Intuitive Writer Enjoys Sticking to Outline

Hello friends, I’m doing my best to honor the season of the thinning veil by reading more, writing more, and connecting in ways that feel nourishing. I’m drinking mugwort tea as I type this note, and Ida Mary (my black kitten) is napping on my lap.

In honor of Ida, the season, my ancestors, and all of you, this month I’m giving away a black sleeping cat paperweight, a little work of art from Nunwell Glass. Details below! I have an orange tabby one, and it’s a source of endless pleasure.


Building My Book

I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of intuitive writer whose outlines become obsolete as soon as I commit them to paper, but the opposite turned out to be true with Ancestor Trouble. From the start, I planned to open each section with personal stories and broaden from there. My editor, Andrea, liked that idea and encouraged me to come up with a loose order. I settled on seven parts that ended up being my guiding light from 2014 to the final draft. As I wrote, the parts deepened and interconnections between them grew. Eventually, I broke out an eighth section, about inheritance—money, wills, objects, land, sustenance, poverty, enslavement, and all the practical, emotional, and ineffable reverberations of those—when I realized it was the common element to almost everything I wanted to include that didn’t fit in the other parts.

As I wrote, I thought of the chapter headings as placeholders, titles that would do until I came up with something better, but in most cases they survived. “An Impulse to Leap,” “Grudging Kinship,” “Beneficial and Malignant Creativity”—all were quick phrases that stuck. One exception is “A Doorway,” my editor’s suggestion, from the last line of Chapter 1. Another is “Taking a Bite,” from something my friend Laila said when I interviewed her for my Harper’s piece many years ago. (The Table of Contents above is from the advance reader’s copy, which is why all the page numbers are zeroes.)

I never truly understood what writers meant when they said they wrote the book they wanted to read, until Ancestor Trouble. In my case, writing the book I wanted to read meant I had to allow myself to become the person who could and would write it. As I started out, I was already beginning to understand how modernity had created a sad, strange kinship vacuum, an absence of ancestors as a sustaining presence in (many of the white, colonized parts of) the west. I knew I needed to delve into traditions that looked to kinship and reckoning beyond the grave. I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of spiritual learnings or explorations might be required, and after a childhood among Christian evangelicals, I was afraid. I worried about writing something hackneyed or false. I worried about opening a portal I couldn’t close. I worried that in writing the book I would be slamming the door on the possibility of any intellectual argument I made, in Ancestor Trouble or elsewhere, being taken seriously ever again. But stronger than all of these worries was the commitment to what I wanted to write.

Rather than dwindling as I wrote, the sense of the importance and urgency grew. Sometimes I despaired over how long the process was taking, but I never tired of the subject. The final book, whatever its shortcomings, is even more what I wanted it to be than I knew was possible when I set out to write it. Leaning into this time of year, the old belief in the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead, helped me get where I needed to go.


Some Early Praise

I have mentioned my admiration for the work of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers at least three times in this newsletter, so imagine my astonishment and delight when I saw this in The Boston Globe: “[I’m currently reading] Maud Newton’s fantastic memoir, Ancestor Trouble. It’s well researched, well written, and juicy. I love a good juicy historical book.” The admiration is more than mutual—let me recommend her novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, yet again. I read it in galley form, and then I wanted to spend more time with the characters, so I listened to the audiobook.

I thought I’d already mentioned early praise for Ancestor Trouble from other (brilliant!) writers I admire who took time from their own important work to craft the praise. Despite my social media barrage on the subject, though, apparently I forgot to thank them here. Head over to my website to see quotes (in the order received) from Abbott Kahler (who has published as Karen Abbott), Laila LalamiMaaza MengisteSarah Smarsh, and Dionne Ford. If these names sound familiar, it’s because I’ve loved their work for years.


Recommendations

Here are some things I am enjoying or recently enjoyed: Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations; Stephanie Foo’s essay on dealing with climate anxiety in New York City by becoming a Parks Steward in (my beloved) Forest Park; Alexis Coe’s Study, Marry, Kill; Jeanna Kadlec’s Astrology for Writers; Judith Berger’s Herbal Rituals; and Isaac Fitzgerald’s walk with Alexander Chee in Hell’s Kitchen. I’ve peeked at the first pages of Joy Castro’s Flight Risk and will dive in soon. And here are some things I look forward to enjoying when they’re out: Emily St. John Mandel’s moon colony novel, Sea of Tranquility; Britni de la Cretaz’s and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo’s Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League; and Russian Doll, Season 2.


