A Sense of the Present Rises
For me, this time of year brings a heightened awareness of what’s passing and what’s to come, and in that way it tends to call attention to the present moment more than any other time. In her poem “The Coming Fall,” Denise Levertov writes of the way the season meets the body. “A sense of the present / rises out of the earth and grass / enters the feet, ascends.…”
In this newsletter: why the Massachusetts house pictured above should not continue to be a museum devoted to my ancestors; Indigenous foodways; this month’s in-thanks-for-preorders giveaway, intended to support Indigenous jewelry artisans and share forgotten histories of Native resistance; book recommendations; and some early praise for Ancestor Trouble from Publisher’s Weekly, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Dani Shapiro.
More than two decades ago, I learned that my ancestor Cornet Joseph Parsons was a founder of Northampton, a Massachusetts town where my sister and her spouse had moved before any of us knew of a connection to it. Almost immediately, I discovered that the Parsons house on my ancestors’ original home lot was a museum in the middle of town, and I was excited. Then I read that Joseph had witnessed land deals between the Agawam people and the powerful William Pynchon (yes), and that Joseph was called “Cornet” for his role fighting on behalf of the English crown against people Native to that land. I felt a vague unease about this history and turned away from exploring Joseph’s life too deeply. I focused instead on his wife, Mary Bliss Parsons, my ninth great-grandmother, who was accused of being a witch and eventually tried in a criminal court in Boston.
The kind of ignorance I chose is a pretty common response to learning of an ancestor’s participation in something terrible, but it’s not an honest or helpful response. I write about all of this far more in Ancestor Trouble, but the upshot is that nowadays I don’t believe the Parsons House should be a cheerful monument to my ancestors or to Northampton settler life more broadly. The history and continued existence of Nonotuck, Agawam, and Pocumtuck people, and their relationship to the land in what is known as the Pioneer Valley, needs to be brought forward, as do the wrongs committed by people like Joseph. Advocating for this shift doesn’t mean I repudiate my entire inheritance and legacy through my Parsons forbears. It means that I need to relate with my ancestors and their histories in their complex entirety rather than choosing the parts I like.
I’m conscious of not wanting to center myself in the midst of Indigenous History Month and of how easy it is to veer into the performative. At the same time, I agree with a line toward the start of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.” I don’t pretend to have all the answers or to be reckoning with my ancestors’ histories and their aftereffects perfectly, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try, or that I should be silent about the mess of it all. These days I’m trying not to tie myself in knots around getting everything figured out before I speak up.
I live on the land of the Lenni Lenapi people in what is commonly known as the borough of Queens in New York City, and I support the Manna-Hatta Fund’s American Indian Community House with a monthly donation. The Manna-Hatta Fund has a list of practical suggestions: What Else Can I Do? I’ve mentioned this before, but in addition to calling for land acknowledgment and giving money to Native people and organizations, the website urges fellow settlers to “Know where your own people came from.”
Sit with that for a minute if it hits you as a surprise. We are being asked to know our people’s histories, because our people’s histories are part of us—and because they are inseparable from who we are, individually and also collectively.
Like many settlers, I’ll gather with family for a big meal later this month, and I’m mulling what that meal will look like this year. Indigenous educator Rachel Sayet, a Mohegan tribal member, has done a great deal of writing, speaking, and teaching on foods eaten by Native people of the Northeast before and after colonization. Here and there you can find some or her recipes, and I’m going to try one. In thanks, I’ve made a donation to the First Nations Food Sovereignty Initiative, which Sayet supports. And I’m looking forward to watching the Gather documentary, new out on Netflix, which focuses on Indigenous resilience and “the renaissance of Native food systems.”
I’ve been doing monthly giveaways in this newsletter as a way of thanking all who pre-order my book or officially pre-request it from their public library. For this month’s giveaway, I wanted to support Indigenous artisans and share some history that’s new to me, so I’m giving away the earrings, necklace, and book pictured here. (To be clear, I am not collaborating with the artists or author; I purchased these items as a customer from the links below in order to give them to one of you.)
The fringed earrings were made by Haudenosaunee artist Niio Perkins, who explains on her website that “interpreting deeply rooted cultural and spiritual motifs into treasured jewelry, clothing and accessories is a family specialty.” Her work is handmade in Akwesasne Mohawk Territory.
The carved turtle necklace of shell and jasper was made by Robin Spears Jr., a Narragansett-Niantic artist. I found it on the Tomaquag Museum website, and it is even much more beautiful in person. The museum is located on the land of the Narragansett Nation and established the Indigenous Empowerment Network of Rhode Island in 2016.
Through the Tomaquag Museum site I also discovered Lisa Brooks’ Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip's War, which I’m getting ready to read, myself. The museum website describes the book as a “compelling and original recovery of Native American resistance and adaptation to colonial America. With rigorous original scholarship and creative narration, Lisa Brooks recovers a complex picture of war, captivity, and Native resistance.… by relaying the stories of Weetamoo, a female Wampanoag leader, and James Printer, a Nipmuc scholar, whose stories converge in the captivity of Mary Rowlandson. Through both a narrow focus on Weetamoo, Printer, and their network of relations and a far broader scope that includes vast Indigenous geographies, Brooks leads us to a new understanding of the history of colonial New England and of American origins.” I’m giving away a hardcover copy purchased from the museum.
To enter to win the earrings, necklace, and book as a set, 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 Friday November 12, at 11:59 PM (Pacific). The winner will be selected at random and notified by email or (as the case may be) DM.
Updated to add: The winner of this month’s giveaway is Jason Kerr.
I’m excited to read Taylor Harris’ This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown, which will be out from Catapult in January. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls the book heartfelt, raw, and astounding, a “medical mystery, love story, parenting memoir, and tale of survival.” Having followed Harris and her work for a little while now, I have no doubt it’s all this and more.
I’m immensely grateful to national treasure Honorée Fanonne Jeffers for taking time from her own work to craft this praise:
“Here is a wise and unsparing journey through many generations of one family. Here, Maud Newton searches through dusty, historical records and listens to elders’ storytelling voices. She’s determined to understand her ancestors, their grit, their tenderness— and sometimes, their ugly actions that make her question the blood that runs through her veins. And here, in Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, Newton takes this extraordinary journey not only for herself, but to illuminate this present moment in this country we all love. ‘Look,’ she tells us. ‘This is America. This is how we came to be.’” —Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, New York Times bestselling author of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
And I’m also very thankful to fellow seeker Dani Shapiro, author of the gorgeous, tender, and truthful Inheritance (and the forthcoming novel, Signal Fires), for taking time from her own work to craft this praise:
Who are our ancestors to us? What do we inherit from them, and how do we grapple with their legacy? I can imagine no one better to explore this territory than Maud Newton, with her keen, agile mind and her brave, beautiful heart. Ancestor Trouble drills deep into the roots and bones of Newton’s own family, and is a roadmap for all of us who long to understand, at the deepest level, where we come from.” — Dani Shapiro, New York Times bestselling author of Inheritance
I’ve mentioned both of these writers and my admiration for their work many times, including in my Ancestor Trouble newsletter, and I’m sure I’ll keep following along there. Don’t miss Dani Shapiro’s Family Secrets podcast, if you haven’t listened. Earlier advance praise from Abbott Kahler, Laila Lalami, Maaza Mengiste, Sarah Smarsh, Dionne Ford, Garrard Conley, and Alexis Coe is on my book page in the order received, if you’re trying to decide whether to pre-order.
Here’s a snippet of Ancestor Trouble I shared on Twitter.
Thanks as always for reading—I’m wishing you soft and radiant fall afternoons.