En la Brega: An Interview with Kristen Millares Young




IN APRIL 2020, Red Hen Press published Kristen Millares Young’s debut novel, Subduction. Described by the novelist Shawn Wong as “a lyrical forest of storytelling rooted in indigenous voices,” Young’s book centers upon the field work of Latina anthropologist Claudia Ranks in Neah Bay, a Native American whaling village on the westernmost edge of the contiguous United States. Struggling through her own damage, Claudia tries to lose herself in her research but instead starts a relationship with her informant’s son, who returns home to the Makah Indian Reservation to uncover answers about his father’s murder. Subduction portrays the complex experience of racial grief that results from being severed from our cultural identities. It is messy to find human connection as a cultural outsider marred by the complexities of betrayal. With Subduction, veteran investigative journalist Young takes on the ethics of storytelling across racial identities.

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SHIN YU PAI: You’ve been a journalist for more than a decade. Tell me about the transition to working on a novel. How are the practice of writing nonfiction and fiction different? Where do they overlap?

KRISTEN MILLARES YOUNG: Reporters search for objectivity through a subjective practice. Piecing truth together as a profession, I moved into investigative reporting because I sought the bigger story beneath the daily. I care about truths enough to know they are plural. To this day, I am deeply invested in journalism that protects vulnerable places and people. Reporting, for me, is gumshoe research. But I’ve become less wedded to the stridency of accusation, even when necessary to condemn police for negligence, in the case of my Guardian investigation of Misty Upham’s disappearance, or to pressure a corporation to contain its environmental contamination, as in my Washington Post reporting.

Storytellers need to believe we serve the world. In Neah Bay, I questioned my intentions and listened for answers to why I was there. As my friend and mentor Shawn Wong told me, we write to teach ourselves something we didn’t know we needed to know.

To the extent that I was taught to be an interlocutor for communities, I was conditioned to do so in the third person to meet the demands of my employers, erasing my subjectivity and promoting a suspect objectivity. It is more intellectually rigorous to include emotional landscapes — our private experiences of being alive. Through the prism of fraught characters, I refract my concerns about our individual roles in diaspora and settler colonialism. Fiction helps us find the common ways we try to avail ourselves of connection but avoid its true possibilities.

My personal essays, though intimate and vulnerable, felt less risky than this novel, because the “I” of the essay is my “I” even if it’s stylized. In a novel, that self is not the author, and you have to trust the reader with the interior world of a fictional character. Fiction teaches us to find room in our hearts for people who err, and failing to learn from mistakes, repeat them. It’s a way to teach ourselves that we are okay, that we are enough, that we too deserve love. We don’t have to be honed into perfect beings to merit empathy. Writing and reading illuminate the self through the subject, and with that suffused light, effect transformation.

Claudia’s focus on anthropological fieldwork involves a closeness and intimacy with her subjects and informants. The reader observes her at work and understands that this engagement takes patience and cunning, as well as genuine care. She toggles between emotionally investing in the lives of her subjects and returning to her cabin, where she types up the basis of a scholarly monograph. What does it mean to her to be invited into a community? What is the responsibility of the receiver of these gifts of story that do not belong to us?

Both Peter and Claudia receive the gifts of story from the same person but for different reasons. Showing respect for some of the stories that Maggie shares, Claudia does not undermine this elder’s authority over whether to disclose to her son the circumstances of his father’s death. That story, communicated woman to woman, doesn’t contain what might be understood as tribal knowledge. But it is Maggie’s life. Moved, Claudia tries to sustain the family she’s researching, but she does not daylight what she knows, fearing intrusion.

Claudia shows delicacy with what she’s been given, a care which belies the brutality of historical extraction that I depict as other stories become denatured and transmitted into field note form, stripped of emotional nuance and interpersonal honesty. Claudia hides behind documents. But she does assuage Maggie’s loneliness in the years preceding Subduction. Once the book begins, she supports Maggie’s preservation of her family legacy, even when Peter is reluctant.

Americans are afraid of boredom, the truest path to their own interiority. They would rather let the world colonize their minds with commercial interests than to sit with the gradual clarity of reflection. I wanted to show Claudia coming to terms with what it means to listen.

Peter hears the lessons. Not listening to stories as cultural artifacts, he hears his mom rebuke him for his affair with Claudia. Maggie’s oblique way doesn’t require argument. She always taught her son that stories convey the teachings the way that light casts a shadow. You are not looking directly at the thing. And that, in the end, is fiction’s purpose — not to state its meaning, but to occasion deep listening that leads readers to think through characters.

