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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

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…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.”

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

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News

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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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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