Kristen Millares Young in conversation with Sharma Shield
March 2020 · Digital Exchange
Kristen Millares Young is the author of Subduction, named a staff pick by the Paris Review and a “brilliant debut” by the Seattle Times. An essayist, investigative journalist and book critic, Kristen is a Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. Her essay, “On Being Driven,” appeared in Moss: Volume Three. Sharma Shields is the author of a short story collection, Favorite Monster, and two novels, The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac and The Cassandra.
In addition to serving as a contributing editor for Moss, Sharma runs a small press, Scablands Books, and has worked in independent bookstores and public libraries throughout Washington State. The two corresponded in early 2020, after the start of the COVID-19 lockdown.
I have been rereading The Cassandra, and it is both comforting and saddening how many of the scenes I continue to co-feel—literally, my insides squeezing, a shrinking, like a mollusk from a shell—as Mildred makes her way through a world marred by preparations for war, trying to survive the belittlements heaped upon her in order to make her more pliant, easy to please and of service to ideals that will never serve her. As a writer, how did you shake off those same societal forces in order to construct a character who both does and does not embody patriarchal expectations?
I’m not sure I have ever or will ever properly shake off those societal forces. Likely I wrote the book with a heightened awareness of those confines and how I’ve been shaped—and how I’ve shaped myself—for good or bad within them. I see this gendered hierarchy everywhere, in the workplace, at board meetings, in the church, in writing workshops. I’m both proud of the singularity of womanhood and also chagrined that I feel the need to call it singular, to identify with gender at all. As a novelist I’m interested in how we strip people down to these rudimentary identities. We dehumanize people by denying them their complexity. Mildred is both a victim of and complicit in these wrongdoings, as I feel I am. She is sexualized, judged, assaulted. She maims, avoids, even murders. Everywhere she goes she suffers under a critical gaze. She feels constantly watched, and this makes her watchful in turn.
Mildred’s buoyancy at the beginning of the book is shaky at best. She wants to believe in the Hollywood dream, in Rosie the Riveter, in the glory of patriotism—fantasies and propaganda fed to her by powerful men. But her optimism is rooted in her own deep power: She’s foreseen what she desires, she’s confident she’ll achieve it. She holds knowledge over her interviewer, however condescending he is, and she quivers with expectation. I wanted Mildred not to be afraid of her uncanny powers of foresight but to court them. At the start of The Cassandra, she thrills over her abilities, she delights in them. She believes the world might have a place for her, as odd as she is, as weirdly potent. The naïveté of this is beautiful and heartbreaking. When she silences herself near the end of the book she gains a different sort of power—self-knowledge, wisdom, a truer understanding of mankind’s hatred—but at an enormous loss. Letting her be powerful and even flawed in her own way is antithetical to patriarchal thinking.
Speaking of power, there is a theme of sexual violence (some consensual, some not) and physical domination occurring in Subduction. Penetration is described in detail, and typically narrated from Peter’s perspective, including when Claudia is very drunk. Peter’s mother, Maggie, has undergone a major sexual assault that she shares in a wrenching scene with Claudia. How do you see sex functioning in Subduction, this novel about encounter/intrusion?
Fucking is a form of displacement for Peter. Plagued by recurrent self-doubt and sorrow, he deploys sex as a mechanism to conquer the self by way of the other. Whenever Peter feels vulnerable, he becomes cocksure, performing aggression to reassert a public version of his masculinity that he prefers to believe. For an audience of one—himself, mostly—he argues that he lives as he does by choice because he likes the freedoms of itinerant roaming. What he doesn’t want to face is that his barren existence—no real friends, no romantic engagement beyond the physical, and no contact with his family for the decades since the early death of his father – is the byproduct of a lifelong habit of hiding from his feelings of inadequacy and shame. By seeking the dispiriting influence of booze, Peter takes after his dad, who ducked being the true head of his family, preferring to ridicule his wife’s needs rather than to admit that he could not sustain them.
To admit his anxiety and despair or even the bare facts of his traumatic past, Peter would fracture his very fragile notion of himself, which, by the time we meet him in Subduction, is all he really has, aside from his truck and his expertise as an underwater welder. So. He fucks around. And because he also uses alcohol to defer those personal reckonings, Peter is desensitized to what it means for someone to be too intoxicated to provide consent. Fearing his own weakness, he takes advantage of that same quality in others. For Peter, physical domination is a means for asserting power within a life that affords little authority. He enjoys being buoyed by the embodiment of predation, so he drinks to forget boundaries and distance himself from the call to action that is true self-knowledge.
