The Ethics of Fiction, the Ethics of History: An Interview With Kristen Millares Young

Kristen Millares Young

Claudia, the protagonist of Kristen Millares Young‘s debut novel Subduction, is in a complicated place when the book opens. Her marriage has fallen apart, and she’s en route to conduct disruptive anthropological work in the Makah Nation. What follows is a haunting work about intimacy, tradition, and trust — and a thoroughly lived-in portrait of a place and a community. I talked with Young about the novel’s origin, its evolution, and how she examines fraught truths through fiction.

Subduction is a novel whose characters already have a lot of shared history: Claudia and Maggie met years before, and Claudia’s relationships to her husband and sister have both unraveled for the same reason. What were the challenges in knowing what elements of that shared past to leave in and what to leave out?

Years ago, I received very good advice from Good People author Rob Lopez, someone whose lines, even in book-length works, manifest the surface tension that I seek in lyric prose. “Use what you give yourself all the way through,” he said. I wrote it down. (Keeping detailed notes is a good practice, given the ebb tide of memory.) Ever since, I have contemplated the simplicity of that truth. 

The world of a novel is, like the universe, a closed system. In a closed system, the total amount of energy remains constant. The first law of thermodynamics holds that energy cannot be created nor destroyed – only conserved. But that energy can be converted from one form to another. A novel’s lives and dramas, as co-experienced with readers, are charged with what they knew and saw before the first page. Like the rock of Sisyphus before the author lets it fall, those before times hold potential energy that is converted into kinetic energy once the story gets moving.

In Claudia’s case, a major betrayal precedes the opening of Subduction, which finds this Latinx anthropologist on a ferry heading westward toward the Makah Nation, where she plans to continue her research with an elderly weaver named Maggie. Claudia’s husband just ended their marriage to be with her sister, a drama serious enough to form the basis of a whole book. But for her character’s purposes, or rather, to serve my intention for her emotional transformation or lack thereof, that fractured history reinforces a marrow-deep lack of trust and emotional safety which are also legacies of Claudia’s coercion into diaspora and assimilation. 

Claudia drags that damage into her fieldwork with this tribal community, and when she makes hard choices later, readers have insight into why she believes that she cannot rely on anyone but herself. Beyond that, her backstory remains where it belongs. I cut as much as I included. Each recurrence, whether of emotional evidence or image, needs to provide further purchase on the characters’ emotional development and the thematic inquiry at hand. 

Because most people live in permanent states of non-disclosure, Subduction pivots around the architecture of what remains unsaid between these characters, though it be known to the reader. Whether we as writers elect for the classic third act catharsis, a legacy of long-dead white men, the emotional resonance of that shared history has done its work within the story.

You evoke the landscape of Neah Bay incredibly well here; I’ve never been, but I felt a tactile sense of the place. How did you first become familiar with it? 

Fifteen years ago, I began driving out to Neah Bay, which is just over four hours west of where I live. Like Claudia, I often took the ferry for the sheer beauty of being on a boat, but most Makah tribal members prefer to “drive around” as they call it; after leaving Neah Bay on 112 and taking a left on 101 just west of Port Angeles, they follow that highway eastward before heading south near Dabob Bay, the lower 48’s only fjord, carved by a glacier along whose belly coursed an ancient river whose length became the Hood Canal. But I digress. 

Road trips are a fact of life for Makah tribal members, especially parents with kids in basketball tourneys and elders on their way to medical appointments in Seattle or, better yet, a next round of bone game. For the years that followed my first foray to the Makah Nation, road trips became a mainstay of my life, a respite from the incessant deadlines of my newspaper job, from which I would eke overtime days that I clustered together into long weekends I spent on Makah territory. 

At first, too frugal to pay for the excellent beachside Hobuck cabins where Claudia sets herself up for fieldwork, I camped out. I liked to get outside, and I didn’t always want to have a plan. At the invitation of various tribal members, whose spare rooms were already filled with family, I pitched a tent in their yards or slept in my car, a Honda Element whose backrow of seats folded up, leaving a comfy flat space that sheltered my sleeps in driveways or, if I was out wandering, on lonely stretches of logging roads. 

When the newspaper closed and I found myself with time while I set up a nonprofit newsroom that continues to this day, I slept in the Sunday school room of a local church, which I thought was kind of the tribal worshippers and their pastor, since I didn’t attend services and am a professed agnostic. Over the years, my trips to Neah Bay would become crowded with visits, one after another, as I sought to reconnect with elders and others who questioned and welcomed my presence during long, chatty hours on couches and dining room tables. Now, when I stay, I take my husband and our sons, and we sleep in the homes of friends I’ve made during the last decade. It’s a generous place where people make room around their tables.

Though I had been arranging to appear at a tribal book club and various small-town libraries of the Olympic Peninsula, which stocked book club sets of Subduction, I haven’t been out to Neah Bay since the pandemic began because the Makah Nation closed their borders to protect their community from the coronavirus. Some tribal members have shared news of my debut’s accolades, bought copies from indie bookstores and attended my virtual readings, which made me feel seen, cherished and grateful for the years I drove and walked from peak to shore to trailer and back again, recording my observations in reporter’s notebooks and on my phone. From those notes, I distilled the lyric tone of the landscape.

Throughout the novel, Claudia grapples with the ethics of her position in terms of recounting Makah stories and songs. Did your experience parallel hers, as far as finding the right balance?

