Art+Culture

Bibliophile: Lidia Yuknavitch

written by Anna Bird | photo by Andrew Kovalev


The idea for Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest book, The Small Backs of Children (Harpers), started taking shape when she discovered a box of photographs and redacted newspaper clippings from her Lithuanian family history.

“My great uncle was arrested for some illegal photographs he took of a Russian massacre at a Lithuanian hospital,” Yuknavitch said. In The Small Backs of Children, a young girl is blasted into life as an orphan in war-torn Eastern Europe. An American photojournalist captured the moment of the explosion, the girl flying through the air, and the image becomes iconic. From there, the story encapsulates shifts from multiple perspectives, weaving in Yuknavitch’s own narrative, to create a disconcerting and captivating piece of literature.

An award-winning, nationally best-selling author, Yuknavitch lives and works in Portland. The Small Backs of Children is her second novel and her second Oregon Book Award (OBA). In 2012 she won the OBA Reader’s Choice Award for her memoir, The Chronology of Water, along with a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award.

Much of Yuknavitch’s work dissects the experiences of women, specifically the sexual experiences of women within the context of different times, ages, places and identities. She focuses on women because she believes literature needs more of them and more of their varied experiences. Many of her characters, including the young refugee girl in The Small Backs of Children, are inspired by Yuknavitch’s daughter, who died the day she was born in 1986. On her website, Yuknavitch said, “From her I became a writer.”

In The Small Backs of Children, Yuknavitch wanted to tell the story of war from the point of view of women and children, going along with the saying, “Women and children first.” “I wanted to write underneath that saying—one that keeps women and children silent and passive as objects to be saved,” she said. “When in reality, one could say that women and children are some of the bravest survivors on the planet. Children especially. Look at the wars we’ve made all over the world. Look at the children who live through them and don’t die. Where are their purple hearts?”

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