BY DIANA LOVE
Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch’s aptly-named new collection of short stories, is an exhilarating and disquieting experience. Like the verging border of its title, the collection is peopled by characters who live on the edges—of society, of safety, of sanity. The interests and subject matter of this collection upend normal boundaries and expectations. Outcasts and voiceless figures are placed center-stage. We are able to be a part of their experience, their pain, their rage, and their beauty.
Though Yuknavitch has been writing short stories for most of her literary career, this is her first published book curating a collection of such stories. And they are wonderful stories, clearly in conversation with one another, including that handful which have been published previously. Indeed, readers familiar with Yuknavitch’s other work will recognize themes and topics in this collection which mirror those in her novels and nonfiction—the idea of giving voices to voiceless figures, a concern with war and its collateral damage, a concern with damage and with survival in all forms. Her widely-viewed 2016 TED Talk, On The Beauty of Being a Misfit, and her follow-up book The Misfit’s Manifesto, are celebrations of other voices. She has a vested and specific interest in the people and the places who do not sit at the center of the mainstream in any sense of that term, who live in the borders of things.
The first story in the collection, “The Pull,” serves as a solid manifesto in and of itself toward the nature of the collection which follows, a space I found beautiful and disquieting. This first story features a young girl drawn to swimming and happiest in the water. Beautiful descriptions introduce us to this unnamed main character and her desires: “In the water the swimmer feels weightless. The blue of the pool fills her ears and holds her body and shuts out the world. Swimming is her favorite state of being. On land, the swimmer can barely breathe.” These words promised me a story filled with a certain kind of sensitivity and lyricism, and I was eager to dive in. But this is much more than the story of a girl who loves to swim, more than even the story of a girl drawn more to swimming than to anything else in life. This is the story of a young refugee in a war-torn country, surrounded by danger. One day, the swimmer’s mother forbids her to attend swim practice due to bomb warnings, and:
That afternoon, while her shoulders ache from not swimming, a screeching comes into the sky and then a deafening quiet, and then a bomb obliterates most of the roof and one wall of the swimming pool. Two swimmers who were friends of hers are killed, their bodies limp at the surface of the water, then sinking. They never swim another lap toward their own futures.
Yuknavitch allows the swimmer to tell her story from within the space of her own experience. Those twin elements, the desire to swim and the desire to stay alive, are given equal weight and validity. “Her foreground is cluttered now, with her dead friends and the bombed out training pool, all of it between her and her freedom to swim. She has the same desires as all kids: She wants to swim. Have friends. Go to school. Not to starve. Not to die. She grinds her teeth.” As the story closes, the swimmer and her younger sister are aboard a capsizing raft filled with refugees, shoreline in the distance. The two of them slip into the ocean, each confident that they will be able to cover the distance—but they do not simply swim for shore, instead choosing the seemingly impossible task of pulling the whole raft along with them. Yuknavitch creates a wonderous tension here and then lets it snap back against the reader like a broken guitar string:
With a phenomenal confidence, they swim for it, towing the others behind them. The beautiful bodies of the swimmer and her sister, and the great watery pull underneath, and the pull of the eyes and hearts of the people hoping against hope in the raft, and the pull of the great wrong world raging around them toward –
This story has no ending.
We put children into the ocean.
As that last set of lines snapped back, it hit me hard. And I knew that I was in for quite a collection.
Women and girls make up the bulk of the narrators here, as perhaps fits a collection centered on providing voices to voiceless figures. Five of these stories begin with the words “A Woman”—”A Woman Object (exploding),” “A Woman Signifying,” “A Woman Refusing,” “A Woman Apologizing,” and “A Woman Going Out.” Queer characters take on the lead role in multiple stories. While these voices are distinct and individual, it is nonetheless a collection anchored by certain themes in common. Many of these characters are lonely. Many are trapped in dangerous situations, either by economics or other outside forces. Many feel unheard. This proved to be a collection filled with pain, specific and individual, a place where sex-trafficked teenagers attempt to escape into dreams of Slavic fairytale and where neighbors turn against and cannot help one another. But it is not, for a moment, a dreary or a hopeless place. Nor does it feel exploitative. As in that first story, where the hammer comes down not on the swimmer, but on us, on we who put children into the ocean, judgment is not cast against these narrators as they speak to us.
Indeed, throughout this collection, Yuknavitch honors the truths and perspectives of her narrators by building up worlds in which their individual pains and decisions are given context and sense. A child organ runner, a linchpin in her black market field, approaches her assignments with pride in getting the job done well, knowing the necessity of her excellence toward her own continued survival. A neglected woman deliberately burns herself against the radiator in her apartment, and this act is positioned as a sort of step forward for herself, a triumph over the ache she feels inside. A lonely janitor spends years filling his home with the garbage he collects while cleaning the local planetarium, building with it a sculptural city of found objects which is described as a thing of wonder.
Yuknavitch has an incredible gift for description and a knack for embodying the emotions of her characters. The people of this collection are brave and truthful, even when their truths are frightening. These are misfits celebrated, misfits embraced. Yuknavitch invites us to spend time with them and to dwell with them in their in-between spaces. I invite you to do the same. It is time well spent.
Diana Love is a writer and poet, somewhat working on her first novel. Her work has previously been published in Literary Mama and Kelp Journal. A current MFA student in the low-residency program at UC Riverside, Diana has also spent the last year as the Blog Editor for The Coachella Review. She grew up amidst the inanities, adventures, and mundanities of the greater San Fernando Valley. She lives on the Westside now, where she is a co-lead for the Westside Chapter of Women Who Submit.