The story in Lidia Yuknavitch’s national bestseller, The Small Backs of Children, is centered around a picture taken by a photographer on assignment in a war zone. The picture is of a young girl caught midair at the moment an explosion kills her entire family. The novel is a combination of sexual fairy tale, anti-cautionary tale, art manifesto, and the story of the birth of art. The plot unfolds around that picture, and although the story is told in a straightforward manner, it’s anything but. This is a novel in the classical philosophical tradition, long belonging to male writers, more recently shared by Cixous, Aker, and Sontag. Themes of art, violence, feminism, war, sexuality, addiction, loss, and motherhood are expertly braided with a riveting plot and parallel narratives. But unlike the tomes some other modern writers produce—Jonathan Franzen, or David Foster Wallace, for example—Yuknavitch writes compact prose, layered and dense with meaning. And everything that occurs comes through the body, unapologetically.
Anyone who has read The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch’s brilliant anti-memoir (she calls it anti-memoir because there is no linear narrative arc, a varied tone, and no resolution; I call it brilliant), will recognize the story of the loss of her daughter in The Small Backs of Children. “Inside everything I have ever written, there is a girl,” says the writer, a character known only by her profession. The rest of the cast, too, is known only by a simple description: the widow, the filmmaker, the girl, the poet, the playwright, and the photographer. “This, reader, is a mother-daughter story,” says the writer, the only character to speak in the first person. We wonder who is speaking: the writer character, the author, or both. From that character’s point of view, the story is about the loss of her baby and her obsession to save a child she’s seen only in a photograph. Somehow, the inclusion of nonfiction makes the fantastic story believable. Yuknavitch’s muddling of roles, of fiction and nonfiction, personal and political, is used effectively, with authority. Interpretation is left to the reader.
Like all of Yuknavitch’s writing, The Small Backs of Children is a physical experience. It’s one reaction after another of breath and tears and muscle and heart. We are never in a scene where the bodies are not doing the work; the physicality of the violent imagery is powerful, as is the beautiful prose. The book starts off asking the reader to imagine Eastern Europe in winter, “However it came to you. Winter. That white….” The scene is of the girl observing a wolf caught in a trap, about to lose its leg, its blood red against the white of the snow. The girl goes over and “pisses and pisses where the crime happened.” A bit later, “This is how the sexuality of a girl is formed—an image at a time—against white; taboo, thoughtless, corporeal.” It’s how Yuknavitch makes art in the story, too, one image at a time, from pain, from the body. The unflinching violence of her story feels real in a way the news cannot.
The Small Backs of Children answers the question of what to do with all of the pain and suffering we endure as a result of violence. The answer is that we feel it in our bodies, and then make art.
Some of us admire movie stars, some sports stars, but people like me have writer stars. Lidia Yuknavitch is my writer star. I am lucky enough to live close to where she lives, writes, and teaches. I’ve taken several of her workshops and I attend every reading of hers that I can. I first became aware of the Cult of Yuknavitch (I am a member!), when The Chronology of Water came out. I saw people with pain-dazed eyes wanting to be near her, to tell her their stories, to touch her. It made me vow never to ask her for anything. I held to that until this interview, which took place in September 2015, at Papa Hydns in Southeast Portland, Oregon.
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The week or so before our formal interview, I heard her read and give a Q&A at Imprint Books in Port Townsend, WA. She said the Small Backs of Children didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of years of war photographs, which she had gotten from her aunt. When her father became ill her aunt gave her a box of war photographs her uncle had taken illegally in Lithuania, along with redacted stories from the war. Yuknavitch wanted to know two things: what happened to the stories of those people in the photos, and what about the war zones doesn’t make the news? What happens to the people who live in those cultures daily? Those photographs, along with daily grief over the death of her daughter, were the genesis of The Small Backs of Children. She “put the stories in pieces across the bodies of women and girls.”
Someone at the Imprint Books Q&A (okay, it was me), asked about the frank sex scenes in The Small Backs of Children. Lidia said that we experience sexuality from birth, and she wanted bodily reality in novels. She wanted to liberate sexuality for women from what we’ve inherited. It was important to her that the girl in the book not flinch sexually, even though she was a victim.
All of this was rolling in my thoughts when I met Yuknavitch for this interview a week later. I tried to act normal but, like I said, I might as well have been sitting down with a rock star. She bought me a sandwich (!); we split a piece of cake (although I am sure I ate more); and then I started off by telling her that I was a reluctant interviewer. I told her how I was hesitant to take from her, but she was so approachable and intelligent that we started talking and didn’t quit, even with food in our mouths.
Join the revolution. Don’t sit and watch. Make art, challenge, help. We’re killing our daughters. It’s perpetuated by TV, books. It’s my job to agitate.
I have heard Lidia talk about how much she doesn’t care for the question, “What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction?” so I opened with this question. She laughed, but then talked about it. I told her the one thing that bothers me about all MFA programs is that you have to pick a genre and stick with it, and how much I admired that The Small Backs of Children straddled the line.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Gak! So many people ask me that question. Why? Fiction and non-fiction are mirrors of each other. One does not exist without the other and each contains elements of the other. I’m interested in how they play off of each other.
