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My Message to the City for The Stranger

I welcome your thoughts about the ideas I shared in this ten-minute Message to the City, which concludes with a visual poem, and which is transcribed below.

Good morning, Seattle.

My name is Kristen Millares Young, and I am a novelist, essayist, book critic and investigative journalist. My debut novel Subduction is a lyric retelling of the troubled history of encounter in the Americas. Subduction came out on April 14th—not an easy time for anyone, but the dedicated indie booksellers at Elliott Bay Book Co and Third Place Books have helped me keep a sense of purpose.

I am also, newly, an editor thanks to Seattle City of Literature, which commissioned me to curate a collection of ten essays in which artists and storytellers reflect on what it means for Seattle to be a UNESCO City of Literature. This collection, called Seismic, is not a commemoration. It is a call to action. How can literary culture influence social change? Seismic is a living portrait of a city we love too much to lose.

If I had to tell you why Seattle is a literary city, I would say it is because I was able to become myself here. I learned how to inhabit my mind in this place. To hold space for your own story can be a revolutionary act.

The kindness and cruelty I have encountered in our region and history have compelled me to claim my responsibility in our era. When I first moved here in 2004, I became a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, now gone. Hurrying around town to conduct interviews on deadline, worried about the game of chicken that we play on sideroads, I learned to cope with the dark, wet chill of our winters. But I am haunted by the specter of a subduction-zone earthquake. Keep what you’ll need handy.

I didn’t always expect disaster, and I don’t know how we tolerate the cognitive dissonance of planting our lives in unstable soil. Those who moved here chose our fate within a seismic reckoning which I’ve come to see as myriad. Not just geologic but cultural. Not just topographic but economic. Not just historical but immediate.

This place helped make me who I am. Like so many settlers before me, I aim to stay. No es fácil. Food and shelter cost so much that people go without and are blamed for it. This, too, is a reckoning we must face—the compression of oncoming waves of workers in diaspora, come to seek jobs that may not provide. And yet, provide we must.

As a City of Literature, we carry stories for the unborn. What will we tell them of our time?

That in a pandemic we were asked to choose between profit and our vulnerable, elderly neighbors? That death forced us to keep a social distance? That to confront and heal our racial divides, we came together—or broke apart?

With gorgeous, evocative cut paper cover art by Mita Mahato, Seismic includes essays by Rena Priest, Jourdan Keith, Claudia Castro Luna, Charles Johnson, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Tim Egan, Wei-Wei Lee, Anastacia-Renée, Dujie Tahat and Ken Workman, the great-great-great-great grandson of Chief Si’ahl.

The essays collected in Seismic represent a vision for our city that channels their best hopes. This pandemic offers an unprecedented opportunity for cultural institutions with racist legacies to reorient their practices to center and serve historically marginalized communities, rather than rebuilding structures and programs that replicate histories which erased the contributions of peoples of color.

Future societies will study our time for clues about what and whom we protected. They will see whether we preserved and shared our abundance.

For too long, we have ceded control of the narrative. To what end?

We cannot answer that question alone. Together we must own up to our collective role in the long story of living. Resilience is a quality cultivated under duress, over time, against the odds and in community.

We, whether newly arrived to Seattle or generations deep, are on Duwamish land, now deforested and poisoned by the hands of settlers who straightened rivers, sluiced hills and flooded shorelines in the name of prosperity that has not been shared. It is time to honor the Treaty of Point Elliott.

Native wisdom has endured through stories that have lasted for millennia. And that is what we must reach for—the millennia, not just those which have already unfurled but those which remain for others to endure.

As an arts community, we have seen what nonprofit boards and staff can do when a vision has been clearly and publicly articulated and shared. Right now, we are living in a moment that brings long overdue public attention to the value of black lives. To hold space for these stories is a sacred duty and a real joy.

But creating equity will require more than attention. Equity requires shared resources and opened networks. Unfunded initiatives are not effective. Some of you who are watching have been part of capital campaigns that garnered millions.

