The Body Problematic: A Conversation Between Lidia Yuknavitch & Anakana Schofield
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by Lidia Yuknavitch
Anakana Schofield’s second novel, Martin John (Biblioasis, 2015), was described by Eimear McBride in the New York Times as, “Deploying some serious literary gumption … Schofield’s frequently hilarious, and distinctly modernist, linguistic games are always gainfully employed in the uneasy, indelicate task of placing her reader nose to nose with the humanity of a sex offender — and a sex offender’s mother.” It was recently shortlisted for the Giller Prize (Canada’s Booker Prize). Martin John explores the cyclical nature and actions of a simple minded molester and his demented relationship with his mother and surroundings. The novel is a loudly acclaimed, unique work that challenges literary form. Here Lidia Yuknavitch (author of the celebrated 2015 novel, The Small Backs of Children) and Anakana Schofield have a chat. (Note — the text includes all conversational interjections and marginalia).
Lidia Yuknavitch: When I first met you at Wordstock here in Portland, you took my breath away. We were both speaking on a panel about writing and the body. When you read your excerpt I couldn’t breathe. I was both smitten and I felt that thing I long to feel but rarely do: kindred. Your attention to formal investigations as equal in intensity to content investigations tickled me. I remain loyal as a dog to you and your work, and Martin John is a triumph.
Anakana Schofield: Firstly thank you Lidia for taking precious time to do this. Ever since our sex panel in Portland in 2012 the idea of a literature of the body that talks to and from the body or explores its complexities has been humming for me. I will also never forget your RED HOT reading & being the nun in residence sat beside you.
LY: Martin John has a difficult character at its center. But inside that “difficulty” I find something of all of us — before we trick ourselves into believing that we are good citizens…and he is rendered in bits and pieces of a self, almost as if he is never fully resolved, as in this example of his point of view that is, like so many moments, stunning to me: “Coats can drift. Open. That’s what coats are like. That’s what women like, open coats and a quick face full of him. He likes it too. He likes what they like.” His troubled point of view troubles the reader too, because we keep having to ask disturbing questions about him. Are the questions we have about him really about us?
AS: They are and they are not.
They are questions about us because Martin John is among us.
Martin John is one of us.
We’d rather settle on the more comfortable idea that sexual deviants are some distant aberration over THERE. Far from us.
He’s the product of a society that has deep psychosexual problems and that’s the collective us. Principally we need to deal with him and it’s easier not to deal with him. We’d rather settle on the more comfortable idea that sexual deviants are some distant aberration over THERE. Far from us. On another planet we don’t understand. But sexual deviants are not some distant aberration. They are beside us on the bus, at the kitchen table etc. This is partly why the narrative is in and of his groin and his groin-mind if you like and I am pretty relentless on the reader. Fiction is the place to posit difficult questions and scenarios. It’s not social science or qualitative research. It doesn’t rely on absolutes. You invent. You paint. You ponder. The reader joins you and completes that cycle or takes new departures from it.
It was vital the form of the novel be the content of the novel and reflect that impulse we have to look away, to deflect on the difficult questions. Certainly as a writer it would be easier not to paste this onto the page. But novels must become what they need to become and the novel will not do that if you turn your gaze away from that which is disturbing to you and to it.
In the passage you quote (and thank you for such kind words) I am working with syntax, with syncopation, to evoke his audacious and delusionary notions, to make what he’s about to do palatable in his mind. To thwart any dwindling moral reluctance he may feel to perhaps not do it. Since that’s always an option for men in these circumstances. An urge doesn’t need to be delivered or acted upon. It can be self-thwarted. But I had to “mount” his mind basically in order to plough him down onto the page. Almost like a form of literary tilling. Turning over that filthy soil. Get underneath him, so he will open his coat and display his uninvited cock. Persuaded, of course, that every woman wants a face full of him.
But I would question whether he is wholly us. Since there are many among us who do not ride about on public transit with their uninvited cocks publicly displayed and/or prod them into the back of some innocent subway passenger, disproportionately, if not always, a woman.
LY: A reader could argue, in fact I’ll risk it, I’ll argue, that Martin John is exactly what his society made him. As the reader struggles to ascertain if he is a sexual predator or simply quite mentally disturbed or both, his body in relation to other bodies keeps haunting me. His body was perpetually spit out from all the institutions and social organizations that might have made a difference in his subjectivity. And the bodies of women are written over with his violence. How important are bodies in this novel?
