In her new novel, writer Lidia Yuknavitch (The Small Backs of Children, The Chronology of Water) has re-imagined Joan of Arc’s frenetic narrative for our thrashing, contemporary times. The Book of Joan (HarperCollins, April 2017) allows Yuknavitch — a self-described Queen of Misfits — an opportunity to visualize the carnage of society’s warped ideologies. If anyone could tell this story — giving voice to the complexities and fury of the female heroine — this warrior-author housed in girl-body possesses the creative wildfire to do so. Perhaps like Joan herself, Yuknavitch is a kind of vanquisher in her own right, distilling promise from the barbarism we’ve all endured.
Here, we discuss some of Yuknavitch’s favorite subjects — such as the thud of words, battlegrounds, the burning body, industry as suffocation, obliterating confines of structure, and perseverance against all odds.
What did you want to express about Joan as an archetype that we have not considered in previous cultural depictions of her?
I think it’s a potent point of origin — that we have to pluck out stories in myth and in history where there's a young-woman-warrior-type figure. When I was growing up, she was planted in my imagination as this other way of being a girl that was incredibly powerful, seductive and weird. All the stories told about her deviate from each other a little bit. If you mesh or weave historical accounts, you get this history that doesn't really agree with itself, so I was interested in entering that weaving. What I emerged with as a fiction writer is that I wanted to dislocate her from these various histories, and relocate her as subjectivity that has endless possibility — in a kind of quantum way. I purposefully took her out of medieval history and put her in a future tense — future to our world, but not very far.
How does Joan reject fear of the body in a way that women hold fear of the body?
In the story I wrote, she doesn't reject a fear of the body — but she does suspend her living inside that kind of fear. What interests me about the historical version, is that she put her body through these things as if she was fearless- but she had this intense relationship to God, so that's what made her fearless. If you read her trial notes, it sounds a lot closer to mysticism than it does the Christ story that we're inundated with and the one we inherited.
What does Joan's story represent in terms of how women are commodified?
Historically, there's this mythos that was built — that she helped win a war and then she was tortured and killed, and then she was redeemed into sainthood. When you go stand near her statues in France — the aura you feel — I mean, I'm an Atheist and I still felt shit. My whole body was like a tuning fork. So that storyline exists, but for contemporary women, I think the important question to ask is: Where do we hide and put away our warrior girls- in ourselves? And why do we do that? And what would happen if we didn't? What if that story could lead to other possibility places that are not war and violence?
You put that into powerful terminology that is also really transparent. That’s hard to do, because it's a complex subject.
Having been a teacher for twenty-eight years, I’ve seen the ways in which we shut down anger or rage or bellicosity or drive or aggression in girls and young women; and the way we praise and reinforce it in young men. "Where does that energy go in a girl body?" is an endless question for me. And what have we done to ourselves by shutting that down?
How would you describe our own culture's attempt at intentionally smearing a woman's strength?
The makeup and fashion industries have convinced whole populations of women that that’s what powerful sexuality is, and it works. The idea is, if a woman is spending a lot of her time and energy attempting to achieve a certain look and style in culture, that's energy she's not putting into other things. I admit I have really cranky old lady ideas about the beauty industry in America, but I'm gonna keep saying them because it's valid to me. At what point do we pick up the lipstick? And what agency have we given away when we do that? If the answer is none, great, but I'm unconvinced that that's the answer.
How is Joan's martyrdom appealing for you to render in a poetic and figurative tongue?
I sort of hate martyrdom —partly because my mother was a martyr. From my point of view, martyrdom has its roots in a patriarchal and incredibly Christian poison — because it makes it seem as if your suffering achieves grace. That is not an idea I'm down with — because how that has actually played out on the bodies of actual humans in the world has been to oppress people of color, women, LGBT people, poor people, insane people and imprisoned people. It’s a colonizing mythology. In my book, I had to do something else with her martyr-mythos; I re-rooted it to the heart of that place where creation and destruction are two sides of one thing.
What do you find important about Joan going from culprit to a celebrated fixture in history?
I love her outlaw-figure status; and all I really mean by that is, people whose lives went outside the lines of good citizenship, and therefore had to be re-contained by culture. But what I love about them is when they were outside the lines, defying everything and anyone, and doing it anyway. For a certain period of time, she existed outside of any inscription. I love that she had her own version of a relationship to God in the very time and place where the church was becoming its own power system. She was a resistance figure. She was like, "No. I don't like your story of God. Here is my story of God."
It's really prevalent — that a woman could be knocked down so far from the ledge, and is later revered as a hero. Something about that is so epic.
It’s fascinating, isn’t it? If you think about the Christ story and what happened to our man Jesús, her story is the only other icon story that even comes close to holding up as a martyred sufferer. What if another icon's suffering had created an entire belief system, and that body had been a woman's body?
Joan was obviously someone who experienced multiple defeats. Do you think resilience is something we are born with, or do you think we all have the same capacity to push through hardship?
I think as mammalian humans, we all have that possible agency. As we move through culture, we lose more and more of our own agency — because the stories of how to be a good person in society kind of rob you of whatever your agency might have become otherwise. Are heroes more resilient than regular folk? I’d say, no, they're not. We need and love the hero story so badly, we'll do almost anything to construct it- because it's scary to be human and alone and admit that there's no such thing as a hero. I'm probably going to be deconstructing the traditional hero story for the rest of my life, because I think it's outworn its usefulness. Who would be if we saw each other without the hero's journey pressing down on us as the most important archetype?
You often address "girl rage" in your stories. How do you choose to particularize that subject?
I like to explore it as a creative energy that needs forms of expression. We repress and oppress rage in girls and women, which just leads to it coming out in berserk forms. Girls and women don't get to fully develop, and boys and men don't either because they murder the feminine in themselves so they can be what we tell them to be in culture. When I'm writing these stories of girls who have all this rage, I'm trying to show that there's a beauty inside that energy, we just have to listen to what it needs.
Can you speak to why you crafted humans of the near future to be sexless and hairless — as discourse on gender?
I often say, "Gender is hoax.” The stories we've told ourselves about gender up until now have limited our understanding of ourselves. If we explored different paths of what gender may mean, away from binary thinking, we might discover an entire new way of being in the world. The speed with which that discussion has changed over the past ten years is very exciting to me, and I hope it keeps popping open and open and open and open.
How do the characters in the world you've created explore intimacy?
At the heart of this novel is me trying to deconstruct the trope of the love story, and therefore our super-saturated understanding of what love is.
Jessie Askinazi is a Writer, Photographer, PR Consultant and Director/Curator of the #YESALLWOMEN art project. She resides in Los Angeles, California. Follow her on Twitter @JessieAskinazi
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