Hold your breath, steady your stance, and dive in. That’s what Lidia Yuknavitch did as a teenage contender for the US Olympic swimming team. And that’s what her readers have been doing since Yuknavitch lost her swimming scholarship to drinking and drugging, enrolled in the University of Oregon, studied with Ken Kesey, got her PhD in English Literature, got sober, and reinvented herself as a writer who never stops reinventing writing.
“In water, like in books,” she wrote in her 2011 memoir "The Chronology of Water," “you can leave your life.”
Now 54 and living in Portland, Oregon with her third husband and first son, Yuknavitch teaches writing at Eastern Oregon University while continuing her deep dive into her own brand of genre- and gender-bending writing, and living. A lover of both men and women, including the transgressive writer Kathy Acker, to whom Yuknavitch dedicated her second story collection, Yuknavitch specializes in essays and books that blur the distinctions between memoir and fiction and essay, sex, violence and art, mind, body and heart, male and female and other, and good, bad, and other.
Case in point: Yuknavitch’s fifth book, The Misfit’s Manifesto. Based on her 2016 TED Talk, “The Beauty of Being a Misfit,” which has garnered more than two million views, this small book roars in Yuknavitch’s big voice, arguing in favor of compassion, justice, and love for the misfits among us who choose (or are forced) to take the long view visible only from society’s margins.
“I’m talking about how some of us experience that altered state of missing any kind of fitting in so profoundly,” Yuknavitch explains in the book’s introduction, “that we nearly can’t make it in life.”
Calmly yet passionately, graphically but without self-pity, Yuknavitch drives her readers full-speed into the eye of the storm that was her violent, truly awful childhood. The beauty with which she describes her family’s ugliness; the connections she maps between the horrors of her parents’ kitchen table and the horrors of the wider world embodies the book’s thesis: that misfits like Yuknavitch are uniquely qualified to transform the glittering shards of their shattered selves into diamonds.
“In my house, my father’s rage incarcerated my mother, my sister, and me,” Yuknavitch writes. “His abuse threaded through our bodies, through our language, through every experience we could imagine, until that abuse seemed like part of everyday life… I can imagine the terrible macro version of my micro story. Consider for a moment the legions of refugees fleeing the wars we’ve made worldwide: How will they fit into not only new countries, but also the stories we tell ourselves about identity and unity?”
More memoir than manifesto, brimming with the kind of stern, hopeful self-helpish life-lessons that would come off as Dr. Phil-lian in the hands of a lesser writer, the book’s medium is its message. By the time we turn its final pages, we have been gently but firmly persuaded that life’s worst events are bad, yes, but they’re also good.
“Misfits have a unique relationship to their own failures,” Yuknavitch writes. “If we are lucky, we come to understand them as portals. You heard me, portals. As in a doorway, gate, or other entrance, an opening.”
Lest we question the author’s qualifications to assess the pros and cons of failures, Yuknavitch provides this wrenching resumé item. “My beautiful little girl died the day she was born, as I’ve mentioned, and so, in a way, my story breached forever. The grief that came from that experience wrenched me out of the traditional womanhood plotline forever. The depression I entered was unholy.
“And yet,” Yuknavitch writes, “from my daughter’s death, eventually, I became a writer. The first failed marriage, the first failed motherhood, they weren’t just horrible failures. They were portals. Even if they felt like deadly crucibles at the time.”
Meredith Maran is the author of a dozen books, most recently the memoir "The New Old Me."