An Interview with Author Kristen Millares Young
April 9, 2020
Interviewed by Joyce Chen, TSW staff
There are a lot of moving, shifting pieces that comprise Kristen Millares Young’s stunning debut novel, Subduction; its characters are equal parts voyeurs and participants in their own unraveling, and the Pacific Northwest landscape they inhabit boasts its own treasure trove of secrets that continually capsizes their notions of self. The premise for the book is this: a prodigal son, Peter, returns to the whaling village of the Makah people, which he fled years ago following his father’s murder. His elderly mother, Maggie, is attempting to make up for lost time, but her memory is fast-fading, and it’s unclear whether or not she’ll be able to pass down the generations-old traditions of their people before it’s too late.
It’s at this point in time that an interlocutor, Latinx anthropologist Claudia Ranks, first encounters Peter. Her journey to the Makah Indian Reservation is an attempt to find respite from her own crumbling home life, an escape from conditions of her own making. What follows is part anthropological study, part philosophical interrogation, and all parts brilliant (actionable) storytelling: an examination of what happens when immigrants become settlers, and native land dwellers become itinerant travelers. Young’s meditation on the ways in which Peter and Claudia repeatedly unmoor one another can be read as just that — a meditation — or it can be understood as a warning wrapped in the embrace of a fable. It’s up to the reader to discern.
Earlier this year, Kristen spoke with The Seventh Wave about the importance of staking a claim in our own histories, the power of oral storytelling, and what it means to truly break out of the systemic pressures that often guide our career and life trajectories. What follows is a written transcript of our oral conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Joyce Chen: Where did the idea for Subduction come from — did the characters come first? Or the storyline, a message?
Kristen Millares Young: Well, I had gone out to the Makah reservation, and was talking to this docent named Kirk Wachendorf, who works at the Makah Cultural and Research Center, and he was telling me about two things. One, I wanted to buy a book that contained the songs of the tribe, and he did not want to sell me the book. And I was curious: Why do you stock a book that you don’t want to sell? And he said, “We stock the book because it was co-written by a tribal member, but I don’t want to sell you the book because there are claims made in that book that have counter-claims to this set of songs.” I was fascinated by this idea of an individual copyright on a song.
Second, I was also talking to him about how, as a Latina, I am out of context as a Cuban here in the Pacific Northwest. There are not that many of us. He was telling me that similarly, Makahs have a very specific, place-based culture. One of the difficulties that he’s felt, and many other people have felt, is having to prove their Indianness, literally needing to show identification in order to receive some of the benefits that are afforded to tribal members through negotiated treaty rights with their governing bodies. I thought about that. I am half-white, half-Latina; I can present in both ways, and though I have often been called upon in various ways to share some evidence of what or who I am, I’ve never been asked to show identification in that way.
This made me think about what it would be like to find yourself being asked for evidence of a humanity and affiliation that predates those who want the documentation by millennia. So through that exploration of identity and questions of representation, I began to explore the ways in which a certain kind of ascendant, white-passing Latinx can pick and choose what elements of culture or things they keep, believing that they’re selecting agency over assimilation, but often being conditioned toward a loss of cultural identity in order to gain the benefits of the economy and social acceptance in the United States.
Because that is such a common practice, those people’s identities aren’t necessarily challenged until outsiders come evaluate how “pure” these beliefs are that create a tribe in thought, as well as a tribe in governance. In the book, my character Claudia is visiting this reservation toward the Christmas season, and she is processing so much trauma and loss that has just happened in her immediate life. But as an anthropologist, she’s also evaluating the ways in which the people around her are selectively adapting elements of culture that were based on expunging Native beliefs. And the contradictions so inherent in that. Any identity in this land which is so disputed must be contradictory, which forces a very large intellectual reckoning that was decades in the making.
Joyce: Claudia was going to this reservation to observe, and in doing so, was making people realize that they were being observed. In your opinion, then, is it necessary to have an outsider in order to shake these things up?
