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The problem with a “Six Question Sex Interview” concept is that you can’t ask follow-up questions.  Lidia Yuknavitch is a writer who begs follow-up questions (so people, we’re just going to have to conduct them via the comments boards), especially to questions generated to all 28 writers of a given anthology—Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience.  For example, if I were interviewing Lidia alone, I’d have asked about her forthcoming novel, and why women writers like ourselves (Lid was my editor for my own first novel, also inspired by a Freud case study) are still so obsessed with Freud: are we still castrating him; are we fucking him through the generations, both or neither?  I’d have asked how a publishing industry in which almost all agents and fiction editors are female still manages to be an illustration of a fundamentally male power base (easy answer: shareholders.  More complex answer: I guess maybe we’ll tackle that in the comments.)  And so on.  An eternally, volitionally provocative writer and thinker, Yuknavitch was the author of one of last year’s hottest and most innovative memoirs, The Chronology of Water.  A longtime member of the FC2 editorial board and co-founder of Chiasmus Press  (as well as the short-lived but luminous two girls review), she’s been a fellow fighter in the indie publishing trenches for as long as I can remember.  Here, true to form, she plops her figurative balls on the table and—to my delight—throws down a French gauntlet or two to American readers . . .

 

TNB: You’re one of the contributors to a book the entire premise of which is women writing sex from male characters’ points of view.  On a scale of 1-10, exactly how nervous does this make you, in terms of every male critic on the planet potentially pointing a finger at you and your co-writers and deriding you for “getting it wrong?”  In a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (or wait, is that the reverse?) era, what would possess you to dare to try and . . . gasp . . . understand the other gender between the sheets instead of just throwing up your hands in helpless disgust like a good sitcom wife and saying, “Men!  Who knows what they’re thinking?”

LY: I don’t fell nervous at all, actually.  So I’m a zero.  If there is a male critic out there who is going to point a finger at me for “getting it wrong,” when what I have created is a space of desire that is always already available inside language itself – inside its fits and starts, its presence and absences, its reaching to name and glorious orgasm of temporary meaning which is also its own death of meaning (for something named can never be the thing itself)—what kind of chump would misunderstand women writing male desire as faux lady boner or ladies in campy drag?  I mean, we are writers.  I guess I’d have a brief sit-down with this male critic human, preferably over a scotch, and attempt to school him on the idea that there is no territorialism to language and the body.  The only territorialism, colonialism really, is the market and the gendered (male) power structure of the publishing industry.  But even thinking about having to educate yet another human about that makes me sleepy…

 

TNB: Sex is a fundamental human urge, and at its best brings human beings closer together.  Is it easier or harder to write from the perspective of a man having, chasing, or desiring sex than it is from the perspective of a man, say, going about the other business of his daily life?  Is sex the great equalizer?  And if so, why do so few literary writers–male or female–seem to focus on it?

LY: Well if we are talking about world literature, I think a large number of literary writers bring sex and sexuality to the forefront of their work.  In America, the publishing avenues most open – you know – green light for SEX – are market driven.  Porn, Erotica, Thrillers, Romance, Horror, other genre writing. So it’s both an open field for an American woman writer writing about sex and simultaneously a narrow field. Literary writers then face a double whammy – if you spill your juices too far outside the lines of a certain sanctioned version of “the sexual,” (i.e. don’t say pussy or cock or cunt or vag or cum too much) you risk losing your special status as a literary writer, you might, for instance, becomes an “edgy” writer (read: market risk) or a “counter culture” writer (gasp), AND you risk toppling over into mass market genres – which incidentally is where the money lives. This is less so in, say, France.  French writers get quite a kick out of our endlessly missionary writerly positions. Lots of other countries do too.

 

TNB: Tell us about “your” man in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience.  What drew you to him, and why did his story lead to the figurative or actual bedroom?  If you had the opportunity to have sex with this guy (presuming he is straight and you are straight), would you?

LY: My character is old.  He’s lumpy.  He’s covered with scars and age and the barnacle skin of living a commercial fisherman’s life.  He’s nomadic.  Not intellectual – and yet quite wise about living a workers life – a life committed to labor of a body.  He’s isolated from the regular socius and lives within a specialized tiny community of male workers that spend more time on water than land—like marine life.  He’s alienated from almost everything but his body, his labor, his physical existence.  So his sexuality is not “specialized.”  His being gay is not a special category to his existence.  It’s an extension of his entire being and corpus, and thus when he expresses himself sexually, he is man, woman, father, mother, son, daughter—as we all are figured and disfigured by and through language and desire.
You bet I’d have sex with this guy.  Though neither of us are exactly straight.

 

TNB: Many readers have come to Other Voices Books asking if we will now be publishing a follow-up anthology entitled Women Undressed, in which make writers explore female sexuality.  Although male writers have actually been doing this to great acclaim and/or controversy for centuries . . . think D.H. Lawrence to Philip Roth to Milan Kundera . . . maybe there is still more to say.  If such a book existed, what would you hope that your male literary comrades understood about female sexuality that their predecessors did not?

LY: Well on the one hand, all of literary history already writes that story.  So I don’t see why we’d need that book – certainly there is no need for a counter balance.  Jeez.  Hello?  See:  History of Western Literature.  Ha.  But I do think we’ve only begun to truly write our bodies as women.  Certain periods of national or world crisis seem to breed fissures through which female sexuality may be written, enunciated…but then they seem to suture shut and the market takes over again, both inscribing us in side a set of boneheaded cultural codes about the clean and proper body AND stealing our speech away…Speed way of saying it:
“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”
Hélène Cixous

 

TNB: Sexiest male character in all of literature?

