What is a misfit? In Lidia Yuknavitch’s definition, the term refers to those of us who “do life weird or wrong,” who literally miss fitting in with normative models of linear progress. Childhood trauma is often the connective tissue between misfit experiences: poverty, abuse, racism, violence, and war are all familiar elements in misfit life stories. Born of a 2016 TED Talk that went viral, The Misfit’s Manifesto functions as a primer to the ethics and aesthetics of Yuknavitch’s fiction.
In Manifesto, Yuknavitch rejects the so-called hero’s journey as a narrative paradigm; that trajectory toward success, described by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, doesn’t fit the misfit’s journey. The mistakes, failures, injustices, and tragedies that shape the rest of us offer their own form of narrative beauty, one grounded in the lived experiences of bodies in a relentlessly hostile world.
Like the Island of Misfit Toys in the 1960s TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, community colleges are often repositories of misfits, and Yuknavitch includes in her book first-person stories told by the people she has met there as a college writing instructor. These misfit stories come from a variety of people, including war veterans, Native Americans, gender-nonconformists, and former foster children. Each of them struggles with the question of what makes a life livable when the call to self-destruction is overwhelming. In their struggles, the book’s storytellers reveal the misfit’s superpower of reinvention: they are constantly rising from the ashes of their lives. This power of regeneration is what, Yuknavitch says, misfits have to offer the world.
The addition of multiple people’s stories marks the biggest change in The Misfit’s Manifesto in its move from TED Talk to book. The inclusion of other voices decenters Yuknavitch’s own life story, told more fully in her award-winning memoir The Chronology of Water (2011). Yuknavitch is well aware of her education and comparative privilege, writing in Manifesto that “mine is not the most important story to listen to,” while holding space for these alternative narratives to emerge.
In doing so, Yuknavitch models a subversive generosity that disperses power to the margins, even as her success places her center stage on the TED platform. This move toward collective storytelling has been at the ethical and aesthetic heart of Yuknavitch’s body of work since her participation in the collaborative novel Caverns (1990), which was created in a class led by legendary misfit writer Ken Kesey.
“Misfit” is a loose term, intentionally so: it bridges the gaps between identities by focusing on the common psychological consequences of trauma, while acknowledging—to a lesser extent—the differing sociological experiences that produce that trauma. While “misfit” aptly describes a persona that emerges in response to the psychological experience of getting knocked down and getting up again, it may have limited power as a political term. In Yuknavitch’s formulation, misfits have the potential to shape culture from the margins. If only!
The countercultural romanticism of this notion is at odds with the political moment we are currently living through. DACA recipients do not occupy the margins of American culture willingly; the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to bring the violence inflicted on black bodies to the center of American consciousness. The specific and systemic causes of bodily and psychological trauma—immigration policies, institutional racism and sexism, and economic inequity—are blurred by Yuknavitch’s focus on the misfit persona produced in response to them.
“The Book of Joan” is more about storytelling, particularly who controls the narrative, than it is about environmental apocalypse.
This is not to say that The Misfit’s Manifesto is apolitical. Indeed, the revised book-length version of Manifesto (the original TED Talk is called “The Beauty of Being a Misfit”) reflects the postelection dystopia of Trump’s America. In it, Yuknavitch discusses the myth of America’s acceptance of misfits, as given in “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus that’s carved into the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The idea that America once promised a home to the world’s misfits was always more myth than reality, but the contrast has never felt more stark. In her poem, Lazarus flatly rejects the “storied pomp” of conquest and heroism in favor of a “mighty woman with a torch,” here called the “Mother of Exiles.” After reading Yuknavitch, one might hear in these lines a prophetic call for a Mother of Misfits to emerge, reinventing herself amid the flames of oppression, to protect the immigrant, the outcast, and the enslaved.
Enter The Book of Joan, Yuknavitch’s science-fiction retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, which imagines just such a hero in the body of a teenage girl. Published last spring to glowing reviews and already optioned for a film project, The Book of Joan has been initially understood as a dystopian fiction of environmental collapse. In the story, the privileged 1 percent has fled a ravaged Earth, living aboard a space station known as CIEL, under the dominion of a billionaire celebrity fascist, Jean de Men. The resistance movement on CIEL is led by Christine Pizan, a 49-year-old writer who will soon face death (people over 50 are considered a waste of valuable resources).
Due to rapid morphological evolution, the humans who have survived the devastation on Earth have lost their genitalia, hair, and melatonin. Skin-graft artists, including Christine, decorate these bodily blank slates with stretched and branded dermal appendages, making bodies that combine the grotesquerie of Jabba the Hut with the decadence of Marie Antoinette. Meanwhile, Joan of Arc—here “Joan of Dirt”—survives against all odds in underground caverns on Earth. Given the post-apocalyptic plot, it is reasonable to consider The Book of Joan as Yuknavitch’s foray into dystopian fiction, but I would argue that the novel becomes even more complex and interesting when read in light of The Misfit’s Manifesto and against her earlier novels.
From the first words spoken by its storyteller character, The Book of Joan unspools as a multiply voiced exercise in literary allusion. “Burning is an art,” says body artist Christine, who brands the story of Joan’s life onto her own skin. She doesn’t say, à la Plath in “Lady Lazarus,” “I do it exceptionally well,” but she doesn’t have to. She’s the best skin grafter in the business, transforming the destructive pain of cutting into the creative art of poetry.
