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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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Seattle Magazine Celebrates the New Hugo House

That’s me on the left, standing next to one of my heroes.

Hugo House Executive Director Tree Swenson realized a dream for our community: a permanent place for the literary arts in Seattle. Many thanks to Seattle magazine’s Gwendolyn Elliott for sharing news of Hugo House’s grand opening in September. I will have an office and teach classes at the new building, located by Cal Anderson Park in Capitol Hill.

“The new Hugo will also house a writer’s salon, a 150-seat performance venue and staff offices to serve a student population that’s nearly doubled since 2012, something Swenson attributes to uncertain times. “It’s essential for people to identify what really matters, and to do that you have to make time to reflect,” Swenson explains.

The center’s growing student body will also be served by Hugo’s next writer-in-residence, Columbia City’s Kristen Millares Young, who changed course from an award-winning career in journalism (for outlets such as The New York Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Guardian and Time) to pursue the craft of personal essay, fiction and creative nonfiction. As she puts it, “current events forced me to get personal.” She now writes about feminism, cultural identity and justice, and her debut novel, which she describes as “a lyric retelling of the troubled history of encounter in the Americas,” is due to be published in 2020 by Red Hen Press.

“In a world that rewards cruelty,” Millares Young says, it’s places like Hugo House and a love for literature and stories that bring “us back to the hopes we formed before experience tried to teach us to dream smaller.”

Swenson notes, “One of the best tools we have to envision the kind of world we want to live in is through language, which can convey empathy, compassion and the ability to view the world through someone else’s point of view.”

Hugo House Grand Opening. With Maria Semple. Saturday, September 22. 5–10 p.m. Free. Hugo House, Capitol Hill, 1634 11th Ave.; 206.322.7030; hugohouse.org

 

 

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Writers Resist: A Celebration of Free Speech

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There comes a time when we must stand for our beliefs.

On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I joined thousands of writers around the world to celebrate the ideals of a free, just and compassionate democracy. More than 100 readings took place in small towns and global cities on Sunday, January 15th, all part of an international artistic uprising called Writers Resist.

Our Town Hall Seattle reading drew 850 people for a fiery night in the best traditions of the First Amendment, according to the Seattle P-I. The Seattle Review of Books interviewed me and Sam Ligon about co-organizing Seattle’s celebration of free speech in support of the ACLU of Washington, which is holding the front lines. Get involved.

I felt changed by being in a room with so many people who care about democratic ideals, including fellow readers Daniel James Brown (The Boys in the Boat), G. Willow Wilson (The Butterfly Mosque), Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins), Elissa Washuta (My Body is a Book of Rules), Robert Lashley (The Homeboy Songs), Jane Wong (Overpower), Samuel Ligon (Wonderland), Bruce Barcott (Weed The People), David Laskin (The Children’s Blizzard), Claudia Castro Luna (This City, Seattle’s Civic Poet), Tod Marshall (Bugle, Washington State Poet Laureate), Angel Gardner (Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate) and Doug Honig (On Freedom’s Frontier).

Town Hall Seattle recorded our performances of works by Malcolm X, Primo Levi, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Michelle Alexander, MLK, Umberto Eco, Jill McDonough and William Butler Yeats, to name a few. NPR station KUOW 94.9 FM broadcast our performance on their Speakers Forum series, where it is available as a podcast. In tribute to Dr. King, I read from Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem.

ACLU founder Roger Baldwin was right when he wrote, “No fight for civil liberties ever stays won.” Speech must remain free so we can defend what we hold dear. As Writers Resist founder Erin Belieu said, “This is only the starting point in raising our voices in defense of democracy.”

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Many thanks to Ana Cristina Alvarez for making this poster, to Erica Sklar for seeing the need and having them printed, to Kirsten Lunstrum, Erin Sroka and Erica for helping me post them all over town, and to Philip Shaw for designing the programs for the reading.

Most of all, thanks to my co-organizer, the inimitable Sam Ligon, a mentor I am lucky to call my friend, and to Town Hall Seattle for giving civic discourse such a stage.

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A few thoughts about what I do

Some people have asked me for the full text of my AWP panel presentation, Digging for Story: Research, Fieldwork and Creative Writing. Here goes:

I am an investigative journalist by trade, a novelist by vocation. Today I will focus not on my process of gathering data, but rather on how to bring truth, by which I mean accuracy, into fiction without becoming pedantic.

You want to go to as many sources as possible: reading and taking notes, informational interviews, walkabouts, drivethroughs and arounds. Hang out. To the extent possible, immerse yourself in the real world in which your fictional universe takes place.

But then, put those notes aside. Your job as a novelist is not to produce a piece of explanatory journalism, nor a dissertation. Your job is to leaven a scene with authentic details — which could take the form of a piece of dialogue in a regional dialect, a passing cultural reference, a brief mention of what seems like a chance object but whose placement in the text renders a historical, geographic or socioeconomic truth in one clean brushstroke.

In whatever time you have, don’t become too grim in your pursuit. Stay playful, and stay open – in both the research and the writing. Allow your characters to surprise you. That means they’re alive. In fiction, the story-truth – a term coined by Tim O’Brien to mean the emotional truth – is more important than the happening-truth of factual occurrences. The research guides the story, but it does not control it. Let small details bear the weight of your knowledge.

Research carries a story like water a boat. Keep it moving. Stay afloat.

Now, I do love essayistic digressions – consider the whaling chapters of Moby Dick or the definitions of knots that formed chapter heading in The Shipping News. But to weave research into fiction throughout the text, and not just interruptive deliveries of factual or meta-commentary, I’ve found the trick is to keep it lyric, by which I mean authoritative.

I am going to present a brief passage from the first chapter of my novel Subduction. Here, my job is to prepare readers to enter the landscape of the novel. We accompany a protagonist – Claudia, an anthropologist – as she makes her way out to the Makah Indian Reservation, where she will disregard her code of ethics and begin an affair with the son of her best informant.

I spent years studying the geology, economies, societies, history and environment of the Olympic Peninsula, the northwest corner of the lower 48. And while I will return to this landscape in the text, here, at first glimpse, I allow myself about a minute to present my findings.

            The Olympic Mountains loomed. The ferry neared Bainbridge Island, the first leg of a 160 mile journey that would take her west, along peninsulas carved by retreating glaciers and bridges built by enterprising men, until finally, she reached land’s end and its people – qwidicca?a.tx – who had claimed their place among gulls and rock for millennia.

She was merely passing through this world. Or above one, in any case, riding the back of an inland sea where creatures were fighting and fucking and occasionally being carried off by nets, their minds naked with terror.

A merciless place, acidified by the dank exhales of engines.

The wooded shores took shape along the sharpening coastline. Kelp twisted along dark beaches whose upper reaches sprouted mansions. Their banks of windows glittered, cold and steely as the early photos of homesteaders with severely parted hair and thin mouths.

It had all once been forest, right down to the water, the largest stumps serving as dance floors, fiddlers sawing sweet melodies as wood was shipped to whoever could pay, the roving bands of loggers more devastating than termites, than locusts, than anything that had come before.

Executives and their fleece-trimmed families lived there now, the latest in an oncoming wave of people.

Each word of that description was fact – but you may have noticed a fictive flourish. Few biographers would claim to know the minds of fish. And there is something gothic about my description of what is, in fact, a gorgeous landscape.

But the trick to bringing research into fiction is to make the truth felt. Something which has been felt is hard to forget. Part of that passage’s dark tone is reflective of the character’s state of mind. Her husband just left her for her sister. With this passage, I’ve set the groundwork for a trope essential to the story at the heart of my book – exploitation, which can be seen in history’s incessant march through atrocities of epic proportions against land and people alike – all of that concentrated in a ferry ride.

So I don’t say that Subduction is about a woman who sleeps with a man to gain access to his family secrets. That’s the happening truth. The story truth is that my book is about the lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to change. That pivot – from plot to epiphany – is why I write. I research to build the authority to make that turn happen for readers, too.

Thank you.

Thanks to Maggie Messitt for organizing the panel, which also included Sheri Booker, Nomi Stone and Bronwen Dickey. A brilliant journalist, Messitt is author of The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa.

 

All text is subject to copyright by Kristen Millares Young.

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