AS: Bodies are vital in this novel. The novel begins in the body or the “body problematic” and the body throughout is like some form of physical echolalia. It’s as you suggest, Martin John uses his physical body (sometimes literally, sometimes just the sight of it) as a weapon against the world, specifically against women in the world, even against himself. What is it about the male body that it is so readily used as a weapon of violence against the female body (and male body, but in this novel my focus is mainly on women)? These were philosophical starting points. I suppose they were answers to walking on the streets and riding buses and transit for the past umpteen years and pondering.
There is inverted female resistance in this novel. It’s deliberately not shouty and obvious because I don’t write with or to foist an agenda. Didacticism doesn’t interest me. (It did when I was younger, but fear no more the heat of the sun I grew out of it)
In the novel when Martin John thumps the young girl vaginally, later as a woman she finds strength in the fact that he did not get a direct hit. He only managed to hit her through fabric. It’s a small but vital detail. Also, at one point as a teenager he flashes a young girl on the street and he fails to elicit attention from her in the way he’d expected and he’s angry, depressed and puzzled as to why it hasn’t worked. Another woman on the subway grabs him by the throat and she’s framed with his line “he didn’t think women could do that”.
Nobody knows what to do with men like Martin John. They won’t stop until they are stopped. A compulsion is a compulsion. He is both a predator and mentally disturbed and made further anxious by his mother’s response or inability to respond appropriately to his demonstrated deviance. His mam is ill equipped to respond. She’s ashamed. She covers up his abuse. She sacrifices the young girls and women to her love for him. I kept asking myself throughout the writing questions like is it reasonable to imagine a mother might love her child to the point of sacrificing the welfare of another person’s child? How do you know whom you will give birth to? How will you know how to respond if your child is disturbed? We aren’t trained in these things. And if fear and stigma surrounds you would it be simpler to deny what’s happening.
We live with inexplicable urges to harm and do harm. We live with the results of that harm. It festers, ferments, repeats.
I return to the body even in the way his mother ultimately determines is her only option for dealing with him. (The Chair) and then his defiance against her and his own body with the kettle … and as I am typing all this out I think Oh Good Christ what have I written and how did I ever come up or contemplate such darkness?! But that’s who we are, that’s how we live, this is what we live with and have lived with and will continue to live with. We live with inexplicable urges to harm and do harm. We live with the results of that harm. It festers, ferments, repeats. It’s all very circular. Hence the loop throughout this novel: The repeat. The refrain. The chorus. The return. The form unrolls. The novel is hermetic only responding unto itself within itself.
CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO THE BODY IN YOUR WORK, LIDIA?
LY: WHY YES, I CAN (ha).
I think in my work I am endlessly exploring the idea that the body is both a site of meaning-making, a real epistemological place, as well as a metaphor for all experience. So the idea of a single character with a unified subjectivity and heroic journey has always confounded me, since I understand the body as a raging territory fraught with ecstasies and drives and wonders and terrors — an actual state of matter.
I meant to undo the novel with bodies.
So in my most recent novel, for instance, The Small Backs of Children, I lead with the body. The physical and emotional intensities of each so-called character ARE the content. Those physical and emotional intensities don’t obey traditional narrative rules, so the forms on the page had to be reinvented by and through actual bodies. The body of a girl. The bodies of straight women and lesbian women and bisexual women and men. I denied the story a main character, a unified subjectivity, a sit still and move through time and space singular body and replaced that tradition with fragmented and multiple subjectivities and bodies. I meant to undo the novel with bodies. Ha.
We both seem to be insistent on heightening the form to render certain kinds of content. I am endlessly interested in experiences that cause a crisis in representation — particularly physical and emotional intensities that render us speechless. Can you talk a little bit about your formal choices or interests?
AS: I am interested in form and language. Form as content. Language as form. Syntax as form. Martin John was predicated entirely on a loop. The loop reflects the cycle of abuse, the cycle of re-offense, the cyclical nature of his obsessive thoughts, the cyclical nature of his mother appeasing herself over his behaviour and hoping it will stop and not interrupting it and on and on. Hence in this novel I took form right into the syntax of the sentence, the sentences loop, they are circular. I deploy 5 refrains that weave throughout the novel and we return to them again and again. After I’d published Martin John it did occur to me one day while boiling the kettle that the form may have been subconsciously influenced by the liturgical response in Mass and since the church has also been a site of much abuse that wouldn’t be such an unreasonable starting place.
The circle is also an interesting form to touch on complicity and I try to do this by folding the reader in and out of the narrative a few times by addressing them with a direct question or prod.
I really want to know more about your decision to ditch on any single narrator in The Small Backs of Children. Are there writers who have influenced this in your work?
There are infinite ways to make characters and stories. I don’t know why we pretend otherwise.