Cat Paperweight

I spontaneously ordered the paperweight for this giveaway last night. It should be on its way to me shortly and will be shipped out to the winner soon after it arrives. The order resulted in a $20 donation to a Western Massachusetts shelter, as all Nunwell Glass sales of black cats through Etsy apparently do, a bonus good thing.

To enter, preorder Ancestor Trouble. All preorders, whether before or after this newsletter, count. Official requests to your library to purchase the book for borrowers count, too. If you’d like a signed or personalized copy, order at Greenlight Bookstore and include the details of your request in your order comments at checkout. Send the receipt in reply to this newsletter or as a DM to me at Twitter or Instagram. Entries must be received by October 9, at 11:59 PM (Pacific). The winner will be selected at random and notified by email or (as the case may be) DM.


A Correction

A reader wrote from California to note an error in my description of mugwort: while Artemisia vulgaris is an invasive plant in the Northeast, Artemsia douglasiana (shown above)is native to the Western half of the country (CA mugwort/Artemsia douglasiana), so definitely not a favor to the ecosystem if harvested excessively.” Noted and shared! Thank you, Jenn.


Ida and Daisy

In case you needed a photo of a black kitten and her yellow lab friend, here you go.

As always, thank you for reading.

Galleys, Black Kittens, and Grandmothers

Hello friends, some things have been happening. Ancestor Trouble galleys arrived last week, I have a gorgeous new website (thanks to Being Wicked), I shipped off my first pass pages, and a black kitten (so many photos below) showed up at our house, a perfect forerunner to the Jung books I planned to give away this month.


The Kitten, Symbols, Trees, and My Ancestors

I mentioned early this year, in a newsletter about Jung, the collective unconscious, and personal symbols, that I associate black kittens with my mother’s mother’s line. In part maybe that’s because my granny had a black cat with sun-faded brown tips named Pyewacket, but the link feels much deeper than the memory of any one being. There’s something deeply feline-adjacent about our whole lineage, as manifested by my mom’s rescue phase, when she lived with more than thirty cats.

I wasn’t thinking of Pyewacket or my mom when I put a black cat figure on my ancestor altar a couple years ago, or the black cat candle in the downstairs bathroom, or the tapestry with rows of black cats in my stepdaughter’s bedroom. It just felt right. But soon after making the addition to my altar, I remembered stroking Granny’s cat as she purred on a chair in the late-summer Dallas heat and Granny explained that black cats had to be protected from people in the fall, with the approach of Halloween.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination with black cats. They were animal companions to people more intriguing than I was, edgier than I was, more comfortable with witchery than I was. They seemed like companions who needed to choose you. And then, a couple Sundays ago, a 6-week-old black kitten turned up a little less than an hour before I needed to leave for a protest to protect the trees in one of the Forever Wild areas of Forest Park. These particular trees are directly across from the side of the house where I found the kitten, no more than 30 feet from the trees. I’m writing more about them elsewhere, but the second I saw the kitten I felt at ease. She felt like a sign from the land and my ancestors together that doing what I can to safeguard wild spaces of Lenape land near me is good.

“The trees gave you a present,” Lauren said, when I texted her a photo of the kitten, which more than any other story I can tell encapsulates why we have been such good friends for nearly eighteen years.

In hindsight, Max and I think that the kitten got separated from her mother in the flooding. The storm swept in hours after I learned that our Assemblywoman appeared to be targeting the park land across from our house for parking, and as I was out in the torrent cleaning the drain behind the house that night after joining a ruckus over the proposal on Twitter that day, I looked down at the paved street carved out a century ago between the hill where the trees grow and the hill our house sits on. I watched water rush down to pool in an enormous puddle too big for the drains, a lake that cars could barely pass through. That night and for days afterward, our lab, Daisy, was strangely interested in the side of the house. I found the kitten when I did because Daisy, who loves cats but is charged with keeping them out of the yard to protect the birds, was barking at her. Looking around the corner, I saw the kitten, five or six feet away from the dog and me, standing her ground and angrily meowing back.

