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My mom was something like a mommy-blogger, in 1973. From the time I was two to two-and-a-half, she wrote these astoundingly detailed letters about our lives and me and Miami, typed them up in quintuplicate, and mailed them to the whole family. I have multiple copies of some of them.
They’re an amazing resource for my book, and they prove, as she’s always claimed and I’ve doubted, that I was talking in complete sentences when I turned two. Apparently I was also always concerned with remembering everything that happened.
On the one hand the letters make me happy, because I can verrrry hazily remember some of what she describes, and because they’re so full of pride and love, but they also make me sad, because I can see how lonely she was.
BBC America’s Orphan Black seems so immediate, so plausible, so unfuturistic, that Cosima Herter, the show’s science consultant, is used to being asked whether human reproductive cloning could be happening in a lab somewhere right now. If so, we wouldn’t know, she says. It’s illegal in so many countries, no one would want to talk about it. But one thing is clear, she told me, when we met to talk about her work on the show: in our era of synthetic biology — of Craig Venter’s biological printer and George Church’s standardized biological parts, of three-parent babies and of treatment for cancer that involves reengineered viruses— genetics as we have conceived of it is already dead. We don’t have the language for what is emerging.
It’s one of my favorite things I’ve written, and also one of the strangest. It’s very much keeping with the forward-looking aspects of the book I’m working on. And it has the endorsements of a whole lotta Orphan Blackers, including, Tatiana Maslany, Graeme Manson, and Herter herself, which makes me happy.
On June 6, I’ll be speaking at the Global Family Reunion about my family, my interest in genealogy, ancestry, genetics, and the things we know and stories we tell ourselves about inheritance, and how my fascination with all of this became the book I’m writing. My talk will be at 3:30 p.m.
The reunion, brainchild of AJ Jacobs, also features Jacobs, Henry Louis Gates, CeCe Moore, George Church, Daniel Radcliffe, Lisa Loeb, and many others, and is a full day of events held on the old World’s Fair grounds in Queens. Everyone’s invited.
I just learned that my Lives essay, “A Doubter in the Holy Land,” will be included in Best American Travel Writing 2015. The guest editor is Andrew McCarthy. Thank you for choosing my essay, Andrew McCarthy!
On March 5, Marie Mutsuki Mockett and I will be reading and talking about exorcising the past (all meanings of exorcise possible) at McNally Jackson at 6 p.m.
Marie’s wonderful new book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, is about death and grief and family and ghosts and so much more. She’ll read from it, and I’ll read from the working introduction to my book on the science and superstition of ancestry, and then we’ll talk about all of that and take questions and comments from you. Hope to see you there!
Although technology is changing the way we discover our personal histories, the reasons why people may begin to investigate in the first place have stayed the same. Curiosity, of course, but also a sense of history. Maud Newton told the audience how her interest in her family tree was sparked by the improbable stories her mother told about their predecessors. But the importance of ancestry cut very close for Newton. “I myself was basically a eugenics project,” she said. “My parents married because they thought they would have smart children together, not because they loved each other.” Her father was particularly obsessed with the idea of purity of blood, she added. “Someone suggested to me that there might be something [my father] was hiding, and then I got really interested.”
We had lots of fun; I don’t think any of us were ready for the panel to end when it did, and how often can you say that? The audio is below Bogle’s summary, if you’d like to listen.
A longtime reader wrote to ask if everything’s okay. He was concerned because I post here so rarely.
Everything is okay! My stepdaughter, Autumn, turned twenty-one! Often I still think of her as the little waving girl in the photo above. But she is an astounding young woman, a clear and compassionate thinker, a poet, a gift, my only child. Also, my goddaughter and her mom moved away. I miss them tons. And my cats died, a few months apart. Oof, as my friend Carrie says. That was sad.
Right now there’s a blizzard outside. I’m drinking water and tea and working on my book, which is usually what I’m doing, unless I haven’t refilled the water and tea recently.
The manuscript is due in 2016, and I asked for regular installment deadlines with my editor to keep myself on task, and I’m so busy writing that I actually got excited when an app I use to keep myself from wasting time online malfunctioned for a few weeks. It cut off my access to half the Internet, including this very site. I’m also working on a related profile-essay thing that’s taking me a long time to finish to my satisfaction, and I’m very excited about it. And I’ve been doing a lot of weird, wide-rangingreading, which I’m sure will all be reflected in my book, if you’ve missed my meandering fixations.
I’ve always been interested in the ways writers think about family history—and especially about echoes, or the lack thereof, through the generations—if they do, as they work. I’m grateful to Tin House for allowing me to indulge this curiosity in a new series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry. First up, Christopher Beha:
Maud Newton: When we first met to talk about the essay I eventually ended up writing for Harper’s, you mentioned an ancestral house upstate where your family spends time every summer. Do you think visiting that old homestead has influenced your thinking about ancestry?
