July 16, 2015
Lidia Yuknavitch has said, “I believe in art the way other people believe in god.” Her devotion to art as both solitary practice and collective communication is gorgeously evidenced in her new novel, The Small Backs of Children (HarperCollins, 2015). The novel is a love letter to the power and pulse of art that can destroy us, unmake our world, and reassemble us as something we could not have imagined.
The Small Backs of Children is deeply complex and layered, yet also deceptively simple. The plot: Somewhere in Eastern Europe an American war photographer captures the image of a girl thrown violently airborne toward the camera lens by a bomb that obliterates her home and family. In America, a writer—the best friend and one-time lover of the photographer—having plunged into a deep depression after the tragedy of her stillborn daughter, becomes obsessed with the photograph. She begins writing, narrating the (imagined) life and experience of the forever-changed girl. When the writer’s depression gives way to catatonic despair, her best friend and their chosen family of artists decide to find the girl and bring her to the writer, an act that will either save or destroy them.
The thing about this novel is that it isn’t really about the plot. In fact, Yuknavitch warns us from the beginning that plots are malleable, never singular, and rarely the point. The characters are referred to not by name but by their arts practice, which is the truest expression of each character’s deep psyche. And art, like psyches, rarely unfolds in linear form. In relationship to the main narrator, The Writer, are her husband The Filmmaker, best friend The Poet, brother The Playwright, other friend The Performance Artist, and ex-husband The Painter. For most of the book, the only character who speaks in the first person is The Writer. But to whom does she speak? She says:
I’ve always been suspicious of narrators. And of characters, for that matter. Of the figures of speech we create to stand in for people. Or selves. There is something weird and unnatural about them—how they do what we tell them, how they obey. I don’t trust them. Narrators especially. Chickenshits.
So, what, then, is the story that Yuknavitch is telling? What are the questions she is asking?
As The Poet, a fearless queer woman who lives the linkage of pain, pleasure, desire, and language orchestrates The Girl’s “rescue” from Eastern Europe, another question emerges: Who is saving whom? And who is sacrificed so others may survive? The Girl, in the aftermath of the explosion, has found a childless mother-mentor whose husband has been disappeared by the war. Through the companionship of this woman, The Girl becomes an artist and begins to speak in language and images. The American artists assume they are rescuing her. But she will join them not as a victim, but as a fully embodied woman with her own sense of self and instinctive drive to survive in the unstable world that annihilated her family. Like each of the Americans, The Girl makes art at the intersection of her bodily experience of survival and her symbolic meaning-making of the world.
Readers familiar with Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books, 2010), will recognize familiar elements: the dead daughter, the trauma and abuse of the family of origin, the creation of chosen families of artists, the lovers of all genders, the painter ex-husband, the filmmaker husband, and the alive son. But do not mistake this novel for a fictionalization of Chronology. Those who have been reading Yuknavitch since her first short story collection, Her Other Mouths (House of Bones Press, 1997), will be able to trace the development and deep interrogation of an ethics and statement of purpose for the role of art and literature in the psyche and in the world.
Throughout her body of work, Yuknavitch considers these questions: What is the role of the fictional self? What happens when we revisit our stories and questions from different angles? What happens to the body when we make a story and at the same time live in the life of the body and the life of the story? In making a story, we play out fragmented fictional possibilities that allow us to amplify affect in exploration of the role of memory and history within our embodied selves – characters and writers alike. Again, from The Writer:
What is the story of a self? What is chronology? The history of a life? Which story should I tell to make a narrator, an American woman writer at forty-five—which plot, which pathos? Because any writer’s life knots are embedded in whatever story they tell.
I have invented hundreds of selves. Men and women.
I have peopled the entire corpus of my experience with fictions.
Who is to say they are not I? I them?
And if I tell the truth, this once, will it be any different from all the other tellings? How? In what sense would it matter?
We are who we imagine we are.
Every self is a novel in progress.
Every novel a lie that hides the self.
This, reader, is a mother-daughter story.
In Yuknavitch’s preface to her book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence: Tracing the Writing of War in Late Twentieth-Century Fiction (Routledge, 2001), she writes:
It seems at the very least fair to state that, if war is for the most part a matter of representation for the majority of people in America, then its meaning is for the most part a matter of interpretation. For traditionally we have understood representation not as the thing itself, but something that stands in for it. Thus it remains endlessly open to different points of view.
The artists who populate The Small Backs of Children are exploring both what it means to represent and how one represents the experience of a self confronting violence and survival. The artists in the novel are all coming as close as they can to remaking and reinventing in their art practices the actual body. The Painter works with body fluids. The Performance artist’s ultimate site of performativity is her body. The Photographer lives from moment to moment in her images and is forever changed through her witnessing. The Playwright translates their experiences into dialogue and stage directions as they unfold. The Poet pushes her body and the bodies of her lovers to the edges of their sensory tolerance in search of transcendence and transformation. The Writer, captured in The Filmmaker’s lens, swims out into cold ocean waters so deep and far that he no longer knows if she is acting the part of her film-self or is unable to come back, which may be the moment of metaphor for the book: From where do we return when we travel beyond the reach of those who love us?