Most drinkers of any seriousness know too well the avoidance of shame. In the aftermath of that first encounter, Claudia wakes with the kind of hangover that’s like looking up from the bottom of a well. Though she knows that she was not in a position to provide consent, she would rather not allow herself to accept the consequences of naming aloud what has happened and making that part of her identity. Despite the emergence (and subsidence?) of the #MeToo movement, the vagaries of non-consensual sex remain veiled. The constraints of media—short articles which must provide context and multiple quotes “from both sides” for a rape story with fewer words than a recipe—flatten complex narratives into moral defenses published for legal purposes. Though I appreciate the renewed public interest in bringing justice to the lived experiences of women, as a novelist I find it more interesting to examine how the mind functions when confronted with desire and shame in iterative succession. Erasing that first fragmented encounter by replacing its memory, which means more sex with Peter, Claudia tries to resolve the situation, which she views as self-sabotage, without making accusations.
So, too, Maggie, Peter’s mother, in her own way. In the wake of her assault, her husband’s death and Peter’s disappearance, the trauma gathered force in her life without regard for her desperation to stay its path. Maggie began saving small items for Peter—reminders of their life together—along with everything she thinks he will need to reclaim his culture, and with it, his place on the reservation. This hoarding is her refusal to accept what’s been denied her by the fallout of a situation over which she had no control. Though she shares the story with Claudia, who she finds to be a safer outlet for personal information than cultural knowledge, Maggie keeps it from her son out of fear that he might repeat some form of his father’s violent retaliation and again suffer consequences that would be hers to mourn. By so doing, she deprives Peter of a valuable lesson for decades.
As a woman and a writer, I’ve long thought about what it means to emerge from sexual encounters that intrude upon on our lives, reshaping our ideas of ourselves in subtle, private ways that have enduring ramifications. Sex is a vital concern within my creative production, and it remains one of my greatest artistic inspirations. To invoke sex is to name a center of power that expands the range and entanglement of our humanity. Because of sex, I am here on this earth, as are you; it has to show up in our art. Intellect is embodied.
You’ve examined rape and its aftermath in The Cassandra and in a personal essay in the New York Times. What do these two forms—fiction and creative non-fiction—afford and foreclose when discussing violence upon the female body?
I’m fairly new to nonfiction, and it really isn’t my most comfortable form of writing. Fiction is my first love. I like the wiggle room for metaphor, allusion, meaning. It’s liberating for me that my private experiences are abstracted by narrative; they become glass beads in a kaleidoscope where reality and fiction are inextricable reflections of one another. It’s dawned on me suddenly that I’ve exhausted myself this last year explaining how my lived experiences inspired events in The Cassandra. As I continue to mature as a writer, it’s a new goal of mine to stop picking apart my own work in this way. I know instinctually where my fiction is born (mostly), but does everyone else need to know? Probably not.
Perhaps because of this, I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about publishing that piece in The New York Times. As I mention in the essay, saying that I’ve been raped is still something I have trouble doing, because I hate to admit my own loss of control. I was only 14, I was young, confused, bullied. I said “No,” and was ignored. For years—and I mean decades—I assumed this was fully my fault. I assumed it wasn’t rape because I was dating him. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around all of this and how I feel about having shared it on a large platform. What it afforded me was a wealth of responses from other women (and a man, too) who had shared a similar experience. I was moved, too, by a Greek scholar’s email about how he planned to change his syllabi to reflect a new awareness of the retellings of myths and their reflection on rape culture. I remain grateful for those responses. Non-fiction can have this immediate intimacy that can swiftly bond us, inspire us. Of course, the comments on Twitter also included eyeroll emojis, notes from trolls. It’s disturbing to see that negativity surface after sharing something deeply personal. I will also say that this dismissal of women’s stories is nothing new.
