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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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News

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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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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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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