How to Harness the Energy of Female Rage, Creative Destruction & the Cosmos
Lidia Yuknavitch and Sarah Gerard dive deep on artistic violence, Trump, rewarding male tantrums, and the fabric of time and space
The first book I read by Lidia Yuknavitch was Dora: A Headcase. Though all of my friends were busy devouring her timeless, immediate-cult-classic memoir The Chronology of Water, it was Dora that first established Yuknavitch in my mind as a writer I needed to follow. It’s a reimagining of Freud’s most famous case study, set in present-day Seattle, with Ida (alter-ego: Dora) at the center. She’s an artistic, loud-mouthed, rule-breaking teenage girl who longs for intimacy — needless to say, I related to this. The book drips with sex and dark humor and sarcasm, and anger, and white-hot teenage girl rebellion. Most importantly, it’s told from Dora’s point of view. Like an atom bomb, it breaks apart an old story to bring new energy into it.
In The Book of Joan, released this month, Yuknavitch takes the story of Joan of Arc as her raw material. As with Dora, her reimagining frees the character of Joan from the constraints of her original version, and in doing so calls into question our received definitions of God, the body, womanhood, war — even what it means to be human. Yuknavitch describes the novel as a love story, but although it includes a romance, I suspect she’s using the term more broadly, to encompass of all of humanity, all life on earth, all possible life in the universe.
The setting is post-apocalyptic: split between Earth, decimated by world war, and CIEL, a sterile spacecraft hovering above the planet, where the remaining humans have defected. Earth’s surface is radioactive, unable to sustain anything more than the barest forms of life and a few human survivalists. Humans on CIEL have evolved into pale, sexless, hairless creatures burning stories into their skin — a reminder that our stories are what link us, bodily, to our past.
Like The Chronology of Water and her last novel, The Small Backs of Children, whose protagonists are an Easter European war orphan and the photographer who garners critical acclaim for her photograph of the girl, The Book of Joan is ferocious and indelible, grappling with what it means to love in the midst of violence; and how we transform fury, agony, and history into art. It is huge in its scope, moving seamlessly, quantumly, between dirt and cosmos, and through the wormholes of nonlinear time. I talked to Lidia via Skype about The Book of Joan, the current state of our world, and art-making as transformation.
Sarah Gerard: I was reading The Book of Joan this morning and thinking about how violence and tenderness are intermingled. What do we do with the tenderness we feel toward people who have hurt us?
Lidia Yuknavitch: They make a helix in ways that we don’t really know how to navigate. The pleasure/pain helix, or the violence/tenderness helix: we’re terrible at negotiating that, but they’re always intertwined. I’m always spouting off about how the beautiful and the brutal are next to each other, we just don’t like to admit it. I know you know what I mean because all of your characters have that quality, and that’s one of the reasons I love your work. I got interested in the idea of how anger and love are actually two sides of the same thing. But I don’t mean, like, “We should accept abuse into our lives.” I just mean that if we look at them as energies — and I don’t mean in the west coast “wu” way; I just mean in terms of physics — because that’s all we are: energy and matter — if we look at it as energy, we can ask better questions about what to do with it.
SG: Right now, my challenge as a writer is that I’m feeling a lot of anger and a lot of violence toward the world.
SG: At the same time, I’m trying to work through a very specific line of love and pain, that helix, in the form of a new novel. I don’t want to isolate this one story about love and pain, and yet I have to, because that’s the only way I can finish the story. It’s hard to negotiate. Rather, it’s hard to parse those feelings, because the story of the book seems to be constantly changing, as I navigate these feelings in my everyday. What’s important in the story seems to be constantly changing.
LY: In Joan, I tried to make a character who represents this thing we’re talking about. So she’s as connected to destruction as she is to creation, which is all I’ll say about that. I wanted to make this kind of troubling figure who’s carrying these contradictory impulses. And worse, I made her a woman! Gasp! Not supposed to do that, right?
SG: But what else could you do?
LY: Exactly. You used the word love a second ago. For me, The Book of Joan is a love story, except I had to, in my head, kind of let myself radically reinvent what we mean by a love story.
