Outsiders Looking In: Subduction by Kristen Millares Young

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I met Kristen Millares Young at AWP’s annual writing conference earlier this year. I sidled up, thrust my advance copy of Subduction in front of her to sign, and she said, “It’s about fucked up people trying to find their way.” Without yet reading a word, I was hooked.

Young’s debut novel is a spiraling exploration into the complexities of betrayal and uncertainty, scattered like loose rubble beneath one’s feet. The story centers around two characters from starkly different backgrounds who have both lost not only their way but their sense of belonging: Claudia is a Latinx anthropologist whose sister has just run off with her husband. She’s in Neah Bay, Washington, ostensibly for work, studying the Makah people and their long tradition of song. Peter, the son of a woman Claudia has come to interview, fled this community years ago in the wake of a great tragedy, and has only returned as his mother’s health has begun to deteriorate.

Alternating between Claudia’s and Peter’s perspectives, Subduction’s plot proceeds with the forward motion of a river’s flow, at times gentle and meandering, then suddenly voracious, even dangerous. Like the Pacific Northwest landscape Young describes, the romantic relationship that sparks between Claudia and Peter is dark and mystical, a connection forged from the seed of desperation and unimaginable pain, scattered with moments of unexpected sunshine. Subduction is filled with vivid imagery and lyrical language—nearly every chapter shows its characters observing the landscape, through varied, beautiful descriptions of birds and coastlines, while attempting to understand themselves and their respective pasts as they reaffirm nature’s power to heal.

Gulls swept the boat’s wake. She was surprised by how close they came, how she could see feathers tracing their sinuous curves. How they were suddenly beautiful—not the splattering scavengers they had been, but flight itself.

The book’s title, so cleverly applied, by definition refers to “the sideways and downward movement of the edge of a plate of the earth’s crust into the mantle beneath another plate.” One plate overtaking another, causing disruption, collision. Yet this book is not about earthquakes. Not the cataclysm of tectonic plates colliding, but instead a violent disturbance that for one character is sudden, and for the other is the aftershock rearing its head many, many years later as if to confirm that nothing can possibly be the same. Each character is in danger of a past subducting a future, but both characters also “subduct” each other. Who is overtaking whom? As Christian Kiefer puts it in the Paris Review, “In Young’s novel, the answer to which is which is left beautifully unclear.”

For Claudia, the collision is immediate: she is set on her path in direct response to her sister’s betrayal. She’s profoundly aware of the destruction she’s still navigating, even causing as she heads to Neah Bay to continue her years-long research on the Makah people and their cultural songs and stories, planning to reconnect with a village elder, Maggie—Peter’s mother. As an anthropologist, Claudia brings the power of astute observation to the stories she’s trying to tell—stories of songs and Makah culture that don’t belong to her—drawing conclusions that only a studied bystander can of their meaning through history and time. Disconnected from her roots—her Mexican mother, white father, the Mexican diaspora, and, more recently, her husband and sister—Claudia flees to Neah Bay as though to take refuge in stories, if not hers, then someone else’s. She draws connections between the Mexican people and the Makah along the way that seem to serve to justify her actions to herself. “The stories we tell each other matter,” Young writes, “but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter the most.”

The collision Peter feels is an aftershock that comes many years after Peter’s father’s mysterious death, relived as he returns to the home he has long since fled. He’s returned after twenty years to care for his mother whose dementia and hoarding have reached harrowing levels. And when he returns, Peter’s pain comes rushing back, too, as alive on the page as if it just happened: “Wherever he went, there they were, memories of his father, pulling Peter into his past until he was here, but not here, inhabiting the places they had been happy together, for time is a place, he was sure of it, near to breaking, an aching his only memory of love.” Along the way, Peter is met with cynicism from the community, people he grew up with and then abandoned, who have taken on the responsibility of caring for his mother after he abandoned her, too. They seem no less skeptical of his motivations than of the anthropologist who has inserted herself among them.

