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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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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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