SG: Oh man, I was going to ask you about love! Can we try to define it today? This is so great.
LY: Yeah! I think I identify with your work because in your stories, and your characters, you’re often unearthing these bizarre forms of tenderness or love that people don’t usually acknowledge, but I see them very big, like you’re speaking my language. I get it.
SG: I’m thinking a lot about love these days. I’m seeing someone new, and loving in a completely new way.
SG: It’s freaking me out because I’m not used to it. I’ve never felt something so soft before. I don’t know what to do with all of this softness. I don’t really know how else to put that. In every other relationship that I’ve entered, in the beginning, I’ve built myself up for what was about to happen. You know? So, “This is probably going to go wrong. At some point, this is going to get ugly. I already see the warning signs, but I’m walking into the fire anyway because the fire is beautiful.”
LY: I know. It’s like there’s a pre-existing story, and so we all kind of gravitate toward it, because it’s what we know. Right? We’re going to have to, in our lives and in our art, really reinvent ourselves. Even listening to what you just said — that’s, like, the most beautiful thing I’ve heard in a decade.
SG: How do you keep yourself tender on the inside when there’s so much hurt in the world?
LY: Oh, yeah. I guess this sounds a little smarmy and cliché, but I actually think our vulnerabilities are our strengths, and we’ve just fucked up so far by thinking that our strengths are these exterior shells of surviving this or that, or being able to fight and win. When really, our strength is stillness and the ability to stay open and vulnerable, which corresponds more to the natural world and even the cosmos. You know, a kind of quiet, a kind of stillness, a nothingness before a thing gets born. It’s actually not hard for me to continually try to embrace our vulnerabilities because embracing the show, quote-unquote, of our “fictional strength,” is starting to look absurd to me. It’s less and less hard for me to embrace vulnerability, because that other thing just looks stupid.
SG: Yes, it does.
LY: The zenith of that other thing is Trump.
SG: But it takes humility to live in the other way.
LY: It does.
SG: That’s the difficult thing, I think, because you make yourself vulnerable to attacks from the outside. It’s like in a relationship, when you admit that you’ve done something wrong and then take steps to change your behavior. The relationship needs to be a safe place wherein you can change your behavior and not face constant criticism.
LY: It’s hard to find the fellow mammal where you can let that be true. I mean, I struck out a whole bunch of times. This is my third marriage and it’s my seventh long-term relationship.
When you find it, it’s astonishing. If both of you will let the other continually recreate, that’s amazing.
SG: Then, also, on a public level, too. Thinking of somebody like Trump, who’s in the position of needing to change his behavior in a serious way. He’s very sensitive to the portrayals of himself in the media, and that constant criticism. And so, how does a man like Trump — I mean, it would be a radical act of humility for him to change his behavior at this point. What do you do if you’re Trump?
LY: I hate thinking of anyone as a lost cause because, I mean, I work with people in jails, and I’ve been in jail, and I work with rehabbers, and I’ve been the addict — so, I hate ever saying someone’s a lost cause. But talk about someone who missed developmental stages. He seems locked in that preteen space of: if I don’t get constant attention and reinforcement, I’m going to throw a tantrum.
SG: He’s just a constant tantrum.
LY: I guess I’m infantilizing him, but it’s a little bit true that he didn’t make it through the stages where you have to separate and individualize. I also think he’s just a classic narcissist. He doesn’t need us, except that he needs to be showered with praise.
SG: He’s the epitome of the toxic narcissist.
LY: Yeah, which we’ve all met.
SG: Are you finding that this presidency is affecting your work? Because it’s really confusing me. It’s making me feel all kinds of mixed-up.
LY: Can an answer be yes and no? I mean, because I started out as a writer who was agitated and who also tried to agitate with their writing, it’s not that different for me. I think what’s creeping in that is different is this feeling that more is at stake. I’ve always been pissed off. I’ve always felt like an outsider. But the threat now seems closer to our actual front doors, because it is. It used to be that I could sit down and, no matter what weird creative thing was coming out, I just chased it — like, “I don’t know what that is, but it looks interesting.” I find that now, when I sit down, it’s kind of somber. It’s sort of like, “I shall not write this silly thing.” So, that worries me a little bit, actually.