Peter and Claudia both lose a parent, and key attachment, at a critical time. Experiencing alienation in their adolescence, they turn away from their cultures of origin. Is cultural integration and reconciliation possible for peoples of diaspora?

The Puerto Rican theorist Arcadio Díaz Quiñones opens El Arte de Bregar by quoting Derek Walcott’s “Exile”:

Never to go home again,
for this was home!

Appearing at ease in their cultural surroundings, many feel the opposite. The burdensome torment of that distance guides what goes unsaid. Bregar is a term of the “vulnerable and alert” Puerto Rican diaspora, conditioned into cultural hypervigilance occasioned by never feeling at home, by which I mean safe.

Bregar means “to work with ability and experience.” Bregar bien means to enact wisdom with subtle efficiency. Bregar poorly is to bumble, occasioning social criticism. To be en la brega is to manage oneself and the situation with fluidity that responds to scarcity and abundance. Within his theory, bregar is to practice agency over assimilation. Claudia and Peter try to bregar amid the nightmare of our country’s colonial legacy.

Speaking of his mother, Peter says, “Things I want to learn, she doesn’t want to tell me.” Maggie wants to teach him how to do right by his tribal legacy while holding back the painful ways she learned what she knows. For reasons that include protecting herself and others, Maggie precludes real understanding with her son. She doesn’t want to risk Peter’s reaction to the truth of his father’s death. The relative peace of that silence comes with a price — the sacrifice of closeness. When Maggie instructs Peter about Makah culture through other aspects of his family heritage, he feels too alienated, frustrated, and frankly excluded to want to learn. But he tries. 

In the transmission of culture through and across bloodlines, true knowledge is freighted with the un/familiar. The trauma of one can impede absorption of the other. Living in Neah Bay, a sovereign nation of the Makah Tribe, whose occupation of that land extends back millennia, Maggie practices a kind of silence I have also seen within immigrants who wish to leave certain aspects of their lives behind, even if it means those around them won’t understand or even see them. That’s how Claudia is. Eager to be accepted, she never truly shows up; she harbors so much that she cannot receive the care and concern that are offered. Muddling through, compensating for bad decisions, Peter and Claudia and Maggie flounder. They implement their expertise as best they can, but they can’t make it right.

Decades after fleeing the confines of their birthplaces, Peter and Claudia converge at a moment when they both seek relief. Neither can escape the oppression of settler colonialism, which sows division and fights for dominance where integration and reconciliation could be made possible with the long, difficult work of honest conversations.

It is difficult to see, let alone reconcile, the difference between who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be. It’s common, and human, to feel quite forlorn while in the active embrace of a community. We have to risk ourselves to gain a sense of belonging. You have to let go and show up as a full human being, in your emotional spectrum, invoking your own histories, while being respectful and providing space for others to do the same. We negotiate our daily lives with these shared stakes, though sometimes we can only see that truth in retrospect.

In your novel, we don’t see examples of people who easily code switch between cultural divides. It’s only toward the end that Claudia reveals that she’s Latinx, after passing for white for most of the story. What causes Claudia to abandon her culture of origin to identify with dominant culture, knowing these decisions cost her connection, nourishment, and well-being? 

Claudia was conditioned to jettison her Latinidad to gain status within her American household and workplace. A cultural hybrid, she came to this country before that was more accepted in popular imagination. Claudia’s assimilation produces a brittleness in her character. Criticized by her mother for failing to uphold religious norms of sexuality, she arrived to the United States with a deep sense of shame. Steeped in that feeling of being wrong, she reached for erasure. As a survivor, Claudia’s absorption of traumatic incidents is part of her fighting spirit. But it obviates a deep reckoning she needs to inhabit her intellect and embody her sense of being. Avoidance is the greater part of passing.

Many moments in Subduction call into question the idea of informed consent — with study subjects and the terms of consensual sex. Please talk about notions of consent in your book.

Informed consent is very interesting. It’s possible to have all the information you need and still not be in a power dynamic that provides access to true consent. And I examined those ideas both through the professional lens of this one Makah family’s decision to participate in Claudia’s ongoing research project, but also through her decision to accept the ramifications of decisions made when she was in no position to offer consent.

We make false peace with what we cannot control. Claudia tells herself a story that allows herself to accept what happened as her due. And that’s where internalized misogyny is so effective, incapacitating the woman from protecting herself, even in memory. Separately, and in their own way, Peter and Maggie reassure themselves about their own power within this paradigm by asserting their authority. For example, Maggie reverses a previous agreement by not allowing Claudia to take notes or recordings.

