The longer I go without sending a newsletter, the more daunting sending a newsletter becomes. Especially in these times, when our democracy is in such peril and I want to listen and learn and reflect before adding to the (understandable and necessary) churn. But I’m so grateful to all of you who’ve read or considered reading Ancestor Trouble, and I’m delighted to see so many new subscribers. Welcome! Please consider this a deposit on everything I mean to write here down the line.
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My book got more good press—“I think we’re going to look back on this book as a classic in the way it blends historical research, science, personal memoir and philosophy,” John Warner says in his Biblioracle column for the Chicago Tribune—over the past few months which is exciting. If you follow me on social media you’ve probably seen it passing by. I also wrote and published a few new things. An excerpt at Time is partly about my self-given namesake, Maude Newton, who… didn’t turn out to be the person I’d hoped but whose history let me know I was on the right track anyway. A piece ran in Human Parts at Medium: “I Love Being a Stepmom, a Role I Was Afraid to Take On.” Also reposted at Medium: the Ancestor Trouble excerpt that appears on all the bookseller sites. Like the Wall Street Journal excerpt, it evokes parts of the book that are less personal but are as important to me as the sections about my own family. Here’s part of it:
Ancestor hunger circles the globe. It spans millennia. It’s often been cast as a narcissistic Western peculiarity. Historically, though, it’s far more usual for people to seek connection with their forebears than not to seek it. Even now, in many parts of the world, spiritual practices involving ancestors flourish. Rather than promoting self-absorption, they tend to foster a deeper sense of community, less “I” and more “we.”
These traditions sound alien to many of European ancestry because we don’t know our own history. True, many of the records have vanished. Accounts that survive are often muddled and contentious. But in the ancient world, the separation between the living family and the dead was not nearly as stark as many of us in the West perceive it to be. Rituals in ancient Greece and Rome were intended to bring peace to family dead in the afterlife. Ancestors shown proper reverence were spiritual allies to the living family, whereas neglected dead could wreak enormous harm. Across the ancient world, families in many cultures also venerated household gods that represented or were handed down by ancestors. (Even in the Bible, Rachel steals her father’s teraphim, usually agreed to be household gods.) Ancestral practices endured in fragmented form in parts of the Christianized West until the Protestant Reformation. Vestiges survive in Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and the other liturgical churches, with God as the intermediary. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints baptize their family dead by proxy. In many parts of the world, direct spiritual connections between people and their ancestors never stopped being cultivated. To name examples is to omit far too many others, but from Korea, Japan, and China to Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, from Mexico to Peru, ancient traditions of reverence endure. In Cuba and Haiti, in pockets throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, Indigenous and enslaved people preserved ancestor-honoring practices, often syncretizing them with Christianity so the traditions could be carried on even in proximity to the church.
In recent years, people whose ancestors lost or were robbed of this spiritual connection to their family dead have begun to reclaim it for themselves, sometimes as a wholly celebratory act, but often as a way of reckoning with family burdens and wrongs as well as the gifts of a lineage. Many people newly drawn to ancestor work see it as vital for cultural repair. It’s difficult to heal intergenerational trauma if we don’t understand how it began.
Modernity promises each of us the opportunity to define our own identity. It gives us the freedom, at least in theory, not to be boxed in by those who’ve come before us. We’re no longer obliged to glorify our ancestors and take on their customs uncritically or to view their lives as destiny, which is all to the good. But in turning away from practices that encoded into familial memory the people who came before us, we’ve relinquished something enormous.
When I first started exploring my own family history, my interest flowed as much from fear as longing. The allure of ancestors had a lot in common with a good ghost story. Now I find myself not merely respecting traditions of ancestor reverence but advocating for them, as a doorway to something vital and sacred, accessible as earth, and natural as breath.
There’s also a very on-brand Ode to Mugwort-Enhanced Sleep at Medium. (Since I’ve already mentioned mugwort in this newsletter more than once, something new: nettle tonic may have cured my allergies! The particular one I have is local and not available online, but any legit-seeming organic option might be worth trying. Also, I promise I’m not on the payroll of Blueland, or of anyone other than my day job employer, but I have switched to their plastic-free and comparatively eco-friendly solutions for dishes, laundry, and hand-washing, and I’m a fan, although I do wish the hand soap had some moisturizing component and did not contain sulfates.)