Max and I sternly agreed that we could not keep the kitten. But we are keeping the kitten and have named her Ida Mary, Ida for the storm and Mary for my accused witch ancestor, Mary Bliss Parsons, for the positive aspects of her legacy and also as a way of keeping awareness of the harm she did front and center in my own life, a cautionary example. I am fifty years old now, the kind of person who drinks tea of mugwort, yarrow, and mullein all at once, who is comfortable claiming personal symbolism and meaning like this publicly without feeling the need to equivocate or apologize, and who has accumulated five animal companions after having a firm limit of two for decades because of a family legacy of animal hoarding. It feels right that the kitten chose me, chose us, now.


This Month’s Giveaway

This month’s giveaway books are Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections and James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani’s Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book.

To enter, preorder Ancestor Trouble. (All preorders, whether before or after this newsletter, count. Official requests to your library to purchase the book for borrowers count, too.) If you’d like a signed or personalized copy, order at Greenlight and include the details of your request in your order comments at checkout. Send the receipt in reply to this newsletter or as a DM to me at Twitter or Instagram. Entries must be received by September 25, at 11:59 PM (Pacific). The winner will be selected at random, notified by email, and (unless they’d rather not be named) announced on Twitter and in the next newsletter. Last month’s winner was Ann M.


What I’m Reading

Right now I’m loving Lauren Groff’s Matrix, which is about a defiant abbess. I’m also listening to Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois on audiobook even though (as you may remember) I read it before it came out, because I knew it would be great read aloud and I wanted to spend more time with the characters. Both of these novels were longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction.

A public service announcement: if you’re looking to give away new books for the holidays, order soon because way too many of them are getting stuck on barges and whatnot and aren’t available.


Tea For Dreaming

If you find yourself sleeping poorly, or that your dreams have become less immersive or less richly symbolic over the pandemic, I recommend trying mugwort tea or tincture. Magical stuff.

Lately I’ve been steeping leaves I got in bulk from Mountain Rose Herbs, but if you’re looking for a small box of tea to start, Buddha Teas are always a good option. Mugwort grows everywhere, so if you can find a patch growing someplace you know is herbicide- and pesticide-free, you can pick it and dry it yourself. Artemisia vulgaris is an invasive plant in the Northeast, so you may be doing the ecosystem a favor. (A reader wrote from California to note my earlier error about mugwort: “Just a quick note from the West Coast, lest enthusiastic readers begin their plant harvesting — mugwort is actually native to the Western half of the country (CA mugwort/Artemsia douglasiana), so definitely not a favor to the ecosystem if harvested excessively.” Thank you, Jenn. I will note the correction in the next newsletter as well.)

The Accused Witch: Persecuted, and Persecutor

Also, this month's giveaway, on troubled ancestors. And music, books, and stories I'm thinking about.

Sometimes an ancestor experienced harm and also inflicted harm. My ninth great-grandmother Mary Parsons was accused of being a witch in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. The image above is a record of her testimony in the lead-up to the criminal prosecution, which also involved inspecting her body for “witch marks.” Years after the trial, Mary and her family defended her reputation by persecuting an enslaved Black woman who’d called Mary a witch. They used religion as a sword and a shield, as Mary’s own tormenters did. I write about this history, and its echoes across generations of my family, in (my upcoming book) Ancestor Trouble.

Every month until publication next March, I’m giving away a set of books, in thanks for pre-orders. This month’s mini-library includes three books on beliefs about spiritual reckonings with troubled ancestors: Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece; The Ancient Roman Afterlife: Di Manes, Belief, and the Cult of the Dead; and Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. Details for entering are below.

And some recommendations and miscellany:

  • “I first became interested in the Black West because my great-grandparents were settlers. They came from Louisiana to Boley, Oklahoma in 1909, shortly after statehood.” If you’re wondering what Lizzie Skurnick is working on these days, read this fascinating Twitter thread.

