoir.

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