April 2011

Kris Saknussemm


An Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch

The girl picks at her own scab out of fascination… eats the dead skin, licks the blood. Scrapes her knee again on purpose the next time. The girl lives a trash life… but survives. And swims. Swims to shore. Not sure. But a shore.

Lidia Yuknavitch of Portland, Oregon, is an accomplished fiction writer, university creative writing instructor, revisionist historian, feminist, editor, publisher of Chiasmus Press (one the of the Pacific Northwest’s most respected indie presses), and an executive force behind FC2, perhaps the only enduring bastion of experimental writing in America.

In her latest book, The Chronology of Water, she adopts the role of rebel memoirist, pouring for us a powerful, fluid portrait of family dissolution, the love of her early life, and the loss of that love due to the personal distress of drug abuse and residual trauma.

In this case, the love was and still is swimming. Yuknavitch was once a driven young aquatic champion with a promising competitive future, until the past and drugs caught up with her and she lost her athletic scholarship -- and with it, the defining and self-enforcing certainty that had given her life meaning and shape up to that point, often under the intimate duress of family trial.

The resilience of water to take on new shapes and the need for what Jung called “the swimmer within” not to succumb to the whirlpool of amphibious psychic confusion, are two of the key themes of personal examination that flow through this poignant book, which has been praised by a wide range of writers, including Chuck Palahniuk.

The Chronology of Water is raw, real and honest -- without a ripple of self pity. But it’s not your standard “memoir.” Written in Yuknavitch’s strong, vigorous prose, the result transcends any simple categorization of a “woman’s story,” although it’s very much that (and then some). I found it to be a delicate and shining work of rediscovered grace, which reminds me of a poem by Stanley Plumly that ends with the line, “like water I had looked into, water I had held.” The book redefines what the recounting of highly personal experience can be, in a way that reaches across the often very dark waters of gender and generational divide. I spoke with Lidia about some of the currents she had to deal with in the writing.

I guess the first question has to be why now? Was there an inciting incident in your life of late that especially provoked you to pursue this investigation of the past? Or had the need been building for some time? In which case, what gave you the courage or the impetus to finally plunge in and surge ahead?

Well, there is a funny answer to that and a serious answer. The funny answer is that one night in my writing group (Cheryl Strayed, Monica Drake, Chuck Palahniuk, Diana Jordan, Mary Wysong, Suzy Vitello, Erin Leonard, Chelsea Cain)… we were talking about memoir. And I said, “I don’t believe in memoir.” We had a great argument that night. When we were leaving, Chuck sidled up to me when I was getting into my car and said, “I don’t much like memoirs, but I’d read yours if you wrote one.” Kind of like a dare… because he and I have some similar ideas about what memoir is and isn’t, and how fine the line is (if it exists at all) between nonfiction and fiction. I wrote thirty pages that night when I got home.

Ah, the competitive spirit we see in the book!

The more serious answer happened in a swimming pool at a resort in Oregon called Salishan. My son held his breath without holding his nose and dove down underwater for the first time. And I dove down underwater too and we looked at each other and smiled. And then I had the most gigantic flashback to myself as a child. His age. Underwater. At the very same pool. Because Salishan is one of the only happy places I remember from my own childhood. My father took us there. Now I know if you read the book this will sound perhaps a little odd, but joy is what made this story come out of me. Pure, uninterrupted, underwater joy with my son Miles. So, I set about to tell the story of how a person like me could come to joy, because I get the feeling there are others like me out there.

I totally get that. Clear as water. I know some people will read the book and focus on the trauma and anger, but I see it much more as a reclamation of self -- and of the joy you speak about -- that I-can-swim moment we all hope to sustain. I think the more personal troubles people have had, the more they will too. But tell me, did you end up making peace with the memoir as a genre? It seems like the competitor and the experimentalist in you was seeking to remake the form your own.

The writing of the book was a crucible. A crucible both in terms of form and content. I don’t feel much like I participated in the conventional genre of memoir writing. I mean I did of course, but I think I wrote an anti-memoir. My narrator “shifts” language and identities more than once, and I tried very hard to stay true to the point of view of the body. We need a new category called “body stories.”

Hmm. I’m rather sorry that’s not the subtitle. I’d really support that, because for me memoirs are things people like Winston Churchill write at the end of their lives (and I say that having just written in this vein myself)… whereas “body stories” are something everyone has a clear right to. But maybe that means people have to write well enough to get to that deep tissue level. To me, this is the real strength of your book -- and like all forms of true strength, it’s sometimes openly powerful and aggressive, and other times almost gentle in its omission and suggestiveness.

Writing this way hurts. I’m not talking about the cliché Oprah heart on your sleeve kind of thing that is mass marketed. I’m talking about a hurt that cleanses, baptizes, brings you to consciousness and peace through pain. Not because the story of my personal pain is bigger than anyone else’s. Rather, because it’s the ordinary, human crucible we all pass through.

