The Story You Made of Me: An Interview Lidia Yuknavitch about Dismissed Narratives

Lidia Yuknavitch

We all assign narratives to people. That is a thing humans do, so don't deny it. Some of us may do it more than others, and it takes a conscientious mind to really unpack them. Especially if you write fiction, or hell, even when you read. You guess about how characters would act when they aren't you or aren't based on you. Even if the characters are based you, I am sure there is a stereotype of you somewhere, a stereotype that you think about deep down, something you wish people didn't assume about you. Stereotypes are learned. We learn them from our parents and the dominant culture around us to help us order the world and communicate with the least effort possible. As a result, the way that we assign narratives to others is, in some ways, based on how we learned to interpret the world through these biases.

...why would the media be invested in maintaining a narrative that does not allow you to own your own?

But those narratives are so restrictive, don't you think? When we aren't able to look past the narratives we've assigned to others, when we don't stop and think, hey, maybe I should listen to what this person is saying about their life or experience of the world rather than what I think I know about them, these assignations in society cause constraints on the way we discuss our lives. You have a stay at home mom, a veteran of war, or a queer person attempting to share their experience and a whole room of people is telling them that the experience is wrong. It's easy to feel silenced in that. It's easy to fear speaking out when no one will trust what you say, when you try to assert your own narrative, when you try to dispel the one society has collectively agreed upon for you.

That's part of the beauty of reading memoir, right? The lived experience of another human being—the thrill of experiencing for ourselves the things we have never done, marveling at similar emotions, the way that someone else's words reach past them, through them, to something bigger than ourselves. Dismissing an idea that you had about a certain type of person maybe. The wonderful ways in which humans actually don't fit into these neat little boxes.

I mean, would queer lit exist were it not for the many who attempt to define their own experiences? Would there not be women writers who feel as strongly as they do about representation in the literary world, if they were not trying to hang on to their own narratives, trying to keep others from dictating or dismissing them? 

That isn't to say men don't suffer from these same issues—all of us are struggling to define ourselves and our lives in a society that seems hellbent on simplifying lived experience. Studies have even shown that society overall rejects the wildly creative types—at first. An almost inherent distrust exists in a person who deviates from the dictated narrative. It's not until the after-effects of that mad creativity that society collectively appreciates them for their efforts. 

For those that harness their voice and push it further into something else, into art, they learn quickly about defeating these narratives. One example is Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, in which the protagonist has no name and no defined gender; NY Times critic Jim Shepard claimed he could tell the voice was female despite the use of a genderless narrator. Another is The Bruise by Magdelena Zurawski, in which the main character struggles to maintain a sense of herself as she moves through a transition in her life, as she says, "being able to change and changing are two different things."

Perhaps this was why Karl Marlantes published his memoir, What It Is Like to Go to War, after his first novel, Matterhorn, loosely based on his experience in Vietnam, was deemed a failure by critics like Rick Ayers due to his apparent glorification of war, despite the acclaim it received elsewhere for exposing the grit and grace of life in battle.

The most recent controversy, if you have been on the internet at all in the past month, is in regards to Lena Dunham's memoir-ish set of personal essays in Not That Kind of Girl. It started with Kevin Williamson at National Review, a conservative news magazine, which threw allegations of child-predator behavior at Dunham pulled from an essay in the book. Regardless of whether her book is something you've enjoyed, there's something to be said about the ways in which people on both sides of this strange internet debate have been assigning their own ideas about Lena and her sister and what their intentions really were (protip: your average person, including me, doesn't know anything about the intentions of Dunham or her family, despite what she writes, despite her public life). A lot of people are simply crucifying Lena without regard to how her sister Grace feels or what she has to say. Maybe that's how you can determine who has an agenda who actually gives a fuck about survivors, and who's just invested in vaulting their own identities into the situation.

What Grace said (via a series of Tweets) was most important to me:

2day, like every other day, is a good day to think about how we police the sexualities of young women, queer, and trans people [1] As a queer person: i'm committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful [2] Heteronormativity deems certain behaviours harmful, and others 'normal;' the state and media are invested in maintaining that [3] (sic) 

Maybe it's important to note that Grace is a lesbian and as part of queer society, she and others live in a world where historically their sexual narratives have been defined for them. Marcie Bianco at eloquently points out that the Christian conservative right has been forcing the narrative for years that non-heteronormative sexuality is usually a result of some kind of sexual trauma. It's also caused a rift in feminist communities online—not that feminism has ever had a single global definition. So what then does National Review gain by pushing this idea out to their conservative demographic? What do some of these feminists gain by pushing a narrative of victimhood onto a person who is stating that they need to stop? It serves to strip Grace from her own narrative—who she is, whether or not she feels she is a victim, her being able to determine for herself fundamentally what her experiences mean to her.

