Being a misfit isn’t easy. Author Lidia Yuknavitch, however, insists that the people who don’t quite “fit” into society are the ones whose stories we most desperately need to hear. In this moving talk from TED2016, Yuknavitch tells the story of her initial foray into “being a writer” after winning a prize for one of her early short stories. Part of the prize won her the opportunity to meet with fabulous authors and well-to-do publishing executives – but, as Yuknavitch describes, she was so busy being frozen with indecision that she failed to get the book deals that were lining up right in front of her. Unpacking this experience in the context of her tumultuous life, Yuknavitch relates that some of the hardest parts of her past were, as she puts it, “weird-ass portals to something beautiful,” unlocked by “giving voice to the story” she needed to tell. The essence of being a misfit, she declares, is not being afraid to reinvent yourself in the face of loss and failure. This talk has the power to inspire anyone to tell the stories that, as Yuknavitch puts it, only they have the power to tell.
In the spirit of Yuknavitch’s talk, here’s a booklist dedicated to misfits and their unique and oftentimes difficult stories:
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, Lucia Berlin (Picador, 2016)
This collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin is equal parts wry humor quiet heartbreak. Berlin draws on her experiences in various odd-jobs, such as a cleaning lady and a telephone switchboard operator, to paint a uniquely stark picture of the existence of working women. Berlin has been described by critics as “the best writer you’ve never heard of” – this collection of stories was published eleven years after her death, and she never reached widespread acclaim while she was alive. Despite this, her voice is unabashedly that of a misfit, and it remains unwaveringly resonant today.
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, Kristin Cronn-Mills (Flux, 2012)
This YA novel follows the story of Gabe, a transgender boy attending a Midwest high school where everyone still sees him as Elizabeth. Gabe’s radio show, Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, is an underground hit, but as more people tune in, more questions are being asked about the show’s mysterious host. While a novel about a young transitioning person seems on its face to be a story of the fundamental other, the real center of this book is the supportive relationship Gabe has with his older, former DJ neighbor, John. This is primarily a story about the ways misfits can help each other through difficult times, and it manages to be uplifting without shying away from the struggles that transgender people today face.
Someday This Will Be Funny, Lynne Tillman (Red Lemonade, 2011)
This intricately blunt collection of stories comes from Lynne Tillman, one of the authors Yuknavitch mentions in her talk as an inspiration. The stories, many of which are decidedly un-funny tales of heartbreak, distrust and unhappiness in love, are heavy with uncomfortable honesty that borders on absurd, bitter humor. However, in relating to the emotional truth of singularly bizarre and coarse moments, the internal misfit inside of us all becomes just a little more visible.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing: A Novel, Eimear McBride, (Hogarth, 2015)
This award-winning novel is not an easy read in any sense of the word. The style of the book is almost as difficult to handle as its subject matter. However, Irish writer Eimear McBride uses disjointed, staccato prose to illuminate the cognitive dissonance of a growing mind reeling from trauma. The effect is as bewildering as it is painfully beautiful. By no means a “feel good” novel, McBride’s work here is ultimately as satisfying as it is harrowingly other.
The Chronology of Water: A Memoir, Lidia Yuknavitch (Hawthorne Books, 2011)
The final book on our list comes from Yuknavitch herself, and it’s the memoir that she describes writing at the end of her talk. Spun from her fascinating lens as a former swimming star, Yuknavitch’s memoir traces the effects of grief, loss and trauma on her ability to come to terms with her own identity. It’s a stirring expression of her talk’s insistence that reinvention and survival can always come, even at the lowest points of life.