As a community, we need to enshrine our values for future generations. Arts administrators, I am asking you to create equity endowments – socially responsible funds that are invested in the long-term health of our communities – used for honoraria, scholarships, increased salaries and opportunities for peoples of color.

Also, and this is critical, the private sector needs to more than match the public sector’s commitment to the arts. The city of Seattle sets aside one percent of capital improvement project funds for the arts. I am here to tell you that the minds and futures of diverse writers are the true capital. Double down on investing in them, and start getting that money out the door. Artists are in need, and they have already shown us the way forward.

This multiyear effort will require you to confront and heal the racial divides that have plagued historically white-led organizations. As an artist and a nonprofit co-founder myself, I honor the work that awaits us all to make this vision a reality.

I’m glad The Stranger asked me to share my thoughts this morning. Today is as good a day as any to enact the changes we all know need to be made. Seismic will debut on September 15th as part of a virtual performance hosted by the Seattle Public Library.

I’m also grateful for The Stranger’s recommendation of SUBDUCTION’s virtual book party, offered on Friday, October 2nd by Hugo House, Red Hen Press and Elliott Bay Book Company, which like the Paris Review named SUBDUCTION a staff pick.

I am going to share a three-minute visual poem I made in collaboration with the Bushwick Book Club’s Geoff Larson, who plays an original composition on bass alongside visual animation by Jak McKool and photos by Anne Frias.

Today, I ask that you buy, read and invest locally. Even at a social distance, we are a community in thought. If the personal is political, then the local is global. Happy Friday.

 

Pa’lante,

Kristen Millares Young

 

P.S. Find me on Facebook, Insta & Twitter

 

 

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SUBDUCTION named a staff pick by The Paris Review

SUBDUCTION is a staff pick in The Paris Review. It’s a real joy in a hard time thanks to West Coast editor Christian Kiefer, who read my novel like a writer and valued my book’s explorations. I have *always* wanted to be part of The Paris Review.

I’ll be frank. With more than a third of my 35 event tour cancelled, one third deferred and the last third in limbo, I have been feeling like a fraction of myself. I spent a year planning those panels, readings, performances, signings, conversations, engagements…planning to be present, to converse in person, which is what I do best.

But this is a bright moment, and so I want to honor the generosity of another writer who made space for me in a fraught season. It satisfies my heart and gives me a deep gladness that my book has been seen for its complexity. What a gift to be listed alongside Carl Phillips, Rosalía, Ina Garten and Fred Hersch.

You can buy SUBDUCTION by clicking on the cover image below.

 

 

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Ms. Magazine Preview: Feminist Books of 2020

 

Feminists held space for me to develop my own consciousness. When I was a girl in central Florida, Ms. Magazine reached me, and I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. To be understood was a relief that gave me the freedom to explore my own ideas and the work of other women.

I am grateful to gender and women’s studies librarian Karla Strand for including my “utterly unique and important first novel” in her 2020 preview of feminist books for Ms. Magazine.

Subduction isn’t feminist because my Latinx character, an anthropologist named Claudia, does and thinks the right things. She doesn’t. Subduction is feminist because Claudia is complicated and contradictory, as is Maggie, the Makah tribal member who lets Claudia work with her family.

Their fraught relationship is too rare in published depictions of Latinas and indigenous womxn. To be read and seen for “themes of love, intrusion, loss, community and trust” is a comfort. To be among such excellent company will sweeten my tour.

Pa’lante.

(And yes, you can get free shipping on preorders from Red Hen Press, a much better deal than Amazon.)

 

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Interview in The Millions

On the long journey toward publication, I’ve been buoyed by authors like Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, who drew me into a conversation about prose, politics, motherhood and the canon, now online on The Millions. I love her mind: “By making and sharing art, we expand our capacity for critical thought and empathy. And that drives justice, civil discourse, and the co-creation of a humane and functioning democracy.”