So why would the media be invested in maintaining a narrative that does not allow you to own your own? That question should really be explored more. Let's talk about the actual process by which women and men alike are not allowed to own their narratives—the way that people are not allowing Grace to have hers by pushing on her a victimhood in which we don't even know exists, nor Lena to have hers, and instead using it to push their own. I had the chance to interview Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the antimemoir The Chronology of Water, regarding some of these ideas around narratives, memoir and the mechanics behind the way society tends to dismiss these narratives.

You are known for being a champion of owning your sexual/personal narrative in a world that tries to own it for you, from your body of work, to your workshops, to your work as a professor in helping others reclaim theirs. What motivated you to help others find their own voice?

Well to begin with, people helped me pull myself out of the gutter and discover an artistic path. I'd likely be dead, incarcerated, or just numb beyond words had key people in my life not reached out to me and shown me a canvas, a page. So I feel like my job in life is to return that favor.

Partly just from my life, since as far back as I can remember there was someone telling me who to be and how to be. I got the message early on that I was "doing" myself wrong. Everything I felt and everything I did somehow went against the grain of what those around me were prescribing.

In terms of non-fiction, there is a difference between shouting your self story all over everyone and making art.

Of course the "wrongs" were the false fictions of father, family, body, knowledge (what I was encouraged to know and not know and in what manner), sexuality, agency, girlself.

But the other kind of motivation has come from being a teacher for 28 years (yes I'm old like dirt). Every year hundreds of bodies come through the classroom. Soldier's bodies. Single mother's bodies. Bodies emerging from incarceration or beatings or war or poverty. Bodies made up to look like magazines, when underneath there's a truer self self-destructing. Bodies from countries not America and bodies whose ethnicities defy language. They all have one thing in common: none of them fit the available scripts or stories that our culture places on top of them. And when they have trouble conforming to those already available, socially-sanctioned stories, they can falter. 

Like I did.

So that's where my motivation comes from, largely. That's why I keep doing what I do. I love the beauty of the faltering body in all of us. Our vulnerability is our greatest strength. I like to help people give voice to THAT. 

The kind of reaction that has come out of Lena Dunham's situation has made me terrified to publish non-fiction. What is the scariest thing about writing non-fiction for you? What advice would you have for a new student struggling with their fears of non-fiction?

Well I'm utterly unwilling to comment on Lena Dunham. I don't know her, only her work, which I'm a little willing to comment on, but only as a reader/viewer. That's the only position from which I feel I can speak.

About the recent Dunham dust-up, until right now, I've done a pretty good job NOT projecting my oh-so-important-opinions onto her via any media. And even now, I'm not willing to say much about Lena or her sister as people. Because I think that kind of public form of personal targeting is unethical. Idle gossip at best and brutal violence at worst (as in the case of GamerGate).

At any rate. What I've come to from reading her book (I bothered to read it), from reading the reviews (read those too), and then from watching the social media dust-up is this: yep. And what I mean by "yep," is that art, from my point of view, is supposed to elicit a strong emotional response. So when it does, I think, yep. Art doing its verb thing. Eliciting strong responses. 

What I don't think is, I need to judge this or that person. What I don't think is, this person's art isn't a carbon copy of my experience, therefore it's bad or wrong. 

I mean, most of Western literature that has been exalted as "great" is written by men about men. If the dipstick for what made art great to me was that it needs to be a carbon copy of my experience, hardly any literature would pass the test. I'm not a man, at least not last time I checked. I think sometimes people get confused by that. I don't need to agree with any piece of art to be radically changed by it. I mean hello? Lolita? GAH. Pedophile creepoid from page one! Loved it though. Great art. The writing I mean. I wish women writers got the same exaltation and respect that male writers do, instead of instant examination and critique of their personal lives or bodies. 

With regard to Lena's book, I understand some people were "triggered."  I'm a survivor myself. I was not triggered, but I can understand and respect that reaction. It's just that I'm not sure how one gets from that reaction and strong emotion to trashing the book and the author personally—I think that's a particularly contemporary activity that people seem too easily willing to engage in. 

I mean, what's really going on there with the extended diatribes?  It's one thing to open up a discourse on a topic. It's another to engage in the new personal stoning ritual that social media has opened up for us. Ew.

Art provokes strong emotions. 

But you know what's more important to me about your question? The part where you say you are terrified as a writer. Now THAT'S important.

