Lidia Yuknavitch knows her new novel is weird. She says as much, when I call her on a Friday afternoon in late March, to talk about this latest novel The Book of Joan. It’s one of the first things she says, in fact: “I know it’s a weird book,” Yuknavitch tells Bustle. “But it is such an important book for me to have written.”
But weird is just one of many words for The Book of Joan, out from Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins, on April 18. There are others. Roxane Gay has called it “a raucous celebration” and “a searing condemnation.” Cheryl Strayed “riveting, ravishing, and crazy deep.” Chuck Palahniuk notes Yuknavitch’s “verve and bold imagination.” I would add others: breathtaking, embattled, and consuming. Startling and badass. Subversive. Eviscerating. Terrifying and hopeful.
The third of Yuknavitch’s novels (her other books include the novels The Small Backs of Children and Dora: A Headcase, and the memoir The Chronology of Water) The Book of Joan reimagines the original story of Joan of Arc, taking the essence of the 15th century heroine and transplanting her into the year 2049, as a wholly new character: Joan of Dirt.
“I understand that I’m not rewriting Joan of Arc, because nobody can do that,” says Yuknavitch. “I dislocated this story and reinvented it as something else. But while I’m not trying to rewrite her, I think there are qualities about her: that she was a warrior, that she thought love was a power and an energy — although she attached it to a theology in a way that I don’t — that could move things in the world, that she was so young [approximately 19-years-old when she was martyred] with a story behind her that was propelling her into situations of power — “girl power” we might say today. And also, that she heard voices and rejected the idea that that made her insane or sick. All of those qualities seem kind of present tense, in terms of how women and girls are treated today, how they have to fight for their identities.”
Joan of Arc has long been an inspiration for the writer. “At the beginning of my life I was raised Catholic, so that was where I first ran into her, as a Saint,” Yuknavitch says. “And when I was a teen I literally fell for her. My first sexual fantasies involved her. I just fell in love with her as this young woman who had fire in her and then what happened to her — that she was burned — kind of went into my heart in my adolescence. She was a heroine that I could identify with; this woman who burned became a burning girl in my heart.”
Joan of Dirt’s world, though a mere 32 years into the future of ours, is disturbingly apocalyptic. World wars have devastated the planet, making the Earth’s surface radioactive and sending its few lingering inhabitants into remote, underground arsenals. Above ground — literally, in a hovering, corporate, police-run space station known as CIEL — live next-stage-evolution humans: sexless, hairless, near-translucent creatures ruled over by a dictator named Jean de Men — a literary blend of Doctor Moreau, Big Brother, and Donald Trump.
Christine Pizan is one such character. Nearing the end of her life on the space station, she's inspired by the legendary story of Joan of Dirt to lead a revolution against Jean de Men. She begins by burning the story of Joan directly onto her skin — a tattoo of artistically rendered scars that take readers through Joan’s life — and then burning the legend onto the bodies of the small rebellion Christine assembles as well.
Much of Yuknavitch’s writing explores this space where art and sex, and art and the body intersect — and in The Book of Joan those intersections become literal. Christine’s self-scarring is, in many ways, both beautiful and sacred — she is literally burning a story of liberation into her skin. At the same time, it’s a physically destructive act. But for Yuknavitch, creation and destruction are not necessarily opposites.
“I think language and the body are literally sites — real places — where meanings are always generated and negated, endlessly,” says Yuknavitch. “Creation and destruction are not linear opposites. They make a helix that’s always co-present. So, though we’ve over-commodified violence and destruction and sexuality and creation, and treated them as if they’re opposites from each other — creation and destruction — in language, as on the body, they are not binaries. They are happening on top of each other all the time. We’re sloughing off skin and hair cells right now, cells are being killed inside our bodies at the same rate they’re being produced, so creation/destruction just isn’t a binary in life the way we’ve made it in our meaning systems.”
“Yes, she [Christine] is burning herself, and you can look at that and say: ‘oh that’s destructive, that’s harm’ — and yet ritual tattooing, or body modification, or scarification has been considered, in different cultures, as a way make something sacred. To bring extra meaning to it. I was trying to help [readers] look at it in the creative way, rather than the destructive way. I’m trying to amplify the idea that language and the body can make or break any meanings at any time — and for me, that’s a kind of hope.”
There is a surprising amount of hope in The Book of Joan, given that the world has effectively ended via environmental disasters and war, and the human race is in grave danger of dying out completely. Yuknavitch’s characters, though faced with hopeless circumstances, are filled with hope, filled with the desire to fight for their own preservation and the lives of others. They’re also, in an utterly loveless landscape, yet filled with improbable love for one another. I ask Yuknavitch about this — if The Book of Joan is a cautionary tale or a story of hope — or both.