Fiction-wise, I’ve been writing about rape in different forms for years. I have a short story in Hobart about it, and I wrote about it in my first collection, Favorite Monster. I was writing about it before I’d even properly examined my own experience, maybe writing my way toward a better understanding of what happened to me and to friends of mine. In The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac a young teenage girl is bullied into a relationship by an older person, fashioned closely to my own story, but also deeply fictionalized. I wrote a chapter in Sasquatch from the rapist’s perspective, too, humanizing him, showing how he was abused by his father, how as a boy he longed, too, for something kinder, better. I witnessed this in my rapist’s household, too, this legacy of abuse.
But then, perhaps because of the anger I still carry, I drowned the rapist in Lake Roosevelt. His body washes up near Grand Coulee Dam. In another story I wrote, “Witch Lake,” a rapist is killed by a rifle blast. This is as dangerous as I get.
In The Cassandra, the rapist continues on with his life without consequence, which, really, is more realistic. When Mildred sees him again for the first time, she is disturbed by the blankness of his expression; it’s as though he doesn’t recognize her. She is overcome with emotion, questioning her own sanity, her very real, lived experience. It is a passive expansion of his cruelty.
I don’t think any of my writing on this subject is perfect. It feels loaded, like the events of my life, themselves. I both like and grow frustrated with myself for my endless unease, my lack of being at peace. But as a novelist, I think questioning, wondering, is more important than being firmly rooted in one’s own ego. I want to turn items over in my hands and examine them from all angles, and that includes examining my own faults. Fiction has always been my favorite medium for this; imagination gives purpose, structure, and image to my observations. I’ve been writing make-believe stories since I was a little girl, and I still uncover great joy in unleashing my imagination. Lately I’ve been experimenting with combining essayistic pieces with wacky, fantastical fiction, and it’s really fun to try something new and weird. These are not about rape but rather my experience with sobriety, parenthood, and multiple sclerosis. Girlhood/womanhood is always a central theme for me whether I intend it to be or not.
With these past and future essays, you’ve made an offering. I both believe that and know it to be true. It’s also true that writing novels—the long reckoning of research, self-inquiry, writing and revision—helps us sidle up to the meaning of moments from which we’ve hidden, even in memory. I trust that examining your concerns through the prism of fictional characters helped prepare you the disclosures for which you would not otherwise have been ready. You’ve given me something I need to read which is not the news. That is to my benefit, and not yours, and for that, I thank you.
I believe honest conversation is the deepest yield of the sisterhood, which in some communities can masquerade as confinement. In The Cassandra, Mildred’s sister, mother and even her hometown’s drugstore cashier collude in cruel manipulations meant to isolate and contain Mildred. Why d women do this to each other? As novelists, how do we show the truth of this world while also subverting it?
I’ve been thinking of how this novel might look were it also narrated by Mildred’s mother and/or sister. How might these women portray Mildred and how might our opinion of them all shift? Of course, that’s not the novel I wanted to write; centering my narrative fully on Mildred was intentional, as was her elusiveness. The Cassandra is a novel narrated by an unreliable woman who perhaps doesn’t properly understand herself or the world around her until the book’s end (and what a price she pays to get there). At book clubs lately I’ve been asked a few questions about how “diseased” and “unlikable” these characters are, but to me they’re very human. The ways in which they attempt to dominate one another, judge one another, justify their own choices to one another also strike me as very human. Women are asked to be nurturers/Madonna figures: Mildred’s mother is cantankerous, a bully. Women are asked to be gentle and soft: Mildred screams, thrashes, lashes out, shoves. Women are expected to be generous, immediately friendly: Kathy is blunt to the point of cruelty, and while some readers have asked why she’s such a bitch in the beginning of the book, I don’t know that she’s a bitch at all. I don’t think she trusts Mildred, and in her own frustrated way, she worries for her, thinks she’s too mentally fraught for Hanford (and she’s both wrong and right). Mildred’s sister and mother, too, likely worry for Mildred, even as they undermine her. All of the women are in some way responding to societal pressures of how women should behave. The small-town judgment of a lipstick that is a “whore’s color” feels loaded with this absorbed misogyny, and the clerk who issues the statement seems to almost delight in the simplicity of such an insult. Again, it’s the refusal to see another human in a complex way. It’s the boxing in as you mention, the containment. We can all be guilty of it. We can all be complicit in this system.
