Lidia Yuknavitch looks at the camera. Trees are visible in the background.

Headshot of author Lidia Yuknavitch. Her new novel, "Thrust," features a time-traveling young girl, a talking turtle and the Statue of Liberty to explore themes of injustice, immigration and other contemporary issues.

Courtesy Lidia Yuknavitch


The new novel from Oregon author Lidia Yuknavitch is anything but straightforward. The story, or collection of stories, travels through time, exploring different moments on the edges of America’s history. There is no main character, but a turtle and an aquatic young girl do play a role in guiding the reader from one scene to the next. The book is very much a response to crises of the present moment — e.g., climate change, the rise of white supremacy — but is grounded in the injustices of the past. Yuknavitch joins us to talk about her new novel, “Thrust.”

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross:  Lidia Yuknavitch’s new novel doesn’t read like any novel I’ve ever known. It doesn’t follow a timeline. It kind of jumps around from point to point in America’s past and future. There’s not really a protagonist. There’s this young girl who can move through time and her friend is a talking turtle. And they bind all the people and the events in the book together. It’s about terrible things that happened in America. But it’s also about the broken and beautiful people who lived through it together. I really like how Ron Charles of The Washington Post put it. He wrote, ‘Lidia Yuknavitch’s extraordinary new novel is the weirdest, most mind blowing book about America I’ve ever inhaled.’

The book is called “Thrust.” Lidia, this book is weird and I mean that in a righteous sense - not a David Lynch kind of weird because it’s totally accessible. So when did you get the idea that the traditional plot of a novel where there’s character development and then there’s a timeline and then there’s conflict and resolution and denouement. When did you realize that this wasn’t going to work and you wanted to blow all that up?

Lidia Yuknavitch:  Well, you know, it’s possible, Geoff, that I came out of the chute with that level of dissatisfaction with storytelling. At that instant I may have shot out of there and gone, ‘what? No, I can’t do it like that’, which is a silly kind of answer. But I think my coming of age happened when I studied literature to get a PhD and I noticed all through history all around the globe, the strain and pulse and ache of some people trying to disrupt traditional modes of storytelling and they’ve existed forever. And so the way I think about it now is that I honed my skills in the tradition that I inherited. And I realized I wasn’t going to be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell within that tradition. And so I am happy to join the legion of other artists and writers who will spend the rest of their lives rearranging the storytelling so that different stories can be told.

Norcross:  Who, in particular, is in that legion of untraditional storytellers that you really took his inspiration?

Yuknavitch:  Well, I think when I was, again, coming of age as an artist, Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf, and countless other writers, were already pulling things apart and rearranging them so that the stories of oppressed people or repressed people or erased people or people at the margins could still have story and voice and lives worth telling on the page. And when I ran into writers like Murakami, I’m like, ‘What? Okay’. Well I spit in my palms and just kind of got down to it. So the literary traditions I inherited are chock full of the traditional way to tell the story and then there’s everything else.

Norcross:  And in fact, that tradition includes poems and this book is kind of structured like a poem. There are these themes and images and ideas and even words and the reader travels from one scene to another. Almost like you would from stanza to stanza in a long poem. Is that a fair way to characterize it?

Yuknavitch:  It fills me with glee that you would notice. That is precisely the correlate model. When you read a poem, you don’t experience dismay that things are moving association by association or image by image. You delight in it. It’s part of how poetry works on you. It creates poetic affect on your body. And I’m deeply, deeply interested in that relationship between writing in the body. And so I have given my best shot at arranging prose with the kind of poetics of prose. Thus the story moves through segment to segment, image to image, word to word, object to object almost in stanzas. But I don’t think anyone should feel like they’re in crisis. This has happened to you before. It’s just happening in prose.

Norcross:  It has a lot of loose ends too. Some things are not resolved in the book. Why is that okay?

Yuknavitch:  Yeah, it’s true. And that’s intentional, in that traditional plot calls for conflict and resolution and associational or rhizomic narrative does not. And I was also thinking a great deal about the fact that I’ve never experienced resolution in my lived life. I’ve had a series of blunders and difficulties and traumas, but also delights and beauty and desire. And maybe things travel in circles in the lifetime I’ve lived so far, but I’ve never quite experienced this magical resolution that we seem to demand prose writers cough up.

Norcross:  Your book is messy just like life.

Yuknavitch:  I like it.

Norcross:  I’d like you to read an excerpt. It’s near the top of the book and it’s told from the perspective of an immigrant who is working to build the Statue of Liberty. And he starts by talking about the three other workers that he ended up bonding with. Could you read that for us please?

Yuknavitch:  Happy to.

In those days, for the first time in my weary life, I had people I loved. Endora and David, John Joseph-all of us from someplace else, all of us collected by her body.

Maybe because we were building her body, we felt our own bodies differently, and that welded some of our hearts together. Me with my patchwork-skin story. Endora’s barren gut and foul, funny mouth. The opalescent mosaic of scars on David’s back. The way John Joseph always talked with his hands, as if he were reaching for some meaning beyond words. The way his words would then return to his ancestors.