Kristen: I would say the presence of outsiders, or the arrival of settlers to this region, was devastating to communities that were here, and are here, through sickness and genocide and marginalization and persecution and oppression. So the question is, now that that’s happened, can we find a way to make meaning and to see anew these relationships that were corrupted by the intense racism and the economic aims of the people who came here? For me, rather than believing that the outside presence confers a necessary meaning, it’s more about how we can learn about ourselves in such a way that we don’t replicate these fractals of oppression that have become so endemic to our society that they’re barely visible to most people.
I think when people are looking at our current political situation and the ways in which these people are and are not honored, they don’t yet know how much learning they have to do to come to the matter with an open heart. They’re trying to disprove their judgements rather than remaining open to wisdom that is not yet available to them. And those are two very different things: disproving a judgement versus willingness to learn.
Joyce: Right. I feel like it’s the difference between recognizing and reckoning, in a way. It’s two steps, and one can’t come before the other, but one doesn’t necessarily follow the other. One of the other questions that I had in my mind was about this idea of restitution. And specifically, emotional restitution. In the novel, you have a prodigal son, Peter, coming back to the reservation, trying to make up for the fact that he hasn’t been there, while also trying to wrestle with the fact that he didn’t want to be there. I’m curious if you could speak a little bit to that push-and-pull. What does emotional restitution look like in the novel?
Kristen: I love that phrase, emotional restitution. Because it’s something that is often the unspoken longing in families, a desire between generations to honor and name and then carry forward the sacrifices and hopes that led to whatever situation a family finds itself in. And in Peter’s particular case, he left Neah Bay very immediately following the death of his father. His mother Maggie tried to protect him from the import of that death by not telling him what she knew of the circumstances, believing that she, as the steward of the story, could free him from the burden of knowing that story, even though there are so many other stories and teachings that she wanted to share.
I find that to be true in many families, including my own, where there are very real traumas that are unspoken, yet guide every action that is taken. It becomes this tacit agreement to silence that becomes an organizing principle for the family. It also creates insurmountable distances between family members. In most families, there’s something that people won’t talk about. That something actually ends up defining that family for the people who do know. For Peter, having grown up with many generations of ancestors, he was kind of forced into diaspora through trauma, which is not unlike the early conditions for Claudia’s entrance to the United States and her eventual wish to be seen as part of this country.
A lot of times, there are these pendulum swings about appreciation of birth cultures — many people have come to this country not just fleeing trauma, but also hoping for a freer way to live. As we try to honor the hopes and efforts and ways of being that immigrants endure, it’s useful to note that in many, many cases, their choice to be here — if it is a choice — was also a rejection of the controlling parameters of their prior lives. I think about that a lot, having family in Cuba, and looking back at my family in Spain. The possibilities that I had for intellectual engagement, for journalistic action, for literary exploration, those things were made possible by this place, and yet I know that I bear a signature of all the generations that have come before. I thought it was interesting to contrast Peter — who left his birthplace in order to try to free himself from the trauma that had marred his life there, only to find it travels with him — with Claudia, who also carries with her this outsider burden even as she has been brought into institutions through her academic studies and through a marriage, which has since failed.
Part of that fumbling of the person into a smaller and more easily accepted version of themselves happens through the settler forces around them, conditioning them to function in society, to use their manners, to do all the things that they’re supposed to do: work, find your partner, buy things, maintain property. All these are capitalist values, essentially, or the legacy of the religious values of marriage. These values hold to the point wherein people feel like outsiders to their own lives. That question of never feeling easy in one’s own bed is something that I’m interested in, because I think it’s a very private feeling that’s shared by a lot of people, whether in their homes or in society or in their workplaces. But because it is so intimate, and because vulnerability can lead to ostracization in our cutthroat country, fiction allows us to explore without having the reader disclose that they share that feeling.
Joyce: I love that phrase about “legacy values” a whole lot. Because it’s true — things like having property, having a family, even a career — are so much about legacy. You also mentioned silences within families actually dictating the evolution of a family, and by that token, there is so much power in telling the story. Obviously, there’s a lot of oral storytelling that’s happening in the novel. I’m curious about the power of oral storytelling versus something that’s written down. What are the powers of the two different forms?