“I’ve always been pissed off. I’ve always felt like an outsider. But the threat now seems closer to our actual front doors…”
SG: It feels like you have less room to play.
LY: Yeah, and so I know to fight that. I know that’s not true, and I know it’s deadly to creativity, but I’m having a little bit of struggle there.
SG: I’m finding that it’s harder to forget that the outside world exists. I’m feeling really distracted.
LY: I agree with that, and maybe that’s a good thing for us right now. That other way, where you get to just be the artist alone in your imaginal, that’s beautiful, and I love it. Like I said the last time I saw you: I would stay there if I could — I could stay there. I love it. But maybe this is a good wrenching.
SG: I think it’s a good thing and a bad thing. I’m finding it a lot harder to create and to find time to create because — and this is just a matter of admitting that I am the creature that I am — what I need is solitude and silence, because I’m super sensitive, and I’m shy. That’s just who I am. But I also feel like there’s more at stake, so when I sit down to write, I’m less afraid to say the real thing, because there’s no time to waste.
LY: Oh yeah, I feel that too. It’s like, fuck it. There’s no other now.
SG: Exactly. What are you writing now?
LY: I feel like I’ve been editing for three years because I had those two books in a row, and you did, too. I feel like I’m in this weird editing mode that I don’t like. Do you feel that?
SG: I’m writing something new now — and I wrote and edited Sunshine State in a little over a year, right after Binary Star came out, so I feel like I’ve just jumped from one project into the next, into the next. I kind of rushed myself into writing the next thing right away because I didn’t want my ideas to expire. I also wanted to ride the wave of my first book.
LY: I have a fictional thing moving in the direction of a novel — it feels longform — coming out of me, and a kind of non-fictional thing. But for me, I don’t know what the form will be until it tells me, so I haven’t quite detected the form on either one of them. I just know the fiction one has a feral child in it, and the non-fiction one is definitely not traditional.
SG: How so? I feel like we’ve exploded tradition.
LY: Yeah, it’s not useful now, is it?
SG: It can be, in an experimental way, if you’re looking for the shape of something. It can be a place to start.
LY: True. Well, when you say it that way, I’m borrowing forms from the tradition but then I’m letting them become something else. I guess I’m a form junkie. Are you a form junkie?
SG: When I teach writing, so much of what I’m teaching is how to find your voice through form. Like, what does this form actually mean? How does it shape the story? How does it shape the meaning of the story? How can you best say the thing with this?
LY: One of the dangers for me is I love form so much that sometimes I stop caring about content. So I guess in these new things that are coming out of me, I’m kind of longing for content to show itself. There’s a kid in the center of one of them, which is not very surprising because I seem kind of obsessed with putting children in the center of things, but this kid is really interesting me because there’s no way to know it — because of what I’ve decided it is: it’s a creature.
SG: You can’t get inside it?
LY: I’m having to invent ways to get inside it that aren’t necessarily human. That’s why I use the word creature. It’s really fun, and I have no idea what I’m doing, and therefore I like it.
SG: But you know that it’s a child?
LY: I do.
SG: So what does the point of view of a child afford you as a writer?
LY: What I love about children is not children. I didn’t think I would have children, and I wasn’t the mom who really wanted them, and I didn’t feel the biological clock. I had a bad experience that was tragic and then a boy creature came out and he’s amazing, but I wasn’t in the maternal zone. But what I love about children is that they’re not finished forming, and so they’re like raw language in that way. They can be anything. I guess this is true of animals, too: They’re forming toward something we all know about and we all assume will turn out a certain way, but there’s always this chance they might not. And you get one that turns out really weird. I love that idea. They’re just this side of signification. You know, they’re entering signification, but they’re not quite there yet, and so they’re in this state of pure imagination, with all these drives. You have to show kids what good and bad, violence and passion are — you have to show them. What they come with is sort of berserk. When they’re really little, they’ll stick their finger in the plug, or they’ll poke the dead thing with the stick and then try to eat it. They’re really interesting.