The reason you shouldn't be terrified to publish non-fiction is that it is an art form, not a showcase-the-self form. FaceHooker and social media have that territory covered. But ART gives you a way to transform and compose the self—through craft, through the rigorous and careful and painstaking process of making art—to disassemble the self and put a story back together that isn't even about just you anymore. In terms of non-fiction, there is a difference between shouting your self story all over everyone and making art. 

There is a difference between creating a celebrity of self and using your life to find and reflect something deeper than you. The best non-fiction, in my humble opinion, dissolves the ego and reassembles it as part of all others. The best non-fiction brings the reader back to human connection, not back to the celebrity of a self. Though it remains true that celebrity of self non-fiction sells like hotcakes. So I guess you have to make a choice.

You've stated before that a writer can't worry about safeguarding relationships in their stories, but also that it's important to try and refrain from stealing others' stories from them. Where is the line in writing about someone who plays a role in your life? Do you consider there to be ethics in non-fiction writing? What are your thoughts on those who claim Dunham is glorifying or taking her sister's personal experiences as her own and using them?

Yes, I consider there to be a deep ethics in non-fiction writing. I just think those ethics emerge from the writer's intention, from storytelling and its purpose, not from righteous personal politics.

I think the process of non-fiction writing is a deep, life-altering one, when it's done with serious intention. When it's done too quickly or without deep practice, you are just confessing or summarizing life events. Showcasing a "me."  When it's done as a careful artistic practice, you are hunting for meaning beyond events and relationships as they happened to you. Something bigger and deeper than just your you-ness.

I think artists still have a vital role to play in society...The day I can't hear or feel or see them anymore is the day I lose hope.

Here's a secret: I wish I could have worked with Lena Dunham. Yes, I realize that sounds mildly creepy—like I'm ridiculously arrogant or superior or something. Trust me. I have more self doubt than all of Portland. It's just that I've been in the teaching trenches a long time, so I know a lot about the labor of making art, and I'd like to give that to other people before I'm too old or dead. I see the potential in her writing. She's wildly creative. I think there is deeper material underneath her life events and relationships. And yeah, I know, I'm sure she's bummed about that—about not working with the Lidia. Ha. I'm sure she's laughing all the way to the bank about that. But I also think her writing could soar if she devoted herself to writing as an artistic practice. It's hard labor though. And she has the burden of both fame, and being good at many things.

Telling the truth is just the start. Too many people stop there and go, HEY! I confessed! I was brave enough to say out loud this awful or weird or embarrassing or funny or tragic or brutal thing that happened to me! But that's just the beginning if you want to be a writer for life. Your heart is the starting place. Art is a vast territory that comes after that. You have to be willing to take more than one journey, and not mistake the start for the finish. The second journey—and it's just as formidable—happens at the level of language.

In your essay "Explicit Violence" you say that "when women tell how it is for them, when they self narrate their ordinary lives, it's instantly sucked up by the culture—there's already a place waiting for the story. A place where the story gets annulled." That passage seems emblematic of your goals to help others subvert the dominant narratives that cause us to deny ourselves. What do you think drives society to annul these stories? What are some examples of work that you applaud for being subversive?

I think what drives society to annul these stories is fear. Fear of losing their comfort or fear of someone or something penetrating their comfort zones. Not even god promised you'd get to live your life with your comfort zones intact. In fact quite the opposite. But in high capitalist consumer culture we buy, discard, and re-buy identities and comfort so quickly and non-stop we're losing the ability to navigate each other's edges. So out of fear, large swaths of people choose to step into the roles that are most readily and easily available. That's understandable. Life is hard. But it's not as hard as it is in Nigeria or Syria or Palestine or in a miner's cave, now is it?

One thing that gives me hope is that artists still exist. You think I'm kidding with that sentence but I'm not. Art is one of the few practices and discourses left that can challenge the hegemony of culture. Not entertainment, but art. Artists and art still exist. I think artists still have a vital role to play in society. I can feel them scratching all the time. I can hear them clamoring through the white noise of the socius. I can see the trace of them on subway walls and concrete and in a myriad of various cultural subversions.

The day I can't hear or feel or see them anymore is the day I lose hope.

There are a gazillion writers digging tunnels underneath cultural homogeneity. Just ask yourself the next time you buy a book (from an independent bookstore rather than Amazon), can I learn something that's not already supersaturating my life through mainstream society?  Those are the books that will rearrange your DNA.

In some ways, I think any individual writing from a place outside of the dominant culture is subversive. How dare you. How dare anyone. Who do you think you are?  

What makes something "subversive" to me involves whether you are reflecting the dominant culture or intentionally challenging it. Whether you are reinforcing the small number of main market christened themes generated by the mainstream culture or irritating them.