It’s true that there are power dynamics at play in almost every respect in the book. Men are not alone in these attempts to grasp control, and the women do it, too, sometimes with as much violence and disregard for their fellow humans. I felt in writing this book that every intentional wrong we commit is connected to the larger wrongs of the world. The snide comments we make to someone with less power than us, intended to break this person down, are a thin thread that winds through a labyrinth of human cruelty to a bomb dropping on a civilian metropolis. By paying attention to these ugly moments, highlighting them in ourselves, we can begin to question our own desire for dominance, and the desire of our authorities. It’s worth it to me, as difficult as it is, to examine my wrongdoings in this way. I wanted to shake people awake with this book, have them sit up and ask, Can we as rational beings—capable of committing ourselves to education and human betterment—evolve into something more peaceful and kind? Can we become, finally, responsible to one another and to our planet? I feel as much doubt as I do hope regarding these questions, but it feels essential to ask them.
Speaking of Mildred’s relationship with her family, there is also remarkable tension running through your book between two sisters who are struggling through a major betrayal. Claudia throws herself into studying a community even while her own community is rapidly dissolving. An email from her sister, arriving later in the book, shows how both women are tortured by the choices they’ve made. What’s your take on what families ask of one another, and what we're willing to forgive?
Anyone who wants to have a family must learn to forgive. Blood bonds are powerful, but they are not infallible. The problem is that many requests for forgiveness among family are often, by proxy, a permanent demand for undeserved absolution. As in, I may have done something horrible which altered your sense of self irreparably, but you must forgive now and for the rest of your life, and perhaps act like it never happened, or at least not bring it up, or you are the bad person, not me, because who breaks a family with a grudge?
Given how much abuse and trauma reside in family relationships, the moral onus of forgiveness seems unfair for the victim, regardless of the nature of the aggrievement. I believe forgiveness is warranted if and only when the dynamic in question changes. Sometimes, abusive people need to lose access to the presence of a loved one in order to have space to examine their own choices. Too often, forgiveness is taken as permission for more of the same in shrewd guises, until the catharsis of the last episode ebbs long enough for another severe rupture of trust. And here I must cite Maya Angelou, who said that when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. Whether with family or friends, I’ve found one thing to be true—if you’ve seen a person treat anyone else badly, their behavior will circle back to you, in months or years, spreading across your life like frost on a windshield, a good reminder that fractals repeat themselves at many scales. It is very rare, though not impossible, for a person to break out of a pattern.
I write about families to create a bit more room for that possibility through the quiet and internal work within the reader. I call it resonance. That emotional recalibration, though subtle, is deeply disorienting, as was my own rumination. The years I invest in each novel become the reckoning I didn’t know I needed to have. In my adulthood, and through the painstaking process of writing, I have learned to set boundaries, to protect the self, because they create a clear expectation for the kind of emotional safety and respect that are, for me, the necessary conditions for any relationship.
Plumbing reality through fiction is hard work. Fairy tale tropes surface throughout The Cassandra, though its scenes unfurl a detailed knowledge of historical events whose environmental and sociological impacts continue to reverberate. How did fairy tales help you make sense of the Hanford nuclear site?
So much of The Cassandra began with thoughts of my grandmothers, young women during this time, both hard-working, both in their own right fierce if not empowered. It was likely my grandmother Itha (from Okanogan, WA, smackdab next to Omak where the book begins) who first gave me a collection of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales. Stories like “Wild Swans” and “The Snow Queen” entranced me as a child, because here were heroines willing to endure horrific pain and suffering to save the people they loved. There was a toughness to these stories, a simple acceptanceof the brutal truths of the world, a matter-of-fact commitment to their own strangeness, and as a reader I’ve always appreciated this firm tone. It’s like falling under a spell. As Kate Bernheimer suggests in her wonderful essay, “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale” it’s a triumph of style that we're still influenced by these tales today. From them I’ve fastened a sort of gruesome Pinterest page in my writing mind: An evil princess with black swan wings being whipped in the night (from “A Traveling Companion”), the charming candy cottage with its terrifying contents (“Hansel and Gretel”), the mute girl knitting tunics from stinging nettle (“Wild Swans”), the soldier who cuts off an old witch’s head when she refuses to disclose a secret (“The Tinder Box”). My work always flutters with these dark moths. I like the way they open up the shadows in a story, allowing for metaphor and allegory.
