Photo credit: Andrew Kovalev
Lidia Yuknavitch is an exceptionally talented writer who reveals the most deeply hidden, secret parts within people. Her 2011 memoir, The Chronology of Water
, was met with acclaim, winning several awards and gaining her a loyal fan base with its undeniable bravery and resonant use of language. Chronology
was quickly followed by three novels of equal caliber: Dora: A Head Case
, The Small Backs of Children
, and earlier this year, The Book of Joan
Her newest work, The Misfit’s Manifesto
, is a nonfiction call to action for misfits who are struggling with self-acceptance, and for society at large to gain insight into the value of misfits' lives and stories. This slim book, based on Yuknavitch's TED talk, packs a punch, featuring writing from fellow misfits on identity and place, as well as Yuknavitch’s own misfit narrative, in chapters like "Misfit as Artist" and "Bodies That Don’t Fit." As with all of her writing, The Misfit’s Manifesto
is impactful in deeply drawn ways.
How did you choose which misfit stories to feature in your book?
Well, I could have asked hundreds of people I know, but I narrowed it down by asking myself: How could I create a conglomerate of differences, and, who has told me about their misfit experiences? By “conglomerate” I mean people who come from very different places in life, and people who self-identify in varied ways relating to race, class, gender, sexuality, and life experiences.
What about the term "misfit"? What was your process for selecting this word?
I selected "misfit" because I have been haunted by the island of misfit toys since I was five. Well, “haunted” isn’t quite the right word — I completely identified with them and they are in the book. I carry their images and song close to my heart. But the word itself is just so literal. To “miss” fitting in. The word seems to be a kind of open space where we can tell stories about how we falter or fail or fuck up or feel maladjusted. Since so much air time is given to celebrity culture, success stories, and fancy people, I wanted a space and a word with open territory for all of the other stories, bodies, and experiences. It doesn’t really matter what “misfit” means to any one person. There isn’t any one definition that holds. It’s a place. A real place. Where stories to the side of mainstream culture or even stories at the edge of culture live.
In Melissa Febos's misfit story, she defines her own self-destructive impulses as "misguided attempts at connection." You talk about the role addiction has played in your life, as a means of escape, and you also tell about a writing student in one of your classes who had been involved in gang life and how, "for two years what he worked on the hardest was where to put your rage," and how you "convinced him the page would hold it." Do you believe there is a direct link between intense relationships with desire and the drive to create art?
So much yes. And I like your use of the phrase “intense relationships with desire” to describe things like addiction, or gang life, or self-destruction. There are a million ways to understand the seemingly self-destructive things we do to ourselves in life. I am invested in breaking down the mono-story of our missteps and mistakes, or gravitation toward danger or self-destruction, so that we can understand a multiplicity of stories, experiences, and bodies.
It doesn’t really matter what “misfit” means to any one person. There isn’t any one definition that holds. It’s a place. A real place. Where stories to the side of mainstream culture or even stories at the edge of culture live.
You write, “Death, grief, trauma are alive in our actual bodies,” and then talk about diving into the wreckage of these things to find a way to move those stories. The idea of shifting stuck energy, and the language you use of “standing up inside” our lives, are both incredibly powerful. Can you talk more about the act of moving stories through the body, and of the differences between releasing those stories into the world and releasing them from the body?
Everything that’s ever happened to you is alive inside your body. Your body carries your experiences with you. That ache in your lower back is a story. Where desire ignites on your body is a story. The way you get an eye twitch when you talk or think about certain things is a story. When you blush, sweat, laugh, cry — all stories. Your digestive system, your respiratory system, every “place” on or in your body is holding some of your life story. Your wrinkles and scars. Your body is a walking metaphor of your life.
Western literary traditions ask us to make our stories cerebral and to distance ourselves from body knowledge. To intellectualize our physicality. Well sure, that’s one way to tell a story, one way among thousands — and it has too often been the case historically that only select bodies and stories have been legitimized. The bodies and stories of oppressed and repressed people become the raw material for storytelling that intellectualizes the body or displaces the body into “character,” “action,” “plot,” and “protagonist." For example, women, people of color, LGBT folks, people with mental health difficulties, prisoners, refugees, poor people, and even the planet and animals... Our stories often emerge from the inside-out, and thus we have to agitate the tradition from the edges. We have to invent strategies for amplifying our voices and claiming space and legitimacy for our bodies, lives, and stories.
