When the fat lady sings

Lidia Yuknavitch The Chronology of Water

It’s the opera singer’s fault. We were at a dinner party and, once he heard that I’m a writer, he said, you must read Lidia Yuknavitch. You will love her memoir, The Chronology of Water. He was quite passionate about it, though that may be the way of opera singers. It made enough of an impression on me to buy the book. That was 5 years ago.

Fast forward to the dying days of 2022. I’ve just heard that my food memoir writing class has been cancelled. I am casting about for an alternative and the internet delivers to me Lidia Yuknavitch and her teaching methodology called Corporeal Writing.

To be honest, the website is a little over the top. Yuknavitch calls her teaching method revolutionary and her fellow teachers “the squad.” They do not offer writing prompts because that’s too directive so they call them “portals” instead.

I’m directed to a braided essay Yuknavitch wrote in 2015. “Woven” is a memoir essay that is graphic, violent, hard to take. I’m wondering now whether I will have the stomach to read The Chronology of Water. I’m wondering what that opera singer was thinking when he pressed her book on me.

And so, with my heart in my throat, I start to read.

The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and a sponge.

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books 2010)

Act One

The Chronology of Water is organized into five acts that roughly approximate the timeline of Yuknavitch’s life. But time, for Yuknavitch, is a fluid thing, in part because her own memory is so very unreliable.

I remember things in retinal flashes. Without order. Your life doesn’t happen in any kind of order. Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It’s all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common. […] So if I am thinking of a memory of a relationship, or one about riding a bike, or about my love for literature and art, or when I first touched my lips to alcohol, or how much I adored my sister, or the day my father first touched me—there is no linear sense.

Yuknavitch juxtaposes childhood with young adulthood, binge drinking with her love of words, her mother with her father. Themes weave in and out of the five acts, as they should in a grand opera. Abandonment, addiction, abuse.

This Is Not *That* Memoir

There is a market these days for abuse memoirs that end in some form of salvation, whether divine or otherwise. There are incest narratives and drug and alcohol narratives and rape narratives that all follow the same iron-banded trajectory.

In the interview at the back of my copy of The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch rails against those cliches.

My goal in offering my own story isn’t to claim that abuse suffered from my father is any more important than anyone else’s. Nor is it to “claim” the incest narrative to sell books.

My goal is to put the reader into the space of childhood and your adulthood where fear and confusion and rage get born—like they do in us all for different reasons. To put the reader in their body through language. Because when I teach or give readings or workshops, I meet a hundred people who know what it feels like to be shamed, or beaten, or molested, or just made small. We all move through the waters. Language helps us feel less separate.

So, Yuknavitch will tell us about the three abortions she had before she turned 21 and her three marriages but she will not say exactly what her father did to her or her sister. She will show us instead how it almost ruined her life until it didn’t.

The Ride of the Valkyries

The fat lady in the title of this book review is one of the Valkyries, those big-breasted women in metal brassieres who herald the end of Wagner’s opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The saying is supposed to remind us that you never really know how a story will end. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.

It does seem unlikely, given all that Yuknavitch endures as a child and then imposes on herself as a young adult, that any measure of peace might be granted to her. How can she be so honest, transparent, confiding? She places herself fearlessly in the hands of the unknown reader. Here is her description of her first marriage.

Phillip and I tried to make a go of it as something called “married.” In Austin, Texas. I don’t know how to explain why we went busto. OK, that’s a big fat lie. I know exactly why we went busto, but I don’t want to have to say it. Look, I’ll tell you later, OK?

This direct address (as we writers call it) demands a response from the unsuspecting reader. Do we say, no, I want to hear it now, Yuknavitch and threaten to slam the book shut? Or do we let her slip away once more like the fish she is to swim circles around us one more time?

Yuknavitch does eventually keep all her promises. Perhaps she already did and we didn’t realize. The child that Phillip and Yuknavitch create together is the one who arrives stillborn on page 1 of The Chronicle of Water.

Redemption for Yuknavitch comes from the unlikeliest of places: a writing workshop. She calls it therapy and in a way that’s what it is, too. Language helps us feel less separate. Cue the fat ladies who now may sing.

18 Feb 2023 | Karen Kao