I’m always interested in the flora and fauna of fairy tales, the way they pull from the natural world, and since this was a novel centered strongly in the Hanford Reach, I wanted the arid shrub steppe to loom large here. I highlighted the harshness, the wind, the heat, and also the native predators (rattlesnake, heron, coyote, mountain lion), pulling from my own childhood experience of playing in this region. The heron’s shape-shifting presence in the novel serves as a passage between the instinct for survival we’re all born into as creatures of the world, and the desire for dominance at any cost, an urge I find very disturbing in us as human beings. And, by cross-hatching these fairy tale tropes with historically accurate details, the nightmare/hyper-reality of the war machine became, for me, more alive and urgent on the page.
We both discuss the violence of ongoing colonialism in our novels, and I really appreciate how you never let Claudia off the hook for her anthropological studies. I had a conversation recently with the brilliant Nez Perce/Colville writer Beth Piatote, author of the newly published story collection The Beadworkers (an excerpt appears on page 41) and a professor at UC Berkeley, who mentioned how uncomfortable it is to be working at a university that contains the largest collection of ancestral remains and artifacts in the country. An article last year mentioned that the university is struggling with how to return these artifacts to their Tribes, admitting that their history as a university is “deeply flawed.” So much has been stolen, appropriated, and misinterpreted from the land’s forever stewards—a term used by Elissa Washuta in her fantastic essay “Apocalypse Logic.”
Interestingly, Claudia’s initial interest in anthropology begins with a desire to study her own Mexican heritage, and she publishes articles about “gendered notions of love in Mexican border songs,” which she is thrilled (like any author) to have published. Her interest in her own people, however, is limited, and she studies the Makah instead. These layers are so impressive in Subduction, and serve not to glorify anthropology but to showcase its problematic nature and potential for dehumanization. How did you familiarize yourself with Neah Bay and with the subject of anthropology?
First, let me say how much I love that Washuta essay! I teach her work wherever I can.
I grew up in a household run by Cuban exiles in Florida, attended high school in California, went to college in Massachusetts, and worked as a journalist in New York, Argentina and Florida before moving to Washington state to work for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as a reporter. Diaspora. We’re all around. Though I had studied indigenous histories at Harvard, whose libraries contain many primary source documents like testimonies of first contact, it was in Washington that I first engaged with ancient tribes as a modern political presence. I admire the ways Native communities invest their resources to defend our collective environmental rights. We should all be grateful.
Fifteen years ago, when I was a daily journalist, I drove onto the Makah Indian Reservation for the very first time and was lucky to meet Kirk Wachendorf, a docent at the Makah Cultural and Research Center, who spends his time doing the work of culture by educating the public—in this case, me. In these fraught millennia, I was not the first to show up, uninvited, to their sovereign nation, but he treated me as though my singular mind was worth the investment of his time. Aside from the hours he spent on the MCRC’s collection, which contains saltwater-cured artifacts dating back millennia, a rarity because many tribal technologies favored wood and other natural materials that decompose with time, he told me about the insult and annoyance of having to carry a tribal ID card to show a triba affiliation that was his birthright, and that idea intrigued me, as a Latina who often felt compelled to prove it, but never with a document.
I kept going back. At first, in the aughts, I hung out at frybread stands and the senior center and went camping with friends, with my husband, and then with our newborn sons, from Shi Shi beach to the beachfront yards of friends. In my small way, I became known to some people I respect on land that belongs to them. I told them I was writing a novel based on their territory, though it would be years before I actually began to write.
First, I wanted to read everything ever written about the Makah Tribe. And because dominant societies produce documentation that can hide the real story, I also spent those years talking to elders and other tribal members whose oral histories provided great insight into the paranoia, pain, and longing of their ongoing history with outsiders. I learned well how a story can serve many purposes at once. Here and in the acknowledgements of Subduction, I am glad to call some of these people my friends, and I am humbled by how they’ve hosted me and my family, a welcome I’ve reciprocated in my own home. The forever stewards of a living, ancient culture, the Makahs I’ve met are wry and generous, and they know how to put on a good spread.
