Toward the start of every session of the Writing About Ancestor Trouble class I’m teaching, we explicitly invite in kindness and spaciousness around the trouble we’re contemplating. Even so, there’s a tendency for each of us to look for ways that we are uniquely marooned in our trouble and doing it all wrong. It’s often far easier to extend compassion to others around their ancestors than to ourselves around our own.
Despite all my years working with my own family history, connecting with other writers around their own generational echoes, and being in community with teachers and classmates exploring ancestral histories in more meditative/psychological/explicitly spiritual ways, it’s struck me even more fully in my role as a teacher to see how swiftly this self-blaming tendency arises for people who are facing their own tough family histories.
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The class is a wonderful group, and we’re so far underway that tonight is the second-to-last meeting. I’ve focused on being present and tailoring the class as best I can to what’s coming up for everyone, so I haven’t decided if I’ll teach it again. I might not make a decision until it’s had several months to settle on my end and until I see how it ultimately lands for the students. Meanwhile, I’m immensely grateful for the trust the class has placed in me and for everything I’m learning as we go. Tonight we’re going to be making offerings in an informal class ritual, so over the past week I’ve been reading deeply again about those kinds of ancestor-honoring practices, their prevalence across the world and across time. I was struck by this observation from a post at Lion’s Roar from Zenju Eartlyn Manuel:
When making offerings, the persons making them also receive what is given. For example, offering water may bring a calm mind, flowers a sense of beauty. Incense helps connect you to the earth, while firelit candles create illumination and symbolize destroying the darkness of ignorance. Inherent in each offering is a simultaneous giving and receiving of these gifts.
Since my last newsletter, my mom has broken her hip. (Oof, I know.) Although she’s 82 and survived a major arterial clot in the brain last summer, she is recovering swiftly in rehab and is far less combative than when I last wrote. She’s… almost upbeat? Despite the gut punch that our relationship has been recently, I realized once again, as I always need to with my mom, that flexibility is necessary. I can’t clench around one absolute way of approaching her. There is no grand decision, only seeing day by day what she needs, what she is willing to receive, and what it is safe for me to give.
The rehab facility has a cat, and the other residents were upset for the first couple days after my mom arrived because Sugar (the cat) barely left my mom’s bed. Mom was happy but unsurprised that he’d claimed her. “I’m an animal person,” she said, and if a voice can convey a shrug, hers did. She did grumble lightly about having to shift when he put too much weight on her sore leg. There’s also a piano she’s been playing even though she’s frustrated that it’s wildly out of tune.
Also since my last newsletter, Ancestor Trouble was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, in exceptional company. To me this is an almost unfathomable honor. Outside of my high school literary magazine and my middle school newspaper, my very first piece of published writing was a book review. I know what a responsibility it is, how difficult and time-consuming it is, to wrestle with a book—honestly and fairly, while being mindful of its own terms and ambitions—and to convey your opinion in words. I seldom review books these days largely for that reason. The finalists for this particular award, for a first book in any genre, are voted in by a majority of NBCC members. I'm incredibly grateful to every critic who voted for my book, and to every critic who read and wrestled with it, regardless of their opinion in the end. Thank you. And also, as Michael Chabon observed on Instagram, John Leonard is the best.
Congratulations to my talented fellow finalists, Jessamine Chan, Jonathan Escoffery, Tess Gunty, Zain Khalid, Morgan Talty, and Vauhini Vara. And eternal thanks to my editor, Andrea Walker, my agent, Julie Barer, the team at Random House, and Michael Taeckens.
In ancient humans: modern humans existed alongside and mated with Neanderthal and Denisovan people; Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA found in remains in Brazil, Panama, and Uruguay; early risers may have inherited their body clocks from Neanderthals.
South Korea sets up a Truth and Reconciliation commission to investigate adoptions of Korean babies by Westerners that rested on records falsely classifying adoptees as orphans when their parents were still alive. And on a somewhat related note, I want to see Return to Seoul.
I’ve been enjoying Dispatches from Puerto Nowhere (out March 14), by Robert Lopez, and Erika Kobayashi’s Sunrise (out in July).
Dionne Ford’s Go Back and Get It: A Memoir of Race, Inheritance, and Intergenerational Healing is one of Ms. Magazine’s most anticipated books of the year. I will be talking with Ford about this very special book on April 6 at The Strand.
As you may recall, I’m also very excited about Ava Chin’s Mott Street: A Chinese American Family’s Story of Exclusion and Homecoming, and her recent Instagram photo from a Chinatown fire escape of the Chinese New Year Parade brought tears to my eyes as I thought back over everything the book covers.
I may have linked to this before, but the impulse to create ancestor altars has become so widespread that NPR has a guide.
With wishes for kindness and spaciousness until next time,