The Author Is Not Dead: Lidia Yuknavitch

The Role of the SELF in Novels 

an article series

Part 2: Memoirs vs. Fiction – The Lidia Yuknavitch example

I think our identities—the ones we live in the real world—are really made partly from stories that we build up around ourselves—necessary fictions—so that we can bear the weight of our own lives. We like to call these ‘truths’ or ‘facts’ or ‘selves,’ but I maintain that they are fictions. Fictions for instance called ‘mother’ or ‘wife’ or ‘lover’ or ‘teacher’ or ‘writer’
— Lidia Yuknavitch

How can I describe what I see in a way that does not fictionalise it? And how to explain people, and the inner life of those we say we know well, or strangers, or oneself…?

The pleasure (and pain) of writing about your own past is related to the exploration not of what your mind can accurately recall, but of what kind of small stories and imagery it has chosen to collect. My own childhood, for example. I can think about one specific day of my choosing. Let’s say, the day I broke my arm falling down a small cliff on an island in the South of Norway. Seven years old. There are certain facts scripted in my mind as essential truths about this traumatic incident, all of them made available due to the stories told and retold several times in those years after it happened: I warned my dog not to climb down that same cliff, only seconds before I did it myself and plunged down head first onto a large rock. The warm blood blurring my eyes; my sister’s scream; the frantic arm-waving overhead by my sister’s friend (or was it my brother?) to signal my mother to come out with the boat. My mother’s calm instruction to try to move my left hand, and her comforting words saying that at least it is not broken since you can move it (Turned out it was because both of the main bones in my lower arm were severed, something I still retell with a certain pride); the blur of stitching the two holes in my head, not feeling much because of the overriding pain in my wrist; the doctor who later advised my mother to leave the room before they reconnected the bones, with a crack so loud it matched my scream of pain (This specific memory is still vivid in my mind and no one could have told me this part, but still the details of the sound seems to be exaggerated).

Then there are the other images that can be recalled, but which have not been told to anyone, and so must belong to my mind alone: The memory of the dark and lighter green patterns of my grandmother’s sofa, where I rested after the hospital, and the texture of the material, which felt rough and unwelcoming, itching my back in a similar way as the unbearable itching of the inside of the beige-white, hard casket, covering from my wrist and up to under my armpit. My grandmother’s old, wooden TV set, turned off, as I was not allowed to watch due to my concussion, but I kept staring at my own reflection in the glass screen, which seemed to be so far away, like when you look into the wrong side of binoculars (Here, you might notice, my fictional voice involuntarily took over in the last sentence). Next to the TV, the half-open window, with its thin curtain shivering slightly in the afternoon breeze.

All this happened, and the scene is real, but most of it is already fictionalised, as I write it down on paper. Because my mind can only connect to the emotional memory of this, and only details that were part of creating those emotions will have some kind of authenticity connected with them. I can tell you right now that I am not at all sure that I was looking at my own reflection in that turned-off TV screen, and perhaps it was even turned on for all I know. However the object itself, with its brown, 1960s something, wooden case and rounded green (gray?) glass screen, was there. And at least one time during my childhood, I must have looked at my own reflection in it.  

From there I could have easily created the rest of this scene and told you who was present and what happened next, but this is something I would have to make up, from a mix of the most plausible causes of action and drawing from a random chaos of fractional memories that I have stored from all those times I visited my grandmother’s apartment in my childhood. And what about the people who were there? My grandfather, my mother’s father, is stored in my memory much less vivid than the objects that belonged to him: The cigarette rolling machine, red and black plastic with thin paper tubes and cotton filters that you had to carefully place the sweet smelling, dried tobacco in. It is perhaps the strongest memory I have. The magical feeling of creation at an early age, and every time I would be producing more cigarettes than they probably needed for a month. There was an antique music box that I would wind up and listen to again and again, touching its metal roller from time to time, with its tiny nubs, which would delay the teeth of the metal comb just enough for it to create one quick and specific tone, followed by another, in a sequence of magical connections, it seemed to me at least, that produced an hauntingly beautiful melody. I also remember the yellow-coloured, rough-textile, office chair he used to sit in, with a mechanism that allowed you to swirl around to heighten or lowering the springy seat. Then there was the framed illustration in the toilet with a hand-stitched sentence stating “Here I am the boss”, giving away something essential about my grandparents relationship, but at the same time covering up even more.  The stories of his shoestore glory days, turning dark and alcohol-stained as time modernised and finally forced him to sell out and retire. The shelves of fiction and philosophy, full of underlining and handwritten notes that I could barely decipher and still not understand the meaning of; except as proof of the passions of his inner world, that I could easily identify with, even in that young age.     

Do you see all the stories and underlying stories one can find in one’s own life?

Here I am only touching the surface of a long chain of stories preserved in memory and available for extraction and endless fictionalisation, based on some kind of truth. And it is the retelling of stories that we have been told, by our parents, grandparents, or friends, or strangers. Our memory is inspired and tainted by the memories of those who came before us, and we are responsible for preserving those memories from previous generations, and to retell those in the relation of our own life experience. This way we can evolve knowledge and inspire future memories.

I think we understand our own life experiences in narrative terms. If you consider that idea for a moment, we are walking novels. No one has a pure identity. Everyone has an identity made from everyone they’ve ever known and loved or hated, and from every experience they could process and withstand, happy or sad, arranged in memories, otherwise known as stories.
— Lidia Yuknavitch

I am forgetting myself, as is often the case when I dive into the memories of my past. I was supposed to introduce you to one of the most interesting contemporary “Self” authors out there. Lidia Yuknavitch. She has written three books, including a memoir called The Chronology of Water and a novel called The Small Backs of Children, that she refers to as an “anti-novel”, but which could easily fall into the definition of fictional autobiography, as her narrator is a writer with a very similar life story as the author (Former heroin addict; mother of a dead daughter; mother of an alive son; married to a filmmaker; etc.)

In an interview for The Rumpus in 2016, she gives us her thoughts about writing fiction vs. memoir, and the role of the self in novels:

We are always experiencing ourselves as fragmented and fucked up rather than stable, well- adjusted, together. We are ALWAYS experiencing life as a series of chaotic retinal flashes. Then later we smooth it over by making narratives that make sense. We call this memory. We give things a beginning, middle, and end. But when we are experiencing them, they are disorienting and weird. Narrative gives us a way to live with the chaos of experience. Some writers give us that comfort. Other writers remind us that life really is chaotic and flabbergasting, brutal, and frightening, but that beauty is possible there, too.
— Lidia Yuknavitch


The Self Article Series is a hunt for authenticity and true artistic output. It investigates the thin line between fiction and non-fiction in contemporary and modern literature. From Bruno Schultz to Karl Ove Knausgaard to Rachel Cusk. Authors who poured or pours their own life history into their novels without compromise and in search for the authentic voice within themselves that resonant so clearly with their readers willing to listen.


In Part Three of this article series we'll have a close look at one of the central figures of the Self novel movement today, Rachel Cusk. Her 2014 novel Outline was met with critical acclaim, but also with some resistance from the literary establishment. She followed on the same vein with her novel Transit, which was published last year.


Anders Wennesland

A life balance artist with a determination to get the best out of both worlds while refusing to accept limitation of time and demanding social obligations. He has been a regular contributor on the magazine and his short story "The Weight of Those Flies" was published by Kingston University Press in 2016. He is currently working on his debut novel.