Seattle-area writers Kristen Millares Young and Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum met just after the 2016 presidential election through the literary advocacy organization Write Our Democracy. As a result of that volunteer service, they began an ongoing conversation about the intersections of literature, community, parenthood, and the canon.
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum’s short story collection What We Do with the Wreckage, published in October of 2018, won the 2017 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Kristen Millares Young’s debut novel Subduction publishes with Red Hen Press on April 14, 2020. Young is the Prose Writer-in-Residence at Seattle’s Hugo House.
The following conversation unfolded over the course of a few months and a presidential election cycle.
Kristen Millares Young: Kirsten, you’ve long centered your stories on women’s lives—a radical act, given the canon’s preference for masculine problems and ways of being. Your fiction operates as a slow burn of intimate disclosures about the constraints of being a daughter, a wife, and a mother—roles that both resolve and compound the problems of being a woman. Three books in, with a full-time job and a family, you’re familiar with the demands of fulfilling many identities. And yet, since 2017, you’ve co-organized a reading series in Seattle, Write Our Democracy, to engage performers and audiences in civic ideals. Why now?
Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum: I became involved with Write Our Democracy when it was first founded (still under the name Writers Resist) in late 2016. After the election, I (like many) felt bereft, and that grief stripped me of my sense of meaning as a writer. Nothing I’d been working on before the election seemed to hold any value or relevance anymore, and so I put it all aside and looked for more immediate ways to use my time and energy. I found Writers Resist through Sam Ligon, whom I’ve known for years, and he invited me to what turned out to be the first meeting of the Seattle Write Our Democracy cohort. There I made connections to other writers (you among them) that have sustained me over the last two years. One of those writers was Julia Hands, who with me decided to collaborate on organizing a reading series. The series eventually took the shape of a quarterly “Write In,” hosted by Hugo House. At each event, four or five local writers read a short piece related to the mission of Write Our Democracy, followed by a community “write in.” It’s a simple structure, but these events foster relationships between writers, create spaces that uplift truth and the democratic ideal of free expression, and illuminate how art cultivates a more just republic. By making and sharing art, we expand our capacity for critical thought and empathy. And that drives justice, civil discourse, and the co-creation of a humane and functioning democracy.
KSL: As I was moving toward a more direct expression of the ideals that have long driven my writing, you were affecting a different transition, from a career in journalism to writing Subduction, your first novel. From the outside, this feels like a radical transformation of your gaze. What influenced (or maybe necessitated) that shift? Why fiction? What were the challenges of making that shift? And—because I always look for light—what joys did you encounter?
KMY: Lately, I’ve been seeking books with the desperation that drove my reading as a child. Novels have always been where I go for insight into humanity. These long stories imbue those who love them with subtlety and compassion. Without novels, my outlook on life can take on a harsh cast, beaten into shape by the incessant news cycle. I need novels in order to live as I must.
It was action—the timing of my own efforts set against a global sense of urgency—that brought me into journalism, which I still practice as a freelancer for The Washington Post and The Guardian. I turn toward articles, reported essays, and investigations when I want something done now—whether it’s removing plastics from our waste streams, honoring the memory of an indigenous woman whose disappearance was ignored by the police, or attracting resources to an underserved elementary school while critiquing the system that created such disparities.
Journalism heightens social awareness and reflects a pact of trust between reporters, who labor without knowing what will happen upon publication, and readers, who either respond to such calls to action or do not. Having experienced the displacement of revolution as part of the Cuban diaspora, I believe in incremental change, though our current circumstances call for exponential amounts of it.
I flicker between writing personal and reported essays. As a writer, I find true pleasure in lyric prose. I found a cadence to fiction that is extraordinarily difficult to replicate elsewhere, a patience for the withheld. That respect for longing—an ache, though attenuated—is at the center of my most cherished books. Through creative non-fiction, I’ve been able to use what I learned writing Subduction.
I write essays to dislodge recurrence from my memory. Together, we return to phrases and images that haunt my private meanings. With the discipline of revision arrives the revelation of joys unavailable to the first draft of history. I make novels to share that which society would rather keep hidden. In revision, I discover and reveal my true concerns, refracted through characters with thoughts in contradiction to my own.
As a society, we have work to do. I believe in the power of investigative journalism to deliver the progress promised by democracy, which is why I serve as board chair of InvestigateWest, a nonprofit newsroom I co-founded in 2009. InvestigateWest’s reporting has led to the passage of 15 new laws to better the environment and the lives of foster families, health care workers, people of color caught in the criminal justice system, and advocates for government transparency. Stories can be powerful if we pay attention.
KMY: I was so pleased when your new collection, What We Do with the Wreckage, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. O’Connor has been my favorite ever since I read “The Geranium,” and yet a crucial aspect of her lifelong thematic inquiry has fallen out of favor in literary fiction—spirituality. An agnostic, I read widely for wisdom derived wherever I can find it. The question begged by your latest collection’s title is existential. How do you draw upon your faith while writing? At what point, if ever, do you set that structure aside?