“What I love about children is that they’re not finished forming, and so they’re like raw language in that way. They can be anything. I guess this is true of animals, too.”
SG: I feel like poking the dead thing with the stick is cool. If I were a mom, I’d be like, “Go ahead and find out what that is.”
LY: Totally. I’m probably the worst mother on the planet.
SG: No, you’re probably the best mother on the planet.
LY: Every single one of those instances, I was like, “Ah, cool!”
SG: Kids are fascinating. They have their own agency in a story. You never know what they’re going to do.
LY: The only reason I wanted to take it a step further by making it a feral child was so that I could know them even less. It’s probably a terrible idea. I took language away from this creature, and I took human behavior away from this creature, so how am I going to write that?
SG: It sounds like they’re working their way into the story, right? So the story has a direction then.
LY: That’s right. That’s right. And the story kind of has to come to them to make its meaning.
SG: Here’s the question I’m asking today about stories: how do you feel satisfied as a writer, or can you ever? The story that you’re writing isn’t necessarily the story that you emotionally need to be telling. Well, in a way it is — it’s like an emotional problem that you’re trying to solve, right? But the story has a life of its own, too, so the place where it ends up isn’t necessarily the place where you need it to go in order to completely answer this question within yourself.
LY: Always, yes.
SG: So, there’s the rest of this need hanging over. Do we just consider that the next story we tell? I guess,what I’m asking is, can we ever tell a complete story, a story that satisfies us completely?
LY: You hit on it profoundly. You start out in the motion of telling and then the story takes you somewhere different, and you can either rein it back in — which I think some writers do, and they’re my least favorite writers, to be honest with you — or you can follow it and let it become what it is. And then what’s left over, the residual, has brand new energy for other artistic production. I think that’s mesmerizing and exciting, and how you keep your own writing alive. I think you worded that perfectly and profoundly.
SG: Thanks, Lidia.
LY: You heard it here.
SG: Then there’s the thing about the way a story changes you. If our writing follows our own personal development, then by the time we reach the end of the story we’re somebody completely different.
LY: When you finished Binary Star were you different?
SG: Oh, yeah.
LY: When you finished Sunshine State were you different?
LY: Totally, completely agree.
SG: It was like I had awoken from a dream. Sunshine State was all of these things I didn’t know I wanted to say, and here they are in 400 pages. I had no idea that was going to happen.
LY: I started thinking about it as…I collect snakeskins. In addition to having a hair fetish — because I have a collection of people’s hair — I started collecting snakeskins because they’re such metaphoric reminders that, after every book, you kind of shed the skin you didn’t know you don’t need anymore. You come out with this new skin, and it’s like everything is on the surface, and everything is new and it kind of hurts. But that skin that kept you, you don’t need it anymore. And then there it is, and you can look at it. It feels like that a little bit. Also, snakeskins are just cool looking.
SG: I collect seashells for a similar reason. Well, first of all because they’re like us: like the beautiful refuse of the world, of the ocean, of the thing we all come from.
LY: I see you put that in your work all the time. I see you put objects in there, and I see you put shells of things, you know, shells meaning more than one thing, and I see you marking the beauty of the detritus or the left. I’ve seen it in your work a lot, I love that feature.
LY: I’m your biggest fan.
SG: This is a mutual admiration society meeting.
LY: Well, so what, ’cause the world fucking sucks, like hard. So what?
SG: And yet there’s beauty, right?
LY: There is.
SG: So what’s the function of beauty then?
LY: That’s such a good question. Well, because I’m talking to you, we can agree that beauty can come from what other people might look at and call monstrous, or atrocious.
LY: And so, I’m glad I’m talking to you about this question because I think that part of the function — I mean, I don’t know the answer, but I think part of the function of beauty is to remind us that being alive is more than just surviving or functioning. It’s dreaming and imagining, and probably if humans evolve — and it’s not looking positive right now, we may devolve — but if humans were to evolve we actually move farther towards the imaginal, or the dream, or the kind of space of creation, and away from just functional, and action, and physical success in the universe. So I think beauty has to do with that motion, but I could be full of shit.
SG: I think you’re right. I think it also shows us how the world can be more symmetrical, or balanced.