While on unemployment, because the P-I stopped printing and laid off most of the staff, I moved out to Neah Bay for a bit longer than I could when I was working on daily deadlines. I reported and wrote the first of two MCRC newsletters, the next six years later, when I was on maternity leave for my first son, a document for which I had the great honor of reporting and writing an obituary for Doc Daugherty, the archaeologist who worked with the Makah to excavate and catalogue thousands upon thousands of artifacts preserved for millennia by salt water, including a whale saddle studded with otter teeth and a net that helped sway a Supreme Court decision in favor of Native fishing rights. The Makah collaboration with Daugherty, which took place over more than a decade beginning in the 1970s, set a progressive example for other archaeologists. The Makah decided to allow Daugherty to work with them; he wisely engaged tribal members to survey and dig up the site, also inviting elders to convene about the use and identity of the items.
There is so much about the “unsaid” in Subduction, usually wielded as a form of protection, whether to protect a loved one (as in not disclosing the details of Peter’s father’s death), or to protect a community (as is the case of the Makah with their necessary distrust of outsiders). We end the book with Claudia ferrying her own major secret, and the uncertainty that goes along with it. I appreciate the space you provide to include this silence, the way it can damage, alter, or—as is the case with the Makah—even protect identity. What urged you to include this invisible power in your work?
I am so damned grateful for this question. As a novelist, it takes discipline to exercise restraint by withholding. Big set pieces—scenes in which thoughts tumble out as dialogue to instruct those unattuned to the complex emo-tional currents of silence—provide satiation that feels hollow, like junk food or bad sex. On the long path toward publishing Subduction, I was pressured by some agents and editors to deliver that kind of sentimentality. While I don’t begrudge commercial literature those moments, they don’t interest me. The vast majority of human knowledge goes unspoken, and our actions, unacknowledged. I want art that explores what I have seen and known people to do.
As a journalist, I return again and again to the difference between what people say and what they do, which in other times was enough to hold some elected officials accountable. As a novelist, I am drawn to the shadows between what people say and what they think. There I find the fertile territory of doubt, mostly of the self, as well as instantaneous judgments whose deliveries are delayed and sometimes permanently deferred. While I know enough to be thankful for that mercy, I believe we can learn from the tides of thought, even if we choose not to share.
I am also intrigued by the tacit understandings created between parties to unmentioned trauma. Each of the character pairings in Subduction—whether Claudia and Maggie as researcher and participant, or Maggie and Peter as mother and son, together responsible for burying what was done to them, or Peter and Claudia, as unlikely and consequential lovers—contains knowledge that, though uncommunicated, controls and constrains their interactions.
For that reason, I wrote Subduction in close third person, alternating between Claudia and Peter, whose entanglement is almost quantum, and yet they never truly show up except in sexual collision. At one juncture of the many drafts I made, I charted their movements on a graph whose axes were time and intensity. They chased each other like sine and cosine waves, and it was satisfying to see my human creations follow a pattern of nature, for such fluctuations are found in the ocean, sound and light. In this way, I knew these characters to have emerged from the landscapes—geographic, cultural, emotional, historical—that I had studied for years before I began to write.
I’ve mentioned to you before how much this novel reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, particularly in how its imagery is both evocative of this rich, watery Northwest location (Subduction on the sea, Housekeeping inland), but also in how you knit these images so profoundly to the moods of the characters. There are breathtaking sentences throughout. What books inspired Subduction, both in its form and lyricism, and in its themes of encounter, collision, intrusion?
I read Housekeeping many times to try to understand how Robinson could be lush and spare at once, so I thank you for the honor of naming my aesthetic kinship with that most lyric of writers. What follows is a very short list of novels and memoirs that I’ve loved.
For imbuing prose with the kinetic power of desire, M. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. For her understanding of the epigenetic inheritance of trauma, whether communicated through stories or held back, Elizabeth Rosner’s Survivor Café. For the pleasures and punishments of belonging to multiple cultures, Luis Alberto Urrea’s Nobody’s Son. For their lyric, episodic invocations and explorations of the power and limitations of stories, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, The Master by Colm Tóibín, and The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. For his close focus on the nexus of sex and colonialism, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. For her rapturous belief in the beauty of this wet corner of the world, Annie Dillard’s The Living. For his insistence on an unsympathetic narrator, Nabokov’s Lolita and Speak, Memory. For her sharp, multifaceted focus on the ramifications of rape, the legacies of Catholicism and the treatment of mental illness within an indigenous body, Elissa Washuta’s My Body is a Book of Rules. For his pairing of philosophical rigor with the gravity of orgasm, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. For keeping me on this path, James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process.”
