Tracing the Fractures: A Conversation with Kristen Millares Young
I don’t remember when or how Kristen Millares Young and I became friends, but I know it happened in Coast Salish territory, specifically Seattle, where she lives and I left. Subduction, her debut novel just released by Red Hen Press yesterday, is a book I have known well for a long time. Set on the Makah Indian Reservation at the northwesternmost point of the so-called United States, the book follows Claudia, a non-Makah Latina anthropologist who has shown up for the purpose of academic extraction; Maggie, a Makah elder whose hoarding-packed home holds stories and secrets; and Peter, Maggie’s son who has returned after years off-rez. Claudia’s presence is situated within a long, terrible tradition of anthropological imposition and exploitation in the real-life Makah community, and rendered here in fiction, readers are asked to look closely at the ongoing work of colonization: it happens in the asking of a question and the recording of an answer, in the exchange of US dollars and whiskey in a bar built on somebody’s homeland, in aided or forced forgetting, in tenure dossiers.
My memory is full of holes; I search my Gmail archives to piece together my past, which is how I know that when Kristen sent me an early draft of Subduction, I was twenty-six days sober. Over the next month, I read the novel in a lonesome apartment in the Seattle suburbs, near the shore of the Salish Sea, which opens to the ocean in Makah territory. I had been out there once years earlier, with an ex-boyfriend, but I, once a good brownout drinker, have only a few memories: a tent, the wet depth of March cold, the blot of a black wetsuit on a gray wave.
I’d moved out from Seattle to the place near the water because my rent would get me more space there. In the city, I’d felt like my place was stuffed full of bad memories; actually, it was stuffed full of old magazines, dresses worn on the worst nights of my life, thrifted sneakers too small for my feet. In a place that smelled like Sound salt and rot, by a window shaded by western red cedars, surrounded by things I never used but carried from one rental to another, I read Subduction. Its characters, in their desires and their flaws, are sculpted from the kind of disruption embedded deep in my own gut.
It wasn’t through luck, or through basic attunement to the human condition, that Kristen Millares Young, a non-Native writer, created characters that rang so true for me, a Cowlitz (Indigenous, though, I must be clear, non-Makah) academic. She achieved this effect by putting time into making relationships. (And, of course, through excellent writing: she’s currently Hugo House’s Prose Writer-in-Residence, her work has appeared in such publications as the Washington Post and the Guardian, and she was the researcher for the New York Times team that produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning ”Snow Fall.”)
I learned to listen by paying attention to Coast Salish people who showed me that a story is not a conversation—you listen until the teller is done. Subduction is the result of deep listening to others and to the writer’s own process, and of letting something take as long as it takes.
The Rumpus: It’s a good thing my memory is so bad—I know you and this book so well, and yet I forget so much about how you wrote it, so I get to ask questions authentically. How did you come to begin writing about Neah Bay, about anthropological intrusion?
Kristen Millares Young: When I first arrived to Makah territory, I was not on the job, but I had a journalist’s eye. I had been driving out to Neah Bay since 2004, when I moved to the Pacific Northwest to report for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a newspaper now gone from this world. A few years later, I began researching Subduction in earnest, my heart beleaguered by daily deadlines. As a reporter, I knew too well what it meant to encounter a community at a moment of rupture. I wanted to study what could happen if a researcher stayed long enough to get involved. Would that be better, or not?
It would take me ten years of research, writing, and revising to make this novel into the book I needed to read. As a reporter, taught to write about complex subjects in the third person, I was made to project an omniscience I don’t believe in. For that reason, Subduction is an extended inquiry into the dangers of disembodied knowledge, the currency of mainstream media reports, and too much academic production. I’m glad that more contemporary thinkers invoke their own positionality.
In 2009, grieving the closure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and with it, the loss of my job and the camaraderie that comes from serving your city under the duress of deadlines, I began to write Subduction, a full two years after I had started the research process. This delay—a deferral of the hard thinking a first draft demands—is not something I recommend to my students, though the intellectual and emotional reckonings it occasioned were valuable to my book.
I kept going back to Neah Bay. I slept in tents, in my car, in people’s homes, and in the schoolhouse of a church I did not attend. I learned that the Makah people are generous. I remembered not to show up with empty hands, as too many outsiders have done before. I drank cup after cup of strong coffee, chitchatting on sofas and around dining room tables. I volunteered for odd jobs, whether helping out at my friend’s frybread stand or writing up newsletters for the Makah Cultural and Research Center, for whom I was honored to write the obituary of Doc Daugherty, an archaeologist who worked with the tribe to excavate, identify and catalogue thousands of artifacts buried in the beach at Ozette until the 1970s, when storm erosion revealed the remains of longhouses after hundreds of years of cold wet darkness.
