What does it mean to be human? In Lidia Yuknavitch's new novel The Book of Joan, what's left of the human race is orbiting above the Earth, sexless and ageless, prisoners in a technological hell. Their lives are preserved through growing limbs and grafting skin. Presiding over it all is a one-time billionaire celebrity who evolved through media and technology into a despot.
His adversary is a girl called Joan; Yuknavitch says she adapted the story of Joan of Arc to make her heroine "an eco-terrorist of sorts, although that name would depend on your point of view. She has allegiance to the planet, and diversity on the planet, including plants and animals and people. And as the story progresses, her allegiance turns into a question somewhat like "what's the worth of humans, and what's our relationship to the planet?"
On her fascination with Joan of Arc
I was kind of a troubled kid, and a very troubled adolescent, and this figure, for me, was sort of like a rebel girl, or a girl capable of fighting. And like so many of us, I was raised in an abusive household, so I needed a figure like that to help me get out of my house, and help me believe in something that would give me spirit and fire — and so that's how she got born in my imagination.
On her vision of humanity in this book
They're not utterly divorced from us, but there have been geo-catastrophic changes that have affected morphology. And so those who are able to escape Earth and ascend live in a kind of space station situation. And they're the elite, the wealthiest of what's left of Earth. And the big change in morphology, which has happened because of radical radiation, for one thing, is that they're sexless, and that their skin has no identifiable pigmentation except that it's leaning towards white like a piece of paper.
I didn't entirely lose color and gender, but I sort of flattened it out to the construct of white versus everything else, in terms of diversity, in a way that helped me focus a question about, deeper than our racial arguments and our gender arguments that seem to be locked in a loop just now of, you know, are you for or against something. And I was trying to unbuild the very constructs themselves of the gender story and the race story and the God story, and even the love story. To put them back into smaller units we could just look at and ask each other, what have we done to each other and the planet?
For me, that's probably the most important question of the story, the love story of this book. I feel as if love, too, is trapped in an old, kind of dead, commodified script that has been Hollywoodized — and so if your love doesn't fit the story that you see on TV or at the movies, then you're somehow failing. Which means we're all failing all the time, because there's no way to hit that romanticized version of love. And in the Joan book, I sort of put as the question in the front of my mind: What if we loved the planet and all being, including animals and each other, the way we claim we love our husbands or wives or lovers or children or parents? What if we redistributed that kind of love we claim we feel for "the one," as an energy. Is that successful in this story? I don't know, but it was enough for me to kind of shake it and raise it as a question.