To enter, pre-order my book, Ancestor Trouble. (All preorders, whether before or after this newsletter, count. Official requests to your library to purchase the book for borrowers count, too.) If you’d like a signed or personalized copy, place order with Greenlight Bookstore and be sure to include the details of your request in your order comments at checkout. Send the receipt in reply to this newsletter or as a DM to me at Twitter or Instagram. Entries must be received by August 13, at 11:59 PM (Pacific). The winner will be selected at random, notified by email, and (unless they’d rather not be named) announced on Twitter and in the next newsletter. Last month’s winner was Martha Burzynski.

Ancestor Trouble & Other People's Books

To encourage preorders and share the spirit of my book, Ancestor Trouble, in advance of publication, I’m doing a monthly giveaway to honor books that inspired me.

My book, Ancestor Trouble (March 2022), has a cover! It’s a Rachel Ake design, and I adore it. To encourage preorders, which are important to helping a book find its readership, and to share the spirit of Ancestor Trouble in the lead-up to publication, I want to honor some of the books that inspired me and helped shape my thinking and feeling as I wrote. Each month I’ll give away a set of two or three books (purchased by me) to one person. I’m starting with these three excellent books:

To enter, pre-order Ancestor Trouble for yourself or someone else—signed or personalized from my beloved Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn (indicate details in order comments at checkout), or an unsigned copy from your local indie or online bookseller of choice—and send the receipt in reply to this newsletter or as a DM to me at Twitter, Instagram, or (if there’s no other way) my Facebook author page. Entries must be received by July 16, at 11:59 PM (Pacific). Each entry will be assigned a number, and the winner will be selected at random from that number. All preorders, whether before or after this newsletter, count. Official requests to your library to purchase the book for borrowers count, too. Updated to add: The winner is Martha Burzynski.

I’ve changed the name of this newsletter from Ancestor Hunger to Ancestor Trouble. In my experience, the two are usually close cousins, and with the book coming out I didn’t want two titles floating around.

Events, recommendations, and miscellany:

  • On August 4, Rebecca Donner and I will discuss (over Zoom) her gorgeous and fascinating All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, about her courageous great-great aunt, Mildred Harnack, the American woman Hitler ordered executed for her role at the heart of Berlin’s underground resistance. “Donner’s research is impeccable, and her fluid prose and vivid character sketches keep the pages turning as the story moves toward its inevitable, tragic conclusion,” says Publishers Weekly, in a starred review. The Zoom event is a book launch, hosted by Community Bookstore, and will be held August 4, at 7:30 PM (Eastern).

  • Spanish archeologists carried torches and lamps into caves in an effort to figure out how “our ancestors conquered the dark to produce the world's oldest art.”

  • A “massive fossilized skull that is at least 140,000 years old is a new species of ancient human,” according to researchers. They gave the species the name “Homo longi” and the nickname “‘Dragon Man,’ for the Dragon River region of northeast China where the skull was discovered.”

  • I mentioned this novel a couple months ago, but Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ magnificent multigenerational epic, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, is out in August. In a profile, Publishers Weekly calls the book “a loving and sprawling portrait of Black Americans who survive slavery only to fight to make space for themselves in a country that continues to question their worth.” The story spans more than 800 pages, and Jeffers’ editor, Erin Wicks, encouraged the expansion from the original 450-page manuscript. “It all was necessary to realize the full brilliance of the book’s ambition,” she said. The book is a marvel.

  • Stacie Marshall farms 300 acres of north Georgia land that’s been in her family for generations. Her ancestors acquired the land “in an 1833 lottery that gave Creek and Cherokee land to white people,” and then her family went on to enslave seven people there. Kim Severson reports on Marshall’s efforts to grapple with what she, personally, can and needs to offer to descendants of the people her family enslaved.

  • I’m making my way through the fourth season of Dani Shapiro’s always thoughtful Family Secrets podcast.

  • I read Ashley Ford’s bestselling new memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, in a day. It’s wise and harrowing, beautifully written, and triumphant in a true, grounded way. Her Fresh Air interview is a great supplement.

  • My stepsister is visiting our parents, and on a bookshelf she found my mom’s assortment of pro-Tr*mp screeds, and also this, a new iteration of the kind of book that was a constant in our house during my mom’s days as a holy-roller preacher. As I write in Ancestor Trouble, I trace my preoccupation with ancestors to each of my parents, in unexpected and also predictable ways.

