Visiting author brings crowd to tears at Auntie’s

By Natasha Nellis, Contributing Writer

“Because I’m American.”

This was visiting author Lidia Yuknavitch’s response to why the themes of her stories focus on sexuality and violence. “[Americans] are raised in violence as a commodity. … I don’t think I am writing; I think I am unwriting, moving from the cliché of entertainment. … In America, it’s tricky to talk about violence without it turning into entertainment,” Yuknavitch said.

Author of “The Chronology of Water,” “The Small Backs of Children” and “Dora: A Headcase,” Yuknavitch is the most recent visiting author to the EWU Get Lit! Program and Inland Northwest Center for Writers Visiting Writer Series. Her reading on Feb. 26 brought a full house to Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane complete with a sobering rendition of one of her newest works, “Woven.”

Interwoven with classic Lithuanian folk tales, the piece told several snippets of Yuknavitch’s life, flowing between the violence and pain Yuknavitch has experienced to tales of the water spirit Laumé her grandmother shared with her. As she read aloud, her hands flew into the air, her face expressive, and the crowd responded, laughing at the humorous parts, quieting when she spoke of the pain. By the end, there were several with tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces.

Yuknavitch’s piece does not follow the traditional linearity of other works, a fact she said she loves about it. “To tell my life story linearly would erase it,” Yuknavitch said. Yuknavitch paints to draw her inspiration, she said, much like her abstract works of art. This threading together of a story captures the emotion imbued within her paintings, but in words on paper rather than paint on canvas.

It is this honesty and realism that drew Eastern students Lydia Mulligan and Leah Butterwick to the event. “We read her book in [nonfiction] intro class,” said Mulligan, an English 101 student-teacher. “[It] is a really great, really beautiful, emotional, powerful memoir.”

“I hadn’t read any of her work until tonight,” said Butterwick. “[But] I’m trying to learn everything I can.”

Mulligan said it was the “beauty and honesty in her writing and the juxtaposition of both,” in Yuknavitch’s works that captured her.

Eastern MFA candidate Danielle Buynack had the honor of introducing Yuknavitch. MFA students work with writers to workshop their own works, and Buynack said she felt she connected with Yuknavitch. “Unafraid,” “brave” and “human” were a few terms she used to describe the draw of Yuknavitch. “When I read her, I feel like there’s someone who knows me on the page, … knows my soul,” Buynack said.

Yuknavitch is the first in the nonfiction writer series of the Get Lit! Program, according to Rachel Toor, a nonfiction professor at EWU and the coordinator of Yuknavitch’s event. Toor said Yuknavitch was chosen to speak after students read her memoir in the graduate nonfiction classes and several of the students requested her to speak.

“She’s a great teacher, and her work is beautiful,” Toor said.

Yuknavitch teaches at Eastern Oregon University in a variety of departments and is on the MFA faculty. She is also one of the editors of the Chiasmus Press.

Her novel “The Chronology of Water” won several awards including the 2012 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, the 2012 Readers’ Choice Oregon Book Award and the 2011 Best Books of the Year by the Oregonian. It was also a finalist for the PEN Center USA Creative Nonfiction Award.

Yuknavitch’s advice to aspiring writers is to “never surrender and never let anyone steal your voice from you.”

“Writing like others is brutal … heartbreaking,” Yuknavitch said. “You do have a vision inside of you.”