Fictional characters are fascinating prisms for examining real concerns, but to refract harsh light – to break invisible whiteness into its many colors – the surfaces of the prism cannot be in parallel and must instead meet at an angle. In one of the book’s more squeamish scenes, Claudia butchers a transcript to excise her own guilt about hustling Maggie, a hoarder with a diagnosis of dementia that throws into question her consensual participation in anthropological research. In that moment, Claudia enacts a repulsive and emotional coercion through the falsification of interview transcripts containing data that, within modern anthropology, are considered to be co-owned by Maggie because it is her knowledge which is being codified for study. 

Within the realm of journalism, such interviews are said to be given by their subjects – and what a tremulous and hopeful gift it is to offer outsiders your thoughts without knowing how they’ll handle them. Frankly, I believe journalists should provide records of their interviews to subjects, particularly when reporting within historically marginalized communities. Though I was not on Makah territory as a journalist, but rather as a novelist, I conducted interviews of elders, fishermen and other tribal members, and my idea for that scene came from a fraught moment that intersected with the historically problematic documentation of oral histories since first contact. 

Basically, a Makah tribal member asked me to interview her mother, now passed away, for the purpose of creating a record about a group of Makah women who formed a sewing group to make clothes for their families in the early part of last century. I spent hours with this elder, whose answers meandered, as conversations tend to do, from the topical to the personal, and when I was finished, I provided the full transcript, dozens of unedited pages, to her daughter, which prompted some anger on her part. You see, her mom had criticized her grandchild – my interlocutor’s son — for not chopping firewood for the family. And here I had furnished proof. Immediately, I realized my error, but I didn’t know how to correct it, except by producing another transcript into which copied only her direct references to the sewing room into a two-page document. Her quotes remained, word for word, wholly original and accurate, but I left out the dangerous tangents.

Soon thereafter, I came across a reference, in a footnote to Elizabeth Colson’s The Makah Indians, first published in 1953, in which that anthropologist admits to deceiving her research participants so that she could, in her estimation, see them more truly. Wanting to study whether Makahs had assimilated to mainstream American culture, Colson told tribal members that she was interested in their old stories. As I drafted the scene where Claudia edits her complicity out of a transcript in which Maggie references Makah songs, I wanted to show the subtle and insidious ways in which outsiders have erased their tracks to maintain access. So the experiences are not parallel but rather intersect to reveal the long and fraught history of contact between indigenous communities and peoples in diaspora.

Subduction is an immediately striking title. Was it the one you planned to use from the outset?

Recently, I found the reporter’s notebook where I wrote, in all caps, the term SUBDUCTION, underlined several times and surrounded by stars and exclamation points. I remember that moment well. On my way back to Seattle from that very first trip to Neah Bay, surrounded by forests rendered a velvety black by the gloaming of a late Sunday whose light still silvered the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I did what I rarely have time to do now that my kids squirm in the backseat. Knowing I had dark hours of road time ahead of me, I pulled over because I felt like it. 

Watching the seagulls bob in the small waves that riffle driftwood along the strait, I walked over to a roadside sign which described the process by which one tectonic plate of the earth scrapes below another, creating friction that will, if a plate gets stuck and builds enough pressure, pop loose to manifest a subduction-zone earthquake whose last predecessor shook the sea from Seattle to Japan. The big one, as it’s been called, a seismic event that awaits the whole West Coast.

Such force is no metaphor. And yet, what a violent metaphor! For the ways in which stories, identities and selves are subsumed. From then on, I investigated the settler colonial state which had welcomed my Latinx family from forced exile while suppressing the peoples to whom this land belongs.

Your background includes both fiction and journalism. Do you view the two as very separate from one another, or do they end up informing one another? 

My answer to both parts of your question is yes. Fiction breaks the binaries of journalistic inquiries. But fiction can also reflect ambiguities revealed by journalistic practices like gumshoe reporting, notebook in hand, having hard conversations on the ground in the place where the book is set.

In Subduction, you deal with questions of memory both personal and cultural. One of the novel’s major characters is also struggling with dementia, which took on a particular resonance in that context. Was that subplot in place from the beginning, or did it emerge from revision?

Oh man, me and my subplots. So many were struck from the record. But Maggie’s dementia was present from the beginning and sustained through dozens of drafts. We live in an era of constant forgetting. As our elders die around us, taken by this pandemic, we should be listening for the wisdoms they held in keeping.

How has the process of writing this book informed the writing you’ve done since then? 

Writing Subduction made me sidle up to myself and suffer the weight of my own gaze. Long accustomed to the onslaught of proximate deadlines, I cultivated a new kind of discipline to create art during hours borrowed from my busy life as a journalist, teacher, mentor and mother. I divested myself of every single non-essential thing. Relationships. Habits. Objects. 

Like a hill eroded by clearcutting, things began to move quickly, and to keep up with my own process, I turned to the personal essay for relief from recurrent thoughts. I could have spent the rest of my life crouched in the shadows of my own psyche. Humbled by the long process toward publication, I learned not to hide from myself or uncomfortable truths. In my writing, I choose not to spare myself nor my readers the sage discomforts of being a woman. 

The severity and warmth of that approach suffuses my journalism, whether my Guardian investigation into the lives of missing and murdered indigenous women, or more recent indie book reviews for the Washington Post, for which I just profiled an extraordinary young Afro-latinx manager of a domestic violence shelter. Hope has a name. Aushenae Matthews. 

I have chosen to embrace who I am, rather than modulating my being for incorporation into the marketplace. It is true that I am both ruthlessly cerebral and deeply emotional, a duality you can see in my essays and my new book in progress, a hybrid called Great Mother. I have learned to welcome my own light. 


Photo: Natalie Shields

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