September 04, 2020
I first met Kristen Millares Young at the venerable Hugo House, a central hub of literary life in Seattle, WA where she was Prose Writer-in-Residence from 2018-2020. I’d driven up from Portland to read a story at the Hugo Literary Series that featured a new mother whose brain, body, and sexuality made choices the narrator didn’t feel in control of. After the reading, Millares Young approached me and said, essentially, Thank you for that. I knew exactly what she meant. She also had two young children at home, was midway through mentoring a hundred or so writers as part of her writer-in-residence post, and her first book Subduction was due out the following year. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, she felt like kin.
When speaking, Millares Young exudes a fearless intelligence and a laser focus of concentration, with just the right amount of cursing (to my taste) peppered in. I suspect all three traits are useful and/or born from her background in investigative journalism. Her work appears in the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the New York Times, where she was the researcher for the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for “Snow Fall,” as well as many other newspapers, literary reviews, magazines and anthologies, including Latina Outsiders: Remaking Latina Identity (Routledge). She has degrees from Harvard and the University of Washington, and she was co-founder of InvestigateWest, a nonprofit news studio in the Pacific Northwest.
Her debut novel Subduction launched on April 14th, the same time COVID-19 began to pummel New York after shutting down most of the West Coast, and many of her book launch events had to be postponed or moved online, including a bunch of readings coming up this fall. By the time we got together for this interview on June 1st, we were more than two months into lockdown while homeschooling our kids, and it had been exactly one week since George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police.
The escalating roar of national anger and demand for rights and protection is a macrocosm of the issues explored in her novel. As a Latinx woman, Millares Young is well acquainted with both the weight of America’s historical oppression and its racist counterpoint of representation.
Precisely as in real life, Subduction and its characters navigate complicated truths that often don’t settle easily into alignment with everyday reality. The story unfurls between dual narrators, Claudia and Peter. A Latina anthropologist, Claudia has just fled her falling-apart marriage to throw herself into fieldwork studying the ritual songs of a Makah whaling village. She collides with Peter, back home in Neah Bay to get answers from his failing mother about his father’s murder. Both of them, in their own ways, are desperate to make meaning of their lives.
As are we all.
Subduction is a finalist in two categories (Best First Book and Best Novel, both in English) of the International Latino Book Awards.
I’m curious about the idea of complicity in Subduction.
Millares Young: Subduction is a case study of complicity. Which of course is a national condition shared by immigrants to this country and their descendants, everybody who’s not Indigenous or who was not brought here against their will. We have a responsibility to address the truths of our nation’s founding as it pertains to continued repression, and to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination and their lands.
The best way for me to bring readers alongside my decade of exploring these questions was through fictional narratives, which allow readers to process dangerous emotional responses in a safe place.
I’m interested in the dance that happens between complicity and appropriation where Claudia is concerned, the Venn diagram overlap of these two ideas in the book.
Millares Young: There’s a very long history of exploitation of Native stories and immigrant stories, and rarely are they put into juxtaposition in such a way that affords greater insight into the pressures that each are facing as they come into moments of contact. My hope was to show through Peter and Claudia how even small moments are imbued with fractals spanning cultural, interpersonal, historical and geologic concerns. If I can help readers begin to highlight patterns in their own thinking, or if they can begin to recognize some of the forces that condition their ways of being and thinking, then I think that the book will have done its work.
There are many white people across this country right now who, in part because of the structural insufficiency of our educational system, are struggling to understand what it means when a police officer asphyxiates a handcuffed Black man to his death. And it’s because they have not really confronted their role in revealing and healing the truth of our origin story. And, of course, the truth is that origin story is so multivalent. It’s Black, it’s white, it’s Indigenous, it’s Latino, it’s transnational, and that story cannot just be stripped down to its parts.
But part of the project of fiction is to portray complexity by allowing access to the interiority of characters and also to heighten the readerly experience of that complexity by choosing the glimmers, curating the portrayal of those moments, and allowing these daily situations to stand in for hundreds and thousands of years of cultural conflict. And so, you have to be incredibly careful about what you choose.