SEISMIC — Seattle, City of Literature

“As editor of SEISMICSeattle, City of Literature, I asked artists and storytellers to reflect on what it means for Seattle to be a City of Literature. While celebrating Seattle’s inclusion in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network, this collection 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.”

We made SEISMIC free of charge so you can read and share these urgent contributions by leading local writers. As we revitalize our arts institutions in the wake of this pandemic, their wisdoms should prevail.

This moment — creating space for stories that need to be told and retold — is the culmination of my literary life. Available by download right here, SEISMIC is in print at book stores and libraries throughout Seattle.

Featuring cover art by Mita Mahato, SEISMIC contains essays by Rena Priest, Anastacia-Renée, Jourdan Keith, Claudia Castro Luna, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Dujie Tahat, Timothy Egan, Charles Johnson, Wei-Wei Lee and Ken Workman, the great-great-great-great grandson of Chief Si’ahl. To steward the ideas of these artists and wisdom keepers is a sacred duty.

Of her cover image, Mita Mahato wrote, “I want this image to convey both celebration and struggle. Both have been part of my experience as a writer/artist in Seattle.” Thanks to Mita for sharing images of her making.

Below I have included excerpts from SEISMIC essays also published by the Seattle Times, KUOW, Crosscut, Seattle Met, Seattle Arts & Lectures and The Stranger, which invited me to record this video Message to the City. My thanks to The Rumpus for publishing my SEISMIC-inspired reading list and this rave review, as well as to KUOW 94.9-FM for featuring our launch performance on Speaker’s Forum.


“I will speak, and I will tell you what I know. People call them stories. I’m just telling you the truth, and people say it comes out as a story.”

I met Ken Workman at a screening of PROMISED LAND, an urgent Tall Firs Cinema documentary about the Duwamish Tribe’s fight for federal recognition. There, Workman reflected on the science behind the famous speech by his great-great-great-great grandfather Chief Si’ahl, Seattle’s namesake.

“I grew up surrounded by ancestors — not a metaphor, but a biological reality.”

Because his oral history embodies the ongoingness of intergenerational knowledge, I knew his insights needed to anchor this collection, which examines the responsibilities inherent in our city’s UNESCO designation. The Seattle Times quoted me calling his essay canonical. I do believe it is so.

The deep truths of Duwamish claims on Seattle should be held in keeping by us all — so please read his SEISMIC essay and my introduction, which were published together in a Sunday edition of The Seattle Times.

“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.”


“When wildfires rage in the forests around us, the air in the city is a choking reminder that all the latest material comforts in a prosperous city cannot shield you from an overheated world.”

In his SEISMIC essay published by Crosscut, renowned author and New York Times columnist Tim Egan reminds us to consider our shared history and responsibilities as we craft a collective future.

What an honor to serve, if only briefly, as Tim Egan’s editor, a statement which holds true for all of these beautiful writers. Their minds are a form of global heritage now recognized by UNESCO.


“Story is a way of seeing each other and ourselves. Story is a way of surviving.”

In her SEISMIC essay in Seattle Met, American Book Award-winning poet Rena Priest (Lummi) delves deep into language which precedes all but the most ancient lineages here.

“In Xwlemi Chosen (Lummi language), we have a word that talks about the time when we were all together: Elhtalngexw.”


“Below our feet, whether we know it or not, every Seattle writer, every Seattle reader walks on stories. We walk on mountains pushed into the sea.”

Breathe in this SEISMIC essay by Seattle Civic Poet Jourdan Keith, published by KUOW.org.

“We are walking on Lushootseed words, like the early grass, like the rattle of the camas flower dried in the wind. We walk on a city that was and is and will be. Any city that comes through fire has its own holiness. Any city that walks on water carries cathedrals inside.”


I asked Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna to articulate her thoughts about Seattle’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. How can literary culture influence social change? I wanted to know her mind on that matter.

Like the poet she is, Claudia subverted the question in her SEISMIC essay, published in Crosscut, to show that it is social change which must transform literary culture. “What is at stake for Seattle is not guarding a literary legacy but envisioning one.”


“If this is a great literary city, how do we expose all the layers of violence so we can imagine something else? How do we write what we really feel, so we can feel what we really need? How do we use language to expose hypocrisy rather than camouflaging harm? I want to live in a city that doesn’t destroy the lives of the people who are already the most marginalized by systemic and systematic injustice. This may be too much to ask of literature, but it’s not too much to ask.“

In her SEISMIC essay published by Seattle Arts & Lectures, the slippery lines of celebrated author and queer activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore reach truth like rivers finding the sea.


“When our art spaces refuse to acknowledge or address this ever-growing loss, they become complicit in the marginalization of the very culture these spaces claim to cultivate. What’s rendered invisible is not just the brilliant literature produced by a talented individual but the whole community that made that individual possible in the first place.”

I was very glad to see Literary Hub publish Dujie Tahat’s SEISMIC essay.

“We need more activist politics in our art institutions. We need leaders willing to risk their power, those with the courage to align themselves with people and principles. Now is the time for such ambition. If there’s hope to be found in our city, it is how we come together—hopefully led by our literary institutions—to be the bulwarks our people deserve.”


“If you are, as I am, presently here in Seattle—whether you are passing through or staying put—remember that we each have a little magic, and the city brings it out in us. We are capable of creating such things as no one has ever done.

We are more than what people want to see, sometimes more than even we ourselves expect to see. We are not bound to the lots we draw.”

In her SEISMIC essay published by Seattle Arts & Lectures, former Youth Poet Laureate Wei-Wei Lee writes about how she emerged from the vise of cultural expectations to join Seattle’s literary community.


“Because Seattle, more than any of the other place I have lived, has a more robust literary community, I have been able to see aspects of myself in organizations like Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute and Northwest African American Museum. I have planted myself, grown and opened up spaces for others to grow and flourish in organizations like Hugo House and Jack Straw.”

Former Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renée commands us to look to the Lorde for guidance in her SEISMIC essay published on SAL/on.


To my delight, Seattle Arts & Lectures published the SEISMIC essay by scholar, MacArthur genius and National Book Award-winning author Dr. Charles Johnson, who celebrates “the pregiven poetry in the extravagant beauty outside our windows.”


Stories are our heritage. We made this beauty for you, buoyed by the cheer and dedication of Stesha Brandon & The Seattle Public Library as well as the kind generosities of Seattle City of Literature board members Rebecca Brinbury (chair), Juan Carlos Reyes, Jim Cantú, Brittany Yost, Eric Abrahamsen, Fatema Kothari, Isla McKetta, Josh Fomon, Line Sandsmark, Rick Simonson and Irene Gomez. My thanks for their work and support from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, the Connie and Gary Kunis Foundation and the Seattle Public Library Foundation.

Their generosity is a way of showing up for our community, but as Simone Weil wrote, attention is the purest form of generosity. Please read SEISMIC, available for free right here: https://www.seattlecityoflit.org/seismic-seattle-city-of-literature

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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.



Kristen Millares Young


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