As for myself, a confession: “Lately, I’ve been seeking books with the desperation that drove my reading as a child. Novels have always been where I go for insight into humanity. These long stories imbue those who love them with subtlety and compassion. Without novels, my outlook on life can take on a harsh cast, beaten into shape by the incessant news cycle. I need novels in order to live as I must.”

It was a true joy to explore my craft choices regarding Subduction.

“I wrote this novel to explore the potential and peril of engaging with stories outside our own experience. Because Subduction is a lyric retelling of the troubled history of encounter in the Americas, the storyline juxtaposes an indigenous community with an outsider who, living in diaspora, has come to uneasy terms with the power structures that make her successful.

Subduction begins when Latinx anthropologist Claudia embarks on fieldwork in Neah Bay on the Makah Indian Reservation, an ancient whaling village. Reeling from her husband’s adultery with her sister, Claudia fails to keep ethical boundaries and begins an affair with Peter Beck, an underwater welder and the prodigal son of her best informant.

Told in chapters that alternate between Peter and Claudia’s points of view, Subduction traces Peter’s attempts to deal with his mother Maggie’s hoarding and trick memory, the key to the enduring mystery of his seafaring father’s murder. It’s not just the stories we tell, but what we refuse to say, and when, and to whom. Peter gives Claudia access because he needs help unraveling old family secrets withheld by his mother in an attempt to keep him safe.

Maggie shares very personal stories with Claudia—but she also obscures and adapts Makah cultural knowledge to highlight the dangers of Claudia’s presence for others who are listening and know the true telling. For example, Maggie changes the identities of a tribal tale’s characters to critique Peter and Claudia’s affair. Claudia, in turn, mischaracterizes the facts of her own life in an unsuccessful, self-protective effort to maintain distance.

Peter is unprepared for the consequences of Claudia’s presence. Her work is both transgressive and transformational. Like many disruptors, Claudia risks damaging what she finds, even as her participation creates a new dynamic to heal a family grown stagnant. Claudia unearths Maggie’s plan for the hoard she spent her life building, and with that discovery, enacts the family’s long-cherished wish for a legacy.

By examining the fallout of this family’s engagement with an anthropologist, Subduction provides meta-commentary about finding meaning in stories that were made for the Makah people. Alive in the hands of their makers, stories condition how we think of ourselves and others. Subduction begins by exploring the lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to change. The novel ends by showing the power of narrative—both communal and self-given—to change who we are and what we do.”

In anticipation of the April 14, 2020 release date, Subduction is now available for pre-order from Red Hen Press, which offers free shipping on all preorders, as well as Indiebound, Target and Amazon.

Mil gracias to Luis Alberto Urrea for his advance praise of Subduction; it is an honor to share space with someone whose writing and performance style inform my own. Writing blurbs is unpaid labor for which I thank Luis, Jonathan Evison, Elissa Washuta, Robert Lopez, Sharma Shields, Shawn Wong, Steve Yarbrough, Patricia Henley, Sam Ligon and Rick Simonson, who filled my heart with gladness. Pa’lante.

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A big year for InvestigateWest

As board chair of InvestigateWest, I am so proud to share this news from Executive Director Robert McClure.

“Reporting by InvestigateWest journalists drove positive change in both the Washington and Oregon statehouses in the 2017 legislative sessions. A half-dozen laws passed in each state to right wrongs exposed by InvestigateWest journalists. People who will benefit include foster kids, foster parents, people of color and citizens seeking public records from their government.

“Your reporting really made people aware of the problems, and created a sense of urgency,” said Washington state Rep. Ruth Kagi, who has led the charge to help foster kids for more than a decade. “Those articles – it was amazing – the whole issue came into its own because of the reporting you did.”

This is how independent, fact-based journalism is supposed to work: We report problems and highlight potential solutions. This high-quality news and analysis inspires and guides legislators and others to take action to improve the situation. That’s why InvestigateWest exists – to bring about positive change for the common good.

