Vanessa Veselka (author of Zazen, pictured above) and Lidia Yuknavitch (author of The Chronology of Water) had a conversation for The Believer on the subject of writing violent female characters. Part 1/3.
VANESSA VESELKA: A woman once told me that she loved Zazen but that it suffered for want of “women’s mysteries.” She thought Della should be doing something crafty, like sewing, knitting, or embroidery, which could represent the “feminine space” within the world she was creating. Has anyone ever asked you to have your female characters knit?
LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: As it happens, on several occasions. I’ve been advised to employ tropes or devices of “women’s ways of knowing” that have indeed included quilting, weaving, and other forms of the magical/domestic craft-space. I do think there can be something magically subversive about domestic private spaces, but the feminine forms we have inherited from sanctified literature pretty much make me want to punch someone in the face. What’s deemed unsanctified is when women writers select scenes of violence or explicit sexuality to manifest “women’s mysteries,” whatever that is. There’s a great book called Shoot the Women First, which is a collection of interviews with women terrorists and resistance fighters. I wrote a short story called “Blood Opus” based on those interviews, and the story actually made a woman reviewer cry.
VV: Cry because of the deep joy she felt when she recognized herself? Or because you are a Satan Lady who says scary things?
LY: Satan Lady.
VV: That’s what I thought. Okey dokey, then.
LY: Psychic territories of violence, physical territories, psychosexual territories – are so under-represented in women’s literature as to be almost invisible. It’s odd, too, since so much of world literature is filled with these amazing women like Medusa, Eurydice, Lysistrata, Artemis and Kali, who could be great wells of inspiration for artistic production. It pisses me off that they aren’t more. For instance, birth is one of the most profound violences of life. The reproductive moment is the beginning of life at a death moment – the death of both sperm and egg to “create” the third term. So it isn’t that archetypes bursting with possibility don’t exist around us. It isn’t that we’re incapable of writing it: look at Marguerite Duras, Kathy Acker, Mary Shelley. Look at your book, Zazen. The market and readers don’t want to have it. I keep coming back to the idea that we have to teach readers how to read us.
VV: Duras is still far too unsung. I discovered her late. I’ll never get those pre-Duras years back.
LY: Duras insisted that desire and violence and sexuality are always already available in language. The sanctioned spaces of violence for women in American culture seem to be either sexualized, like the vixen or criminalized and insane, or women who kill their children. There are non-demonized spaces rising, too, like the soldier’s story, or the woman lawyer or politician, crap like that. But the spaces of violence which individual women artists create completely that disrupt those norms – where are they? Marni Kotak is great. She just gave birth to a baby boy in a gallery space.
VV: I feel like someone should have done that before now, don’t you? I mean, what took so long? And what if there had been a problem with the kid? Would people have blamed it on home birth or art?