As we’ve been corresponding, COVID-19 has taken over our lives in the Northwest, disrupting, well, everything—including your book tour. I read beautiful piece you wrote about this yesterday in Crosscut, about your abuela, about attempting to homeschool following school closures, about rescheduling (or not) your cancelled events. How is all of this disruption going?
With dread and anxiety mounting via social media, our common endeavor can feel insufficient to heal our conflicts. Fiction may be a tender offering in a pandemic, but we will need that collective vulnerability to marshal enough strength to do the work. Because stories are a means for connection, writers must change the narrative. Pa’lante, the Spanish slang for “onward,” also implies “roll with it” and “we must move forward together.” Such persistence is my motto. For our fractious nation to heal, each of us must commit to joyous action as a rigorous response to living. As a mother to two young sons, I cannot simply state these truths. I must embody them, and with cheer, or risk emotional damage to those whom I love the most.
The fact is that my husband, our sons and I find happiness in small orbits around each other. We read books at bedtime and before it. Our boys wake before dawn on a daily basis and seek each other’s company to play with Legos and demand breakfast in the dark. My husband set up a ninja training course in our basement—basically, it’s a series of rings and knotted ropes under which we’ve amassed as much padding as might be needed to cushion a small falling boy. We put in snap peas, arugula, strawberries and pole beans in our garden, from which I finally cleared the fallen leaves. I am waiting for small green tendrils to emerge through the dirt. Many of the seeds will fail. But some will find the light.
To this noisy domestic paradise, I bring my hope for a literary life. Though my children teach me what I must still learn about my heart, I seek a council of the mind in the company of absent thinkers, their work in my hands at odd hours, like this one, when I am writing to you before the earth turns us back toward the sun. It is the paradox of parenting that the very act which prepares you to offer your humanity wholeheartedly and without rancor also deprives you of the time with which to craft that gift in any other form but messiness and laughter.
They say that pressure makes the diamond. Myself, I’ve been feeling a bit rough. It would have been easier for me to give up on my idea of who I could become than to carry it through giving birth twice, 18 months apart, gestating and suckling and rearing small creatures who only now are conscious that my needs diverge from their own. But I was shown how to carry my hope in pockets of time by my abuela, who died two days ago. Growing up in a multigenerational household, I watched her make food and wash the dishes by hand, collecting the dishwater for our garden, before placing the cups and dishes to dry on the unused dishwasher’s racks. I watched her sweep the carpets (the vacuum tucked into a closet) and if you’re wondering what I was doing with all that watching and no helping, well, I dusted the furniture and learned not to talk when she wanted to paint and write, instead making my own art next to her.
I watched Abuela do everything the old way, the hard way, which left it signature in me. I expect life to get tough. It is, perhaps, a marker of the trauma of diaspora, but it has served me well in times of crisis. Some of the 35 events I planned for my tour have been canceled, but I transitioned most of them to virtual readings, and I’ve been surprised and gladdened by the number of attendees. I guess we all need to see each other’s faces.
Here in Seattle, I’ve tried to rally support for local bookstores, and yes, yours truly, by sharing links to order Subduction through Elliott Bay Book Co. and Third Place Books in Seward Park. I worry that some bookstores will have folded by fall. Been saving your rainy day reading list? Now’s the time.
Most notably, I rescheduled my April 24th launch at Hugo House, where I am wrapping up two years as Prose Writer-in-Residence, to a virtual event on Friday, October 2nd. Seattle Met and The Stranger were kind enough to feature my original spring date, and I hope they will again—but the socioeconomic factors that support those outlets may reduce arts coverage moving forward; The Stranger recently laid off 18 people because 90 percent of their revenue depended on events now canceled. The question changes. No longer, “Will The Stranger remember Subduction?” It is now, “How can I support The Stranger so those good people can continue to provide vital coverage of our city?” Having spent the last fifteen years of my life in service to our journalistic and literary communities, I know that I can be part of the answer, and so can we all.
It is our time. Let’s step up.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.