Her archrival Jean de Men also grafts erotic stories onto people’s bodies, but his are courtly romances where for women “happily ever after meant rape, death, insanity, prison, or marriage.” As with the real-life literary exchange in 14th-century France between Christine de Pisan and Jean de Meun, which culminated with Pisan’s The Book of the City of Ladies challenging the misogyny of Meun’s Romance of the Rose, the rivalry between Christine and the evil Jean de Men will ignite and inform The Book of Joan. The Book of Joan is thus more about storytelling, particularly who controls the narrative, than it is about environmental apocalypse.
After learning that Joan may still be alive down below, Christine revises Jean de Men’s story that Joan was an ecoterrorist responsible for destroying Earth; in Christine’s version, Joan of Dirt is now something of a patron saint of caves and cave dwellers, and of the worms and insects and other small creatures who survive underground. In essence, Christine and Jean de Men each tell a version of Joan’s story, and the version that prevails will ultimately determine the fate of the world.
Like Christine de Pisan did in writing “The Song of Joan of Arc” in 1429, Christine documents a resistance movement led by a teenage girl. Unlike her namesake, Christine refuses to write this as a story of heroism. In Yuknavitch’s hands, and as branded on Christine’s body, Joan of Dirt’s narrative is that of a radically egalitarian misfit, the opposite of a messiah. Interwoven with increasingly fraught scenes back on CIEL, it recounts her weird behavior as a child and her subsequent teenage activism.
This Joan does not speak with Saint Michael in her father’s garden but instead experiences her call to action though the material elements of the earth, after she places her hands on a tree and experiences a magnetic current moving through her body. Yuknavitch borrows elements from Vita Sackville-West’s Saint Joan of Arc, notably a moment when Joan of Dirt has her finger cut off and wraps it in a lock of her black hair, to serve as a sign that she has survived (Sackville-West’s Joan impresses a black hair into a wax seal with a fingerprint). Both Sackville-West and Yuknavitch grant the reality of Joan’s voices and visions, but while Sackville-West ascribes these to a combination of psychological and supernatural forces, Yuknavitch’s Joan taps into the earth’s magnetic telluric currents.
Rewriting the literary tradition to foreground characters and story lines that challenge heroic convention, Yuknavitch tracks an alternative canon of misfit narratives.
The difference would seem to be between a transcendent Joan and an immanent one, a difference borne out in the storytelling competition between Jean de Men’s false heaven on CIEL and Christine’s Joan of Dirt. Misfit Joan draws her power from the easily overlooked spiders, olms, and troglodytes who live underground with her; these small subterranean creatures have the power to destroy CIEL and are the true misfit heroes of The Book of Joan.
Yuknavitch’s “sampling” of Christine de Pisan, Vita Sackville-West, and other writers suggests that the revision of the hero’s journey to fit different bodies and experiences is an ongoing project, led by women writers (and some men) since Pisan’s day. The reworking of Shakespeare in The Book of Joan is particularly extensive and complex, drawing on Shakespeare’s own use of narrative and counternarrative. Yuknavitch riffs on the subversive play-within-a-play from Hamlet to stage the ultimate performative confrontation between Christine and Jean de Men.
Christine’s beloved friend Trinculo, named for the shipwrecked fool from The Tempest, is here a bawdy exemplar of the displacement of sexuality into textuality on CIEL; as a gay man and a straight woman, he and Christine embody what Yuknavitch would call misfit love, “the broken love stories, the damaged ones, the ones that don’t fit the old tropes.” Rewriting the literary tradition to foreground characters and story lines that challenge heroic convention, Yuknavitch tracks an alternative canon of misfit narratives.
This is a project that has consistently shaped Yuknavitch’s work, as evidenced, for instance, by her rewriting of Freud in Dora: A Headcase (2012) and the way Virginia Woolf haunts The Small Backs of Children (2015). A musician friend of mine calls it the “too many records in my head” syndrome, when we tend to think through our bookshelves and, in our own writing, echo the sentences we’ve read, both intentionally and unintentionally. The voices of dead writers speak throughout Yuknavitch’s body of work.
Although it may seem inapposite to invoke T. S. Eliot in this company of misfits, his notion that “(the really new)” work of art modifies the existing tradition holds true in Lidia Yuknavitch’s case.1 Perhaps ironically, the consistency and intelligence of her reworking of the literary tradition is one of the great pleasures of reading her books: even as she imagines new narrative forms, her work evolves from the materia of the past.
“Could the story go someplace as yet unknown?” Joan asks at the end of The Book of Joan. Through Yuknavitch’s narrative methodology of “corporeal writing” (also the name of the writing workshops she offers in Portland, Oregon), she writes from the point of view of the body, seeking narrative forms that fit a myriad of different somatic experiences.
In this project, she is not alone. New modes of feminist and queer writing by Roxane Gay, Maggie Nelson, and Christina Crosby also focus on body stories that don’t fit mainstream narrative archetypes. Ariel Gore, in her new and amazing We Were Witches, similarly challenges the school of creative writing that prioritizes phallic plotting: rather than write a story where rising action leads to a climax, Gore vows to put a vagina in the middle of her stories.
While each of these writers articulates her projects differently, taken as a whole their work embodies the call to action in Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto. Artists and writers play a pivotal role in the rewriting of the dominant narratives of our current political climate, whether or not they identify with the term misfit. “We help culture find new shapes,” Yuknavitch argues, by telling stories that reflect our embodied experience of the world. The dramatic rise of “Me Too” as a way to document stories of sexual harassment and assault suggests that there is real political power in collective storytelling.
- T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” The Egoist (1919). ↩