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Question from Doctor:  I can’t seem to identify the location of your pain.  Where does it hurt?

Lidia at 49:

It hurts in my skinsong.  It hurts in the years it’s taken to unlearn
everything I was told about my own bodymind.  It hurts when I
breathe too loudly and hear my father’s voice chiding me, my sister,
my mother:  “Do you have to breathe so loudly?”  It hurts when
someone I love is suffering needlessly—some person or force or lack
making them feel “less than” or wrong—it hurts knowing the only
way through is through this death culture teaching us a woman’s body
is always and forever a thing.  Is that in my arm?  My leg?  My breast?
My vagina?  My head or heart?  Yes.

Mother is cleaning the spoons again. From where I sit in the kitchen, I can see the reflection of her trippy-looking head: bulbous skull, stretched down mouth, eyes that scoop away at the rest of her face. A droop-faced woman. Jeeeez. Just look at her. She’s rubbing the holy crap out of those spoons. Poor, silvery utensils.

That’s what it felt like to be her kid, too.

Writers are by definition obsessed with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week I’ll ask a different writer five or so questions on the subject. This week I talked with Lidia Yuknavitch. She is the author of the novel Dora: A Headcase, a modern farce, and The Chronology of Water. And some other books. She writes and teaches and loves and mothers in Portland, Oregon. “Explicit Violence” will appear in the forthcoming anthology, Get Out of My Crotch, due out from Cherry Bomb Books in 2013, co-edited by Kim Wyatt and Rumpus columnist Sari Botton.

Rhonda Hughes is the powerhouse behind indie publishing sensation Hawthorne Books.  More than a decade old and located in the Pacific Northwest, I had heard of Hawthorne only vaguely until a couple of years ago, when suddenly they seemed to burst as a force to be reckoned with onto the publishing scene, with highly assertive and competent marketing, beautifully designed books, and the kind of wider distribution that seems, to many small indie presses, only a tantalizing dream.  They’ve also developed a stable of writers from whom they put out more than one title in fairly close succession, in an old-school publishing model that favors loyalty and cultivating talent/brand above constantly trying to throw All Things New against a wall to see what sticks.  Plus, they have a whiff of Chuck Palahniuk cool about them, which doesn’t hurt!  Amidst her busy schedule, Rhonda was able to talk with me about what makes Hawthorne tick—and thrive—and some future exciting projects on their list.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Another year has come and gone, and it’s time once again to present The Nobbies, the official book awards of The Nervous Breakdown.

Below you’ll find this year’s winners, our picks for the best books of 2011.

Congrats to the victors, and their publishers.

And thanks, as always, for reading.

-BL

 (The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])

 

1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

chronology_of_water_121_200

Given a choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief.”
—William Faulkner

I wasn’t prepared for this memoir, this baptism by fire that Lidia Yuknavitch pours out onto the pages of The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books). I was aware of the controversy about the exposed breast on the cover, the grey band of paper wrapped around the book to appease those who can’t stand to see such obscenity. I was lured in by the glowing testimonials of authors I know and respect, people like Chuck Palahniuk, Monica Drake, and Chelsea Cain (who writes the introduction), her close-knit group of fellow authors, her workshop, support group, therapy and champions. But no, I wasn’t prepared for her voice—the power, the lyrical passages, and the raw, crippling events that destroyed her youth, but made her the woman she is today: fearless, funny, honest, and kind. By not being prepared, the opening lines hit me hard, and I in fact stopped for a moment, realizing that this was going to be bumpy ride, a dark story, but one that held nothing back. So I took a breath, and I went under:

The Less Than Merry Pranksters

Kesey, who was at the far end of the room, walked his barrel of a body straight over, pulled out a chair for me, and said, “Well HELLO. What do we have here? A triple A tootsie.” It was the first time I’d seen him not in a photo or at some Oregon literary event. The closer he came, the more nauseous I felt. But when he got right up to me, I could see the former wrestler in his shoulders and chest. His face was moon pie round, his cheeks vividly veined and flushed, puffy with drink. His hair seemed like cotton glued in odd places on a head. His smile: epic. His eyes were transparent blue. Like mine.

