Lidia Yuknavitch’s name has been in my consciousness since 2012, when several of my Pacific Northwest MFA peers and advisors couldn’t stop praising her remarkable memoir, The Chronology of Water. Since The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch has published a novel, The Small Backs of Children, which the Los Angeles Times called “uncomfortable and dazzling”; given a TEDTalk on the beauty of being a misfit, which will soon be expanded into book form; and founded Corporeal Writing, a groundbreaking workshop based on a body-centered philosophy.
Last month, her incendiary new novel, The Book of Joan, hit bookstands across the country. This reimagining of Joan of Arc’s life is set in the near-distant, dystopic future and is a fiercely creative examination of bodies, gender, and storytelling. Yuknavitch’s expansive vision—which encompasses war, climate change, fame, power structures, and much more—yields a layered narrative that gives rise to profound questions on the nature of love and the stories we’ve inherited about god, earth, and the body.
Yuknavitch says of being a misfit: “There’s a myth in most cultures about following your dreams. It’s called the ‘hero’s journey.’ I prefer another myth to the side of that, or underneath it maybe. It’s called the ‘misfit’s myth.’ …you have the ability to reinvent yourself, endlessly. That’s your beauty.” Reinvention comes up a lot in The Book of Joan, and Yuknavitch kindly took some time to speak with Bitch Media about this, Joan of Arc’s influence in her life, dismantling love story tropes, the shifting plate tectonics of feminism, and more.
What inspired you to reimagine Joan of Arc’s story?
[As a kid,] Joan of Arc visited me in a dream—in the dream, I was standing in our front yard and our house was on fire. She stepped out of the burning house and said “No one is coming to save you.” Scared the crap out of me, but later in life it may have helped me leave more than one abusive situation, including leaving my father’s house. I think that she recurred to me at this particular time in my life because we are experiencing an epic crisis in our present tense. It’s like she came back to my mind and body right when I was wrestling with tensions in lived experience—tensions around climate change, gender and sexuality, women’s rights, the destructiveness of celebrity and wealth culture, the disastrous effects of high capitalism on actual bodies.
The characters Jean de Men and Christine Pizan are based on medieval French writers Jean de Meun and Christine de Pisan, who had a literary feud in regards to women and romance. How did their story end up alongside Joan’s?
The knot that they wrestled historically is one I’m interested in now—the relationship between representation, gender, and the body. Both were interrogating the “love story” historically—I am interested in unwriting the love story, the god story, and the earth story as we have inherited them. They left an important narrative out. The bodies of women, of LGBT people, of people of color.
The Joan in your book, as an “engenderine” has the ability to create new life from (almost) nothing. And this stands in stark contrast to Jean de Men, whose attempts to do the same, despite power and privilege, come up lacking. As the reader/person that I am, I see connection (to the earth, to humanity, to all life forms) as the bodying force behind Joan’s ability and the lack-thereof as Jean de Men’s downfall. But is there more to it than that?
Well, you’ve certainly hit on something I was scratching at! Yes, Joan and Jean are meant to represent two different epistemologies if you will. Two corporeal sites where meanings might be endlessly generated and negated, created and destroyed. Like life. Like space. Like all energy and matter. Joan is closest to the energies we are all made of—we are basically made of the cosmos—like starstuff that went supernova—I mean from the astrophysics angle. Jean is what happens when women or men or any human mammal moves towards creating a power based on hubris and greed, fame and money, consumption and destruction of anything in the way of it. Joan’s body is in a liminal “what if” space of possibility. What if we reimagined ourselves as part of everything around us (that’s what we are, really. Because science). Jean’s body represents all of our attempts to outrun reality, to create something called “power” instead of being.
Tell me a little bit about the grafts, with which the CIEL [a vessel that floats above Earth, upon which only the very privileged live] inhabitants burn stories directly onto their skin. Where did the idea for these skin stories come from?
That’s a kind of “what if” puzzle I created for myself: All my work [springs] from me trying to conjure an impossible set of coordinates to navigate, and then coming up with creative solutions. Language, representation, and the body have always been at the center of creation stories, and belief systems, and governmental policies, and philosophical inquiries. I decided to conflate those meaning-making elements, to treat the body as an epistemological site, and to ask questions from the inside out, rather than asking how culture inscribes us. In a way, Joan’s body is a resistance narrative. So is Christine’s, Trinculo’s, Nyx’s. Bodies that defy the stories pressed upon us by cultures who do not accept the fact of our bodies and stories.
You chose to represent this future mutation of humanity (if we can call it that) as genderless—why?
To hold open the binary—to suspend the in between space, the liminal space, as wide as actual space. To interrupt the storyline of heterosexual reproductivity. To ask different questions about bodies and love—what if we loved the earth the way we claim we love lovers or wives or husbands or children—what if we understood our own bodies as capable of ten thousand meanings? Would we do something different with them?