I wish there was more focus on this aspect of the memoir as a form -- the simple, naked question of whether other people can connect with your experience or not. (And notice when I said “naked” I steered right around your book’s cover design!) Ironically, I think the more we delve into our intimate experience, into our own body, maybe the more fully we touch others. But that’s not for the faint-hearted, is it?

Writing what “happened” to you in your life without drifting away from the corporeal -- your actual body, not a fictionalized or idealized one -- fucks you up. I had nightmares for more than a year. I drank a ton. I upped my pharmaceutical intake. I didn’t sleep. I went for long swims, I went for long walks and cried oceans. It wasn’t just confronting demons from my past, or kicking their asses. It wasn’t just diving into the wreck. It was claiming the literary space and breaking its rules and standing up without apology.

I for one don’t see any apology here. So, I think you achieved that goal. But tell me -- and this is a very personal thing of mine -- I love traps and snares. I like them physically, as an art and a craft -- and I like them in writing. Being naturally paranoid, I always think about what I’m working on in terms of traps I can fall into. Was there something in particular that you wanted to avoid with this book -- a special trap you were aware of?

Special trap, yes… one of the things that bothers me about mainstream memoirs is that they tend to trope experience. Meaning they represent a certain sanctioned WAY to tell certain stories. Marketable gold standards exist in the telling of these experiences. If your story doesn’t match the officially sanctioned and marketable trope in those categories, you are shit out of luck. Oh, you’ve got an abuse narrative? Right. So my creative strategy was based on the use of absence. Silence. Because abuse and grief move through my body in lifelong ways, like they do in everyone. You can’t name it in a sentence. You can only point to its traces.

I hear you. I think that’s what moves this into the realm of the personal becoming universal. Next question. Water (with all its complex associations of species origin, birth, fear, redemptive/healing, drowning, voyage, competition, survival… life itself) is obviously the crucial metaphor that buoys the book. Did working so explicitly with such an elemental concept pose special challenges? Or did this free you to explore the specific human/personal elements more fully by contrast?

Utterly freed me up. When I hit on the central metaphor of swimming, and the story I wanted to tell was about a body, I knew I could move completely intuitively from the get-go. I didn’t have to worry about linear time or chronology in the regular sense. I didn’t have to worry about the conventions of memoir writing. Everything was the same story. Water. Language. The body of a girl.

And one body being a metaphor for all bodies.

Your father is a pivotal figure in the book, and I don’t want to try to summarize this aspect or to give away any more than has already been mooted. In your heart of hearts, how accurate a portrayal of him do you think you achieve?

I don’t think I wrote an accurate portrayal of him. I think I wrote an accurate portrayal of me. To write an accurate portrayal of him would be another book. I wonder if I could even do it. I suspect I could, since he’s the person who first opened the world of art, film, music up to me. Irony. Without those things I’d be dead. But if he were magically able to read this book right now I think there would be a kind of reckoning on both of our parts.

Pursuing the last question one step further, I know many writers are reluctant (often for years) to tackle this kind of life story, for fear of what family members and close friends will think. What kind of “close range” reaction have you had to the finished work?

Like a billion other writers, I probably couldn’t have written this book -- at least not this way -- were my parents still alive. It simply wouldn’t have come out of me. Or it would’ve died in labor.

I do have fears about my fellow Less Than Merry Pranksters, because I want to do justice to what we went through together, AND tell just my story, AND leave whatever their stories are at a loving and respectful distance. There are relatives like my aunt (my father’s sister) who will not like this book. Or feel like I pissed on my father’s grave. There are friends who don’t appear in the book because when I tried to write about them they came out as GRAND HOMAGES… or love letters. There are other friends who had no idea my life was like this and will either doubt me, pity me, or just be weirded out. Hopefully the keepers will still have a drink with me.

In the end though, I’m a writer. You can’t own or protect or control the stories that come out. There’s only ever the next book.

You’ve written about some gritty subjects before: drugs, sex, weird sex, torture, etc. But in this book you look explicitly at your own drug experience. I too exchanged sports success (which had been a saving grace from emotional trauma) for what became a drug problem. For whatever harm drugs and alcohol have caused me though, they opened up worlds of experience, perspective and ideas I can’t imagine not having. Do you think you would’ve ever become a writer without the substance abuse?

Absolutely not. I agree with everything you just said. I think without drugs and alcohol, there’d be no art, no matter who wishes that wasn’t true.

Finally, one of the key lines in the book is, “I must learn to live on land.” Have you? Has either the distance of time or the direct confrontation with the past made you freer to face the future?

Yes. With a more authentic (though vulnerable) self. And it’s my deep hope that I will walk into a room where mercifully, there are others. And we won’t be alone anymore.

Kris Saknussemm is the author of Zanesville, Private Midnight, Sinister Miniatures and Enigmatic Pilot.