E. Lily Yu is a powerful young voice in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Nominated for multiple awards including the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards, Yu is the winner of the 2012 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her stories are filled with ambiguity surrounded by gorgeous prose and meticulous research. You don’t get easy answers with Yu’s work, but the experience is more worthwhile because of what she requires from the reader. In “Woman at Exhibition,” Yu takes real world events and weaves a dual tale of heartbreak and sacrifice. Yu’s work teases, intrigues, and makes you yearn for more. But, like the master storyteller she is, she has perfected the art of knowing when to pull back. “Woman at Exhibition” will leave you disoriented, in the very best of ways.
Uncanny Magazine: “Woman at Exhibition” is framed around real people and real events. It’s true that Josephine Nivison Hopper left Edward Hopper’s work and her own to the Whitney, and the museum lost, gave away, or destroyed the majority of her pieces. When did you first learn about Josephine Hopper, and what was it about her life that inspired you to place it at the center of your story?
E. Lily Yu: The spark for this story came to me during a visit to the Hopper Drawing exhibit at the Whitney, which ran May through October 2013, before the Whitney relocated. I looked at Le Pont Royal and had a wonderfully odd thought. That’s a story, I thought. So I asked the nearest security guard what he would do if I tried to eat a painting. He laughed and told me he’d have to try to talk me out of it, because he was restricted to the use of equal force, and if I didn’t shove him he couldn’t shove me.
Jo entered the story when I read Gail Levin’s monumental 1995 biography of Edward Hopper. In a departure from earlier writing on Hopper, Levin’s book draws extensively on Jo’s diaries and reproduces some of her paintings from driving trips with Edward, when both of them would paint the same scene from different angles. There’s a striking if indirect conversation between Jo’s diary and her husband’s sketched jabs and Christmas cards. The dynamics of that relationship were so strange and mythical and terrible, and at the same time so human and sad, that I wanted to write about them. They’re not new. You can see similar patterns in Francine Prose’s Lives of the Muses and Nancy Milford’s Zelda. But there was something about the color and the variety of mediums and the two very strong characters that caught me.
Uncanny Magazine: This story digs deep into the frustration that many creative women feel—that their work isn’t as important, isn’t as frequently acknowledged, isn’t as widely distributed, as the work of men. This is also an issue in the world of SF/F where novels written by men are more reviewed, listed on more recommendation lists, and highlighted on more bookstore displays. How do you navigate this landscape?
E. Lily Yu: That’s true of all literature, that’s true of art, that’s true of music, and I don’t think academia or businesses are much different. If you look at the resources and attention allocated to people of color, and women of color in particular, it’s even worse. Take this year’s all–white New York Times summer reading list, for one example. You can’t pay attention, because despair will kill you. You can’t not pay attention, because you need to understand the situation to survive. I don’t have any answers. I wake up each morning, thank God for the day, and do my work.
The problem at the heart of this story is smaller and more manageable than that. It’s the choice of partners, which because of history, socialization, gender expectations, economic opportunities, and so on, is a critical decision for female artists in a way that it is not for men. Take Virginia Woolf, on the one hand, and on the other, Elizabeth Siddal, Zelda Fitzgerald, Alice Halicka, Margaret Ulbrich, Dorothy Seymour Mills… The first list is finite. The second list is endless.
The right choice doesn’t necessarily lead to success, but the wrong choice can result in wasted time, or institutionalization, or death. It’s tough. You have to decide, first of all, that you are an artist, and you have to figure out what kind of life your art requires, and then, ideally, you find a partner who is supportive of your art rather than jealous or indifferent. That’s not how life works at all. That’s not how love works. Even if you do get lucky, as a female artist, it’s unlikely that you will receive assistance comparable to what male artists receive. There is no known male equivalent to Vera Nabokov. The world would be a very different place if there were.
I do think that the art has to come first. If a relationship does not support the art, leave. If a marriage does not support the art, leave. That’s easier said than done, of course, but the doing is easier today than it was one hundred or two hundred years ago. We have wasted so much talent already. We have lost so much genius.
Uncanny Magazine: The imaginary art of Josephine Hopper slips neatly into the spaces left by Hopper’s work of the same time period and the description of the art, both real and imaginary in this story, is breathtaking and visceral. How did you decide on the fictional pieces to use in “Woman at Exhibition?”
E. Lily Yu: The first one is an imagined counterpart to Robert Henri’s portrait of Jo as an art student. Most are depictions of incidents recounted in her diaries, sometimes in conversation with actual works of hers and Edward’s, including her 1948 oil Obituary.
An explanation of New York Notices is a bit more complicated. At the time Levin’s biography was published, it was believed that all of Jo Hopper’s work was gone. But Jo had given a number of watercolors and personal papers to Arthayer Sanborn, and thirty–four of her paintings were exhibited in Truro in 2000. Around the same time, two hundred works of hers, mostly watercolors, were also discovered in storage at the Whitney. In 2004, Elizabeth Thompson Colleary reproduced several of these in Women’s Art Journal. The art exhibit depicted in the fictional New York Notices includes some of them.
Uncanny Magazine: You’ve stated in the past that you don’t pay attention to creative boundaries in your writing. You’ve written award–winning fiction, poetry, plays, and worked for Bungie on the video game Destiny. Is there a genre or medium that you’d still like to explore? What is your dream project?
E. Lily Yu: Like most writers, I am currently moping over a novel, which is a veritable elephant on a sledge. I’m hoping to move back to Seattle soon to work on virtual reality games as a day job. The wild dream is to someday write the libretto for an opera.
Uncanny Magazine: “Woman at Exhibition” is filled with heartbreaking certainty in the story of Josephine Hopper, and delicious ambiguity in the story of Estelle. It’s a balancing act of tension that leaves the reader wanting so much more. How do you know when it is the right time to end a story? How do you resist the temptation to expand something beyond its natural form?
E. Lily Yu: I tend to be lucky with last sentences. Sooner or later they hand themselves to me, whole and complete, with the surprising heaviness of an iron ingot and the demand that I end here, with this, right now. That didn’t happen with “Woman at Exhibition.” I wrote the first draft at Clarion West, and Neil Gaiman suggested that I cut half a page to end with the closing door, which was of course the right thing to do. Sometimes you need someone else to point and hand you scissors.
Uncanny Magazine: This story is part of the collaboration between Anthony Discenza and Peter Straub at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. What’s going on there?
E. Lily Yu: The Discenza–Straub exhibition, running until July 14, is part of an ongoing Havruta in Contemporary Art series. I haven’t been able to visit, but as part of their collaboration Discenza and Straub have printed 100 copies of an anthology that includes “Woman at Exhibition” and stories by Laird Barron, James Morrow, and Steven Millhauser, among others. I believe the printing happened halfway through June, so it’s possible they’re still available.
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your work with Uncanny Magazine!
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