Book Review: Nadine Antoinette Maestas on Kristen Millares Young's Debut Novel

Kristen Millares Young’s debut novel, Subduction, focuses on the journey of Claudia, a Mexican-American anthropologist running from her life in Seattle where her husband left her for her sister. Claudia’s need to escape and her anthropological research take her back to the Makah Reservation at Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula where she reconnects with Maggie and meets Maggie’s son, Peter, who has returned to care for his mother. As an anthropologist, Claudia sees her role as someone whose job it is to record as much information and as many stories from the Makah culture as she can, but she is acutely and consistently aware of her outsider status and the inherent flaws in her field of research. She is an outsider, an interloper, who is not to be fully trusted, but she is also a catalyst for the telling of stories and more importantly for the convergence of stories that emerge from Peter’s family, community and culture. 

The book’s title is an apt place from which to begin thinking about the intertwining narratives of all of the characters in all of their complexities. The story takes place along the Cascadian Subduction Zone, where there is a convergence of tectonic plates. These active, moving plates cause earthquakes and facilitate volcanic activity. This is relevant because in the background of the novel there is a reoccurring, yet somewhat murky retelling of an earthquake and tsunami that unleashed their destructive forces on the indigenous coastal communities hundreds of years ago. So much of the novel is about the recovery of memories, of stories, and of culture, and much like the tectonic plates, when Claudia and Peter meet, there is a seismic rupture in the social and cultural fabric of the community. Things shake loose, and difficult stories emerge and converge where violence and beauty simultaneously occur.

While reading the novel I kept going back to what Mary Louis Pratt likes to call “contact zones.” In her essay “Arts of the Contact Zone” she uses this term “to refer to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their eventual aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.”

Pratt notes “autoethnography, transculturation, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denunciation, imaginary dialogue, and vernacular expression” as some of the “literate arts of the contact zone.” And she suggests that “miscomprehension, incomprehension, dead letters, unread masterpieces, absolute heterogeneity of meaning” are some of the “perils of writing in the contact zone.”

I would argue that Young’s novel is a space for readers to see the clashing and grappling of cultures and narratives in all of its messiness and uncomfortableness. In this sense the lack of resolution and completeness in the characters in the novel feels right and offers us a sense of human authenticity. In this way, Young is able to produce a character like Claudia, who is able to critically reflect back on her profession and her role in Peter and Maggie’s world.  

Young’s prose feels effortless. It propels and brings into contact the complex stories of Claudia, Peter, Maggie and the Makah. Her attention to the landscape of human emotion and thought holds up a mirror to the power relationships between cultures, genders, and family. And yet I can’t help but ask myself, does Young cross the line in writing this novel, in telling these stories and the stories within the stories? I would venture to say that yes, in a sense she does cross lines, but that is the point reflected in the internalized criticism that the character Claudia carries in herself, and it is the point of Pratt’s contact zone, as it is the point of Young’s subduction zone.

Book page here: Subduction

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