Coping with Injustice: A Conversation with Yxta Maya Murray
By Daniel A. OlivasMarch 18, 2023
God Went Like That by Yxta Maya Murray
Murray’s accolades include a Whiting Award and an Arts Writers Grant, and she has been named a fellow at the Huntington Library for her work on radionuclide contamination in Simi Valley, California. This last honor relates to Murray’s most recent novel, God Went Like That (published on March 15 by Curbstone Books), which takes the form of an Environmental Protection Agency report written by a fictional federal agent, Reyna Rodriguez, who documents an actual nuclear reactor meltdown in 1959, along with further accidents that occurred in 1964 and 1969, at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. This toxic legacy continued for decades, resulting in cancer clusters that devastated many who had hoped to enjoy suburban life in the San Fernando Valley. Worse yet, the contamination may have been further released into the environment by the 2018 Woolsey Fire and 2019 floods in the area. Rodriguez’s report includes fictional interviews with people who were affected by the toxic disasters.
In God Went Like That, Murray perfectly melds her legal training with empathetic storytelling to create a gripping, vivid, and ultimately moving novel that serves as a powerful indictment of governmental malfeasance and structural environmental racism. All the while, she creates intimate and authentic mini-portraits of the victims as they try to understand and cope with the devastating harm caused by a government and alleged experts they should have been able to trust.
Murray made time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her new novel.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: Your novel is based on an actual reactor meltdown and subsequent accidents that occurred between 1959 and 1969 at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Simi Valley, which were then exacerbated by fire and flood decades later. When did you learn of this ongoing environmental disaster, and when did you realize that your research would become the basis for a novel?
YXTA MAYA MURRAY: I learned about the 1959 disaster in 2019, when I began researching California wildfires in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, which began in November 2018 and burned nearly 100,000 acres of land in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Like most everybody else here, I found the fire seasons increasingly terrifying and thought that I would do a piece on the histories of wildfires, toxins, and water scarcity in the region—which I wound up publishing in Longreads. During this work, I found Daniel Hirsch’s article “A Failure of Government Candor: The Fire at the Contaminated Santa Susana Field Laboratory,” which was published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and learned for the first time that there had been a partial reactor meltdown and two other fuel-related incidents in something called the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Simi Valley. In his article, Hirsch explained that the site of these accidents had not been cleaned up to “background levels” (that is, where it would be in the absence of human activities) and that the Woolsey Fire had started about 1,000 feet from the location of the laboratory’s former Sodium Reactor Experiment, the nuclear reactor that had the meltdown and fuel incidents in the 1950s and ’60s. It was plausible, Hirsch said, that radioactive particles had spread during the fire to surrounding communities—a theory that was verified in a 2021 study.
Many people have written about and organized around the lab and the SRE—Michael Collins has been writing about it for more than a decade, and the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group, an advocacy and education enterprise, has been in operation for over 25 years and today is administered by the Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles. Moreover, since 1990, studies by UCLA and the California Department of Health Services have been showing a higher risk for certain carcinomas among community members within close proximity to the site and strong links to cancer among former workers at the lab (also known as Rocketdyne). So, this was not news—except to people like me, who for some reason had never heard about the SRE and Santa Susana despite having lived in the San Fernando Valley since 1995. I feel somewhat baffled about this, particularly after learning—and this is a connection that blows my mind—that the Kardashians even got into the picture in 2019, when Kim and Kourtney brought all their fanfare to an event advocating for cleanup of the site.
These details gripped my attention, and then … there was the fact that I have experienced some of the same health struggles as the people affected by the disaster. I started reading everything I could find on the topic, and soon stories formed in my mind. I’m a law professor and a novelist, and the shape and ambition of the book slowly became visible to me. If the project were a novel, I decided, that would mean it was a piece of art and couldn’t be a brief—that is, it couldn’t solely be an argument seeking remediation of the polluted territory. Art requires ambiguity, openness, more questions than answers. Milan Kundera talks of the novel’s “polyphonic” qualities. I think in terms of the necessarily wide grasp of reality that women and queer people of color must sustain to live and thrive. Such values drove the project.