Kirsten Larson: The great reviews and attention coming from first The Chronology of Water and now The Small Backs of Children might make it seem that you’ve had rapid success, but you’ve been successfully publishing for quite a while. How have your recent successes been different from previous books, which have also received excellent reviews? Is it more than media exposure?
LY: Yes. I had two different experiences with The Chronology of Water, which almost killed me emotionally, and The Small Backs of Children. I didn’t know that opening up my story would make it so that others could open up theirs. I was really overwhelmed by it and wanted to take care of people. I’ve since learned to have healthy boundaries and how to make them without hurting people.
With The Small Backs of Children I know who I am, I know my limits. I recharge with family and copious amounts of time alone. Literally double what the exertion was. With Chronology of Water I needed two years of alone time in pillow forts. My family has learned to tell.
Lidia is married to Andy Mingo, a filmmaker. Lidia is also a painter. They have a son Miles, also a deep thinker and artist. I asked what it’s like with a house full of artists.
LY: [Talking about when she met Andy] Right away, we had a conversation about image systems and image syntax. (I had to Google these concepts later. – KL) I love that we can talk. He understands me. Oh, and he’s in charge, I like that. (She said something like, “he’s hot, too. Even our lesbian friends agree to that.” – KL)
KL: The poetry of your writing, your unique music, is stunning. When reading your words I’ve often had physical reactions and have had to stop and linger over sentences. I hold the book to my chest until I can calm my racing heart and breath. I don’t know what my question is. Um. In the narrative of The Small Backs of Children, art seems to be born of pain, from the body. On your website you write, “In 1986 my daughter died the day she was born. From her I became a writer.” I read this and my body sinks in, there’s a lifetime and more in those two sentences. Can you talk to me about the body / pain / art connection?
LY: I secretly hoped people still had bodies. I wondered, is anyone willing to meet me there? Despair is fear and hopelessness and violence. I want people to have a physical experience when they read my book.
KL: Do you get tired of the media?
LY: It’s both heaven and something else. Important things are happening, though, like “Black Lives Matter.” The movement is bringing bodies back through the very media that erases the body. It’s so important.
KL: I always wonder, why do you think women’s sexuality is shamed by religions?
LY: Anthropologists say major religions need to establish taboos because taboos regulate behavior. Those in charge are those who control procreation. It’s like property to be owned and passed down. Subordinating the feminine is a social regulation tool—keep the wealth. In ancient matriarchal societies they shared labor and wealth. Only in a very few is sex taboo. Although, if you make that argument you are an essentialist, which is very threatening to patriarchal social groups.
KL: You’ve inspired me to radical body acceptance. We’re both 52. What are your thoughts on aging in a society that fetishizes youth, and demoralizes women’s bodies through every available channel?
LY: Join the revolution. Don’t sit and watch. Make art, challenge, help. We’re killing our daughters. It’s perpetuated by TV, books. It’s my job to agitate. I’m starting teen workshops that give a different message. Every facet works to agitate against messages. We don’t even know, we haven’t figured out what women are or should be. We can’t take a day off. The day we really do wake up as a group will be a revolutionary moment. We could change the world in a week.
KL: I know you have another book coming out next year, but you don’t necessarily want to talk about specifics. I heard it was about Joan of Arc. I’m excited to read it.
LY: I think I am on the final edits. I hope they are waiting for me when I get home.
KL: Your generosity toward other writers is something that I love. Who has influenced you in the past?
LY: Who is next? Who has the most fire? Work needs to be alive, on the cusp. I am excited about fissures opening to different styles of writing. We have to turn things over continuously, or it deadens. We have a market problem, and literature is a product of the market. It’s a living organism. I’m very excited about Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Solnit, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Gerard.
KL: I am excited to hear you are starting workshops based around the seasons. What’s the significance of seasons?
LY: It’s a chance to remind everyone that change is happening all of the time. It’s important. Transformational. There is movement in writing, life is omnipresent. We get stuck. Making art is change—all the different ways we make art. Also, I might be a dork, but I really like the change in weather and the ritual around it. There is pleasure to me in changing color, the experience of the seasons. Winter is cooler and darker. For introverts, it’s an amazing time.
Lidia Yuknavitch is author of The Small Backs of Children (Harper, 2015); Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books, 2012) which has been optioned for film by Katherine Brooks; The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books, 2011), which won the Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice 2012, the PNBA Award 2012, and was a finalist for the 2012 PEN Center USA creative nonfiction award; Real to Reel (Fiction Collective 2, 2003), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award; Allegories of Violence (Routledge, 2000); Liberty’s Excess: Fictions (Fiction Collective 2, 2000); Her Other Mouths (House of Bones Press, 1997); and Caverns (Penguin Books, 1990). Her essays and short stories have appeared in Guernica, Ms., The Iowa Review, Exquisite Corpse, Another Chicago Magazine, Fiction International, Zyzzyva, and in several anthologies. She earned her PhD in English Literature from the University of Oregon, and teaches writing, literature, film, and women’s studies at Mt. Hood Community College.
What Lidia is known for, besides all of her accomplishments, is being an extremely generous teacher. She is genuinely free with advice and gives of herself in a way I’ve rarely experienced. She wants to start a revolution and bring a bunch of artists along.