The Misfit's Manifesto by Lidia Yuknavitch
Which book changed your life?
Sean Prentiss, a professor at VCFA and author of Finding Abbey, asked us, as MFA graduate students, to think about a book that had a profound effect on our lives.
When I was twenty, broken-spirited, and living in a tent on the coast of Wales, I read Bone People by Keri Hulme. It changed me, and showed me that creative, messed up, intelligent and self-sufficient women do exist, and even thrive. They were out there, beyond my small-town experiences, or even my life in London. When I needed it most, that book gave me hope and saved my life.
Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto, thirty years later, thumps me in the chest, I cough, tear up, and am validated. Finally, I read a book that speaks of my lifelong experiences on the edges of this western society of ours.
Yuknavitch describes herself as a “misfit, partly because of things that happened to me, and partly from the things that come from inside out. Hardwiring, if you will.” This introductory sentence set my pulse racing, hungry, urgent, needing to read more, now, fast, take it in, spit it out, look at it word by word and sigh in relief.
The structure follows the bullet points of a manifesto with a telling title to each chapter, such as Coloring (and sometimes Living) Outside the Lines. Yuknavitch then explains in this case how “misfits chafe at the stories placed in front of them or on top of them because nothing about our experiences in life matches up with the traditional or mainstream storyline.” How true for me.
I’d talked about this in class, about how I write about life on the edges, and that I rarely read anything that comes close to touching my life, that resonates with me. The professor didn’t understand though. She fits. I don’t.
Yuknavitch, when talking of misfits, is not describing how we all feel separate at times, or that life is “weird and unfair and everyone gets dosed once in a while.” Yuknavitch defines misfits as those who “just never found a way to fit in at all, from the get-go, all through our evolving lives” with their “inability to enter culture, relationships, language and social organization – like other people.” And the beauty, as she sees it, is that there are “legions of us.”
Who knew? When I was that kid watching everyone play at school, I’d try but get it wrong each time, making the other girls less and less likely to include me. Who knew? How I wish that my friends who’ve taken their lives, given up, that they’d seen themselves acknowledged in print as they are in The Misfit’s Manifesto. This book is powerful. Important. We need this book.
The stories told are so direct that there’s no way to deny the humanity in each one’s struggles and reactions to mainstream society. The variety of experiences shared shows how many of us are trying our best to find our own way. Each story resonates with me, not that my experiences match theirs. The details might be different but the motivations aren’t. The hardwiring.
Mary J. Thompson, a student of Yuknavitch, sums it up: “When I was little I wanted to be like everyone else. Today I just want to be me and enjoy my own misfit-self – trying to be the best human I can be. I will never be like other people. I process things differently and live differently.”
Each chapter takes the reader intimately into other’s lifestyles. We see a homeless woman under the bridge in new ways. There’s Melanie, a teenager who struggled in school, who wanted to learn, who was an honor student but life and its demands tore her down and yet she fought back and survives even now. Yuknavitch says, “she doesn’t get it right all the time. None of us do. But her story makes me feel like trying again.” Melanie tried, and she writes how helping others makes her grateful for having her own life, and a community.
These stories are all inspiring – and don’t have the happy endings of an archetypal Hero’s Journey (a myth she nicely shatters later on in the book). These stories describe interactions I’d not experienced yet, nor understood; these are my people, my tribe. I get it. Yuknavitch’s writing speaks to me. Her language is blunt and straightforward throughout the book; it’s easy to read, deep and insightful. It’s powerful stuff.
I had ordered The Misfit’s Manifesto through the college library after it had come up in class. When I read the first three chapters, I had to put it down, my ears teared up, and I knew I needed this book, needed to own a copy, to highlight parts, keep it by my bed, remind myself that I’m not alone and hadn’t been all these years. I need this book. I’m not the only one.
At the local bookstore, I searched the nonfiction section. Nothing. Of course, I’ve since ordered a copy, but I have to say I think this book should be visible, up and on display. It’s too hidden by genre and name in a dark low corner. It needs to be out, for kids like I once was, for adults like I am now. Even this month, another member of the faculty commented on my ‘uniform of tee shirts and baggy pants,’ pointing out my irreverence for all things literary and even on my reckless thinking. People comment on my otherness, saying ‘no offense’ or ‘just teasing’ as they point out how I don’t fit into mainstream normal cultural roles for women. No, I don’t fit in. And only the last few years have I stopped trying, instead claiming my difference, my perspective from the edges, the periphery, a functioning creative adult with another view on life. The Misfit’s Manifesto addresses those of us who can’t make it work smoothly in such a society as this western one. For one reason or another, we don’t fit.
Yuknavitch describes motivations and effects of trauma on our individual hardwiring, and normalizes it. I cried. Reading this book, I cried. I put it down and had to stare out the window, taking a deep breath.
If only I’d had this book as a lonely teenager. If only I’d had this book as a twenty-year old when I crashed at university, unable to cope with all the people and possibilities, turning to beer, speed, and sex.
Finally, though, I’m comfortable with my scruffy androgynous self, with the stories I write, and with the direction I’m heading in. I have here a book that validates me. Do you know how incredible that is? To read something that reflects me, my life, in print?
Yuknavitch is “trying to help us remember to invent our own beauty and our own paths and our own bent, weird ways of doing things, and that they matter too.”
The Misfit’s Manifesto speaks to the rest of us on the edges. Thankfully.
“Wherever you are, you are not alone, even in aloneness. I can hear you. And I am smiling.”
Reviewed for the SFWP Quarterly by Sarah Leamy.
Born in England, Sarah Leamy has spent most of her life in the Southwest of the USA after exploring Europe in her twenties. Two of her novels have won Best Fiction in the NM/AZ Book Awards and Van Life, a travelogue, was named Grand Winner in the Northwest Book Contest of 2017. Her book reviews and short stories can be found at Hunger Mountain, Wanderlust-journal.com, and Bunbury Magazine among others. She was named a finalist by Glimmer Train and by Writing by Writers in early 2018 for her short stories. Leamy has recently received the Director’s Award at Vermont College of Fine Arts, the MFA in Writing Merit Scholarship, the Vermont Book Awards Fellowship, and the Postgraduate Writer’s Conference Scholarship. She is currently working on a collection of shorts called Ambiguity as well as revising On Her Feet, a novel set in London in the early 90s. Find more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter.