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Investigative Journalism: Back to the Basics

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InvestigateWest has made a real difference in the eight years since Executive Director Robert McClure and I first gathered with a group of journalists to form a nonprofit newsroom for the Pacific Northwest.

For our most recent series, called Unequal Justice, InvestigateWest helped tell stories about how African Americans and Latinos in Oregon are arrested, charged, convicted and jailed at many times higher the rate than white people. Same crimes, different outcomes — which became clear because investigator Kate Willson amassed a database of more than 5 million documents through public record requests that spanned a year.

Analysis of that database showed that black people paid $22 million more in court fees than white people who committed the same crimes during the past decade.

So people of color were being fined disproportionately to support a criminal justice system that sent their community members to jail at higher rates than their white neighbors. Legislators and justices in Oregon professed shock and dismay over the numbers — maybe something will change.

Stay tuned to our coverage, produced in partnership with Pamplin Media Group, with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Loyal Bigelow and Jedediah Dewey Foundation. I admire InvestigateWest Managing Director Lee van der Voo for putting so much time and effort into this project alongside journalists John Schrag, Nick Budnick, Shasta Kearns Moore and Willson, whose database catalyzed the collaboration. Many thanks to the Portland Tribune’s web, graphics and editorial team, as well.

Deep reporting takes time and costs money. Newspapers continue to shed staff reporters and, with them, decades of knowledge. Foundations, newsrooms and readers need to collaborate to support investigations that protect the public.

Connect freelancers with resources and distribution partners. Keep an eye on key issues. Build partnerships to tell stories aimed at social justice. That’s what we do.

Traditional models for sustaining journalism have continued to fail since InvestigateWest first launched to supply reporting about vital issues that would otherwise go unacknowledged, such as crises in foster care and affordable housing, polluted schools, the sale of public lands – our story helped save green space in Seattle – and corporate lobbying against clean water.

Fake news. That’s what people get for free, but it costs our democracy so much. Be part of the solution and visit invw.org/donate today.

We do this work because it matters. InvestigateWest creates journalism to engage communities in civic life, which is why I am grateful to serve as board chair alongside Secretary Brant Houston, the Knight Chair of Enterprise and Investigative Reporting, and Treasurer Randy Robinson.

Please join us in welcoming Mike Green of Oregon and Don Smith of Washington to InvestigateWest’s board. Both former editors, Mike co-founded ScaleUp Partners to increase African American inclusion in technology and startups, and Don is retired from Boeing, where he managed 737 communications after an award-winning career at major metro daily newspapers.

We are grateful to our supporters for keeping our newsroom going through this wild winter, as Northwest Cable News and NBC’s Breaking News site both closed, and the Seattle Times suffered yet another round of layoffs. I want to give a special shoutout to the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the Knight Foundation for their matching campaigns for InvestigateWest.

These high-caliber institutions support InvestigateWest because they know our stories can help create a better society. Join them. Columbia Journalism Review said InvestigateWest’s “impact consistently belies its size.” Your tax-deductible gift will support investigative reporting about the environment, criminal justice, affordable housing and much more.

 

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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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On the True Pleasure of Finding An Advocate

It is difficult for me to share my current happiness, which compels an earnest tone that I fear is at odds with the anonymous intimacy of the internet. In the years spent making my first novel Subduction, a modern love story between an anthropologist and a hoarder’s son, I was anguished by my determination to tell a story worth the time we are here together.

With the love of those closest to me, whose support never flagged, even when I must have been intolerable, I kept going, draft after draft. It was hard, harder than I thought when I first started, hard enough that I will try again. And so I do want to honor this milestone in my journey toward giving back to literature what it has always given me: the solace of connection, the promise of empathy and the creation of shared understanding.

I am elated that Ria Julien of Frances Goldin Literary Agency will represent my books, beginning with Subduction. When I first read Ria’s bio on the Francis Goldin website, I was taken aback by how neatly our interests aligned. Ria “represents authors whose works offer a critique of power and social injustice.” She cares about literature in diaspora and translation. Her clients are postmodern prose stylists and investigative journalists. Perfect. She seemed perfect. What if my query couldn’t get past the slush pile?

It still feels surreal that I do not have to answer that question. After an initial phone call, Ria and I met at EN Japanese Brasserie in New York, where we discovered that we have more in common than cultural references and an appreciation for fresh tofu.

Ria told me that she listened to a live translation of Álvaro Enrigue’s Muerte Súbita for twenty hours before deciding to represent the novel, now out from Riverhead as Sudden Death and garnering praise. Enrigue reveals the kaleidoscopic nature of truth through a tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevado. I was fascinated by Sudden Death’s exploration of the banality of conquest and the evolution of God. He finds the sacred and the profane in the same canvas, always. Spanning the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Counter Reformation in Rome and his own email, Enrigue distills movers of history down to their most human impulses. In his hands, Hernán Cortés feels like a guy in a room.

I found Ria through Sudden Death. But twenty hours!

This woman loves books, I thought, the kinds of books that inspire me to be a better writer and make a better world, a prospect that seems more possible now that Ria will advocate for my work. A Trinidadian who moved to New York after coming to political and literary consciousness in Canada, Ria is also a practicing attorney. She cares about stories because she cares about people. I am humbled to be in the company of Enrigue and her other clients, who include biographer Colin Asher (read his gorgeous essay about Nelson Algren in The Believer), novelist Valeria Luiselli (who won the LA Times Fiction award for the second year in a row), hippie-smuggler-turned-TV-exec Richard Stratton, investigative reporters Greg Palast and Sonja Sharp, and the radical economist Richard Wolff. My people!

Co-run by Sam Stoloff and Ellen Geiger, Frances Goldin is home to many authors I admire, like Barbara Kingsolver and David Shields, who was chair of my thesis committee at the University of Washington’s Master of Fine Arts program. In a fun twist of fate, David’s agent Matt McGowan, who also represents Eula Biss and John D’Agata, will handle my subsidiary rights.

Being connected to writers whose works I have studied and taught evokes hope and dread that is hard to describe. When I first held a book that moved me, I wanted to believe but didn’t allow myself to claim that I could make someone feel this way. Some of my best reads have ached for that reason. It took many people a lot of years to help me harness my own yearning, a feat also faced by Peter and Claudia in Subduction. Many thanks to David for reading my drafts and giving my query a blurb that caught Ria’s eye.

In the photo below, Ria and I are standing in Frances Goldin Literary Agency’s new office, in front of shelves stocked with books they’ve helped bring into the world since 1977. I’m grateful to those who sustain my belief that I can make beautiful books, and to you, who have met the unbearably eager nature of this blogpost with an open heart.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Ria Julien and Kristen Young at Frances Goldin Literary Agency

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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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2014: The Year of Jack Straw

Before I told the world that I wanted to be an author, I didn’t know there were people who would put together a podcast of my thoughts and work, who would write a song based on my book and invite me to sing, and who would plan dozens of readings to give my writing a platform and an audience.  I didn’t think the central branch of the Seattle Public LIbrary — a place I have visited with awe and joy — would feature me as a reader and record my performance.

In the seven years I have spent researching and writing my first novel (now in its seventh draft), I finally mustered the courage to disclose my hopes.  So many good folks, like the crew at the Jack Straw Writers Program, have sustained my daily dedication to this dream.  Thank you.

I am grateful to Jack Straw curator Felicia Gonzalez, who took time from her own writing to bring a diverse group together for a yearlong series of performances from Portland to Vancouver, including major Seattle venues such as the University Book Store, Elliott Bay Book Co, the Jack Straw Cultural Center and Richard Hugo House. I was in good company with Laurel Albina, Claudia Castro Luna, Margot Kahn, Loreen Lilyn Lee, Susan Meyers, John Mullen, Michelle Peñaloza, Gigi Rosenberg, Raúl Sánchez, Anastacia Tolbert and Jane Wong.

With the generous support of Jack Straw executive director Joan Rabinowitz and administrative coordinator Levi Fuller, we honed and shared our writing all year long.  2015 holds many more such collaborations: please check my events page for details.

Jack Straw May reading series

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