“We Have to Create Alternative Habitats for Writers”

Lidia Yuknavitch on the future of literature and art in Oregon and beyond. Interview by Alex Behr.

Andrew Kovalev

In celebration of Oregon Humanities' fiftieth year, we are publishing interviews with forward-thinking Oregonians on what the future holds for our region. Read more of these stories here.

 

Lidia Yuknavitch, award-winning novelist, short story writer, essayist, and founder of Corporeal Writing, an in-person and online writing workshop practice, offers her vision of a new type of community art space in Oregon as well as her thoughts on creating more equitable economies and writing forms. Her newest novel, Thrust, will be published in June 2022 (Riverhead Books), and her memoir, The Chronology of Water, is being developed into a movie by actor and filmmaker Kristen Stewart.

Celebrating Alternative Genres

“The addiction to literary realism in this country is a roadblock to a deeper, more meaningful global literature we might be participating in. The addiction to capitalism and its relationship to art and literature is also a kind of sickness. In the future, perhaps those addictions will cease; I certainly see evidence of the cracks and fissures in the mighty monoliths of patriarchy and capitalism. One of the last things Ursula K. Le Guin said to me before she died was that I should keep working toward a fundamentally more humanist condition to interrupt empire-building with the stories I write. I’ll keep trying, even if the changes do not happen in my lifetime. That we try is what creates the electrical circuit we need to not give in or up.”

The Body as a Story Vessel

“When my daughter died the day she was born, underneath the loss and grief there was something alive. I realized that my body was carrying everything that had ever happened to me—that my body had knowledge and experience—and that my body was a walking story vessel. I began to explore what that might mean. That exploration brought me to write The Chronology of Water, and from there I have been trying to invent practices for people who are also interested in working outside of the literary traditions we have inherited.

“I’ve been to the bottom of the grief ocean, the loss ocean, the pain ocean, the abuse ocean. I’m still here, which must mean I figured out a way to push up from the ocean floor and kick myself to the surface. I learned how to do that from my body. And I know how to show other people how to find their own embodied stories. Many people have had a more difficult struggle than I have. But having life and death pass through my body in the same moment rearranged my DNA, so I know how to look for others in the world who are seeking liberation.”

Supporting Oregon Authors

“If we do not create and insist on alternative economies, only the fancy ones get any of the oxygen or empowerment, and only the already wealthy publishers and corporate overlords get the goods. How is that good for art and the heart? I just can’t live with that. There are hundreds of economies underneath and alongside the dominant markets and power structures. We have to sustain them together. We have to create alternative habitats where a writer can still have worth and vision and mobility even if they don’t score a ‘big five’ publisher or make a gazillion dollars. I started my literary life as an indie author. And my heart still lives in indie art. It is very important to me to support Oregon authors because Oregon grew me. For better or worse. Getting books moving toward hands is the least we can do. When books move hand to hand, body to body, a strong economy is born from human means. I also leave books in public spaces, so anyone who wants one can find one.”

Art Spaces for All Oregonians

“In 2011, I started working with people who wanted to write but did not have access to academia, mentors, or fancy writing programs. I was still a faculty member at Mt. Hood Community College, working full-time, raising a son, living in the woods. I worked one-on-one with incarcerated women and young people, as well as people who were recovering addicts and people without homes, for free. While I was doing that work, I met many other people who work with vulnerable populations, and I began to see that I might be able to create a space for people who can’t or don’t want to tread the traditional path to becoming a writer or bringing artistic expression into their lives. I have since left academia for the most part, and I have used the money I make as a writer to fund Corporeal Writing.”

The Writing Revolution

“I’m an atheist. When I look up, I see the cosmos, and my questions are about our relationship to all living matter and energy. Corporeal Writing’s motto, ‘We are the rest of you,’ reflects my hope that it might be possible to interrupt our cultural fixation with experts and gurus by writing in community and listening to each other. We have tried to build some rooms and realms where we invent our own artistic events in the face of a dark, weird, market-driven system that creates celebrities and worker bees.

“I am incredibly privileged to have any space at all to speak from. It doesn’t matter if I emerged from rough beginnings; I’m standing in a kind of rarified space. It’s not enough to say things like ‘I am using my privilege to amplify others.’ I try every single day to kick down walls, windows, and doors so that others might enter or pass through or even blow beyond me. For as long as I can, which is of course finite. Sometimes I fuck it up. Other times I’m useful, I think.

“None of us can do everything. But each of us can do our little bits of work that braid into larger efforts that may become something useful in the future.”

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