LY: All those times in Binary Star where you go to the cosmic, for me personally, they were huge moments of going from micro to macro. In terms of what it means to be alive.
SG: Yeah, you do that in The Book of Joan, too.
LY: Every moment of that just blew my mind. I love that so much, and when I teach that book I make everyone pause a long time to consider that. I turn the lights off and I show images of black holes and white dwarfs, like cosmic things that also kind of remind you of internal biology and the human eye, and stuff like that.
SG: Exactly. I was thinking about that when I was reading The Book of Joan, too. You just go from this cosmic field down into the dirt.
LY: I was really obsessed with the idea of the back-and-forth option of being.
SG: It’s built right into the plot. It’s the whole plot of the book.
LY: That’s right. Well, thank you for noticing. It’s a weird book. I think some people won’t see that.
SG: I say that whenever someone compliments Binary Star, too. I’m like, “Thanks, it’s a weird little book. I don’t know what I did there.”
LY: But it’s not like we don’t know they’re weird, right?
SG: That’s why they’re great. You and I, a couple of months ago, when we were having our last mutual admiration society meeting — we were talking about God and how we think about God, and because these books are so similar, I guess I wanted to ask you how you define that. I’m using “God” as a shorthand — but what is that to you?
LY: Well, I moved really far away from any theological definitions of that word, or any organized religion definitions of that word. I can still have respect for people who apply those definitions, but I’m not one of them anymore. For me, what has replaced the word has more to do with physics and space and science and stuff that is asking a similar question, like: Is consciousness bigger than we think it is? Does it move? Are we part of something larger than this ego meat-sack thing? Those are similar to theological questions. I just am uninterested in the belief system pack. I’m more interested in: What if we let go of old definitions of being and opened up to other possible definitions of being? So, that word [God] isn’t very useful to me anymore — just personally. There’s no less awe, there’s no less wonder. Even when I was talking to Miles last summer — we were outside at night, and he always does this, he busts out with a sentence that makes me think, “Where does this creature come from?”
LY: And he’s just looking up at the sky and he goes, “What kind of asshole would think things are less wondrous because you take God out of it?” And he was just looking at the night sky, and I’m like, “Dude, you are so awesome.”
SG: He hit on it exactly.
LY: I know! The sense of the sublime or the ineffable or the wondrous doesn’t go away because I took traditional notions of God out. It actually gets bigger.
SG: You know, I was raised in the New Thought Movement, where there is this big focus on transcending the limitations of our material selves and learning to heal ourselves with the power of our own minds. I love that, but I think I would kind of flip it on its head and say that we’re not transcending our material selves because our material selves are imperfect — we’re becoming more closely entwined with our material selves and thereby connecting ourselves to the matter of the whole universe.
LY: If we could open our understanding to the actual materiality of being, it would expand or shoot out —
SG: We could harness its energy.
LY: I concur, Professor Gerard. Totally, completely agree.
SG: I wonder how much we can actually do with our bodies. I think of myself as being very in tune with my body, you know, as somebody who has struggled against it a lot. I know exactly what it is, you know? I can’t say that I’m in tune with my body every day in an athletic sense, but I think a lot about what my body is doing, how it’s feeling, and its emotional state, and how emotions are physical, and how I’m carrying my emotions in my body. I think a lot about the power of my body, and I wonder what I could do if I harnessed it.
LY: I think we barely understand what we’re doing in these forms, and I don’t know if I’ll live to see us expand that understanding. But even when I see versions of it that are silly — on a plane recently, I watched Doctor Strange, which is a superhero movie. It’s absurd. It’s stupid. It has Benedict Cumberbatch in it. It’s ridiculous. But the thing that Tilda Swinton’s character does with her body in that movie, I’m like, “THAT!” It’s that!” It’s silly, but when I see versions of it I’m like, “Oh, someday we’re not going to laugh at this.”
SG: I think New Thought was onto something. I think the way they used hypnosis was very prescient. Learning to control our minds might be the first step.