There have been many good academics and anthropologists who have interacted with the Makah over the years, Daugherty and his wife, Ruth Kirk, among them. But over the years, I learned to recognize the incredible perseverance, strength, and optimism that Makah tribal members show in allowing themselves to engage with outsiders, whose engagement began as extractive. Tribal members have good reason to be suspicious of new people. Early interlopers stole skulls from Makah burial sites to send to the Smithsonian, only later compelled to return them.
Rumpus: I felt such a sharp, painful connection to this history when I first read your manuscript, while I was working at the University of Washington, advising mostly Native undergrads (some of them Makah), and all the while, the bones of The Ancient One (commonly called “Kennewick man”) were held on campus by the Burke Museum, awaiting repatriation while anthropologists argued over (among other things) scientific assessments of his skull, with some non-Native anthropologists even suing the federal government to block The Ancient One’s return home. The Burke held his remains but didn’t perform tests, but still, to be in academia at all sometimes feels so fraught for me. But actually, there were quite a few colleagues at that institution, some of them working at the Burke, who showed me that the academy didn’t have to be working in opposition to Indigenous knowledges: objects could be respected as living beings, environmental science could be used for the restoration of colonially damaged land.
Your efforts to involve Makah tribal members throughout the research, writing, and publishing process has struck me as work done with a lot of intention, informed by an understanding of the harm done in the name of “research.” How did your ethical commitment to the Makah people and their history take shape?
Young: I recently brought my children to visit the Burke Museum and was reassured to see a message to museum-goers entitled “The Burke Acknowledges the Violent Legacies of Colonialism” inherent to the institutions of museums, which “reflect a history of colonialism, a form of cultural dominance, that alienates and misrepresents many communities” and “often undervalue the involvement of communities by imposing their own authority when deciding how to collect, care for and interpret cultural property.”
For those who have acted as interlocutors of culture, that acknowledgement is a necessary and vital step to joining a conversation sustained by marginalized peoples for millennia. During the process of researching this book, I shared exactly why I was there—I am researching and writing a novel—which I did years before I actually started writing. Some people want to forget why you’re there. It was my job to remind them. I have long wanted to be present for difficult conversations. For that reason, I’ve been working with an educator in Neah Bay to arrange a book club for people who live there to discuss Subduction with me and each other. Showing up in person is a vital part of doing the work.
Through the character of Claudia, a Latina anthropologist who, though born in Mexico, has felt compelled in her life to erase her own mestizaje, I examined the fraught relationship between the self and the subject, beginning with the ways she tries and fails to codify the knowledge shared with her by Maggie, her main research participant. Like Claudia, having read every academic work created by, for, or about the Makah tribe and its territory since first contact with settlers, I interviewed tribal members. Unlike Claudia, who reshapes her transcripts before sharing them with her research participants, erasing moments which could betray her hope for continued access, I kept and shared the whole transcripts, inclusive of the delightful and revealing meanders that occur when people encounter someone interested in their lives.
To an extreme, for large swathes of Subduction, Claudia hides her true feelings, her actual lived experience, and with it, her ethnicity. Afraid of the prejudice against Mexican immigrants, passing for white when it suits her, Claudia does not represent herself as Chicana, so focused is she on keeping power, even when she disavows her ethical commitments and starts an affair with Peter, a research participant. Made vulnerable by the betrayal of her husband, who just left her for her sister, Claudia wants to protect herself, but doing so exposes the double standard of her expectations. She wants to have full access to this community, this one family and its secrets, but she denies them the understanding of the full range of her humanity.
Now, there are good professional reasons for leaving your dramas at home, but what I have found is that workplaces that do not allow for the personhood of their participants invariably replicate systems of oppression. In Neah Bay, I made the choice to show up as my full self and with my family. Over time, I made a few real friends—tribal members who hosted me and, eventually, my husband and our sons, and who we welcomed to our home in return. Fifteen years after I first began, I’ve come to know that the journey is the reward. There is no other.
Rumpus: The novel’s other protagonist, Peter, is a Makah man. What went into building this character?
Young: A commercial diver, an underwater welder, and an itinerant worker of his own design, Peter bluffs his way through much of his life. By the time we meet him in Subduction, Peter’s methods of coping and survival have stopped serving him, if they ever did. After a long absence occasioned by the death of his father, Peter is back on the reservation, living with the mother he left in a desperate attempt to save his own life, and with it, to rescue an idea of himself as undamaged. Peter has kept moving in order to deny the possibility that his damage is permanent. In each new place, he cultivates, to borrow James Baldwin’s words, “the state of being alone.” But his memories crowd around him, the result of deep trauma and manifesting in anxiety he hides by being both surly and ribald when the mood takes him.
Like Claudia, Peter is deeply problematic. Unable to see his own face, he studies others; like her, he forms judgments which reflect his own prejudice, in his case mostly toward women. Both Peter and Claudia inhabit personas only loosely connected with who they really are, embodying Baldwin’s idea that “the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation.” I wrote Subduction to effect both reckoning and reconciliation, within the fictional prism of Peter and Claudia, but also within and between myself and the reader.
