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A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The WavesThe Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

A Thanksgiving Wish

When you are carried away with your worries, fears, cravings, anger, and desire, you run away from yourself and you lose yourself.  Thich Nhat Hanh -- Taming the Tiger Within In an interview last week with the on-line news/entertainment/opinion website "The Daily Beast" the chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes, declared that NPR executives were Nazis for having fired long-time political correspondent Juan Williams. It was a stupid statement by a foolish man. The interview is replete with inflammatory and bombastic statements directed at a host of liberal institutions and pundits, but none as grievous as Ailes's invocation of Nazism.

His comments were so preposterous that to repeat them risks granting Ailes attention he does not deserve. But I was so troubled by this story.  I was distressed on two levels: that Ailes could so casually toss about the one of the most horrific chapters of recent history simply to create headlines for his own agenda; and that his remarks were emblematic of the current state of political discourse. Ailes as an agent of fury isn't an exception -  his voice is just one more in the cacophony of deluded Cassandras that have been howling themselves into a frenzy of late.

This is hardly news. And it certainly isn't new. There have always been sides chosen and partisan rhetoric slung, but I am far from the first to observe that the nastiness has increased in the past decade to a level not experienced in living memory. What occurred to me over the weekend is that we are all responsible for Roger Ailes. Each of us, regardless of political views, have created the conditions under which a Roger Ailes can find an audience and thrive.

I know when the change occurred. It began that late summer morning in 2001, a day that began with such beauty and ended in complete horror. In the months and years that followed 9/11, our shock and grief has turned to fear. And it is fear that creates anger. We fear what we cannot control, we fear what we do not understand and our natural reaction is to lash out at that which is foreign to us. We end this decade at war, our sons and sisters fighting in distant lands, and at war with each other, our nation divided into shades of blue and red.

On the eve of this most precious of American holidays, a day for gathering together to celebrate the bounty of our lives in this most generous, spirited, and positive of nations, I wish for a day of détente. I cannot bring home the men and women who are risking their lives in our names, but I can honor them by not contributing to the angry rhetoric that ripples on the surface of our national conversation. I can hope that we will come to our collective senses and move forward out of a shared commitment to healing and progress. I can support the public calling out of those who deserve a thump on the head, such as Mr. Ailes, without resorting to mockery or defamation. I can act out of compassion rather than contention.

There was a girl who, thanks to her diary that chronicled life under Nazi occupation, gave voice the horrors of World War II. She was one among the millions slaughtered during that dark time. Yet her voice has always been one of light and hope. She is the memory we need to invoke, a voice of peace and reason to overcome the ugliness we create:

"I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you and be happy." ~Anne Frank

Safety in Political Expression

This week several Puget Sound residents became victims of gun violence. Two young men shot each other down in a state park in front of families enjoying a Saturday picnic on the shores of Lake Sammamish. Saturday night, an intruder murdered a young mother and one of her children; another child remains in critical condition at Harborview. And last night, a woman who went out into her street to determine the source of a domestic dispute was shot. Accidentally? Does it matter? She is dead, at the hands of a person with a gun. I have rarely felt secure expressing my outrage, or even simply my opinion, in matters where politics are deeply entrenched. I do not think quickly on my feet. I am intuitive, not argumentative; I cannot retain an encyclopedic set of facts and figures in my head to add objective weight to my subjective assertions. I value discussion, but I abhor combative confrontation.

My political and social beliefs are a reflection of my values, what I regard as moral and ethical. I regard others' stances as reflecting the same about them. Entering into a confrontational debate with someone who I consider a friend or a loved one nearly always results in deep disappointment and hurt. I see in them a set of values that I do not understand and it makes me question the foundation of our relationship.

I have spent some time reading the opinions of a Facebook friend via his posts on a political blog. He writes with vitriol, contempt, and scorn, spewing forth opinions as acidic as the bile that must churn in his gut. It has made me so sad to witness his anger. And it has turned me away from posting links to op-eds or articles of a political nature to my own Facebook profile. I don't want to be a part of that same pool of people who are driven by headlines. It doesn't mean that I pay any less attention or that my opinions are any less firm; it means that I need to find a balance between the safety of remaining silent and the rightness of speaking my mind.

Last night, I read a line in David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a line written by an author my age, spoken by a Dutch physician living in Japan in the early 19th century: " ...So  little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to coexist than seek to disprove..."

The first sentence I find terribly sad, the second I take to heart. I do find so much worthy of belief, of holding to the light, of fighting for. But I believe little is gained in argument. Debate, yes, but in this era of screaming heads posing as journalists, vapid tweets and hyper-polarized political parties, Debate has been trampled on and left for dead by its mightier but less worthy opponent, Argument.

Writing allows me to take a step back, to take the time I need to formulate coherent thought, to research beliefs so that they can take the shape of well-reasoned opinion.

But in this instance I let intuition take over, I let the certainty of my heart speak, I let what I know to be moral ring through.

Access to and possession of guns, in the name of a distorted interpretation of the Second Amendment, has made this country far less safe and secure. Recent Supreme Court rulings represent an erosion of effective gun laws and set this nation on a frightening path of increased violence.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is at work in every state to enact and retain sensible gun laws.  I have to believe that we are better as a nation, united, than the angry voices of those who believe their personal rights- rights defined by lobbyists, not the Constitution- are more valuable than the lives of their fellow citizens.