LY: My mother was under hypnosis when I was born, so I agree with you. I’m fascinated by it and I know we have yet to figure the mind-potential thing out. Lots of neuroscientists and astrophysicists are getting closer to proving that there’s more here than we thought. I hope I’m here to see those — I hope I’m here. But I’ll be here, somewhere.
SG: Somewhere in the quantum universe.
LY: Yes. I planted so many quantum theory and string things in the Joan book — it made me so happy to write it.
SG: I wanted to talk to you about time-travel — time and space travel — because it’s so much a part of what you were doing in Joan. I don’t really know what the question is, though. I just think it’s so cool. Like, how do you think about time as a writer? It’s something that we manipulate, we open up. We also completely live in the past. We’re fascinated with the breadth and depth of time, and the capabilities of time. It’s the thing we can’t let go of. It’s our main obsession.
LY: Well, I don’t believe in linear time anymore and neither do physicists, which I know you know, but another thing I’ve been thinking about pretty hard lately is that narrative is quantum, and that’s a cool idea. Because narrative can move forward, backward, sideways, up, down. In the same ways we talk about new definitions of time. And so my question is, why are we writing stories the same way? We always have — and you’re not. One of the reasons I love your writing is your risking letting narrative be something besides linear. This thing you just said: as the tradition has given us storytelling and narrative as a way to recount the past — what if it’s quantum? That idea just blows my mind.
SG: I mean, it is, because a story dictates its own time. Because it comes from memory, from imagination, its associations are built into our neuroscience, and time isn’t linear inside your brain.
LY: No, or inside your body.
SG: No. Exactly, and so my other question had to do with time and memory, and how we record these things in our bodies. I figure that there are three different kinds of time that act on the body. There’s our perception of linear time: our lived experience, which leaves scars and sunspots and freckles. Then there are memories, which we carry around in our bodies, and these things are alive within us. Then there’s the story, and the story can be enlivening. It can make us physically stronger in the sense that we’re letting something go, or reinforcing something.
LY: Completely agree. I don’t know how it took this long for us to find each other.
SG: I know.
LY: Completely agree with you. So there’s another movie — I’m also a movie junkie. I can’t help it, I’m just afflicted…
SG: I am, too.
LY: There’s another movie that just came out recently called Arrival.
SG: I love that movie! Yes.
LY: My god!
SG: People are trashing on it. I’m like, “Fuck you guys — that’s how time is!”
LY: They’re idiots.
SG: I know. I’m like, “That’s what language is and that’s what time is, and UGH.”
LY: They’re idiots. Also, the aliens didn’t come here to kill us —
SG: Yeah, they came here to give us something.
LY: I know, it’s brilliant. It’s completely brilliant.
SG: That the key is storytelling? Perfect.
LY: And language. Completely great.
SG: I also have a huge crush on Amy Adams.
LY: Understandable. Actually, one of the reasons I love The OA is because I have a huge crush on Brit Marley. Basically we’re moving through life with girl crushes.
SG: I also think writers just fall in love easily. I feel like I’m always, not just looking for it, but falling for it. I can’t help it.
LY: And thank oceans we can fall like that. That word “fall” is so right.
SG: We were talking about time and Arrival…
LY: Since I have no use for linear time anymore, I’m attracted to art that reflects back to us that there are many times and there are multi-verses. I’m going to spend the rest of my life being into that because I feel certain about it. I feel it is our next incarnation to understand being as moving and multiple, and that includes memory and language and bodies, and who we’re going to be next. I mean, it’s kind of interesting to me that we have this political crisis going on, because we’re having to confront the question, “Who do you want to be next?” in such acute terms. Out of this destruction can come reinvention and understanding. So, in some ways I feel kind of lucky to be around right now, even though things are poop.
SG: I feel grateful to be an artist right now.
LY: I guess that’s what I mean.
SG: We were talking about beauty earlier and how it kind of shows us the way, but I wonder if perfect beauty is possible — if unity is possible? And, if it’s not, are we just running in place? I don’t know.