Rumpus: The interplay between these protagonists’ competing and converging narratives is so dynamic. How did this book take shape structurally?
Young: To put myself into the intense dream state required to vivify interiority for Peter and Claudia, I wrote plenty of backstory and scenes for them, moments which I used to deepen my understanding of their impulses and intentions.
Recurrence is vital to storytelling, particularly within oral cultures. We repeat things we want remembered. Unwittingly, while drafting, I would try different approaches to the same idea. When revising Subduction, I challenged each repetition, whether word, image, or idea, to present new insight into the story, casting a wider frame of reference for the characters and their cultural, emotional, and geographic landscapes.
I first learned to understand subtext as an analytical tool. As a craftsperson, I practice submergence and elision as methods of revision. In that endeavor, I learned to be ruthless when it came to my own time—it didn’t matter how long I’d spent on it, if a scene or a sentence or a clause did not serve, it was gone. For a while, I kept a separate Slaughtered Darlings file of deletions to make myself feel better. I never went back in a big way for that material, but here and there, I nested a paragraph from that document into the actual manuscript, where the pulse of memory lends resonance to the present narrative.
In selecting what would remain in the final version, I called upon a curatorial process to create what Leni Zumas describes, in her own work, as a constellation of stars. I culled the highest glimmering moments of beauty and set those jewels into juxtaposition. At the time, I called it faceting. Each element of the novel was a fractal of the whole story.
I cut as many words from the text as remain—about seventy thousand. At first, as a journalist accustomed to seeing my every sentence published to a broad audience, I was perturbed by the iterative, somewhat wasteful nature of writing a novel. How could this be? Only later did I come to know the benefits of patience and humility with the process—and how that which has been cut still haunts what remains.
At one point during the years I spent in revision, I charted Peter and Claudia’s rising and falling action on a yellow legal pad set sideways, where their pacing formed sine-cosine waves whose emotional energies transferred into the next crest and trough of their interactions. Since song and ocean are motifs of the book, their pattern made sense to me. Fractals emerge unbidden.
In service of a lyric tone, I read Subduction aloud many times, both alone and during dozens of performances I began giving in 2011. The stage divines both strength and weakness quite quickly. It’s a rough way to learn, but it works. I cut that which made me stumble. For that reason, I recommend my writing advisees get out there. Song is made possible only with breath.
Rumpus: And now you have an object, too, to share with your audiences. What are your hopes for the life of this book now that its construction is out of your hands?
Young: Hope is a funny thing. It sustained me for the many years it took to bring Subduction to its readers. Along the way, softened by an anguished despair that belied the relative comfort of my life as a married freelance reporter with teaching opportunities, I came to rely on a small circle of other writers which widened with time, forming concentric ripples that became friendships, music, commiseration, and, yes, fun. I began leading the life that I wanted, despite the hurt, despite the rejection, despite the incessant work to stay afloat.
Melissa Febos once told me that books are a kind of hoax because we write them to start conversations that we are terrified to join. So I was damned glad to read Zadie Smith’s defense of fiction in a recent New York Review of Books, in which she makes the case for writing into the lives of those like but also unlike ourselves. It is, to me, the project of fiction to try to see through the eyes of another, and with that vision, recognize one’s own face, as if for the first time. To cite Smith’s metaphorical use of Emily Dickinson, does that character’s grief weigh the same as mine?
It would have been safer for me to write only from my own Cuban lineage’s diaspora. But we, the descendants of immigrants, must reckon with the fact that our families became settlers at the moment of migration to this country. To explore the repercussions of contact in our multicultural, polyphonic, and colonial society, I wanted to create a work of literature that reflected its multicultural, polyphonic, and indigenous origins, and that meant including Latinx and Native interiority in Subduction.
The years I spent with Peter taught me so much about the privileges and priorities of this country, knowledge which has changed how I show up for indigenous rights. Taught to focus, by necessity, on sustaining a forward trajectory for my own family, whose perch on this territory began just one generation ago, I have tried to orient myself and the institutions with which I interact, whether journalistic or literary, toward a healthier engagement with this land’s first peoples. And here, I come back to Baldwin, who wrote, “For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced.” To be in conversation with you, Elissa, is a real and sustaining moment for me as a writer.
The best wisdom arrives without warning and leaves its mark on you long after you’ve stopped listening for the truths you need to hear. In a workshop I attended while gestating my second son, Luis Urrea told me that getting to do the work is the reward. How true that is, and like all real truths it is both heartbreaking and beautiful. I want to keep writing novels, essays, reviews, and investigations, and I hope this book shows people how much of myself I am willing to risk and dedicate to make it so.
Since Subduction begins with a Baldwin epigraph, I’ll close with the final line of his essay “The Creative Process,” which I’ve cited throughout this conversation, since it has done so much to sustain my hopes for my work. “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”
Thanks for reading. Pa’lante.
Photograph of Kristen Millares Young by Natalie Shields. Photograph of Kristen Millares Young and Elissa Washuta by Weston Morrow.