And then there is photography and the photo at the center of the novel. And there is The Girl in the photo whose peril has captivated the American artists. In her book of cultural criticism Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes:
Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated.
The American artists are struggling to make sense of the liminal space between compassion and that privileged Western narrative of exploitive liberation. In their rescuing of The Girl, are they actually saving her, or are they taking her away from a brutal life—a life from which she has made meaning and attachments?
The Girl, in the mythology of the characters, has entered their world first as an image, as representation. But as The Girl begins to speak and to narrate her own experience it becomes clear that even though (or perhaps because) she is a victim of political and historical forces, she is not an uncomplicated, demure, easily likeable, innocent heroine. In her survival she has fostered resistance and aggression, and is unapologetically connected to her own vitality and sexuality. And throughout the story, she determinedly continues fighting for agency over her body and arts practices.
Will the life that the artists offer The Girl in their community bring The Writer back from the desolation of her own loss? What relationship can an alive Girl have to the ghost space left by a dead girl? Within these questions The Girl exists in the novel as both an actual girl, and as the symbolization of violence, history, and survival.
Similar to the girl in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the presence of The Girl evokes uncertainties about the blurred line between The Writer’s fantasy and narration of The Girl, and the actual corporeal girl. Ultimately, the book shows how, in the aftermath of trauma, none of us knows what is and is not real.
Says The Writer:
I go through the possibilities again. Maybe she is my dead daughter. And maybe she is me, or some relative before me. Maybe the girl is simply a metaphor for what we lose or what we make. And maybe the girl is just a girl, an imagined one, one created from the mind of a woman lost in the spaces between things.
And says The Girl:
But there was a family. My father the poet. My mother the weaver. My brother, my other, child gone to ash. I am like a blast particle – a piece of matter that was not destroyed, a piece of something looking for form.
And just as The Girl in her ethereal art-making sexual agency seems to pay tribute to Beloved, other writers and artists referenced by Yuknavitch’s characters include Samuel Beckett, Diamanda Galas, and The Bang Bang Club, whose photographs of violence in Apartheid-era South Africa fed conversations in the photographic and artistic community about the responsibility of the artist in times of moral and humanitarian crisis.
The influence of Carolyn Forché resonates through both the meta-questions of the novel, and a few passages that pay explicit homage to her poetry collection, The Country Between Us. Forché’s collection is an exploration and documentation of her time as a human rights worker in El Salvador. The two poems invoked of Forché’s are meditations on the limits of human violence and the intersections of cruelty and love in the context of cultural and political terror. Forché, whose work on the poetics of witness explores both the responsibility of the witness and the ways the witness is changed by the world, writes in “The Visitor,” There is nothing one man will not do to another. Yuknavitch responds There is nothing that one human will not do to another. And as Forché, in “Because One is Always Forgotten,” writes, The heart is the toughest part of the body. / Tenderness is in the hands. Yuknavitch meditates on the line and responds to it in tribute, update, and question, as she writes: What is the measure of loss? It is in the hands, the girl-gone-to-woman thinks. It may be the only thing she knows. It is not the heart. It has never been the heart. It is astonishing how much myth has been devoted to that fist sized muscle, that blood pump.
It is The Playwright, The Writer’s deeply wounded and fragile older brother, who considers the development of the self in conditions of catastrophe:
Who are we in moments of crisis or despair? Do we become deeper, truer selves, or lift up and away from a self, untethered from regular meanings like moths suddenly drawn toward heat or light? Are we better people when someone might be dying, and if so, why? Are we weaker, or stronger? Are we beautiful, or abject? Serious, or cartoon? Do we secretly long for death to remind us we are alive?
The Small Backs of Children is a deeply feminist novel if what we mean by feminism is an assertion of the agency of women and girls over their bodies, their self-stories, and their relationships It is also a deeply queer novel, if what we mean by queer is an interrogation of the expected, the normal, the easily assimilated and integrated, of both characters’ lives and the questions they ask. And queer also, in the fierce undomesticated bodies that struggle and insist on their truth and pleasure and urgent survival in the face of grief and loss, and a world that seeks to destroy them.
The Small Backs of Children is exquisite in its lyricism and its ability to articulate and amplify the experiences of suffering and survival. It is a powerful and necessary interrogation of the connections between familial abuse and state violence, and the role of art in engaging our bodies and saving our spirits. As we learn from The Writer and The Girl, healing isn’t pretty. It’s messy and sometimes damaging. But what other options are there?
As you read it, the story will enter your psyche like a lens presenting a set of questions you can’t not look through. And if you’re a writer, you’ll wonder how Yuknavitch did it — how she pieced it together, the pedagogy and the swirling story. And the ending? Well, there isn’t one to give away – not in the traditional sense of what we might mean by “ending.” You’ll have to read it to know what I mean. It’s open to interpretation—like a photograph.