LY: I don’t either. Although, I’m less and less attracted to figuring out the answer to that, and I’m more and more interested in just the movement of it. Like, less and less I care about, “Well is the answer beauty? And is there a beauty zenith?” And more and more I care about, “What if beauty is an energy?” And I don’t even know what I mean by that. What if it’s just the motion and we’ve been asking the wrong questions? And that being is just this endless expansion, contraction, motion-like breath? Kind of like the in-and-out of breathing. What if the whole cosmos is that breathing action and there’s no origin point and there’s no telos?
SG: Right, we’re letting go of the notion of time’s origin, its seeming linearity. I forgot, see? It’s easy to slip into it.
LY: Right? So on the page, we have to let go of the idea that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end.
SG: But then how do you know if you’re asking the right questions?
LY: I don’t, but who cares?
SG: I just want to know if I’m living life right.
LY: Well, that I can’t help you with that, having fucked up so hard and so often and spectacularly, but I am the person who thinks our mistakes and errors are really portals.
SG: We have to keep reminding ourselves of that.
LY: Don’t worry, you will.
SG: Do you ever beat up on yourself still? I really try not to, but I do every day.
LY: Less and less. I also don’t love myself. I can’t follow that narrative, “If I could just love myself…” It’s just not my jam. I can’t do that. But, I beat myself up less and less because what a waste of energy. You know?
“I can’t follow that narrative, ‘If I could just love myself…’ It’s just not my jam. I can’t do that.”
SG: Yeah, it is. I think self-reflection is important, though. I think everybody can stand to engage in more of it. Every single person on earth.
SG: It’s important to admit when you’ve done something wrong —
SG: And then to kind of make the vow to improve yourself, you know?
LY: I agree with all of that, but then when we get stuck in a kind of self-as-center thing. We’re worried about how we are, how we look, how we behave, are we right or not? We’re forgetting that the better use of our energy is to help the person standing next to you.
SG: Yeah, it can become a really narcissistic cycle. Like, “I’m an idiot, I’m the worst, I’m X, Y, and Z.” It’s kind of —
LY: It’s putting yourself back at the center.
SG: Yeah and it’s not just self abusive, it’s kind of abusive to whoever happens to be around you and becomes responsible for holding you up, you know?
SG: Defending you against yourself. It’s really irritating.
LY: It is, isn’t it? So we don’t want to be that.
SG: No we don’t. I wanted to talk to you about male rage and what we do with that particular kind of energy.
LY: Well, male rage — I don’t know if you agree with this, but male rage, in American culture in particular, is sanctioned and rewarded in all its various forms. Even when male rage goes the berserk abusive way, the whole culture bends itself to make it okay and reward it anyway. So then, feminine, or whatever word we want to put in there — female rage — the only choice is to repress it and stamp it out. And the day that dynamic changes, we really will have a cultural shift. Because they’re energies we’ve been doing dunderheaded things with. So, I’m not among the people who thinks we should erase rage —
“In American culture in particular, is sanctioned and rewarded in all its various forms. Even when male rage goes the berserk abusive way, the whole culture bends itself to make it okay and reward it anyway.”
SG: No, I agree. I’m in favor of certain kinds of violence. You mentioned good violence and bad violence earlier —
LY: Yeah, yeah. I’m interested in redefining — or, you know, defining other uses for those energies. A lot. But our culture is built on male rage being powerful and something to harness, and reward, and sanction. Do we need more proof that that’s a terrible idea?
SG: It’s cloaked in romance.
LY: Oh god, yes.
SG: It’s like, exciting or enthralling — it’s thrilling when a man is raging. It’s portrayed as this beautiful power.
LY: That’s exactly it.
SG: And that’s kind of narcissistic too because I think the story we tell ourselves as women is that he won’t direct the energy towards us, and so we’ll be the special one. That rage is going to be used to protect us while it does violence to everyone else, but that’s never the case. It’s such a lie.
LY: It’s always been a false fiction. Ever since we invented rageful gods, like in the Old Testament, it’s always been a false fiction. We hang on to it cause we’re scared of being alive and we need a story that might protect us, and so we made this story up of the male protector who would wage war, but in our lived experiences with one another it’s just putrid. It just brings harm to all of us, and we’re going to have to kick it. We’re addicted to it, we’re addicted to the romance you just described, and if we don’t kick it we’re literally dead.