Or maybe our labor made us love one another. That happens to workers sometimes, when you labor near other bodies. Maybe we were looking so hard for something in this emerging place that we turned inside out a little. I don’t know.

I only know that we built her in pieces from our bodies, from the stories we held and the stories before that and the stories that might come. She carried us in her.

Or we thought she did.

Some nights, after we worked together on her body, John Joseph, Endora, David, and I would drink late at night and talk about what it would have been like if the woman we built had really represented emancipation. If the broken chains had stayed aloft, in her left hand, for everyone everywhere to see.

The original story. Instead of the story that came.

And John Joseph’s hands would come alive and he’d say, You could have been president. I’d tell him, You could have been secretary of the interior, and Endora, she could have been vice president! And Endora would say, Are you kidding? I’m the president. You lot would just muck everything up. David would stare at the fire and smile. Of all of us, David believed in fantasies the least. He was the heart of us. Then we’d all pause and take a drink. We laughed our asses off. It made such sense. It fit the stories of our labor, our bodies. The stories we told ourselves were part of the stories that created the weight of her. But sense wasn’t what was coming.

One night, as we stood together on the ground at the edge of the water, before we boarded the ferry back to the city after work, John Joseph bent down on the ground and scooped something out of the mud. It was a turtle. He handed the turtle to me. I looked at it with some strange sorrow. The shell so beautiful and small and strong. The creature inside wrinkled and ugly. I kissed it. I don’t know why. Then I threw the turtle back into the Narrows.


That’s when the four of us saw something thrashing in the water, and Endora, half breathless, said, By saints, there is a girl.

Norcross:  There was a girl and this turns out to be, of a sort, your main character ‒ young girl who can travel in time by traveling in water. Can you tell us more about her? Laisvé, am I saying that right?

Yuknavitch:  I think it’s okay how you’re saying it? I’ve spoken to several different Lithuanian people and they all said it slightly differently. So I’m going with Laisvé, almost an ‘i’ in there. But not quite that. You know, languages are tricky. She is a character in the book. And since the characters in the book aren’t traditionally main characters or side characters, I’d say they’re all kind of like flash points in time and space. And so we get these glimpses and these sort of pulses of an intense place in their life and we touch those places and then we release. We touch them and release. And this Laisvé girl is a helper figure to help the reader touch them and release but not get completely lost. And so she’s kind of a conduit or a touchstone or a guide. And so, in that way, she’s pretty important in the story. But I wouldn’t call her the main character in the traditional sense.

Norcross:  Well she’s, as you call her, a carrier. What is she carrying?

Yuknavitch:  She’s carrying the possibility that stories can change. She’s literally, in the story, carrying objects from place to place as a kind of magical way to conduit between past, present and future. But her role, symbolically, is to hold onto this hope and turn it into agency that we could change the story of who we’ve been or who we are or who we might be, in any moment. And that’s a hope I have in our present fraught tense - that we don’t have to be the stories we’ve been told and that we could, at any moment, change them.

Norcross:  She has a companion, that turtle that John Joseph dug out of the mud and threw into the water. His name is Bertrand and it turns out that he can talk. Where did he come from?

Yuknavitch:  I had a childhood experience with a sea turtle in Trinidad in the water. That’s probably the first place turtles entered my imagination. But that’s not the only place Bertrand comes from. He’s named after Bertrand Russell, who is just a hoot, if anybody out there has never read him. I love philosophy. I love philosophers. But I also read them kind of whimsically because I think of them as people in novels and Bertrand Russell just cracked me up. So I gave this turtle in the story a kind of wiseass or wisecracking voice for reasons to do with my interest in philosophers.

Norcross:  Why was it important that these two travel in time through water? Why is water important to you?

Yuknavitch:  Well, water is everything to me. I am a creature of water. I learned to swim very young because they were afraid I was gonna drown because I kept jumping into it. And from learning to swim so young, I was a competitive swimmer for about 25 years.

Norcross:  You dreamt of competing in the 1980 Olympics, didn’t you?

Yuknavitch:  I had that little girl dream. I swam with some of the best athletes on the globe. I had a trajectory in my own storyline that became derailed. And so then water changed for me. It became a meditative space, a place I could go to take my grief and loss when my daughter died. And to this day it’s a place I can go when I need to feel whole or you know, less like I’m flying apart. I live near the ocean. I was born near the ocean. Some people have other realms and elements. For me, it’s always been water. And in the story, I think it’s symbolically meant to be the sort of ocean of the imagination in addition to being actual ocean.

Norcross:  Lidia, one of the recurring themes of the book is the Statue of Liberty. And we heard a little bit about the construction of it in that excerpt that you read a little bit earlier. What does the Statue represent to you?