While everyone was laughing about the tootsie remark he leaned down and whispered in my ear, “I know what happened to you. Death’s a motherfucker.”

In 1984, Kesey’s son Jed, a wrestler for the University of Oregon, was killed on the way to a wrestling tournament when the team’s bald-tired van crashed. My baby girl died the same year. Close to my ear, he smelled like vodka. Familiar.

He handed me a flask and we got along and bonded quickly the way strangers who’ve seen aliens can. That’s all it took. No one ever questioned me, least of all Kesey. It was brilliantly incomprehensible to me. I loved it.

I was 25.

At a reading at U of O during that year Kesey stood on a table and screaming into the microphone “Fuck You, god, Fuck You!” The crowd of about 500 burst into cheers. He believed in spectacle. In giving people the show.

My distinguishing characteristics felt like tits and ass and blond. Sexual things. All I had.

In the winter of the year of Kesey we all went to his coast house near Yachats together. A run down old place with wood paneling, a crappy stand up shower, a table with some chairs, and no heat. But the front windows looked out onto the ocean. And of course the rooms were filled with Kesey. We drank, we walked on the beach, we listened to Kesey stories. Look I’d tell you the stories but you already know them. And he’d say the same ones over and over again. We were, simply put, a pile of new ears. At the coast house we listened to stories about Tim Leary and Mason Williams and Jerry Garcia and Neal Cassady. At the coast house we got high, some of us fucked some others of us, we wrote in little notebooks. We slept on the floor in sleeping bags. We waited for something to happen.

It wasn’t until the following year, the year that was not the collaborative writing class, the year after the book we wrote that was not very good came out that made me feel like we’d utterly failed Kesey, the year after he’d ended up in the Mayo clinic for his affair with his lover, vodka, we met once at his coast house by ourselves.

That night he boiled water and cooked pasta and dumped a jar of Ragu on it and we ate it with bent old forks. We drank whiskey out of tin cups. He told life stories. That’s what he was best at. Me? I didn’t have any stories. Did I? When it got dark he lit some crappy looking ancient candles. We sat in two wooden chairs next to each other looking out at the moonlit water. I distinctly remember trying to sit in the chair older and like I had been part of history. Which amounted to extending my legs out and crossing one ankle over the other and crossing my arms over my chest. I looked like Abe Lincoln.

Then he said, “What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you in your life?”

I sat there like a lump trying to conjure up the best thing that had ever happened to me. We both already knew what the worst thing was. Nothing best had happened to me. Had it? I could only answer worst. I looked out at the ocean.

Finally I said, “Swimming.”

“Why swimming?” he said, turning to look at me.

“Because it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at,” came out of my mouth.

“That’s not the only thing you are good at.” And he put his huge wrestler writer arm around me.

Fuck. This is it. Here it comes. His skin smelled . . . well it smelled like somebody’s father’s skin. Aftershave and sweat and whiskey and Ragu. He’s going to tell me I’m good at fucking. He’s going to tell me I’m a “tootsie”—the nickname he’d used on me the year of the class. And then I’m going to spread my legs for Ken Kesey, because that’s what blond clueless idiots do. I closed my eyes and waited for the hands of a man to do what they did to women like me.

But he didn’t say any of those things. He said, “I’ve seen a lot of writers come and go. You’ve got the stuff. It’s in your hands. What are you going to do next?”

I opened my eyes and looked at my hands. They looked extremely dumb. “Next?” I said.

“You know, in your life. What’s next?”

I didn’t have a plan. I had grief. I had rage. I had my sexuality. I liked books more than people. I liked to be drunk and high and fuck so I didn’t have to answer questions like this.