LY: Yup that’s what I was yammering about a minute ago…I took as my alternative literary history/canon Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Marguerite Duras, Helen Cixous. Also Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia and the carnivalesque. Also Brecht. Because duh, PERFORMING our physical and emotional intensities. And a book that marked me forever with its over 63 characters — Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead. I took as true that there is no such thing as a singular coherent unified subjectivity, that all stories “resolve” through a multiplicity of voices and experiences, even though we have culturally legitimized and fetishized the “mono” voice of the hero or main character. What a crock. Ha. I fragmented the sacred “voice” of the hero and replaced it with a variety of voices, none more or less than others. Characters still emerged with stories to tell. There are infinite ways to make characters and stories. I don’t know why we pretend otherwise. Well I mean I do know why, the market, but I wish we could agitate consumer culture enough to wake up.
You don’t have to agree with me on this, but, as a writer of tricky material I remain daunted at times by the large number of entertaining and safe books that are dominating the market just now. When I say “safe,” I mean easily accessible, likable characters, escapist happy-go-lucky, transparent language (meaning no language engagement what-so-ever). Do you consider yourself to be a writer who agitates that market-driven norm, or do you just do what you do and try not to think about it? I think of myself as a direct action literary agitator. More and more. And I think of you as a comrade in this regard. Do you mean your writing to agitate?
AS: This is a curious question. I like the way it commences because I actually think this is a problem for women and women writers — this ridiculous insistence we must agree with each other. We mustn’t! Or it isn’t compulsory! In actual fact in this case I agree heartily with you. These are very conservative and risk averse times in publishing and often consequently on the page. Market forces are shaping our reading and readers should be suspicious of this and in my view reject it. The readers should send a steaming message back to the market of do not underestimate me.
I don’t want to find myself in fiction. I am curious about what the novel might become rather than what I know it already to be.
I do what I do. I don’t consciously agitate, but I do interrogate. I am too inherently curious and perplexed by mankind not to. My starting point is always form and language; that’s where I want to provoke. There’s a particular expectation of narrative fiction that I’ll never provide. It’s its own bland welcome mat. I don’t want to be warm and welcoming necessarily in my work. I’m not interested in creating a novel that mounts in traditional paragraphs that comprise heapy description. I’m not interested in novels that promise to authenticate and replicate a verifiable place or personhood. I don’t want to find myself in fiction. I am curious about what the novel might become rather than what I know it already to be. But I am a probably a weirdo and I recognize that the rest of the world may not share my literary peculiarities. That said it’s worked out pretty well so far for my first two novels, I am getting to talk to you! I’ve travelled a great deal with my work to festivals and it’s been warmly embraced critically.
“I think of myself as a direct action literary agitator. More and more.” You write in your question above… I’ve sat on a panel with you and seen that room stuffed with people who’ve come only to listen to you and whatever about the agitator, I’d describe you as a literary life force! You also have an exceptional ability to encourage and facilitate other writers to agitate and activate.
You do invoke and frame this agitation directly early on in The Small Backs of Children when you write: “What is the story of a self? What is a chronology? The history of a life? Which story should I tell to make a narrator etc. You, or your character The Writer more accurately, also swiftly dismiss or declared your suspicion of narrators and their unreliability for us. “I don’t trust narrators. They’re chickenshits.”
I’d be interest to understand more about this near Brechtian type address. You take out the holy ghost of Virginia Woolf swifto too!
(I HAVE MOVED THIS QUESTION UP A BIT ABOVE)
LY: (YES I SAW THAT and ANSWERED ALSO I ADORE YOU)
AS: I mean you lay out your terms very early for your reader. You deconstruct them. Curiously for me you echo or call back to The Chronology of Water. It’s interesting to see this blending or conflation of the works. Is or was this conscious?
LY: Hugely. I mean for the two books to form, deform, and reform certain material that exists in both. I’ve become uninterested in the question I get asked so often: “What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?” I am far more interested in the question: “How are they each deforming and reforming one another, endlessly?”
AS: Also I notice how you deploy what I’ll call “abruption” this combination of “interruption” and “abrupt” in your work. Do you want the reader to never know that the terrain is safe? The terrain can shift?
LY: I LOVE THIS WORD YOU MADE!!!! Yes, “abruption.” Mostly this formal strategy fascinates me because I don’t believe in linear time. Luckily science has my back on this one — time as an arrow is no longer accepted in physics. I think we live through micro-intensities — beginnings and endings that happen rapidly and intensely all the time.
Too, I think the intensity of an image or sound or smell or other corporeal system shock can sometimes stand in for a novel’s worth of storytelling. It has that weight for me. And I’m a HUGE fan of Willem de Koonig’s quote: “Content is a glimpse of something. It is very tiny, content.” I love the idea that “flashes” of intensity are as important as linear long traditional narratives. I love how one intense physical memory for Proust birthed VOLUMES. Ha.
