not the story you made | 2019.06.28

The Chronology of Water: A Memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch | Review

Yuknavitch, Lidia_The Chronology of Water

Publication: Portland, Or. : Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, [2011], c2010

Genre: Memoir

Pages: 310

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

Like with my review of Jo Walton’s Among Others, this is going to be long and drawn out. I will not apologize, though, because . . .

My introduction to Yuknavitch was at my favorite pub in 2015 while I flipped idly through a local newspaper that focuses on creating “income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty.” I about peed my pants in my excitement at Yuknavitch’s brave proclamations of her life’s story in that article. I mean, SERIOUSLY! Who was this woman? With all the hurting and pain from abuse, both self-inflicted and at the hands of power-hungry, ignorant men (and at times also women), why aren’t there more Lidias in the universe who are willing to speak the ABSOLUTE TRUTH without apology about all the hurting and pain that . . . just exists in our lives, especially the lives of women, seemingly without explanation?

It takes me a loooooonnnnggg time to warm up to people or to ideas, so instead of running out to buy all her books immediately, I saved the article deep in my heart’s caverns of denial, telling myself over and over in a whisper of despair that I would never reach the same level of bravery to speak with such gut-wrenching honesty that this obviously magnificent woman had accomplished. My partner understood though and bought me a copy of Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto a couple Decembers ago, which helped me work up the courage to purchase and read her novel The Small Backs of Children shortly thereafter.

Then last year, she appeared again, at a local poetry reading, without warning. There she was! In the FLESH! Walking up to the microphone while I stared gobsmacked from the back of the room through my evening haze of booze-induced brain fog. My friends had to practically hold my feet to keep me from floating up over the heads of the rest of the audience on a gushing wave of over-enthusiasm to try and merge myself into her skin and being. “That’s Lidia!” I whisper-squealed in ecstasy. Her reading was comprised simply of quoting Christine Blasey Ford’s “indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter” over and over, inviting the audience to take up the chant with her.

After, I lingered at the back of the room like the complete freak my unforgiving mirror of self-worth always presents to me in the wake of any spark of hope or ambition. “Go away!” I shouted to my internal mirror, and then . . . there she stood in front of me and my hand was extending and my mouth was saying something probably about how much I loved her work and found it TOTALLY inspirational, and she was holding my quaking palm and fingers, steading my fluttering gaze. And THEN! She asked the mother of all questions any aspiring writer longs and yet dreads to hear, “Are you a writer?” I don’t remember what I said, what soppy, half-answer I gave, but I think I said maybe, “I’m working so hard at it.” And she nodded in approval and said something about the importance of my efforts and wished me the best of luck. I honestly don’t remember what we said to each other with our voices in the echoing chambers of reality, but what I HEARD from her eyes was something more encouraging than words could ever express. It was something to the effect of, “You are accepted. You can do this. Don’t give up, for the sake of all those you write toward liberation, and yourself, do NOT give up.”

Finally reading The Chronology of Water last week put all this in perspective. Often, I find that I’ll fall in love with a writer because of their life’s story as told through essays and philosophically-charged interviews, but then I’ll crash into the wall of disappointed expectations when reading their actual work. Yuknavitch took that wall and smashed it to smithereens with her memoir (and with her other books, for sure, but this one truly takes the cake and shoves it down the reader’s throat with the full, sweet force of all its glory). In this book, she is honest in a way I’ve never seen in any other memoir, and she does not apologize for her experiences, for her rages of anger against the abuse she suffered at the hands of her inappropriately horny and overly-possessive father, and at the absent hands of her suicidal and alcoholic mother. She also didn’t hold back from truth-telling when it came to her own mistakes, individual life choices, and ruckus adventures.

And her writing! Gaaaawwwwwwddddddd is it BEAUTIFUL! Where poetry and honesty meet, the gods of understanding and solidarity are born. Yuknavitch writes early in the book, “Language is a metaphor for experience. It’s as arbitrary as the mass of chaotic images we call memory — but we can put it into lines to narrativize over fear.” And she thus fearlessly creates a chronology of her memories, messy and out of order, just as they are often presented to us while we’re walking around trying to conduct the menial and mundane, or even the most important, life tasks of the here and now. Throughout her book she explains “why the micro movements of a girl woman’s sexual history matters.” She puts in perspective all the bits our unruly memories present over and over again, giving them meaning through the promise of the individual lens.

She also gives voice through this book to the safe places women so often glance right past: “In the women’s locker room after swim practice and skin and wet. Little girls holding in youth in V-shaped torsos. Almost women shaving their legs. The bodies of women and girls safe in a room with heat and steam and let loose hair. My head swimming, swimming. I want to stay. I want to belong to something besides family.” YES! I shout at this passage. Yes. Here is the solidarity of women and womanly desires for beauty and elegance and the steamy, messy, and sometimes not so elegant trajectory of sex, sex, sexiness that I’ve been yearning for (without the misogyny of heterosexual men who desire without regard for the individuality of the women they desire). Yearning for someone to just COME ON and admit it, already.

“Sexuality is an entire continent,” Yuknavitch writes. It needs, like life (with as many versions as you can conjure at that) to be explored. “The key is to make up shit. Make up stories until you find one you can live with [. . . .] Make up stories as if life depended on it.” Yuknavitch makes up the story of her life by putting her experiences to words, her own personal narrative becoming a word-formed treasure map of individual existence.

This is the promise writing and art holds, and deeply so for those of us who have been hurt, who are in pain, or who have been subjected to the poor decisions of others and of our own devising. The mantra on the cup I got at the writing center where Yuknavitch spoke the night I saw and gushed all over her states “I am not the story you made of me.” And, oh, brother and sister and all the others, I agree. We get to choose our own stories in the end. And I’d wager in the process of telling these stories, there will be others, oh sooooo many others, more others than we’d ever dared to imagine, to answer our call for solidarity, understanding, and synchronicity.

(That phrase on the cup, by the way, is one that Yuknavitch coined, I found out later, which makes everything seem to make so much more sense, but anyway.)

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