Unmaking: Decolonizing Character, Body and Voice

Lidia Yuknavitch

Jul 20, 2015

I’m not going to lie to you. 

I just wrote a novel that disassembles most of what we think of when we say “novel.”  But before you dismiss the idea, consider another:  the entire enterprise of the novel contains within it the seeds of its own unmaking, demaking, remaking.

If you take the two most common definitions of the word and braid them together, something beautiful happens:

  • a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action.
  • new or unusual in an interesting way.

Do you see what I’m getting at?  The something beautiful that happens is that the novel might, if we let it, be anything.  Furthermore, if you peek at the history of the novel, you will find out something that makes me giddy:  the history of the novel, moves.  Which means the novel is not static.  Like history, like language, it moves.  And even better than that, there are treasures hidden between the lines, underneath the so-called main events.  It’s a chance to dig and rediscover ourselves.  It’s a literary archeology trip.

No, really, look “the history of the novel” or just “novel” up on Wickipedia, our latest form of non-thinking knowledge.  You will discover the following:

  • Smart people disagree on the origin of the novel.  Some people locate the origin in the early 18th century, some find the seed in early Greek and Roman literature (I intend to get in there and posit “as early as the earliest cave paintings and rock representations" just to fuck with things).
  • Mostly there will be a list of male authors, although Emily Bronte does tend to show up eventually.
  • Some of the earliest novels were Romances – if you look across countries – and yet we still ascribe the history of the novel mostly to men. Go figure.  But before that even, men and women in Japan and China and India and the Middle East were absolutely writing novelistic thingees.  However, if we admitted that, we’d have to admit that Western Culture as we’ve inherited it needs to move the fuck over…
  • The history of the novel gets oft distilled to this odd trajectory:  history / romance / realism / modernism / post-modernism / high capitalism (ok I added that last one but dang.  What would YOU call it?).  Nevermind the fact that if you track ACTUAL NOVELS you will find hundreds of deviations from this so-called “history.”
  • Novels are, apparently, long (WTF?). No one agrees on how long.  Well OK the market does but seriously? You are comfortable with that idea?
  • Novels in verse co-existed with prose novels as far back as you can look.  And yet when someone deigns to perform that today?  The market has a weird little spasm.
  • The rise of the novel corresponded DIRECTLY to cheaper paper and printing prices.  Think about that for a minute.  The novel was always in bed with economy, is another way to say it. Art-making had its work cut out for it.
  • The earliest novels were very far away from America. Probably Japan.   Murasaki Shikibu'sThe Tale of Genji.  1010, or there abouts.
  • Here are some names of women writers from the Eighteenth century who wrote novels:   Sophia Lee, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson.  Raise your hand if you’ve read all of them and understand how important they are in any discussion of a history of the novel.  That’s what I thought.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) probably had more to do with the rise of the novel than anyone has ever suggested. She probably wrote one of the most important books penned by a woman author in the history of ever, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She died 10 days after giving birth to Mary Shelley, who wasn’t Mary Shelley yet, but she would be later, and she would write Frankenstein.  Top that.
  • You know what?  I’m abandoning my earlier trajectory.  I really only have one question for you.  Ask yourself this:  What if, instead of the novel canon delivered to you in your understanding of the novel, you had been given these books instead:
    • Sei Shonagon
    • Christine de Pizan
    • Aphra Behn
    • Fanny Burney
    • Elizabeth Carter
    • Mary Masters
    • Sarah Scott (extra points if you also read her kid sister’s novels)
    • Sarah Jennings
    • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
    • Hannah More
    • Sarah Pennington
    • Hester Lynch
    • Mary Wollstonecraft
    • Emily Bronte
    • Jane Austin
    • Virginia Woolf (I admit it I made a big jump because LOOK)
    • Marguerite Duras (that’s right I’m hopping countries and histories because I don’t even believe in linear time and I hate nationalism and that’s why I write in the forms that I do)
    • Clarice Lispector
    • American Women Writers (Thing 1:  we came very late to the novel party because our nation is YOUNG.  Thing 2:  so OK to generate an authentic list here you know what we’d have to do? We’d have to WRENCH history away from colonizations and wars and the events of important men and DIG UP the narratives written by Native American women, African American women, Asian American women, compilations of letters and travelogues and journals, slave narratives and captivity narratives and non-English narratives,
    • Willa Cather (evidence that women were NEVER writing exclusively about the domestic sphere HELLO WAKE UP)
    • Toni Morrison (Let’s be honest please? No matter how you generate a list of “women novelists who have mattered” you will arrive at planet Morrison.  Let’s trace the history of HER writing, where it came from and why, who she read and why, what the socio-political contexts were for the emergence of her writing…)
    • Man alive.  I could write a book about this “topic,” this “history of the novel that is not the history we’ve been given…”

What if that list had been presented to you as the canon.  Would your understanding of “the novel,” of its content and forms, of its length and effects, of its role in our lives and its meaningfulness as a mode of representation, change?

There are a gazillion ways to represent the forms and contents of our lived experience.  Perhaps it is time to explore something beyond what we’ve been told.  Perhaps the novelistic event horizon is here, carrying the trace of everything that came before, a place where a fictitious prose narrative representing character and action is rendered in a new or unusual way.