We have a lot to share with the culture that has used us as the raw material for its own legitimization and so-called progress. We are positioned to offer acts of storytelling that can act as cultural medicine.
Leading into Melanie Alldritt’s misfit story, where she poignantly states, “I am equipped to survive in ways most people are not,” you ask: “Where are the stories that might welcome us home in our imperfection?” There is a hopefulness in these stances, a request to be seen for your value in addition to your mistakes. Your response to your life not fitting into the "hero’s journey," which is to look for a story that’s “underneath, or beside it,” also feels like a suggestion to accept a third option beyond hero and villain — the Misfit’s Realm. Do you view "misfittery" as a fundamental step in society’s evolution?
Oh how I long for a third (and fourth and fifth and endless) term beside hero and villain. Yes. Bingo! The “misfit’s realm” is a space of creation and innovation and reinvention. I don’t know how I feel about that being a part of “society’s evolution,” since my current sentiment about our so-called evolution is that we are devolving at a rapid pace, but I do think that vision and invention come from the edges of culture.
Have misfits always been doing this?
Yes. I am obviously not the first person to amplify this story. I am merely one of a gazillion people trying to amplify their worth in the face of a culture so deeply saturated with ego, capitalism, and celebrity power. Misfits have from the get-go — even, likely, early cave painters — served a vital cultural role. We help keep storytelling alive. We help keep art alive. We help keep each other alive, even after great difficulty, error, or pain. We help keep the edges of things alive, noisy, and unflinching. We even help the center to hold its shape.
Your body is a walking metaphor of your life.
Listing how to identify whether you are a misfit, you explain: "We are not frightened by otherness. Misfits transform fear and anger and grief into expression rather than destruction — we give something of value to the rest of culture." The abilities of the misfit to emerge from self-destruction reinvented, to create beauty and new meaning from damage — do these traits suggest the possibility of the misfit as healer?
That’s a good question. I don’t think there is any one type of misfit, as I mentioned earlier, so I don’t think all people who self-identify as misfits are healers. I suspect that some of them are, however. But culturally speaking, not all healers are treated equally, you know? We burned some witches. We tortured and slaughtered indigenous populations in the name of progress. Some artists are outcast or shunned while others soar. So I think what I’d say is most important is to let this concept of "misfittery" open and expand into many different lenses, meanings, and stories. To open up storytelling.
Right before you tell the story about how you lost yourself over to grief when your daughter died, you say, "I haven't transcended anything. And my suffering is not a state of grace." All of your writing, both fiction and nonfiction, is anchored in the visceral, rather than the sentimentalizing of pain and loss as beautiful or romantic. How do you maintain this emotional integrity in your novels?
The visceral is a real place to me, not an imagined one. Our bodies are all we have to record human mammalian experience (I am choosing not to make a distinction between mind and body here). To bury raw experience, or negate it, or make it quiet or pretty suggests to me a suspicious cover-up of the legitimacy of the body inside her experience. I’m not saying every writer everywhere needs to explore the deep emotional nature of pain, loss, violence, sexuality, desire, etc. — clearly that would be reductive and stupid. I’m saying that I am merely among those writers who are inside that stream that leads to the greater ocean of all storytelling. We’re all just entering, crossing, and leaving our own tiny streams in the greater motion of all storytelling. This is what I have to contribute, my tributary, for better or worse.
Where are your stories going next? What will "the girl who nearly dies but then doesn't, who takes journeys no one has ever imagined before" do now?
I’m currently at work on a book of short stories about bodies and voices from the edges of things, as well as a novel that conjures the Statue of Liberty, among other bodies and places.
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is the national bestselling author of the novels The Small Backs of Children
, Dora: A Headcase
, and the memoir The Chronology of Water
. Her acclaimed TED Talk, "The Beauty of Being a Misfit," has over 1.5 million views. She is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award, the Ken Kesey Fiction Award, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pen Center Creative Nonfiction Award. She writes, teaches, and lives in Portland, Oregon. The Misfit's Manifesto
is her most recent book.