Grace Dunham responded to the claims against her sister by saying that she's "committed to people narrating their own experiences, determining for themselves what has and has not been harmful" and that the state and media are invested in maintaining a status quo regarding what is and isn't "normal." What I find most interesting about her response is the ways in which people have disregarded her experience, assigning their own narrative of victimhood to her. Why do you think the state and/or media would be invested in maintaining a narrative like that? You've talked about the "Cult of Good Citizenship" before. Can you expand on that concept? 

That's what we're best at in America! Assigning narratives! We've made an industry out of it. I could make a clever list right here of the sanctioned and authorized and exalted narratives available to a person the day they are born. They come from media, they come from family, they come from religion, they come from corporations, they come from what we still quaintly refer to as "politics and law," they come from power—each invested in keeping itself whole. If you as an individual conform to those scripts, you are a good citizen. If you as an individual resist those forms of power and control and organization, you are an agitator. 

In this country there is a cult of good citizenship.

For women, all it takes is one sentence: I'm not the story you made of me.

Writing isn't the dating game. It's a difficult artistic practice.

Their next sentences determine their fate.

But I'm less interested in the Dunhams than I am in the violent and virulent reactions when women assert their own stories and present their own bodies in terms that deviate from assigned narratives. All women who risk that are studs to me. In fact, all bodies, all genders, all races, all kinds of people who assert their own stories and present their own bodies by wrenching them away from socially assigned narratives are studs to me. I wish literature would explode with them. 

Um, except the ones whose intention it is to inflict intentional shame, violence, pain, or power onto the bodies or psyches of others. They can go fuck themselves. 

What is important about a person owning their sexual/personal narrative for themselves? And how could someone become empowered to take control of it for themselves?

What is important is this: we've not yet explored nor understood our own sexualities. Sexuality is a world. Maybe we should take a break from colonizing every thing and every one and every place and every resource within our reach and learn to "discover"—without colonizing—our own bodies. We are as amazing as planets and space. In fact, we ARE star stuff.

How someone can become empowered to take control of it for themselves is this: invent the language that precisely corresponds to your experience. Or stage a break-in to regular language and fuck it up.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Yeah. In the end, Lena Dunham doesn't need us to defend or attack her. She made a piece of art. She's done. I know it's not as simple as "just walk away, girl," but in a way, I wish she would. It's a trap to try to attend to all the blather coming her way right now. It's the trap of celebrity, the trap of stepping into being a "public figure," to answer everyone, to try and chase down your own story as it mutates. Her art is already the answer. I hope she keeps making art.

Once you put a book in the world, it's apart from you. You are not your story. You are not the writing on the page. You go live your life and make your next art. 

I'm not saying she should go hide, or censor herself, I'm just saying we could all be more judicious about what we do and don't rush to respond to. Plus, she's in a wildly privileged position, so I don't choose to spend the dwindling energy I have left on worrying about her. I'm relatively positive she can take care of herself. I KNOW she has loving friends and family around her. I respect her ability to make her own choices. She's whip smart. And talented as the sky. I think she would be quite someone to know. I look forward to her future projects. I'm glad she's around, making people feel intense emotions.

Like all the other writers out there, I write books. Sometimes some people like them. Other people hate them with all of their guts. So what? I'm going to keep writing. I'm still going to jam my foot in the open door so that any body can get through and try, especially the bodies ordinarily locked out. I teach at a community college, so the student body is made up of single mothers and ex-cons, rehabbers and immigrants and survivors of all kinds, vets and homeless people and former gang members. I don't think Lena needs my help or advice or commentary. I think there's better work to do. Including writing.

A wise person whose name starts with "C" has said to me on numerous occasions when I had the FEELS that were too big (which is often): put it to the page. Make art.

Writing isn't the dating game. It's a difficult artistic practice. I feel like I'm just starting to get better and I'm 51. Sometimes it takes your whole life. It's worth it, taking the time.

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drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines November 21, 2014 - 12:35pm

This article/interview is/isn't about Lena Dunham. This is about EVERYTHING. Lidia's words continually make me want to staple them to my forehead and light the world on fire. Brilliant interview, @ElleNash. 

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin November 21, 2014 - 2:36pm

Great interview, I always love hearing/reading Lidia's words.

TheScrivener's picture
TheScrivener from Seattle is reading short stories November 21, 2014 - 5:31pm

Agreed.  So good.

Laura Molina's picture
Laura Molina from Los Angeles is reading Midnight Rumba by Eduardo Santiago November 22, 2014 - 11:22am

"I'd likely be dead, incarcerated, or just numb beyond words had key people in my life not reached out to me and shown me a canvas, a page."

I have often joked that if I weren't a painter, I'd be an ax-wielding, homicidal maniac! 

Art provokes strong emotions. Indeed...