SG: The love that women share amongst ourselves is so healing. I’m really finding this in my life now.
LY: When I watched the Women’s March — I wasn’t at it, I was teaching a workshop because that’s my job — but I got this tiny hit of: “Oh my god, what if the love women are capable of could be a sanctioned energy? Could be a recognized energy, and not just be funneled into being wives, or mothers, or daughters.” I just had this flash of, “It’s coming.” Even though things look kind of grim right this second, things didn’t go how people expected, it felt like for a second, it’s coming.
SG: Yeah, well, both things are happening. We’re more deeply divided as Americans than we ever have been, but I also want to say that that isn’t true — it’s just more visible now than it ever has been.
LY: I think B. is truer, and I was actually trying to write in the Joan book that extreme destruction is also the cusp of extreme creation, and that those two also make a helix like when we first started this conversation. You have to recognize both in order for either to have any motion. I think it isn’t worse than ever. I think it’s more visible like you’re saying.
SG: Yeah, and I think it’s really exciting, this woman energy. I felt it that day. I was in DC, and it was just pouring out of everyone. Nobody even knew how many people were there — there was no way to tell how many people were there while it was going on, but there were so many of us that we couldn’t even move. We couldn’t even march.
LY: That’s beautiful.
SG: It was so wonderful, and I thought, “What if this love right now is just going to spill over and heal everything.”
LY: That’s what I mean. I felt it acutely, like, “It’s coming.” Like a wave. We’re pretty impatient, but I think it’s coming.
SG: I think writers are some of the most patient and impatient people in the world.
SG: I feel such impatience with my own work because the messy middle stage can be really uncomfortable. You know? All those unresolved feelings. It’s hard to carry them around, and I get really impatient with the limitations of my own body, in creating the work. It’s hard to sit in one place for hours and hours every day.
LY: I know. It makes me drink more when I’m in the middle.
SG: Yeah, I smoke a lot of weed.
LY: Same thing. But it’s also sort of glorious because you’re right in the sweet of it — you’re in the flex of the muscle right then.
SG: And then you have to go on a date that night and you haven’t spoken a word aloud for twelve hours, and you’re the most awkward date on the planet. Like, you don’t know how to speak anymore.
LY: That’s awesome.
SG: It’s like my lips are sutured shut — combining into one. My mouth is just going to disappear one day. I’m glad that I’m a complete social moron, though. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
LY: I wouldn’t either. I don’t want to be another way, ever again. I like us. I like our little tribe.
SG: I like exploring all of the weird dark caves of myself. I like that this is the life I’ve made. It can be scary at times, especially when I’m flat broke. And sometimes I have to make compromises about what kind of work I’m doing. That’s painful, but it’s still a gift.
LY: It is and we’re going to experience fear and pain no matter what we do. It’s not like you ever get to avoid that. So, I’d rather be in the, like you’re saying, the weird little caves, and the peaks and valleys of artistic practice than some other way of being.
SG: I wanted to ask you something else about Joan. The sections when she’s looking for Leone are in the first-person. Why?
LY: Well, on the one hand you can’t inhabit the character of Joan of Arc and claim first person-ness because that’s absurd. So, when I moved into her subjectivity, I decided that I wouldn’t try and become Joan or make the Joan voice. The “I” wavers. She’s not secure in it. She doesn’t claim authority inside of it, and she breaks down, literally de-materializes, and so I decided to do that inside the “I” pronoun. Focus on her dematerialization, rather than try to claim the “I” of Joan of Arc.
SG: The story itself is a reimagining. The word “Joan” is already not perfectly signifying Joan of Arc.
LY: Right, I was pretty obsessed with dislocating her from history and theology, and even if that’s all I did, that’s great from my writer’s point of view, because the way that she’s lodged there makes her meanings kind of limited and shut down. So if all I did was just dislodge it a little bit, that’s enough for me as an artist. That’s what I wanted to do.
SG: That’s how you freed her energy.
LY: Yeah, that’s what I mean. Or in my head, anyway.
SG: A book has its own energy.
LY: Yes, and literature is alive.