Talk about sex in Subduction. There are quite a few passionate sex scenes involving Claudia and Peter. Sex is depicted as unsentimental, primal, and unprotected, in a manner in which consent versus desire can cross boundaries. These are grown adults with long histories succumbing to deep need. How did you approach depicting these intimate scenes? 

Because Peter displaces so much thinking with sex, I chose to frame the sex scenes through the male gaze of his perspective. I wanted to show what misogyny hides, which is intense insecurity and vulnerability. We tell ourselves lies so that we don’t have to change.

Vengeful when slighted, Peter finds ways to assert his power. He knows that Claudia needs him to facilitate her presence, due to his mother’s dementia and hoarding. But Peter and Claudia both press their advantages.

From ethnographic interview transcripts to conversations between your characters, Subduction leans hard on dialogue. What draws you to this particular literary device? How does dialogue create a sense of place and people? What other literary techniques do you favor? 

Dialogue is particularly important within Subduction because the Makah tribe is traditionally an oral culture. As Claudia created transcripts and recordings that she manipulated, she showed how written documents are as subject to the prejudice of their creators as speech. In the written, revision is possible. To the extent that orality is a central tenet of storytelling within the Makah tribe, transforming those words into documents for her anthropological purposes removed them from their culture of origin. That is why Maggie, her primary research participant, tells her she can’t record any more. Claudia has to practice listening.

We as mainstream America have papered over the art of listening. To listen truly, one has to be physically present, emotionally honest, and socially aware. Too often, people are so focused on their next question that they don’t consider the ramifications what they have just been offered. If you are not listening and reflecting (which is the long art of listening), you might miss the resonance of images that seem simple at first, only to encompass thousands of years of meaning.

I had always known as an investigative reporter that if you find sources in disagreement — whether documents or oral testimonies — the discrepancies are the divining rod for the story. Institutional documents are often odds with the needs of individuals. Through interviews and long informal conversations that provide vital background, orality has long been part of my research process, but it also became central to my revision practice. Shifting from storytelling as text to storytelling as a live act led me to repeatedly read my manuscript aloud. And in so doing, make it more beautiful. If you want sentences to sing, give breath to their words. Subduction is the result of years I spent listening to the cadence of many voices, including my own.

Tell me about writers who matter to you. How do they inform the way you think and write?

I turn to books for both solace and confrontation. Deciding not to hide his torment, James Baldwin showed that vulnerability is strength. From that position of liminality, it is possible to, with deep love in one’s heart, critique the society from which we emerge. He paired his devastating appraisals with profound hope — the hidden animus of writers — hope for society to evolve into a “more human dwelling place.” That idea is hard to stay close to, given the ways in which commercial markets extrude complicated subjects. Baldwin inspires us to remain close to our purpose and take risks.

For his lyric economy, simmering register, and intimate tone, N. Scott Momaday is a master. House Made of Dawn creates a luminous space between Abel and Angela, which intrigued me as a power paradigm that I explore and subvert through Peter and Claudia’s affair.

I studied Housekeeping for Marilynne Robinson’s spare and lush prose, but also for her recognition that the accrual of trauma is sudden and slow, devastating and incremental. That feeling — the tension of withheld breath, the ache of hope — is the very center of Subduction, which features, in Maggie, a woman who has hoarded her protections against the world.

It has been my great fortune to encounter contemporary writers who are canonical. Elissa Washuta is the author of White Magic, forthcoming from Tin House in 2021, and My Body Is a Book of Rules, the memoir which brought me to Red Hen Press for its honesty, urgency, and rigor. Her essays are aflame. I was very glad to be in conversation with her for The Rumpus. Weike Wang is the author of Chemistry, a novel of spare, Euclidean prose. As the child of immigrants, raised in diaspora to reach for the highest rung, I felt her book hard. For a stunning exploration of the inheritance of trauma with story, through epigenetics, and across generations, I repeatedly recommend Elizabeth Rosner’s Survivor Café.

I teach their books. Emerging writers are invigorated to learn from living hands. Recognizing that the literary community is handmade, the canon being reconstituted all around us, each can contribute to the collective. We can build a community of thought in an era of social distance.

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Shin Yu Pai is a poet, visual artist, curator, and essayist. She is author of the books: Enso, Aux Arcs, and Equivalence.

 

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