When I got home I cut all the hair off on the left side of my head, leaving two different women looking at me in the mirror. One with a long trail of blond half way down her back. The other, a woman with hair cropped close to her head and with the bone structure of a beautiful man in her face.

Who.

Am.

I.

I never saw Kesey again. His liver failed and he got Hepatitis C. In 1997 he had a stroke. Later he got cancer and died. But I’m of the opinion he drowned.

There are many ways to drown.


A Gemini Interviews Her Other Mouth

 

Gemini: I suppose you remember what your mother told you about Geminis…

Lidia: Yup. She said, in a thick southern drawl, “Well, you know, being with a Gemini is like being in a room with 50 people.”

 

Gemini: So which you are you today?

Lidia: The Lidia that just picked her kid up from school on her way to the grocery store before she washes clothes.

 

Gemini: Ah. The domestic Lidia.

Lidia: Correct.

 

Gemini: She’s fucking boring.

Lidia: Gee, thanks. But you are dead wrong.

 

Gemini: What’s not dull about domesticity?

Lidia: Gee Gemini, lemme make a list. There’s the fact that our bodies generate, oh, I don’t know, ALL OF HUMAN LIFE, we are the other side of masculine action in terms of reflection, repetition, cyclical experience and generative practices, we make a place of comfort and grace for a body to come home to—

 

Gemini: Busted. You are the worst housecleaner I’ve ever met and you know it. Forget dust bunnies. You’ve got dust godzillas…and I know for a fact there are year old underwear and socks under your bed.

Lidia: I’m not talking about housekeeping. I’m talking about how a woman makes a compassion home of not only her body, but any environment she comes into contact with. Even you do with your bitchy, fierce, chaotic, electric body.

 

Gemini: Oh Jeeeeeeez…..I was wondering how long it was going to take you to get to talking about bodies. That took like 15 seconds. What is your DEAL with bodies? COW is crawling with them.

Lidia: Well, you already know my DEAL with bodies…I love them. All of them. I think they are pretty much the coolest thing in ever. I wish more of us could love them with abandon. The book is a bodystory, and I told it in the hopes that other people might think about their own body stories. I think the body is a metaphor for experience and an epistemological site. And having carried life and death there, I feel like I am in a good position to speak about the body.

 

Gemini: Man. Talk about a buzz kill. But since we’re on the topic – why didn’t you tell in your book what your daughter’s name was?

Lidia: Lily. I couldn’t make a sentence big enough to hold her.

 

Gemini: What’s the one sentence in COW that matters to you the most?

Lidia: “Love is a small tender.”

 

Gemini: That’s not even a grammatically correct sentence.

Lidia: Fuck grammar. It’s fascist in its need to shape experience away from bodies.

 

Gemini: WHATEVER. Again with the bodies.

Lidia: And language. What sentence matters the most to you?

 

Gemini: I think it’s a cross between “This is your daughter leaving, motherfucker,” and “Even angry girls can be moved to tears.”

Lidia: I can understand that. Your you and my me have a lot in common—two sides of a girlbody.

 

Gemini: Why does the body matter? I’ve been throwing this body at life forever and it’s a wonder it’s still functioning…isn’t it the brain that saved us? Isn’t it the brain that makes pretty much everything matter?

Lidia: Well I don’t buy that old Cartesian Dualism thing. There is no mind body split. But the mind is more culturally valued and sanctioned than the body, and the body is more objectified, abjectified, and commodofied in this culture. Like Whitman, I am interested in the mindbody that is closer to energy and matter and the whole DNA spacedust universe shebang.

 

Gemini: Oh I see how you are. Now you are trying to be grad school mouth Lidia. OK smarty girl, how would you define “edgy?” Isn’t that what you are trying to be?