Kristen: Yes. This is what the book is about: The predilection by dominant cultures for the written word over oral storytelling. The American style of legacy is predicated on labor mobility that disrupts family ties and creates avenues through which career or economic production is the main metric for individual legacy, rather than being a member of a community. The amount of migration that happens even within the United States as people grow up, get an education, find a job, make a life — there’s a constant rupture that is happening as people seek opportunity. And many people don’t really reflect too much on what they’re losing when they do pursue those opportunities. Only later, when they’re raising a kid alone in a city where there is no other person to come over to watch the baby while they make dinner, or where they are facing sickness without the support of family, do those values get questioned.
The American style of legacy is predicated on labor mobility that disrupts family ties and creates avenues through which career or economic production is the main metric for individual legacy, rather than being a member of a community.
As a reporter, I have often been a collector, an investigator, of oral history. It’s one of the first things you do when you report a story. Aside from reading the documents you can find about that subject matter, your first task is often to go and interview people, and to listen to what they have to say and to understand the world through their perspectives. The nuance that is available through oral storytelling is much more accurate and portrays the subject matter in a way that is fluid. This is in contrast to the written tendency to fix meaning to the page, and to define it for future readers or future generations. Many forms of written documentation will not admit their inadequacy or call out the ways in which the story has been conditioned to serve the needs of the institution that is commissioning the document.
The thing about oral history is that it depends upon multiple parties. The person needs to share the story, then there needs to be a person who will listen to that story, and then there is the remembering and the further sharing that happens. And so it’s our obligation to commit those stories to memory in such a way that preserves the intention of the storyteller. In Subduction, Maggie has dementia and knows that her time is limited to impress upon her son Peter the things she wants him to know, and yet, because of this great silence between him and his family, she can’t talk about the thing that happened between them, so she uses story as a way to get him to think about his values and to get him to reexamine his actions without necessarily overly accusing him or condemning him. I think there’s a line in there, “Stories reveal the teachings the way light cast a shadow,” and because it is oblique, it is also more defensible. The meaning is ambiguous and it is reproduced within the mind of the listener, and so it’s a shared making that becomes the living enactment of the story.
The best kinds of written stories for me are thought-provoking and do not foreclose other reads. And that, as a novelist, feels very risky. I did that deliberately. There’s so many ways you can read the book. Whether or not you agree with what the characters do, or their values, this is not a propaganda for progressive mentality. These people are flawed. Their lives are fraught. They are not always making progress toward healing; they’re kind of eddying themselves. It felt risky to leave them to be so human on the page knowing that people would often like written characters to have that triumphant narrative that will make us feel assured, but I went with it.
Joyce: Does the tendency to want to write stories down feel to you to be a more western tendency? Is that fair to say?
Kristen: Well, it’s difficult, right? Because there is a very long history of, say, Chinese literature and poetry that has been written down. I’ve also been reading a lot about Pagan Rome and looking at all these tablets that were formed to dictate economic status and trade — it was seen as a kind of magic to have meaning that could survive a living being. But that meaning was also horribly misunderstood. I remember there was something called a quipu, it looked like a little whip and it had all these various knots, and all these threads, and people had no idea what it was. It was carried around Incan empires prior to conquest. Modern researches realized that the color of the thread, the direction of the knot, the intricate pattern of the knot, was a taxation record. So in that sense, record-keeping and having meaning that survived the telling of this person is something that is not necessarily just western; it’s useful.
I think what is western is the evaluation of different forms of testimony, because here in the United States, oral testimony is evidence, but people have a tendency to believe or to validate written documents and to distrust oral testimony without considering what kind of institutional pressures might be controlling the document. I’m not here to say that oral histories are superior to documents. They’re just a different form and their values need to be understood. But it’s harder to process oral histories. Either you record them, and then they’re turned into a transcript, a written document, or they are held in a recording in an archive, which takes a lot of time to then listen to.