Here’s a rundown of our impact in Olympia and Salem so far this year:

  • The Washington Legislature appropriated more than $48 million to reform child welfare programs, better support foster parents, lower social worker caseloads, and help foster youth get driver’s licenses and access to lawyers, among other efforts. Six new laws passed.
  • In Oregon, the Legislature approved far-reaching criminal-justice legislation. Reforms include mandatory collection of data by police who stop citizens for whatever reason, which is aimed at minimizing instances of policy profiling by race. The bill also makes possession of small amounts of methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine  misdemeanors instead of felonies, a move that will reduce jail time and fines in favor of steering defendants toward substance abuse treatment. The crimes were shown to disproportionately affect minority communities in our Unequal Justice project earlier this year.
  • The Oregon Legislature also finally took action to reinvigorate the state’s public-records law, passing four new laws detailed below.
  • The Oregon Legislature required grand juries to record their proceedings.

FOSTER CARE

Our foster care series revealed a system in crisis, with foster parents quitting and caseworkers sometimes having to house foster kids in motels or even their offices. The Washington Legislature ordered structural reforms that will put the foster care program under a newly created Department of Children, Youth and Families. Reporting by Allegra Abramo and Susanna Ray, photography by Paul Joseph Brown and editing by George Erb and me was supported by Judy Pigott, the Satterberg Foundation, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Thomas V. Giddens Jr. Foundation.

The online news site Crosscut.com and public television station KCTS9, known together as Cascade Public Media, were our distribution partners for the foster care series, and worked to put together a panel discussion at Town Hall late last year attended by several hundred people.

“It was the energy in that room that really excited me and made me want to use that energy to really build momentum for positive change,” Kagi said.

UNEQUAL JUSTICE

The Unequal Justice project, also supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism as well as the Loyal Bigelow and Jedediah Dewey Foundation, was a partnership with independent journalist Kate Willson and the Pamplin Media Group. The Pamplin Group contributed reporting and editing from John Schrag, Nicholas Budnick and Shasta Kearns Moore, and photography by Jaime Valdez.  InvestigateWest Managing Director Lee van der Voo coordinated the project and contributed extensive reporting.

The Washington Post, reporting on the laws’ passage, described the Unequal Justice series:

“In February, a yearlong investigation by InvestigateWest, titled Unequal Justice, revealed that Oregon’s black and Hispanic residents routinely experienced unfair treatment within the criminal justice system.

“Reporters analyzed more than a decade of court records and found that minority residents were far more likely to be charged for dozens of crimes, from minor infractions such as littering and jaywalking to more serious offenses, such as robbery.”

GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY

Van der Voo also had an influence on the passage of four laws on government transparency in Oregon. For the past three years she has tracked transparency in public records and government meetings through her monthly InvestigateWest column, Redacted. Meanwhile, she has cultivated expertise that today makes her a member of the Sunshine Committee for the Oregon Territory Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the board of Open Oregon, the state’s only freedom of information coalition.

Following significant effort by those groups, and by transparency advocates, including those in leadership, Oregon passed four key transparency initiatives this session. They now provide Oregonians with:

  • Deadlines by which public officials must respond to requests for public records, and a full catalog of exemptions to the Oregon Public Records Law.
  • A Sunshine Committee to review exemptions to the law. Public interest statements will now be required to accompany any newly proposed exemptions.
  • An ombudsman to mediate disputes between those requesting records from state agencies and the agency themselves, along with a governor’s council on transparency issues.
  • A new law that will prevent state agencies from entering into technology contracts that reduce the transparency of public data that is managed by third parties, usually information-technology companies.

GRAND JURY SECRECY

The Oregon Legislature also passed a bill requiring grand juries to make audio recordings of their proceedings. In 2014 and 2015, van der Voo produced a series of stories, including one that ran in The Guardian, revealing how poorly grand jury proceedings are documented, and how that leads to injustices. Previously, a single juror took handwritten notes of grand juries. Now there will be audio recordings that defendants can access with a judge’s order.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to all the readers who have helped support this important work.”

Be part of the solution. Become a member today.

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