Do you think women writers face a different set of literary challenges than their male counterparts? YOU DO NOT HAVE TO GO HERE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO. but if you decide to, i’ll go with you…ha.
Let the work speak. Speak about the work of women writers. Be interested in other writers’ work. Write about reading. Do not submit biographic confessionals to support or qualify your work’s right to exist.
AS: Yes I do. I think women writers need to resist what’s becoming a chronic pattern/exercise of over analysing the process of writing to the detriment of talking about the actual work. Let the work speak. Speak about the work of women writers. Be interested in other writers’ work. Write about reading. Do not submit biographic confessionals to support or qualify your work’s right to exist. Male writers don’t do this nearly as automatically as women writers seem to. There’s a real danger in the extensive reading of How I Write type essays rather than the actual novels the person has written! I think young and emerging women writers are caving in too readily to the confessional (often style less) as the only means to establish a publishing platform. It’s not. But that said market forces are demanding this of women writers and shaping such gestures as the only means to sell books. Social media will bounce such stuff about to a collective nodding for 28 hours, so it’s instant affirmation, which is understandably rewarding for any isolated writer. My feeling is: don’t supply it. Stop talking about the writing life, stop supplying and bolstering this economy/business of writing which has usurped the real business and preoccupations of reading and thoughtful discourse on literature.
I do think that there’s a requirement that women somehow owe an additional explanation about why they write what they write, if the content is risqué or dark, whereby my male colleagues would be asked about the work rather than to qualify on why they wrote it. Rightly or wrong, my sense is that this why question is usually a prurient inquiry that will only be satisfied, again, by some personal nugget or confessional.
There are other challenges. Opinionated women are often perceived as unattractive and punished professionally if men (and women perhaps?) with power object to them but these kinds of uptight limited minds are gradually falling off the planet and will continue to, so this erosion is helpful. There’s clear sexism in the programming of panels. There are still men who do not want to share intellectual space equally with women, but women are busy sharing intellectual space generously with each other and to be honest such dullards are a dying species anyway so they can fuck right off would be my feeling. The younger generations seem remarkable in comparison. I look at my son’s generation; they are sizeably more tolerant and inclusive in every possible direction.
Finally women should stop expecting to agree with each other and resorting to “you are with us or with the terrorists” type rhetoric, when they do not hear what they determine to be the only possible female consensus on x or y or p issue.
At base though, whatever your gender, it’s very hard to write well and you have to be ruthless in that work and make it the best it can become. Don’t settle too soon. Demand more from it. Read endlessly, do your life’s work and whatever the outcome no matter, because once you are six feet under your pages will remain above the earth and can still be read. This is my thinking on literary endeavours.
I recommend all women writers surround themselves with smart women and participate in such working relationships.
I couldn’t survive without my close intellectual female cohort in the various time zones they all live in. My confidants are important in informing my thinking and development. We support each other, we read each other’s work, we place value on each other’s critical insights and we exchange non-stop on reading and on what we are reading. I recommend all women writers surround themselves with smart women and participate in such working relationships. Of course I have male literary confidants who are utterly splendid and generous and with whom I talk daily. But honestly it’s the women who make me feel like I can do this work when I feel like I may never be able pull it off. They have practically raised me from the dead and defibrillated me in my lowest and gloomiest and most hopeless of hours and I’ve no doubt will continue to. I owe them everything and will leave this planet with such a trail of debt it would take two further lifetimes to settle it.
WHAT DO YOU THINK THE PARTICULAR CHALLENGES ARE?
I know you are heavily invested in community and would be curious to learn in your work as a teacher what do you observe to be the challenges for women writers?
(I lead a pretty sedate and isolated writing life and I am part tortoise so I don’t know if my understanding is entirely trustworthy or informed.)
LY: HEY I’M NOT SURE I SHOULD SAY ANYTHING ELSE HERE BECAUSE WHAT YOU WROTE IN THAT ANSWER SUMS UP SO MUCH OF THE NUANCE…I LOVE YOUR ANSWER???
Although he’s a pervert, or deranged, or a sexual predator who commits violent acts, I laughed out loud and hard many times while reading Martin John. Is there something wrong with me, or is part of your intention to transform the bile in our throats at the horror of his actions into laughter we can’t help?
I just think humour is critical to literary work. There’s nothing more strangling than the hum of earnestness.
AS: In the very dark there’s always light. I just think humour is critical to literary work. There’s nothing more strangling than the hum of earnestness. I can understand angry people, I can understand frustrated people, disappointed people but one thing I will never understand is humourless people. People who survive horrible situations and very challenging daily lives often do so thanks to humour.