I think what is western is the evaluation of different forms of testimony, because here in the United States, oral testimony is evidence, but people have a tendency to believe or to validate written documents and to distrust oral testimony without considering what kind of institutional pressures might be controlling the document.
Many stories that I heard from the Makah people seemed simple on the surface, but as I reflected upon them, I realized just how profound they were. Recently, I went out there for Makah Days and there was a whale that had just been butchered because it had been struck by a commercial boat and killed, so they towed it to one of the beaches and were processing it for tribal use. It was a huge celebration and people came in from all over. My host was telling me this story about a young mother who had gone out to the beach and had spent all day butchering the whale with the baby on her back. It’s this timeless image. It’s an image that could extend back thousands of years. Had this particular woman butchered a whale before? Maybe not, but she did it. The story was about how this knowledge was being enacted in new generations, intergenerationally. So this simple story became so large.
Joyce: Right. Just thinking about what this baby is observing is mind-boggling. What future generations will somehow inherently know, and why.
Kristen: The participation of very young children in communal acts is something that’s big in the Makah culture. So much of US mainstream culture sidelines young people and old people so they have no role to play, and in this community, when there is a community event, everybody’s there. From babies to the very elderly. Seeing that integration makes me realize how sick the larger culture is for excluding these generations from life, really.
Joyce: Right. Where are the synapses not working? You definitely lose something when you prevent knowledge from being passed down.
Kristen: What’s left, a career? [laughs] That’s just your window of productivity, and then what — curtains?
Joyce: Right. It’s just a huge bell curve. Going back to the very beginning when we were talking about who’s allowed to sing these songs or who’s allowed to buy a book that has songs in it — when I was reading your book, I had this thought about permission. Who gets to grant permission, who gets to take things without permission. This feels very related to our current topic for TSW, which is all about Actionable Storytelling. It takes a kind of shattering for there to be a recognition of what’s going on underneath. When it comes to permission, then, what does that shattering look like? What has to happen in order for folks to recognize who has permission to do what?
Kristen: For me, the way that I dealt with this was by going meta. I continuously wrote the narrative back to those questions by asking them overtly in the interactions between Claudia, this anthropologist living in diaspora, and Peter and his mother, who are living in and occupying this space that was occupied by their blood ancestors for millennia. That was the way I found to deal with this ethical question of showing a moment of encounter wherein the perspectives of both peoples are included. And then going beyond the moment of encounter to engagement between immigrant culture and Indigenous culture; recognizing that we need multicultural, polyphonic literature, which requires transgressing some of the boundaries that are becoming dharma in literary fiction today. There are very good reasons for calling into question the right to tell all kinds of stories, because of the horrendous history that peoples have of taking stories and twisting them to their purposes. That’s part of the reason why I included anthropological history throughout the book, tracking people who came into the community with their own aims and then left, leaving relationships that had been forged, but also a legacy of damage.
Joyce: I think the really beautiful thing about this book is that it feels like it’s a conversation starter. It’s not open-and-shut, not “they lived happily ever after,” or “they fell to ruins.” The nuance in the book ties into what you’re saying about the oral storytelling and why there’s something there that’s so subjective in the best way possible. Zooming out a bit, I’m curious to know a bit more about your writing process. What are the liberations and restrictions of literary fiction and journalism?
Kristen: The kind of journalism that I practiced, and that I still practice, has a social aim. I write book reviews too, which is trying to improve the quality of ideas in our society through reflection and analysis of stories that took their makers years to craft. I’m always trying to bring elements of justice to situations that have been mired in its opposite and using the institutional powers that are afforded to the brand names that I report for to compel other institutions to cough up the documents or arrange the interview or reckon with past actions in ways that can influence future policy. It’s a way of building power that is needed to counterbalance the corporate control of most social mechanisms. And that’s the ethos that I bring to journalism. It’s a reckoning.
I’m always trying to bring elements of justice to situations that have been mired in its opposite and using the institutional powers that are afforded to the brand names that I report for to compel other institutions to cough up the documents or arrange the interview or reckon with past actions in ways that can influence future policy.