CIEL inhabitants lack sex organs entirely, but they are far from desireless. In fact, sexuality and desire are so feared it is forbidden to even hint at them aboard CIEL. What makes love, and its physical manifestations of sexuality and desire, so dangerous to the power-hungry?
Desire and its excesses do not serve the central power systems surrounding family, property, and the state (a woman’s body is still considered a form of property in the service of male power and its corresponding systems of authority). Desire, pleasure, and pain that leak beyond those systems meant to keep us locked inside the cult of good citizenship are dangerous to the foundations of a patriarchal culture. Their “use-value” is in excess of the power structure’s needs. If we are ever our own bodies again, if we ever own our own stories of embodiment and desire, if we took those stories back from theology and philosophy and government, we’d likely turn over the very ground of culture.
It’s interesting how the barren bodies aboard CIEL mirror the apparent barrenness of the Earth they’ve left behind. But there’s so much still hidden beneath.
Yes I’m entirely obsessed with the idea that our bodies are allegories of both earth and the cosmos.
The inherent connection between creation and destruction within the natural world is a huge theme throughout The Book of Joan, with Joan containing the ability to inflict both. The book closes with something new churning, but it’s not exactly a happy ending. And still we keep on: “The dirt wetted and blooming in all directions.” How does hope fit into all of this?
We may have to radically reinvent what we mean by hope. My question is: What if hope doesn’t always come from looking up toward a god or a belief or waiting for a savior. What if we need to re-story hope so that it comes from the ground up, from our hands in the mud with each other instead of against each other? What if new stories are possible every day of our lives, if only we’d let go of the old stories long enough for them to emerge and change our lives?
So much of this book is eerily prescient—especially in regards to power and privilege and the current state of affairs in America. I mean, clearly this is fiction, but is it also commentary?
I wouldn’t say that it is commentary…these ideas were coming out of my head and heart and hands about 3 years ago. But the same tensions that plague our present tense were alive in my imagination—I’d say that the book is an allegory.
[laughs] Oh, of course! Apparently I needed to be hit over the head with that because I was so wrapped up in your visionary world, I couldn’t help but think of our present tense. The Book of Joan cuts so close to the bone of today. But in regards to allegory—did you find a certain freedom in creating a whole new world to grapple with these ideas of body and earth and god?
I hear what you are saying—it IS a “second world” (thus allegory), and the terms in play ARE so very close to our present tense. What I was most interested was pitching the present toward what we think of as the future, but just barely. Like about as far as you could throw a rock. Because the fact of the matter is, the future is already here. We’ve already made the choices that will drive us toward our own dystopia. We’re already killing the planet we were meant to form a relationship with. So it wasn’t so much that I was creating a whole new world, but rather I was trying to create a different cosmology—as you say—a different way to be in relationship with each other, our bodies and differences and pleasure and pain, our relationship to the planet and the cosmos. To do that, I had to open up many different binaries like male/female, pleasure/pain, love/hate, creation/destruction. I meant to interrupt several tropes that have dominated literature too: the god story, the love story, the story of our origins, the hero’s journey. And yes, I definitely found something like freedom in there [laughs]. The freedom to imagine hundreds of different meanings just under the surface of all these monostories we’ve inherited. Different voices. Different bodies. Different relationships.
You’ve been an eloquent and outspoken critic of the Trump presidency and administration. What’s your take on activism, given our political situation?
This is our present tense calling: Will we acquiesce complacently to the flow of capitalism at the cost of actual bodies and the planet? For me, as for so many others, existence itself is at stake. This is not politics as usual. The destructive force of this regime on actual bodies and the planet is apocalyptic. There is no superhero coming to save us. We stop this or we don’t.
You recently posted on Facebook: “When a woman writes her body in her own terms she crashes culture. Do it.” And: “Dear men: Either you secretly want us to return to objects in the service of male agency, or you believe we are full humans. Decide. Then get the fuck off of the sidelines. These are our lives at stake, not a show. Put the clicker down. Fight.” In terms of feminism, what do you think the future holds?
Clearly feminism is experiencing a kind of plate tectonics not unlike the actual earth or our bodies—I suspect what is ahead of us involves the stories we tell about ourselves—and not all voices, bodies and stories agree with each other just now. But why should they? Feminism has always been a multivoiced, multibodied verb. An energy in motion. Intersectional feminism is rising, cracks and fissures are emerging, blind spots are being illuminated, failures examined, possibilities getting born. Good. Bring it. No one said the work would be easy.
At the end of the book Joan poses the question: “If we are without history or origin or prophecy, what are we?” If we ask this question in the here and now, what is your answer?
[Laughs] I write novels to hold questions open, to suspend the questions so that we might sit with them instead of rushing to answer. Novels let you walk into difficult questions and live, love, rage, despair, hope differently for a little while. Novels are the imagination refusing to let things be simple.