  • Don’t just sit there looking like a tree full of owls. Don’t look so surprised or stricken. Said to a group.” In May I posted a collection of my granny’s expressions at Medium.

  • I’m still putting together my acknowledgement genealogy class (coming sometime this fall) while finishing up copy edits, staying on top of my day job, and working again on the novel I put aside to write Ancestor Trouble.

All good wishes until next time, and as always thanks for reading.

Acknowledgement Genealogy and Ancestor Trouble

One thing critical race theory opponents can’t do is prevent people from disclosing their own ancestors’ participation in enslavement & genocide. That’s something all of us with that history must do.

As laws sweep across the states to prohibit teachers from discussing slavery and its legacy, one thing critical race theory opponents can’t do is prevent people from disclosing their own ancestors’ participation in enslavement and genocide in this country. That’s something all of us with that family history need to discuss publicly. Every last one of us. Systemic change begins with individual choices.

The only gift of having an overt white supremacist and slavery proponent for a father was that I never had the luxury of deciding not to know about my ancestors’ enthusiastic participation in slavery. Until the past few years, though, I was unaware of their role in the displacement and murder of Native people. To a large degree, I can see in hindsight, that’s because I chose to be unaware. And also, I didn’t have a parent drawing a circle around it and arrows toward it and lecturing me from a 1948 World Book Encyclopedia, as my father did on the subject of slavery in the American south.

I’m slowly putting together a class on what I call “acknowledgement genealogy,” and I hope and intend to announce it soon. It’s inspired by land acknowledgement, organizations like Coming to the Table, and Jennifer Mendelsohn’s Resistance Genealogy. Mendelsohn, a professional genealogist, writes about her own family and helps other people root out family secrets. Her resistance genealogy tends to focus on the ways right-wing politicians’ family trees fly in the face of their own white supremacist attitudes toward immigration, whereas acknowledgement genealogy as I envision it invites each of us whose ancestors participated in the harms around this country’s origins (or any similar harms) to learn about those harms, be public about them, and commit ourselves to taking up the work that that needs to follow. Half of the proceeds will be donated to organizations that work to mitigate these histories, and I’m actively taking suggestions.

Let me be clear: the idea of this sort of acknowledgement is far from new, and I claim no ownership of it. Anyone else who’s interested in this kind of work and drawn to the idea of acknowledgement genealogy, and the phrase, is welcome to run with them in any harm-mitigating direction they choose. “Know where your own people come from,” says the Manna-Hatta Fund, an Indigenous organization I support. And to the extent we are able do that, we can also begin to relieve ourselves of the burden of individualism, of the sense that each of us is an Athena who leapt from Zeus’ head, fully-formed, into the world and acts an independent agent and should be perfect.

One of my goals is to create a kind of citizen-genealogy how-to for anyone who’s willing to take up the challenge, and a collaborative space for discussing effective forms of acknowledgement. A secondary goal for me, but one I believe is equally important for those of us who come from the ancestor-erasing traditions of modernity and whiteness, is to welcome in a spiritual or imaginative space in which people whose ancestors committed these harms might find a sense of positive connection and backing with their earlier ancestors. Including this is much trickier than the solemn nuts and bolts of discovery and ownership, in many ways. At the same time, this sense of possibility of connection—whether true or imagined—to ancestral energies that feel deeper, older, healthier, and more earth-honoring, can help those of us with monstrous family histories stay committed to this crucial work. Any sense of disloyalty to recent ancestors can recede against a larger backdrop that takes in the possibility of ancestors who also find all this harm both unthinkable and a sublimated truth that needs to be reckoned with. We come from those people too.

As I’ve said in this space before, nowadays I experience my relationship to my ancestors as a true spiritual connection. But I don’t think that belief is necessary for this kind of imaginative inquiry to be helpful and healing and to provide a necessary sense of backing. I won’t be presenting myself as a specialist in this kind of (depending on how you view it) spiritual or psychological work, though, and if you’re interested in finding someone who does, see the resources at the end of my prior post, Spiritual Practices Around Ancestors, my forthcoming book, or the Acknowledgement Genealogy community I’m creating, after it launches.

Speaking of my book, it has a title! It will be called Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation. It’s currently scheduled to be out from Random House on March 29, 2022. And I’ll be sharing more about that—and all of this—in the months to come.

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