But when I began to wield power in a way that didn’t necessarily recognize my own positionality, my own compromise, that drove me to personal essays. Because that neutrality is a pose for most people, and the idea that there is a neutral objectivity belies what we know about humanity and subjectivity of individuals. So I have really preferred now, even in reported essays that are still investigations, to try to invoke my own fears, my own hopes, my own worries, as a way of locating this intellect within the body. As a journalist, I kept trying to pin people on the difference between what they said and what they do, and that’s my go-to tactic, to transcribe what they said for a meeting and then say, “On this day they said this, and on this day they did that.” Exposed! And they would have to reckon with that.
But as a novelist, I’m much more interested in the difference between what people say and what they think. It’s good for people to think about what they’re going to share and to sift through their many emotions to select the most generous among them to help move the situation forward. There’s nothing wrong with curation — it helps save us from a lot of trash, frankly. But also, there’s this self-silencing and abnegation that both of my characters practice as a condition of being in the world, which stands in contrast to the promise of literary community, where people want to talk about things that would be taboo in any other environment. That vulnerability and disclosure are actually the site for potential connection was personally transformative for me. I was becoming something of a hard-ass as a journalist, which is not a good thing when you’re in your 20s. It makes you a better being, a better human, to recognize one’s own frailty. And to connect with other people with that knowledge, rather than embodying the full power of your institutional lens.
Joyce: Pertaining to our issue, Actionable Storytelling — one of the questions that we ask in our call for submissions is, “Tell us about a time you reached a point where you had to rethink what you thought was fact before.” Claudia and the other characters in the book obviously all had their breaking points. What I’m curious about is when you were creating them as characters and breathing life into them, how did you determine what their breaking points would be?
Kristen: Have you ever had a relationship or a friendship where in order to have a reckoning with that person, you would have to ruin their idea of themselves?
Joyce: Hmm. Yes.
Kristen: A lot of relationships end at that moment, because people would rather preserve their idea of themselves than break a belief that has sustained them through hard times. A belief in their inherent goodness. A belief in their moral rectitude in their rights. And for Claudia, she wanted so badly the privileges that she saw her white, male husband ascend naturally into, but to get them, she had to fight in a way that left no space for other relationships. The antagonistic stance that she takes towards her own self in order to extract more work from herself — she sees that as a form of morality. There’s a part in the book where she talks about worshipping success, and how work felt holy, and it does feel, in our society, as though these notions of purity — sexual purity at one point, moral purity at another point, and now it’s the scourge of work — that we will purify ourselves through work and in so doing earn the privileges that we have been given. She thinks it will keep her “safe” to practice this way of being. She wants to retain a place within society that can sustain her, and give her the independence that she wants. That particular paradigm is one that controls her throughout the book.
[I also] think about the bifurcation of our epochs as adults — from the working adult to the retired adult — and what a tremendously difficult rupture that is for people. They lose the structures that supported the relationships that sustained their ideas of themselves. Then they have to find a new self, because they didn’t have space in their lives for themselves. What were they interested in? Who did they spend time with? This book shows how we build lives that we want to escape from. We convince ourselves that we’re doing things for a good reason, and that the loneliness and isolation inherent to mainstream American society are for the benefit of a career progression or an accomplishment that will validate all the colonizing that was needed to make that ascent possible. For Claudia, it’s a real question for people who have been coming from the margins or who are working against systemic oppression — how to gain power while subverting the mechanisms of power which have deprived you of it in the first place. It’s very hard. It’s a question that extends to our political circumstances — how do we unmake this polarity which has destroyed our country without using the methods which we know to be corrupt? How do we, as individuals, the body politic, how do we change while still retaining a sense of ourselves?
It’s a real question for people who have been coming from the margins or who are working against systemic oppression — how to gain power while subverting the mechanisms of power which have deprived you of it in the first place.
Joyce: That’s so fascinating. How do you change while still staying true to yourself? And what lies do you have to tell in order to protect that? My last question is somewhat related, though it’s more about you as a writer. In the process of writing the 20 drafts of this book, were there any moments that, whether it was in doing the research or fleshing out the characters, surprised you or caused you to change direction, or changed how you viewed your writing?
