Tag Archives: Lidia Yuknavitch

Big Loves: Devin Murphy on Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children

DevinMurphy-300x200Every so often a book I have yet to read makes me nervous. I think this is a self-defense wall my writer-self intuitively constructs to steer wide of new voices that may influence me when I already have my own narrative voice locked into a project. This is why I circled Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children on my shelf for a while before I picked it up. I was afraid it would contain some sort of tick-like voice that would burrow under my skin. When I finally opened the novel, I knew I was right to be cautious.

This book makes us all culpable. We consume news, culture, and images that touch us but we swipe them away, or turn the page. We have our own lives. The image of some other life in the news may be poignant, but on the other side of the world, they seem so far removed it may as well be fiction. These photos may even become iconic but rarely cause us to act. Think of the naked girl in Vietnam running after napalm stripped off her clothing. Or the stirring green eyes of the Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic whose life had been upturned by invading Russians. These images keep coming. In The Small Backs of Children, the central image is a picture of a girl in Eastern Europe being uplifted and tossed from an explosion at her back, an explosion that atomized her family and thrust her into a cold, brutal life.

Small Backs of ChildrenWith this upheaval we begin to see the world this girl is thrust into. Yuknavitch writes, “This is a world of men. They come into your country, they invade your home, they kill your family. They turn your body into the battlefield—the territory of all violence—all power—all life and death.”

The girl also enters into the consciousness of a woman on the other side of the world who is dealing with the paralyzing loss of a stillborn child. The grieving woman cannot let go of the image of the girl launched into the air and is so empathic that she is willing to sacrifice and act because of the photo. She looks at the fire-rimed girl and feels hurt. The woman decides the image is worthy of trying to make another’s existence less tragic, and sets out to save her.

Yuknavitch’s novel does not let us turn away from this image. She is fearless in her gaze and delves into all the cultural and personal culpability such an image masks. In doing this she slips into the grotesque, overtly sexual, and dislodged longings of her characters. The characters don’t have names. We know them as The Girl, The Writer, The Photographer, The Widow, The Poet, The Playwright, The Filmmaker, and the Writer’s Husband. Maybe real names bring accountability and hold us back from revealing our vulnerabilities, our deep, dark truths. Those truths are what this author spills onto these pages.

Boat Runner

This is at times a shocking book. Though what shocks us these days? Pictures of dead children don’t seem to. Bleeding children? Angry white men hoisting old Confederate flags? Black men being choked to death? It is all at our fingertips. We have a smorgasbord of suffering to tune out, to block away. Yuknavitch confronts us on this: “All the artists we admired from the past came out of the mouths of wars and crises. Life and Death. We come out of high capitalism. Consumerist monsterhood.”

Reading this book, we realize that it cannot be good for us to harden and remove ourselves from the lives of others outside our lanes. This book wants to swerve in and out of that mindless traffic, to disrupt, to raise the heartbeat of everyone nearby, to remind us that we are human and messy and so are those depicted in flat images we so easily swipe away. This is a book that aims for a difficult goal: To make us really see.

Devin Murphy‘s debut novel, The Boat Runner, is out now with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. His fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, The Chicago Tribune, New Stories from the Midwest, and Confrontation, among others. He lives with his wife and children in Chicago.

For original poetry, fiction, interviews and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Sara A. Lewis’s Anticipated Books of 2017

Always Happy Hour, Mary Miller (Liveright, January)

happymillerThis book’s cover image is a woman in a bathtub eating Chinese takeout and drinking wine straight from the bottle. These are stories I can get behind. If all of them are even half as good as “Little Bear,” which was published earlier this year in the Mississippi Review, this will probably be my favorite book of the year.

 
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker (Tin House, February)

there-are-more-beautiful-things-than-beyonce-by-morgan-parkerParker’s Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night was selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize. Her new book has garnered praise from Roxane Gay, D.A. Powell, and Lena Dunham. These poems are timely and relevant; they engage and confront popular culture in ways that are both accessible and poignant. Tin House Books consistently puts out some of my favorite books each year, and I’m sure this one is no exception.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (Deckle Edge, February)

saunderslincolnThe master of the short story has written a novel. While technically historical, Saunders claims this is mostly science-fiction. The novel centers around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie during the Civil War, an historical fact, which when put through the Saunders machine results in a story about ghosts, the struggle for Willie’s soul, and the bardo (Tibetan purgatory). Sold.

The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper, April)

lidiajoanYuknavitch is the queen of corporeal writing. In addition to the release of The Misfit’s Manifesto, a book based on her TED Talk, I’m looking forward to reading The Book of Joan, Yuknavitch’s speculative retelling of Joan of Arc. With each project, Yuknavitch has continued to redefine what a narrative can do, pushing the boundaries of perspective and resisting the tidy (or even discernible) conclusion. This book promises more badassery from the most badass writer around.

Talking Pillow, Angela Ball (Pittsburgh UP, Fall)

Angela Ball is my hero in poetry and in life; I’m so looking forward to the publication of her next collection. These poems, written after the death of her longtime partner, will rip your guts out in one line and make you laugh with the next. As all good humorists do, Ball melds the tragic and comic masterfully, recognizing the necessity of both. These poems are at once a celebration of her love for her partner and an exploration of the unpredictable (and often paradoxical) human experience.

Other Notables:

Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (Grove, January)

O Fallen Angel (Rerelease), Kate Zambreno (Harper Perennial, January)

South and West, Joan Didion (Knopf, March)

The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, March)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay (Harper, June)

Sara A. Lewis is a doctoral candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. She has been an Assistant Editor for the Mississippi Review, and is currently the Managing Editor of the Memorious blog and an editor for the magazine. 

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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