KSL: I’m wrestling with that question now—or, rather, I’m wrestling with the place faith might have in my life and in my work now and in the future. I was raised within the progressive strand of Lutheranism (the ELCA), the daughter of a pastor, and I’m not sure I’d be a writer had I not experienced the isolation that is part of being in a clergy family, which taught me to become a careful observer. Growing up steeped in the stories of the gospels and sensibilities of faith also gave me a vision of the world as a place full of complexity, metaphor, and mystery. That’s a perfect brine for a young writer. But also built into my childhood was a charge to use what you’ve been given in service of others (that verse from Luke is fairly tattooed on my heart: From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected)—and I think it was that responsibility not just to see (and to be comfortable sort of swimming around in the darkness and light of being human in this world), but also to do something with what I saw that pulled me toward writing, because what better, truer witness is there than fiction?
The trouble I’m in now is that my adult relationship with faith—and with the church, in particular—is not easy or straightforward or even certain at all. I’m far more aligned with you in agnosticism than I am with people who definitively and firmly claim belief, but I haven’t yet figured out how to cast that tension into story.
In O’Connor’s often-quoted prayer, she writes to God, “Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.” That’s what I want in fiction. I want to find the mystery and beauty that is (as Lutherans say) in, with, and under the scrim of the physical, visible world.
KSL: I want to turn this question about wisdom back toward you. You’ve said that you “read widely for wisdom.” I’m interested in knowing more about the specific influences—the sources of wisdom—that informed you as you wrote Subduction.
KMY: That question requires a deep dive into the many years of research I invested in writing Subduction and refining my own thought, and, I hope, that of my readers.
The tendency of dominant cultures to predicate that which is written has been the source of much pain in millennia of contact with indigenous peoples. Though I’ve sent you a lengthy bibliography, which includes many texts created by indigenous scholars, oral histories are my most specific influence for Subduction.
For their generosity, in and of itself a great source of wisdom, I thank the Makah elders with whom I’ve spent many hours during the past 10 years. I respect their buoyant humor and clear vision. They know what matters.
Like my fellow Cubans (I was raised by immigrants in coerced diaspora), the Makah community places a very high value on family. Tribal members make hard decisions—often costly—to be there for kin. That can seem like a rarity in the constant churn of personal socioeconomic ambition that characterizes mainstream America, where old people are left to die alone in warehouses crowded by beds.
Resilience is both an individual and a community practice. Age teaches us endurance. As a community, the Makah tribe has worked hard to preserve cultural resources for future generations. They’ll travel long distances to attend ceremonies that can still last for days. They show up for each other.
KSL: In the bibliography you sent me for Subduction, you cite Leslie Marmon Silko, whose work considers and illuminates the essential role of storytelling (and particularly oral storytelling) in identity, the construction and perpetuation of memory, and the connections between past and present/self and other. Do you write toward these same themes? How do you approach the stories of a tradition outside of your own in Subduction?
KMY: I wrote this novel to explore the potential and peril of engaging with stories outside our own experience. Because Subduction is a lyric retelling of the troubled history of encounter in the Americas, the storyline juxtaposes an indigenous community with an outsider who, living in diaspora, has come to uneasy terms with the power structures that make her successful.
Subduction begins when Latinx anthropologist Claudia Ranks embarks on fieldwork in Neah Bay on the Makah Indian Reservation, an ancient whaling village. Reeling from her husband’s adultery with her sister, Claudia fails to keep ethical boundaries and begins an affair with Peter Beck, an underwater welder and the prodigal son of her best informant.
Told in chapters that alternate between Peter and Claudia’s points of view, Subduction traces Peter’s attempts to deal with his mother Maggie’s hoarding and trick memory, the key to the enduring mystery of his seafaring father’s murder. It’s not just the stories we tell, but what we refuse to say, and when, and to whom. Peter gives Claudia access because he needs help unraveling old family secrets withheld by his mother in an attempt to keep him safe.
Maggie shares very personal stories with Claudia—but she also obscures and adapts Makah cultural knowledge to highlight the dangers of Claudia’s presence for others who are listening and know the true telling. For example, Maggie changes the identities of a tribal tale’s characters to critique Peter and Claudia’s affair. Claudia, in turn, mischaracterizes the facts of her own life in an unsuccessful, self-protective effort to maintain distance.
Peter is unprepared for the consequences of Claudia’s presence. Her work is both transgressive and transformational. Like many disruptors, Claudia risks damaging what she finds, even as her participation creates a new dynamic to heal a family grown stagnant. Claudia unearths Maggie’s plan for the hoard she spent her life building, and with that discovery, enacts the family’s long-cherished wish for a legacy.
By examining the fallout of this family’s engagement with an anthropologist, Subduction provides meta-commentary about finding meaning in stories that were made for the Makah people. Alive in the hands of their makers, stories condition how we think of ourselves and others. Subduction begins by exploring the lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to change. The novel ends by showing the power of narrative—both communal and self-given—to change who we are and what we do.