Lidia: Actually, to be honest with you, I think I’m just trying as hard as I can to be precise. Not edgy. I guess I’d define edgy as twitchy and confused. Tweakers and Republicans come to mind. I think when people call certain kinds of writing “edgy” they probably mean it made their brains itchy or something…but in COW I tried to be exact is all. Emotionally, linguistically, physically, lyrically, exact.

 

Gemini: By the way. I know why you refer to The Chronology of Water as COW. And it ain’t bovine.

Lidia: True.

 

Gemini: You wanna tell em, or should I?

Lidia: Go for it.

 

Gemini: “COW” is the euphamism Gertrude Stein used to refer to …

Lidia: Spanking twinkies.

 

Gemini: Which is your favorite bodily fluid?

Lidia: That’s easy. Cum and tears. Because they are salty like the ocean. Although Andy and I did have a good run with breast milk.

 

Gemini: Speaking of bodies and women and language, rumor has it on the cyber streets that you like to sometimes give readings wearing a special outfit.

Lidia: Occasionally.

 

Gemini: Did you ever worry that the “outfit” might embarrass your husband and son?

Lidia: I don’t know…hold on a minute and I’ll go ask them…

 

Gemini: HEY! While she’s out of the room lemme tell you some secrets about her…she likes to wear wigs, in her thirties sometimes on airplanes she’d adopt a foreign accent and invent a name, she plays clarinet, she once peed on the steps of the Capitol, and she once broke into someone’s home and stole all their stuff so they could collect the insurance. Luckily it was a long long time ago. Oh. Crap. She’s back…

Lidia: So I asked Andy and Miles if my reading outfit embarrasses them. Andy said, “Well, sort of it must, because I kind of get a stomach ache when you do it and I think to myself, oh Lidia…” And Miles said, “No, you just look more like you.” Why do you have that shit eating grin on your face? Have you been telling stories about me?

 

Gemini: Absolutely not. So here’s a question that’s been bugging me.

Lidia: Shoot.

 

Gemini: Why is your COW book all …. You know, choppyish?

Lidia: You mean why is it written in fragments and out of order?

 

Gemini: Yeah. Like I said. Choppy.

Lidia: Because I was trying to mimic the way memory works in biochemistry and neuroscience terms. Pieces of things brought together in a resolving system.

 

Gemini: Look at the big brain on the lid. Gimme a break.

Lidia: Seriously.

 

Gemini: Yeah I KNOW. Isn’t this partly why no agents will touch you? Because you have to “do things” to your stories? Every thought of telling them like a normal human being?

Lidia: I am telling them as precisely as I know how…I am telling them the way they feel to me, as true as I can get the language to go strange.

 

Gemini: Yeah yeah yeah. Tell the truth but tell it slant. Dickinson.

Lidia: Yup.

 

Gemini: Look how much action that got her. No offense, but she was kind of an isolate. Definite bummer at parties. Not a very snappy dresser either, I might add.

Lidia: Well, I am quite fond of isolates. And I used to have to breathe into a brown paper bag at parties in the bathroom. And my fashion sense is questionable.

 

Gemini: I’ll say. Ever heard of this thing called a “haircut?”

Lidia: I think you got all the social genes…and I’m guessing I have you to thank for all the unusual undergarments?

 

Gemini: Bingo.

Lidia: And rule breaking? And un-ladylike behavior? And anger? And propensity to fuck up? And a wide variety of boots? And potty mouth? And sexual excess? And drugs and alcohol and…

 

Gemini: Do you have a point, oh miss big breasted faux mother goddess?

Lidia: Yeah. I have a point. Let’s throw a lip over it and drink to it. My friend Karen Karbo gave me a bottle of Ardbeg, and my friend Chelsea Cain gave me a bottle of Glen Livet. Choose your poison.

 

Gemini: Sure you wouldn’t rather brew a nice pot of Jasmine hippie tea?

Lidia: I’m sure. I’m the one who let you into my lifehouse, my bodyhouse, my wordhouse…we are only me together. Cheers.