“I’ve definitely tried to reinvent what we mean when we say ‘hope,’" says Yuknavitch. “And I definitely risked reinventing what we mean when we say ‘love story.’ I was very interested in dislocating the trope of the love story from the commodified version we’re so used to. I understand I did it in a weird way, I did it through a quite violent story. But yes, I was trying to resurface both hope and love, while maybe get us to look at them differently.”
Before talking to Yuknavitch, I’d read The Book of Joan’s 288 pages in one sitting; and when I finished, I found myself having simultaneous, equally urgent urges to both cheer and scream. It was the kind of cheering and screaming I’d been needing to cheer and scream, and perhaps been afraid to, since November 8; the kind of visceral desire for noise-making that comes from understanding what it means to be utterly helpless and ferociously empowered at the exact same time — twin feelings born of the sense that the act of saving ourselves and the act of destroying ourselves are single, equidistant steps away; and of knowing that whichever way we go, we’re all going together.
“I’m the kind of writer who is always in a kind of frenzied trance when I write. I do a lot of ritual before I write things; I really leave regular life and go to another place,” says Yuknavitch. “But with this book I felt a different thing — I don’t know how to name it, exactly, but it was like a cultural pressure. I was telling myself: ‘Don’t fuck this up.’ Because I was very invested in taking on certain tropes, like the love story and the God story and the power story, and I knew I was trying to tap into some tensions we have about our lives.”
“I was very pissed off about celebrity culture and where power seems to be living in our time on the planet. I was worried about who is getting attention in America and about who is being disappeared. I was thinking about people like Trump, but not just Trump. I was thinking about people like reality TV stars and billionaires and celebrities, and at the forefront of my worries was climate change. So, all those things were very present while I was writing. This book felt social and cultural, and I felt this extra weight — I kept saying: ‘Don’t fuck this story up. It’s not about you.’”
Speaking of celebrity culture, there’s a striking line in The Book of Joan, one in particular I have to ask its writer about. Early in the novel, when Christine is describing the space station’s dictator, Jean de Men, she says: “We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.” It’s a startling, prophetic line — made even more so when Yuknavitch tells me she wrote it over two-and-a-half years ago.
“I did not know what’s happening now would happen — obviously, I’m not psychic. But I was definitely worried at the time. I think every writer is writing from a particular zeitgeist, and they’re looking at culture differently than non-writers are. They’re noticing certain desires and fears and tensions, and so I was definitely noticing that power distribution turn in this direction, and I was worried about it. But I didn’t know it would play out exactly in the terms that it did. It’s really fascinating to me that sometimes the things we’re writing really amplify the zeitgeist.”
Gender fluidity is also a prominent theme throughout the novel, in a way that may challenge some readers’ common, gender-based assumptions about power and conflict. (Mine certainly were, anyway.)
“I did this, partly, to expose a blind spot we have as liberal feminists in the world and to challenge us to remember it’s important to look at our insistence on binaries. The very binaries we feel so fancy about unraveling are sometimes part of our blind spots,” says Yuknavitch. “I thought it might be important for us to have a look at our own righteous damn selves in the process of critiquing the power systems we know are evil.”
“I would definitely say it’s a radically feminist, aggressively activist book — but at the level of creativity. The book asks: ‘in what way is storytelling a kinetic force and can it be of use? Can it be of social value in the world?’”
When talking to Yuknavitch, I get the sense that she believes art and writing are essential forces in the fight for social justice, in the fight against political oppression, in the defense of truth, and hope, and love in socially dangerous times.
“It is in the most dangerous times that art is the voice — one of the only voices left that can counter the dominant stories your culture is pressing down on you,” says Yuknavitch. “And my gosh, if we’re looking at our culture right now: our government and its administration is spewing out nonsense, story-wise and word-wise — literally absurd, dangerous, horrific tweety nonsense; our news media has become a circus that both replicates and interrupts the nonsense — but it makes its own nonsense; we have a handful of investigative journalists who are killing themselves trying to get some objectivity and facts and in-depth storytelling done. It’s more important than ever to be making art — all forms of art.”
“Making art is the language of expression — it’s not analysis, it’s not history, it's not reporting, it’s not journalism. It’s the expressive form for the body, for the human experience, and therefore it doesn’t carry the same biases and angles of vision that other forms carry. It’s like a direct body language. Art is the language of the heart, and empathy, and compassion. It is closest to the body, and it is the way we can amplify and articulate danger and hope the best. Art is exactly the opposite of despair. It’s kind of a call to arms.”