Yuknavitch:  Kind of a giant, green, what-if. And what I mean by that is that the statue in this time where we’re reevaluating what statues have meant to us historically and you know, having a hard good look at that. This Statue of Liberty - there were so many moments where it could have been anything, any story could have emerged. And it’s fascinating to look the history up. The story changed several times while it was being built. That interests me. And that she’s a symbol of a female who’s powerful interests me, that she’s a kind of mother that has no reproductive power interests me. The Emma Lazarus poem at the base was added later. If somebody goes back tonight or whenever, I challenge people to truly read that poem. It doesn’t say what politicians or powerful men claim. The Statue is about something quite different, something we’ve moved very far away from. And the torture and xenophobia and violence against immigrants, refugees, people of color, queer people, women and children in this country. You know, part of that song was in that poem and in this Statue. But that’s not how things turned out. So if it is true that America might still be evolving or still be a place of possibility, the Statue reminds me that, you know, that possibility could die or drown at any moment. We’re killing it.

Norcross:  Literally drown because in one of the points in the book in the future, you literally have her underwater. What are you trying to say about that?

Yuknavitch:  Well, you don’t even have to ask me. You can ask climate change scientists and anyone who studies what’s going on with the water right now. [In] some areas of the world, the water is leaving and that’s causing tremendous strife and crisis. And in other places in the world, the water is rising and I don’t mean in 10,000 years. There’s a wonderful book called “Of Time and Water” by Magnuson that I mentioned in this story. The water rising happening right now is happening in the space of 100 years, like one person’s lifetime. So this isn’t a future tense fear or some sci-fi novel far away from us with a scary possibility. It’s happening now. We’re losing the water and in other areas, the water is rising to such an extent that the entire globe will change.

Norcross: In fact, your book touches on some of the worst parts of America right now, climate change, the climate crisis, but also child labor and the brutalization of Indigenous people and immigrants and white supremacy. The list of national shames you could have brought into this story is long. How did you decide which ones to bring into this book?

Yuknavitch:  Well, you know, I’m talking to so many people these days about what’s urgent for us all and these are the stories that are urgent for us. They’ve also been urgent in every epic. That we tend to champion literature that makes us less scared or is incredibly beautiful, is all finding good. But the stories about what we’re doing to one another and how we might change that and help each other in our existences alongside each other, but also on the planet, ought to be story material too. And the scariness of, you know, the dangerous things ought to be brought to the level of the beautiful as well. And so I don’t feel like I’m plucking out spooky things to write about that are sad and hard. I feel like I’m being as precise as I know how to be about the present tense. And it sometimes reads as a sadness and it sometimes reads as a sweetness. And those two things together are the chorus of who we are.

Norcross:  Let’s talk about the title, “Thrust”. What does it mean?

Norcross:  Oh, what do you think it means? It can be interpreted in many ways. It can and that’s why it’s there. Because part of this story is about how much meaning individual words are holding and where meanings could go or do go or don’t go. And so thrust could mean, you know, the most crass thing possible about a sex act in a heterosexual way that has been pornographicly overrepresented. But maybe it could mean the thrust of a woman’s hips when she’s giving birth and bringing life into the world. Or maybe it could be the Statue of Liberty’s arm going up into the sky with a kind of fire that is not the same as a phallic representational thrust. Or maybe it’s, just for me, I put this as part of the story. It’s the thrust of the imagination of a child before it gets shut down with what it should and shouldn’t do or the thrust of earthworms or animals who endure in spite of everything we’ve done to them. So for me, like life, like each one of us, the single word is carrying many possibilities of meaning and stories. And I think each of our bodies are too.

Norcross: I couldn’t help but pick up on the relationship between Frederick and Arora. Frederick is a French sculptor and Arora is an American woman. And they have this wild relationship and their letters to each other are some of the most luridly captivating things I ever read.

Yuknavitch:  I take that as a tremendous compliment.

Norcross: Yeah, I read them many times. Was that based on a real relationship?

Yuknavitch:  Not that the man who designed the Statue of Liberty actually had. It’s not based on a real relationship that I’m aware he ever had. It does have elements of someone somewhere’s real relationship. But I was very much invested in conjuring a desire between them that could influence the imagination of an artist instead of the woman as object for the male painter or the male artist. I wanted the object to have the agency and let go of her object status and this other kind of desire to emerge that would just ignite both of them. And so that’s what I was interested in.

Norcross:  You know, I came away from this book feeling uplifted because you hit so much of America that is terrible and shameful. But you put people in the middle of these events who found a way to each other to help and to love and to support each other. And that really resonated with me.  As bad as it gets. There’s always someone there.

Yuknavitch:  I am so grateful that you noticed that, to be honest with you. For me, this is a series of love stories for many people in the book who, as you say, find each other and love each other and lift each other. And if that could be liberty, then we would really have gotten somewhere.

Norcross: Lidia Yushkevich. It’s a beautiful book, recommended reading for anybody who’s interested in life in America right now. Thank you so much for writing it and thanks for being on the show.

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