LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
What does it mean to be human? In Lidia Yuknavitch's new novel, what's left of the human race is orbiting above the earth. Sexless and ageless prisoners in a technological hell. Their lives 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.
Lidia Yuknavitch joins us now from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland to talk about her new novel "Book Of Joan." Welcome.
LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: My pleasure to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is a retelling of the Joan of Arc story. Can you explain how you adapted it? Who is Joan in your book?
YUKNAVITCH: Well, in this revisioning, she's an eco-terrorist of sorts. Although, that name would depend on your point of view.
YUKNAVITCH: She has allegiance to the planet and to diversity on the planet, including plants and animals and people. And as the story progresses, her allegiance turns into a question that's something like what you mentioned, what's the worth of humans, and what's our relationship to the planet?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why was it an important story to retell do you think in your universe, the one that you have, this dystopian world?
YUKNAVITCH: There were several tensions on my mind when I was making the story. One of those tensions is climate change, which is on everyone's mind. But a couple other ones were celebrity culture and reality TV and a kind of media super saturation of culture.
I was also interested in gender tensions and diversity tensions. And all of those tensions kind of combined with my lifelong obsession with this figure of Joan of Arc, this girl warrior who first emblazoned herself on my brain in Catholic school (laughter) when I was about 11.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was it about Joan of Arc that appealed to you?
YUKNAVITCH: 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, you know, 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.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you talk about celebrity culture, you mentioned that that was one of the threads that drew you to this particular story. How does it play out in this novel?
YUKNAVITCH: There is a billionaire celebrity TV host who captures the imagination of the entire country. And then, though nobody could have predicted it, this person becomes worldwide famous in a kind of commodity way. And though nobody's expecting it, that turns into a global power play that leads to war quicker than anybody thought it could. And what's frightening to me is that we're living in a present tense that carries a figure a little bit like that even though I wrote this about two and a half, three years ago.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're describing what has happened to Earth. It's been decimated. And then people go into space, and it changes humanity fundamentally. Can you explain what it means to be physically human in this book? They don't look like we look.
YUKNAVITCH: They don't. They're not utterly divorced from us. But there have been geo-catastrophic (ph) 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 toward white like a piece of paper.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does race and gender then manifest itself in this world? What did you want to say about that by making them sort of colorless and genderless?
YUKNAVITCH: 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. And I was trying to unbuild (ph) 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?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is love in this book? You talk...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, you talk about how, you know, it's not gender-based love or even sexual love. How do people manifest love in this book?
YUKNAVITCH: I'm laughing because, 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 (ph). (Laughter) And so if your love doesn't fit the story you see on TV or at the movies, then you're somehow failing, which means we're all failing all the time (laughter) 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 that we claim we feel for the one as an energy? Is that successful in the story? I don't know, but it was enough for me to kind of shake it and raise it as a question and more than one place in the story.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lidia Yuknavitch, her new novel is "The Book Of Joan." She joined us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. Thank you so much.
YUKNAVITCH: My pleasure.