Kristen: Remember I was saying how difficult it is for settler cultures or outsider cultures to approach Indigenous communities with a sense of openness and learning rather than a disproving of judgment? My family has, through diaspora, affected an ascendance for which I’m very grateful, but it required an uprooting, which has also been very hard on individuals who carried forth this migration. Our work ethic is real, on both sides of my family. I always see that ethic of making the sacrifice and the hard choice for future success and advancement as the honorable choice. What’s interesting about visiting a tribal community, particularly the Makah tribe, is that many of those people are capable of doing that exact same thing. They send their kids off to Ivy League schools. There are Makah students in really great universities all over the country. But there is an honor system, a value system, that also calls those people home. To serve. Not everyone does. Some people go, and they want to pursue a very specific line of study, and they’ll go elsewhere to be able to do that. But the value of placing family above individual progress was shocking to me.
And yes, I love my family, but we live thousands of miles away from each other. We are a family in thought as well as blood, but not in daily interactions, which has allowed me, of course, to pursue a very specialized field — investigative journalism, literary fiction, being a performance artist. Tampa, for example, does not sustain the kind of literary community that would allow me to do 100-plus performances that I’ve done here in Seattle over the last decade. Knowing this hasn’t necessarily changed my proximity to my forebears, but it has changed the way in which I’m raising my children. I want them to feel free. Of course, as a woman, to break free of intergenerational duties has been critical to women’s liberation, because we were tasked with being the caretakers of the young and the old, and with very little time for making an intellectual contribution, very little time for shaping the larger community according to our own set of values. So I’m not trying to say, “We need to go back to that,” but to question and to determine to what extent we can begin to integrate these ideas of the importance of community into ideas of a career progression.
Joyce: Right. Removing the binary of capitalism and career versus staying with family. They’re definitely not mutually exclusive, but to have one over the other does mean that there’s going to be some form of compromise.
Kristen: Especially our workplace culture, it’s inhumane. It doesn’t provide space for procreation, gestation, breastfeeding, care for the elderly, or grief. For grief, we get like, what? A grief day? Please. So to remove the binary to integrate these ways of being requires cultural shifts that necessitates a lot of citizen engagement and self examination.
Joyce: A lot of undoing. A lot of delayering. I’m thinking of a Russian nesting doll. Seeing if there’s a core in the center.
Kristen: In very real ways, because we all have different values that we assign to our ambitions, like literary ambitions or economic ambitions (which are not the same) — most people when they come to the end of their careers are on that small, tiny nubbin of a doll, and they’re looking around and thinking, “What was that all about? Was it just the churn? Why did I feel the need to be seen or known in this way? Who am I if not that?” And if you haven’t built an identity that includes other facets of your being, then it’s shattering. One of the problems that I find with the lack of ceremony around oral history in mainstream American culture is that those wisdoms are held by the elderly, and we are not listening to them. We don’t want to learn ahead of time that all this striving that we’re about to conduct will end up with us in the exact same place emotionally.
Joyce: That’s a lot to put on a bumper sticker but we should try. [laughs] I do think about that a lot, and how it’s cultural in a lot of ways — respecting elders and what that means. Do we put elders away in a home for their good or for our good?
Kristen: I think we’re afraid of our own mortality. I have had several college friends die of cancers, and it’s still shocking to me. If I knew that I was going to die tomorrow, for example, would I keep doing what I was planning on doing, which is allowing my husband to pick up our kids, and then sending emails? I don’t know! I mean, it’s building the future, and it’s supporting all of this work that I’m doing, but mortality makes us question our choices, that tinge of death. It can be shattering, and people want to feel invincible. They want to inhabit this power that is false. It’s a false power, and yet it does feel real.
I think what journalism and fiction share is optimism. Even though a journalist may be looking into a situation of dire injustice, somewhere there is a belief that more people knowing the story could change something, and I think the same is true for writing from the perspective of flawed people, that by writing through this prism, we’ll be able to see ourselves from another angle. And maybe change.