Young masters the creation of a world whose secrets have long been protected, through both the eyes of an outsider coming in and an insider cast out. She captures, too, what it is to live in two worlds—for Claudia looking for a way in, and Peter for a way out—navigating the traditions of an ancient culture whose history has been pillaged, rooted out, and exploited, while also acknowledging the validity of the anthropologist’s work. The blurred lines between professional and personal are rooted in Claudia’s desire to find meaning, purpose. But readers are confronted with the moral question of such inquiry as Claudia meets characters who are suspicious of her motivations, and in turn, ours. Readers, like voyeurs, like anthropologists, are confronted with the very same questions every time we read: Whose story is this? Do I have a right to consume it? Like Claudia, in writing Subduction, Young has “crouched before the first pool, its stillness a pane of glass into a world that did and did not pertain to her.” We readers are the voyeurs permitted a glimpse into this world, too.

The story builds toward a potlatch, a naming ritual in which Peter’s mother, in justifying her hoarding, has long been plotting to facilitate his re-entrance into the world he has tried so hard to escape. Claudia, the ever-outsider, plans to document the customs, claiming them, while questioning her right to them at the same time. Young takes special care in the details to demonstrate the length these characters—Native Americans—have been forced to go in order to protect their culture. Photographs are not permitted during the ceremony, and around every corner there’s the nodding awareness of Claudia’s privilege in witnessing it, of our privilege in reading it. “Back in the day, Makah ceremonial leaders claimed the right to kidnap or kill anyone who intruded on a ritual or even the warm ups,” Young writes, implying that they’ve been forced to take such action. Still, even though Claudia is aware of herself as the intruder, she’s also quick to justify it, a moment that makes the average white reader, like myself, squeamish, no doubt sensing the finger pointed our way too. Through Claudia’s identification with Makah culture, Young is perhaps hinting at what we all seek when inquiring into customs so guarded and preserved. They hold a certain power—belonging—and in seeking it, the barriers between what is moral and right quickly become murky territory.

Could she take root here? There were a lot of Mexicans married to Makahs, multicultural Latinos whose families believed in being Makah, and it was that common faith—and selective claim—that sustained the song system, which joined them as a tribe in thought as well as blood.

Although Claudia’s observations are careful, weighted by both an informed perspective built from a history of anthropology research and her commitment to nurturing her relationship with Maggie over many years, the reader never loses sight of the question of Claudia’s place: whether it is right for her to be there at all, whether what has sprouted between her and Peter is real. She never escapes the skepticism of the novel’s central characters who call her “white” despite her Latinx heritage, one she herself has been estranged from. Still, when she defends herself to Peter—“I may not have been born into this community, but I’ve contributed”—the reader has to agree. Between the books, articles, and research she has published for a wider public audience—garnering little to no monetary gain—she has contributed. But at what cost? And by whose standards? The justification implies the contribution was desired in the first place.

Central to Subduction is the question of cultural ownership, namely in story. Who has a right to it? And more importantly, why does it matter so much? Even as Peter begins to reclaim his story, the community establishes rules around what he can and cannot have. He left. Will he be allowed back in? The reader is forced to grapple with these questions as Claudia herself grapples with her place among the Makah people, torn between wanting to be a part of something bigger than herself and all the struggles that come with it: “Makahs were anchored by oral history but also burdened by gossip, and if there was one thing she wanted, it was to forget.”

Subduction is about what happens when things are torn, when stories are stolen, people are broken, and how things do—or don’t—get cobbled back together after such devastating loss. Whether it be personal betrayal or cultural, Young tells a tale about surviving the worst. What happens after is left for the reader to ponder.

Kristina Tate is a writer and traveler. She has lived in Arizona, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, New York City, Australia and more. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narratively, Guernica, Proximity, BOMB, and elsewhere. A graduate from Columbia University's MFA program and Arizona State University, Kristina lives and works in Portland, Oregon. She’s currently working on a memoir and a novel. More from this author →