Lidia Yuknavitch Writes to Break With the ‘Tyranny’ of the Past – The New York Times

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It was a sea turtle that changed everything for Lidia Yuknavitch. At 13, she spent time in Trinidad while her father, an architect, designed a shopping center there. One day, while floating in the Gulf of Paria, she said, a child-size turtle sidled up to her and placed its flipper directly over her heart.

The touch felt like “a relational exchange with a being that was not human,” she said. As a teenager, she said, she’d felt trapped in household marked by alcoholism and sexual abuse; the connection opened her mind to the possibility of a different life, one that was not defined by her home, her parents or her childhood. And it set a path she would pursue in her writing.

“Like so many other people, I’m looking for ways to live with a story of self and community and family that is not locked into where I came from, or how it was for me as a child,” said Yuknavitch, 59. “It’s a profound idea in life, that you can make a story that releases you from the tyranny of your past.”

Just as the sea turtle allowed her to believe that she could chart her own way forward, Yuknavitch said, her latest novel, “Thrust,” published by Riverhead Books on Tuesday, is an epic fable built on the idea that “it might be possible to change the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.”

The book follows Laisvé, a young time-traveler from the near future, as she escapes the sunken police state formerly known as New York City and swims into the past and the future. In each time period, she encounters figures from society’s margins: a “floating boy” in a juvenile detention center; the social worker assigned to his case; a 19th-century sex worker carrying on an epistolary romance with her cousin; the immigrant workers tasked with erecting the Statue of Liberty; and — in the very last section — children trapped in cages at the border.

Turtles, worms, and whales talk. The narrative is sweeping, nonlinear, and at times, disorienting. While writing, she said, she focused on the question: “If history swung around the edges, and captured the point of view of people around the edges, how would that shift the story?”

“I understand the world association by association,” Yuknavitch said. “And I see patterns everywhere.”

For much of “Thrust,” stories are linked by the objects Laisvé “carries” through time: an apple, a penny, a rope, an umbilical cord, a turtle. Yuknavitch plays fast and loose with traditional plot structure. Instead, the book operates more like a poem, relying on “repetition and rhythm and sound and association,” Yuknavitch said, which is closer to her own lived experience. (Tellingly, her 2011 memoir, “The Chronology of Water,” is not chronological.)

Her editor at Riverhead, Calvert Morgan, described her as “one part fiction writer, one part provocateur and one part world class dreamer.”

Yuknavitch, he said “thinks about story, and thinks about the powers that fiction can have, in a way that’s different from almost any other writer I know of who’s working today.”

Born in San Francisco in 1963, Yuknavitch started swimming competitively by age 6 and had serious Olympic dreams. She received scholarships to prestigious universities, but her father would not allow her to attend any of them, she said, calling them “snob schools.” While he was at work one day, her mother signed the paperwork for Yuknavitch’s full ride at Texas Tech. “I was trying to escape,” she said, and her mother “was trying to help me.”

There, she started experimenting with drugs, met her first husband, “flunked” out of school, and became pregnant. She then moved to Eugene, Ore., where she enrolled at the University of Oregon. In 1983, Yuknavitch gave birth to a stillborn daughter. (She was not using drugs at the time, she said.)

The experience of losing a child unmoored her. “I spent some time wandering around, living under an overpass in a kind of psychosis,” she said. During this “lost-my-marbles period,” she started filling red notebooks with gibberish stories about “girls with their hair on fire” and women “scratching and screaming and trying to get out and trying to survive,” she said.

“I started madly writing them down,” she added.

Soon, a friend talked her into counseling, others guided her back to the University of Oregon, and she became a student in Ken Kesey’s graduate-level collaborative novel workshop. After receiving a Ph.D. in postmodern literature, she became a visiting writer at San Diego State University, where she met her now-husband Andy Mingo.

Leah Nash for The New York Times

In 1985, she went to see her parents in Florida on her mother’s request. During her visit, her father nearly drowned. Yuknavitch pulled him out and resuscitated him, she said, but the experience cost him his memory. “He didn’t remember anything he did to us,” she said, speaking of the emotional and physical violence that marked her childhood.

She moved him into an assisted living facility in Oregon, and started writing “The Chronology of Water” after hearing voices while driving through the forest to visit him. She went back to therapy, and for the second time, she said, stories started pouring out of her. “Thrust” is Yuknavitch’s fourth novel.

For the past eight years, she has taught what she calls “corporeal writing” workshops virtually and in Portland, Ore. The workshops are based on the idea that “we’re all walking around carrying everything that’s ever happened to us in our bodies,” she said, and allow people “who want to make art and can’t afford M.F.A. programs, or fancy teachers, or just came out of rehab or incarceration deserve a space to write.”

In her workshops, she said, “somebody who’s published three books can be sitting next to somebody who just got out of jail.” (In her 2016 TED Talk, “The Beauty of Being a Misfit,” she said she herself “had two lovely staycations in jail.”)

The actress Kristen Stewart calls herself a “pseudo-student” of Yuknavitch’s, and flew to Oregon “with very sweaty hands” to meet the writer after reading “The Chronology of Water” on a film set. In the five years since, she has spent time with Yuknavitch’s family.

“She has opened up to me in full. I wish I knew her in so many stages of her life,” Stewart wrote in an email, adding that her mentorship has “changed or at least helped shape my relationship with expression itself. Not a small thing.” (Yuknavitch feels similarly, saying she believes the two have “a kindred art link.”)

Later this year, Stewart will direct the film adaptation of “The Chronology of Water,” which she also wrote. Yuknavitch is a story consultant on the project.

“Traditional structure was something that I always felt would ruin how uniquely true it feels,” Stewart said. “So it has been tricky!”

In order to keep herself grounded, Yuknavitch surrounds herself with rocks. There are nine plates of rocks along the ledge of Yuknavitch’s office bookshelf, and rocks on her desk. There are more rocks on the floor; she jokes that her rock-collecting might warrant an intervention.

“Rocks are made from particulates from all over the world. And then they come to form in the ocean; they get spit up on the beach. That’s how I think people are,” Yuknavitch said. “All I have to do is go stand in front of the ocean to realize I’m puny. I’m a particulate.”

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