By Melinda Guerra
Lidia Yuknavitch’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, is beautiful, poetic, animal, and disturbing. It is one of the most lyrical pieces of prose I’ve read recently, and deeply character-driven. It’s fiercely woman-centric, a work that refuses to filter the female body and story through the male gaze. It succeeds consistently in giving women the stage to tell their own stories, even when those stories are uncomfortable and do not resolve in palatable paragraphs, even when characters eschew our labels like “victim” and “broken” in favor of their own narratives with labels like “hero” and “fierce,” celebrating reclamation in ways that seem crass and almost animal to the reader. It is lovely and breath-taking and unsettling in many ways.
The story’s first pages introduce us to one of its main characters–the only one ever named in the book (though even then only once, and not until halfway through)–a young girl who has, having grown up in a time of war, lived atrocities. At six, she has endured multiple rapes, has lived in the shadow of violence, has seen her entire family vaporized before her eyes.
In the world around them, violences became perpetual. Men were sent to icehouse prisons. Women and children were raped repeatedly. Children were bought and sold on the open market. Systemized violence became part of ordinary experience, so that it was not unusual to see – not blood and body parts, but displaced fear and horror in micromotions. The tremor of a hand or the twitch of an eye, bullet marks in the side of a house; women with scars around their eyes and mouths as deep as archaeological finds, little boys who could not sit in chairs.
There were blood and body parts too.
And the end to reality every other day.
America – that great maker of realities – blind and deaf to all of it.
A story that never existed, since no one saw it represented.
Here we wait for America to burst onto the scene with her rescue efforts, her loud guns and tanks sounding rescue, waving her tri-colored flag. Instead, we have only the presence of violence and, on this day, an American photographer who captures the moment the blast destroys the girl’s family, a photograph which goes on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Much of the story is in what happens after that, both to the girl and to the friends of the photographer, each of whom is a practitioner of a creative art and referred to in light of such (the writer, the filmmaker, the poet, the painter, etcetera). Yuknavitch’s novel explores various intersections between the friends and the girl, and the ways each of them grapple with their own lives and find ways to make art with the material at hand.
The nature of art is one of the central themes Yuknavitch explores: both what provokes art, and media that can serve as tools in the creation of art. Two of the artists use their own bodily fluids to create their art, and I found myself coming back to this imagery over and over again, the male artist using his semen in his paintings and the female artist (who we first meet as the young child orphaned by war) using her menstrual blood in her paintings, both artists creating with bodily fluids that can create or sustain life. For the girl, I think it’s an especially arresting image: much has been taken away from her body, and when her body begins to shed a small piece of itself each month, she uses it to not only create art, but also to reclaim a part of herself in the process. For as uncomfortable as it may make people, there is something raw and honest in painting with one’s own blood, and perhaps rarely so much as when the act of painting is a reclamation and establishment of identity. But she’s not just painting with blood; she’s painting specifically with menstrual blood, and few things make the general populace as uncomfortable as menstrual blood.
“This has not been narrated in a previous scene, and yet, you know that blood is what’s driving her.
Blood driving her down the tree-lined sidewalk.
Blood driving her to the door of the warehouse building where the artist’s studio sits wombed among other artists’ spaces.
Blood driving her sexualized body.
You wish I would stop speaking of all this blood, but I’m afraid it’s the point.
Stop wishing it wasn’t.
Just once, the story will keep its allegiance to the body of a single woman.”
The female body is always a controversial topic: from what women may and may not do with their bodies (even decades after Roe v. Wade), to how they should look, to whom their bodies should please, someone’s always ready with an opinion on the female body. Perpetually under the male gaze, female bodies may be sexualized, but only in a way that benefits the male; for a female to own her own sexuality in a way that provides no titilating sexual experience for a man is for her to commit a foul. When, in response to catcalls promising us a “swell” time, a “big” surprise, and unflinching adoration, we do not respond affirmatively, we are slut-shamed or called bitches, or (horror) called ugly. To be a woman in a space inhabited and shaped by males is to exist for males and to have to fight for an existence outside of that. And to then, in this world, create art with menstrual blood, is to offend and alienate not only those whose body knows no menstrual cycle, but also even those whose bodies menstruate.
Yuknavitch knows this imagery might disturb the reader, but instead of shying away from the body in general and the female body in particular, she makes a point of positioning it front and center again and again in her novel. One character gives birth to a daughter, stillborn. We watch another character’s body tortured. Bodies are given and taken sexually, sometimes consensually and sometimes through rape. Some bodies are used to shield and barter, some to break. We watch characters love and use people, and watch the ways each grapples not only with their desires, but also with the violences they suffer and perpetrate and the ways they attempt to find healing. There’s a constant fight for existence faced by the cast of this story, and even after the last page, we’re not quite sure how things turn out.
Lidia Yuknavitch has done something beautiful and unsettling with The Small Backs of Children, and it will be our Bookish read for our August meeting. It’s a provocative novel, and more graphic than what we usually read, and I’m sure the conversation after it will be intense. If this sounds like your kind of book and you get the chance to read it before our next meeting, we’d love to have you join us. As always, email me at GPLbookclub[at]gmail[dot]com for more details and to reserve your spot!
The Small Backs of Children is available now at GPL.