Some other pieces I’m excited about are coming soon. Meanwhile, I’m writing this in the wee hours of the morning on July 5, as fireworks flash and boom. (My primary reaction to that is to direct you to this Twitter thread from Kaitlin Greenidge.) If you’re wondering, the cats and dogs are slightly disgruntled but, with the exception of the kitten, fairly nonchalant. They are New York City creatures, after all. I’ll be up in a few hours for my day job, where like nearly every other workplace I hear of we are incredibly understaffed. I am demoralizingly behind but slowly making my way through tasks and reminding myself that my job is to do the job of one person.
It feels strange to go on about me when I just published a book about myself and there’s not all that much to report from here apart from that. My life continues more or less as before. Max and I went to the Catskills. I did some readings and enjoyed them, and I have more events on the horizon. Daisy, my sweet lab, turned six. I am writing a novel. I’m luxuriating in making things up right now, not because the story is frothy or uncomplicated but because I am, for the first time in eight years, untethered to fact. I’m sure I will soon be bumping up against my own limitations, but for now I’m (as my granny used to say and I now say) really shittin’ and flyin’.
I’m posting some tidbits below that I’ve had in drafts to share here, but I also wanted to invite you to share—in an email reply, or a comment—what’s going on with you, if you’re inclined. What are you reading, writing, thinking, feeling? I am but an introvert at a computer in a pandemic, looking for connection.
Small flocks of rock doves, ancestors of wild pigeons, found in Outer Hebrides.
A descendant of the first woman hanged as a witch in Connecticut seeks her ancestor’s exoneration (and joins others on the same mission).
Some researchers say fossils of early human ancestors found in a South African cave “are 3.4 million to 3.6 million years old—a million years older than previously suspected and shaking up the way researchers understand human origins and evolution.”
You probably heard that Harvard set up a $100 million endowment fund for slavery reparations. In other news, a Massachusetts court ruling allows Tamara Lanier to seek damages for the university’s use of images—daguerrotypes—of her enslaved ancestors. (Latria Graham wrote about this case, and representations of slavery more broadly, last year.) And the university has yet to repatriate remains of 7000 Native people and 19 enslaved people despite a 1990 law that requires this repatriation.
I recommend the resources on the Reparations4Slavery site, most especially The Case for Reparations and Reparations Theory and Advocacy. I learned about this organization through Coming to the Table. A couple other organizations I’ve begun to delve into recently, also found through Coming to the Table: the Denver Black Reparations Council and Our Black Ancestry.
Some forthcoming books I’ve read recently and recommend, two nonfiction and two fiction: Jeanna Kadlec’s Heretic, Hafizah Augustus Geter’s The Black Period, Dani Shapiro’s Signal Fires, and Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You. I’m sure I’ll say more about all of them in future newsletters. I devoured Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone, which I had meant to read for years, at the suggestion of Vanity Fair’s Keziah Weir. And I read A Ghost in the Throat, ohhh so good. I’m reading and learning a lot from Isabella Tree’s Wilding. And my preorder of Alice Elliott Dark’s Fellowship Point, out today, will arrive in my mailbox soon. I’ve been enjoying her newsletter.
My upcoming events:
August 8: Memoir Monday Reading Series, with Sari Botton, Edgar Gomez, Chloé Cooper Jones, and Tajja Isen—astounding writers all—at Powerhouse Books (in person, indoors; masks required). Brooklyn, 7PM ET.
September 9: Brattleboro Literary Festival webinar, cocktail hour conversation with Rebecca Donner, author of All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days (virtual). 5 PM ET.
October 14-16: Southern Festival of Books, precise date and details to come (in person). Nashville.
October 18: Six Bridges Book Festival, conversation, details to come (virtual). Little Rock, 8 PM CT.
November 19-20: Miami Book Fair, precise date and details to come (in person). Miami.
I’m considering teaching a small online class on “Writing About Ancestor Trouble,” which would touch on writing and research, and acknowledgment genealogy, alongside more psychological and/or spiritual aspects of writing family histories. If that’s of interest and there are particular things you’d like covered, I’d love to know.
Until next time, I’m sending all good wishes your way.
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