KMY: In What We Do with the Wreckage, you also explore this power of story to change and define the self, though you occasionally step outside the boundaries of realism to do so. The story “Where Have the Vanished Girls Gone?” comes to mind—here you play with fable to unearth the dangers of our daily lives, particularly as self erasure becomes more than metaphor for your characters. How and when do you invite transgression of the real, by which I mean the possibility for the fantastic, into your fiction?
KSL: A few years ago I began to feel boxed in by the limitations of realism in trying to capture what I’m going to call here the liminal zones of life: adolescence, grief, anxiety, anger, real and difficult love, pregnancy, faith, middle age. These are not objective spaces, and we don’t occupy them with a straightforward gaze. It suddenly didn’t make sense to me to write these states as if they were certain or solid or easily perceptible. That recognition sent me into a panic for a while, and I stopped writing as I looked for how to better—and more honestly—convey the layered, the mysterious (and I use that word here to mean that which is hidden and even sacred).
I went back to my bookshelf, looking for books that walked a line between realism and the surreal. I reread Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Brontë’s Jane Eyre; but also more contemporary work, like John Berger’s To the Wedding, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I read traditional and contemporary fairy tales (stories by Karen Russell and Dan Chaon and Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler). I read widely within recent children’s literature and YA. While I’d say that I’m still exploring how and where to enter the fantastic in my fiction, the result of that reflection and reading is that I’m already far less confined by the strictures of any particular genre than I once was, and I think shrugging off those strictures is actually getting me closer to writing something that feels true.
KMY: On that note, I’m curious about the role your family has had in your writing process and focus. You’ve written about the difficulties of bringing early parenthood into the canon. Why has this fruitful topic, central to the lives of so many readers, been avoided?
KSL: That’s the question of the moment, I think, for writers who are mothers, and it’s long been a question at the core of my writing. To return to where we began this conversation, I’d say that it’s here—in my dedication to seeing women’s stories on the page and in the canon—that my politics most fully inform my writing. For generations (as we all know) the canon was determined by men, by people outside of the experience of pregnancy and childbearing and (largely) childcare. Stories focused on the female body as an agent of change, of creation, of the more difficult kind of beauty that pregnancy and childbirth necessarily are—those stories weren’t reflective of either men’s lived realities or their desires, and so they weren’t given space in the canon.
But the answer is more complicated than just “men had no interest;” the other truth is that women artists always have had to make a choice about their use of time and energy (“Book or baby?” my friends and I started to joke when we hit 30, but our laughter was edged in anxiety), and they’ve also always had to make a choice about representation. This is changing, I think, but I still feel it now. It’s best not to talk too openly about one’s children in literary circles (lest you be seen as boring). It’s best not to note that parenting slows down your writing process, that it alters the way you see and tell stories. Best not to admit that motherhood is—like sex or love or violence or grief—a fundamental and sometimes identity-fracturing experience (lest you be seen as weak).
To me, though, that’s where the stories are—in that tug of war between identity and relationship. As a writer and as a reader I’m far more engaged by the messy human drama of family than by anything else, and I don’t think that’s an intellectual or artistic weakness. To talk about my motherhood—my daughterhood, wifehood, womanhood—is to talk about my craft as a writer. The threads of identity are inseparable for me. And while I recognize that there’s still a fear that a woman acknowledging that truth is a woman undermining her own professional authority, I refuse that fear. I feel a kind of righteous fury about that refusal, in fact, and it’s out of that fury, too, that my energy for organizing the Seattle Write Our Democracy series comes. There must be space in literature for the multiplicity of human experiences. I didn’t do enough to hold that space in the past, but I’m trying to now—for other writers and for myself.
KSL: What about your dual role as a parent and writer? How has being a mother transformed your work?
KMY: Birth forced me to submit to my own potential. Not just the fruition of the sons I would suckle for years, not just the creation and completion of the family I wanted to build. The act of carrying a body inside my own, and laboring to deliver that body, whole and filling with breath, to the world, burned away the excesses of my youth and replaced them with the urgency of creation.
Twice, I did so, with no regrets.
I had always worked hard. But I also allowed myself a trough for every crest. Work hard, play hard—a family motto. Being a mother brought me closer to my baseline. I weave through it with tighter and tighter stitches until I pull back and see, in that brocade, the tapestry of my happy life.
When I was a child dreaming of adulthood, I didn’t know that having what I want would require constant motion. But my children taught me the true meaning of play—not the delirium of released stress, but an unchecked upwelling of joyful intention. When we laugh, it is not ironic. When we shout, it is not in anger. We are in orbit of love.
I learned to accept myself because I no longer have time to waste. I decided to love myself—finally!—so that I could be present for my sons. With these choices came a comfort. I am who I am. Though I often defied power structures as a reporter, I once thought professionalism required an impersonal presentation to the world. In the end, I prefer intimacy—its dangers, its rewards.
I’ve brought that capacity for risk into my writing, and my work is better for it. In my prose, I don’t hide my rowdy self, nor the sophisticate within. Vulnerabilities I once tried to conceal as a reporter—unanswered doubts and cravings, the difficulties of being—are now that which I examine through my writing. I tell stories because they showed me how to live.