The government’s failure to secure the health and confidence of the public not only is implicated in this disaster but also, as we know, constitutes a systemic problem informed by racism, classism, queerphobia, sexism, colonialism, and other ills. Tracing the history of the catastrophe from 1959 onwards, I wove it into the stories of imagined characters as well as other state and corporate bad acts and derelictions of duty, such as those committed during the Cold and Korean Wars, the Civil Rights era, the heyday of the feminist movement, the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the Rodney King trial, the reign of Trump, COVID-19, and other important events in US history. The book came to be about individual resistance and coping with injustice, as well as a hopefully complex study of the private experiences of state power and neglect.
Your novel takes the form of a report by an Environmental Protection Agency community involvement coordinator named Reyna Rodriguez. The majority of her report consists of interviews with fictional victims. What inspired you to use this narrative structure rather than a more traditional third-person format?
During my research, I delved into many government reports, including a 2011 study of the health effects on these lab workers commissioned by the Department of Energy. This was a fascinating window into the lives of workers that ranged from the 1950s until about the ’90s. I took the dossier as an inspiration.
One of the things I’m interested in, as both a lawyer and a novelist, is how the law flattens personal narratives in its protocols and documents and, in doing so, deracinates the human stories that lie behind all legal problems. The 2011 report, which gave firsthand accounts, offered me a glimpse of what was possible, and I decided I wanted to write a detonated EPA study of the community impacts of Santa Susana, one produced by a woman of color who could no longer adhere to the myths of objectivity and rationality that drive state and federal business-as-usual. My character, Reyna Rodriguez, shreds the formulas of administrative law to tell the stories of the victims; this project relates to one of my previous books, The World Doesn’t Work That Way, but It Could (2020), which tackles the unraveling of the EPA, the departments of Energy, Education, and Homeland Security, and other federal agencies during the Trump years.
The novel’s 11 interviews—which include Rodriguez’s own self-interview—not only offer the circumstances behind the meltdown and subsequent accidents but also allow the reader to enter the lives of a very diverse group of people who, at times, open up about their most personal thoughts and experiences. How did your research into the actual victims inspire your creation of these characters?
The characters are my own invention, but they were created out of the struggles of people of color, queer people, women, disabled people, people with cancer, and their intersections, who have survived in the United States. I sought to give a broad view of the disaster, noting its connections to other catastrophes such as patriarchy, war, climate change, queerphobia, and white supremacy. In so doing, I learned that, no matter where an ecological problem manifests, it will always cause environmental racism, because people of color are everywhere and their lived experience will require them to endure an ecological or public-health crisis alongside a panoply of other emergencies.
We learn near the conclusion of your narrative that the title of your novel is drawn from the Christian story of Satan’s expulsion from heaven and God’s subsequent blessing of the remaining obedient angels, which quelled their unease by granting them the gift of song in praise of God. This gift eventually diminishes the angels’ ability to hear the prayers of people on a very troubled earth. Though I never like to ask a writer to explain the meaning of particular symbols or imagery (that is part of the joy of reading, after all), I am curious as to what drew you to this particular Christian story, which eventually gave you the title for your novel?
I have only spent two years as a public servant: from 1993–1995, I worked as a clerk for two federal judges. Even though that experience was short, it changed my life, because it taught me firsthand how those in power must distance themselves from those who suffer. The language of the law and bureaucracy is designed to effect that detachment, and it can train its servants in sterility and unfeeling.
The state actor’s putative disengagement with life “on the ground” is meant to create, as I’ve already said, objectivity, which is reputedly one of the necessary ingredients for fairness. But I don’t believe that official objectivity exists, and thus I maintain that the state and its agents must do the hard work of understanding the struggles of people who have been ousted from the social order—Fanon’s “wretched of the earth,” Kristeva’s abject women, the rising and unsilenced furies of David Wojnarowicz, to name just a few.
So, that was one foundation for my engagement with this myth. The other was my understanding that experiencing serious illness can introduce us to first and last things in a brutal but also enlightening way. By this I mean that when we face our physical fragility and mortality, we are driven to wonder where we come from and where we are going, and, unless we are gifted with the certainties of some brands of religious faith (which, after a youth spent in intense religiosity, I no longer possess), we may find ourselves devastated to realize our ignorance on these matters, a shock that is felt not only in the mind but also the body.
These two dilemmas piqued my interest in religious stories and the remoteness of those on high—God and the people in the government who dictate our lives.
Daniel A. Olivas is an attorney, playwright, and author of 10 books, including How to Date a Flying Mexican (University of Nevada Press, 2022).
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