LY: Orlando or Frankenstein.

 

TNB: Recently I was listening to a radio show on which they reported a survey they’d done on how old men and women can be and still be considered “sexy.”  As you might guess, women’s ages came in younger than men’s, at 44 and 52 respectively.  On the one hand, I have to admit that these figures are probably quite a bit better than they would have been twenty years ago, but on the other hand–wow, harsh that in an age when people are routinely living into their 90s, the culture basically asexualizes them for the entire second half of their lives!  This smacks of some serious ageist bullshit to me.  Tell us about the sexiest, smokingest older person you’ve ever known–male or female–and give us all some hope, will you?

LY: Um, Kathy Acker was older than 44 when I met her and all I can say is mop up on aisle 5:  lidiapuddle.  See also Elfriede Jelinek.  Gah.

Gina Frangello GINA FRANGELLO is the fiction editor of The Nervous Breakdown. She is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (forthcoming from Algonquin in Feb 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is also the Sunday Editor at The Rumpus, and was the longtime editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, as well as the co-founder and executive editor of its book imprint, Other Voices Books (now an imprint of Dzanc Books). Her short stories have been published in many lit mags and anthologies, including A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and Fence, and her essays, journalism, reviews and interviews have appeared in such venues as the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and the Chicago Reader. In her nonexistent spare time, she runs a writing program out of Mexico, Other Voices Queretaro.

9 Responses to “The Six Question Sex Interview: Men Undressed Edition: Lidia Yuknavitch”

  1. This is a fascinating exchange. Her answers have enough wit and insight that, yes, this could have gone on well beyond six questions.

    I like her response with regards to writing from a male POV that “there is no territorialism to language and the body.”

    I also like her description that French writers get a kick out of “our endlessly missionary writerly positions,” though I’m not sure I entirely agree with it. It’s true that there is often a perceived Puritanism to the US. But to me, the French, in literature and elsewhere are casual enough about discussing and depicting sex that it loses some of its charge. In certain writers – and I’m still better versed in contemporary American lit than French despite residing over here – sex becomes something close to a regular bodily function. This is freeing in some ways, but lacks the forbidden, unspeakable aspect that still seeps into American storytelling and that in many cases results in more emotional, more creative work. I think many French critics would acknowledge this, even if grudgingly.

    Excellent interview, Gina.

  2. What you describe, Nate, is definitely very Dutch or Swedish, yes–sex can seem almost like brushing your teeth. Very low ages of consent, no qualms about co-ed and casual nudity, bare breasts on billboards to sell icecream bars . . . in many ways I like the casual Northern European attitude about sexuality (love the grandparents taking toddlers to the Gay Pride parades, for example), but in other ways it seems sad to me, devoid of mystery and essential human drama. I never really saw quite that same attitude in France, Italy, Spain–it seemed weirdly specific to the colder regions of Europe–but I haven’t lived over there in more than 10 years now, so perhaps that permissiveness and laissez-faire sensibility is spreading south rapidly. That would be a bummer in some ways. Especially since the more relaxed sexual attitudes of northern Europe hasn’t necessarily translated to more power for women. Fewer than half of Dutch women work full time, and something like only 10% of companies have a woman in their top tier level of executive power. So it’s quite a mixed bag, something Americans don’t see easily from this distance of an ocean away. A complex brew of “On the one hand, women are less likely to be branded a slut, but on the other hand she’s even more likely to be economically dependent on a man” and I’m not at all sure that domestic or sexual violence is actually much lower behind closed doors (though of course “street violence” is much, much lower, of all types, in all of Europe than here). Anyway, that’s all a bit far afield from “missionary literature,” but I do tend to think that Americans glamorize exactly how Awesome it is to be female in Europe, or exactly how liberated Europeans really are. The French are historically a sexy lot, so there’s that. But all you need to do is watch the French films of the 1980s and 90s to also know that there has never been a culture more obsessed with the “sexual outlaw” as a ruined and doomed figure, and almost every fucking French film I saw for 15 years ended with a female suicide. I guess I mean, Well, it ain’t that easy folks. Being a chick is hard all over. I also don’t think American literature IS missionary. I just think the American corporate publishing industry is missionary. There’s a difference–it’s subtle, but it’s there, and it is, like most things in America, more about our obsession with money than with anything else.

  3. Shannon says:

    I really like this a lot.

    And Gina you’re entirely right, more questions are needed. I want to read more. Your last question makes me very happy. This was a pleasure to read.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    Forty-four is fucking ridiculous. We watched that Gloria Steinem doc on HBO; she’s in her 70s, I think, and she’s still got game.

    Frankenstein, or Frankenstein’s monster? Big difference. Emphasis on the word “big.”

    • rob roberge says:

      With you on both points, Greg…Gloria Steinem still very much has game…

      And I was wondering if it was Victor F. or the Monster. Probably the Monster, no? Victor’s smart and all, but has terrible father issues and insecurities and his hand-wringing self second-guessing would probably be kind of a drag…if you’re going to play god, you have to be willing for shit to go very wrong and roll with it. I don’t want to speak for Lidia, but I’m leaning toward the Monster.

  5. Greg, you’re gonna have to get Lid drunk someday and ask her about that one . . .

  6. Gary Percesepe says:

    wonderful interview–love, LOVE it,

    g

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