Vanessa Veselka (author of Zazen) and Lidia Yuknavitch (author of The Chronology of Water) had a conversation for The Believer on the subject of writing female characters who cry. This is the final part. Read Part 1. Part 2.
VANESSA VESELKA: Let’s talk about crying. When do your characters do it? Do they do it? If they do it, is it like masturbation, done mostly in private?
LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: No! Not in private! I consider it part of my writerly goal to get the crying out of the closet; out of a “feminized” space, a privatized space, a space of weakness. Crying can be a power move. There are studies of chimps that show that. In nonfiction and fiction, I represent crying as a set of corporeal power choices, even when the crying is connected to vulnerability.
VV: I notice my characters tend to cry when they’re mad, in public, or walking down the center of streets.
LY: I love that about your characters! The opening of my Joan of Arc book is her crying after she has basically slaughtered her enemies.
VV: That’s awesome. That’s so much more to the heart of how I think of crying: overwhelm and conflict. I’m pretty sure I would cry coming out of a battle rage and looking at the people I’d slaughtered.
LY: Yeah, it’s no “boo-hoo, I’m sad” deal in that scene. Trust me. Crying is a language of the body.
VV: What I like about crying is how it runs amok. I usually only cry when I want to absolutely smash something to bits.
LY: I can identify with that. Also: bleeding, crying, shitting, peeing, cumming, sweating, eating. These disobey manners and run amok.
VV: But on the other hand, don’t you think crying women are comforting to a reader? I mean, they set up a narrative of healing. Years ago, I wrote an article for Bitch magazine called “The Collapsible Woman,” and the main point was that we only have one cultural model for an appropriate response to rape and molestation, and it requires that a woman breaks down into a blubbering mess before she can be shamanically reborn as “healed.” Now I am not one to dog shamanism, but I dislike the idea that one model of emotional healing is the only real model, and that women who do not live out that particular cycle of grief are ‘not really healing’ or whatever. A woman crying in a story is likely to set off a series of packaged assumptions about where the narrative is going. When that’s disappointed, does that lead people to call the work “bad” or say that it doesn’t “work”? You mentioned training people how to read you. As a young union organizer, I learned you train the boss how to treat you through your own actions.
LY: I love that about you, actually—your ability to train the boss man. My fallback is always Cool Hand Luke: “Calling it your job doesn’t make it right.” I’ve actually said that to deans, agents, publishers, and as you can imagine, it hasn’t gotten me very far. I think we do have to agitate pretty much every chance we get. I guess I think that’s part of why I’m here. When I’m in the belly of the oyster, I don’t turn out as a pearl, you know? Or I turn out as a really odd misshapen black pirate pearl.