Christopher Beha: Without a doubt. The house was built by the first Behas of my line to come to America from Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. They farmed for a couple of generations on land my family still owns, and members of the family continued to spend a lot of time there after my great-great grandmother moved the family down to New York City. So there’s a lot of family history there. There are still some Behas living in the area (though they pronounce the name differently than my family does), and there is a Beha Road not far from the house. I can walk a mile down the road to the churchyard and see the graves of Matthias and Theresa Beha, my great-great-great grandparents, who brought their family over 150 years ago. All of this has influenced my sense of ancestry as something that is still present in my world, even if it is often invisible.
The rest is here. Future interview subjects will include Laila Lalami, Emily Mandel, Celeste Ng, Saeed Jones, and Katherine Faw Morris.
Just about every week for more than two and a half years, I’ve contributed a tiny column about the meeting of history and the present day to the New York Times Magazine’s “One Page Magazine.” The constraints have been considerable — I usually operate in sixty to eighty words, or thereabouts, subject to the vagaries of column breaks and dictates of the stylebook — but within them my freedom has been enormous. When Jon Kelly invited me aboard in the fall of 2012, he said I could write about anything I chose, and he was true to his word. I was sometimes asked to give my draft a second pass, but my subject, no matter how idiosyncratic or obscure, was never vetoed.
Since then I’ve mentioned essays from many of my favorite literary magazines (including Tin House, A Public Space, the Paris Review, and Granta), cultural websites (such as the Awl, the Millions, and the Los Angeles Review of Books), regional magazines (including two longtime favorites, Oxford American and Texas Monthly), and many, many books and writers, from the well-known to the, in today’s parlance, emerging. I’ve written about language and religion and sex and depression — all favorite subjects — and about Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Muriel Spark, Ford Madox Ford, Helen Oyeyemi, Catherine Chung, Jeet Thayil, Muriel Spark, Zora Neale Hurston, Daphne Du Maurier, Sherlock,The Sandbaggers, and Doctor Who. Never once has the first person intruded, except in quotes from someone else or the occasional 6th Floor post.
It’s been an honor and a lot of fun to appear in the magazine so regularly, but I’m regretfully taking my leave of the page after yesterday’s issue to work on my book about the science and superstition of ancestry. Huge thanks to the magazine for having me aboard, and to everyone who’s followed my wide-ranging interests there all this time. My last column is about Elizabeth Bachner’s “How to Shake Hands With a Murderer,” from Spuyten Duyvil’s Wreckage of Reason II.
With this shift, I’m officially, formally, indefinitely and probably permanently retired from anything like regular writing about books. (I need all my brainpower for my own work, and I respectfully ask that everyone please, please, please discontinue sending unsolicited packages to me.)
I have to say, it feels wonderful to be reading novels, when I can find the time for novels, as a civilian again. The three new works of fiction I’ve loved most recently are Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments. All are suspenseful, philosophical but not ponderous, and gorgeously written, and all are books that might make you miss your stop on the train. I’m also reading Montaigne, and tons of books on heredity, and I’m re-reading Rebecca Skloot’s outstanding The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Ancestry is a fundamental perplexity of life. We come from our parents, who came from their parents, who descended, as the Bible would put it, from their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, but we are separate beings. We begin with the sperm of one man and the egg of one woman, and then we enter the world and we become ourselves.
Beyond all that’s encoded in our twenty-three pairs of chromosomes—our hair, eyes, and skin of a certain shade, our frame and stature, our sensitivity to bitter tastes—we are bundles of opinions and ambitions, of shortcomings and talents. The alchemy between our genes and our individuality is a mystery we keep trying to solve.
The June issue of Harper’s – with my essay on America’s (and my) ancestry obsession — will be available on newsstands for about the next two to three weeks, if you were planning to pick up a copy. The paragraphs quoted above are a teeny excerpt.
In a letter I wrote last year for The Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail I mentioned that for a long time my approach to writing fiction was a little bit like strangling myself while trying to sing.
I finished writing the letter just as I was beginning the essay that’s just out in Harper’s, and a lot of what I said in it about spontaneity, truth, and excitement in writing stayed on my mind during the many, many months I was holed up in my apartment working on the piece.
As I really begin to delve into my book, I thought I’d post it here, both for myself and for anyone else who might like to see it.
I’m ecstatic to announce that Andrea Walker of Random House has acquired my forthcoming book on the science and superstition of ancestry, a subject that has obsessed me for years because of my own family and also because of the way it obsesses the culture at large. While writing my new story for Harper’s, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” I realized that it was mounting — and over the years had been mounting — into a much bigger project.
Here’s the announcement: “Random House will publish writer and critic Maud Newton’s first book, an examination of her obsession with genealogy and her own colorful family history, along with the science and superstition of ancestry in the culture at large. Newton’s essay, ‘America’s Ancestry Craze,’ is the cover story for the current issue of Harper’s magazine. This interdisciplinary study will draw on memoir, reporting, cultural criticism, scientific and anthropological research to understand the fear and fascination behind genealogy, and why it has become the second most popular hobby in the United States. Newton began blogging about books and culture in 2002; within a few years her site was one of the most widely praised and quoted in the industry, and she began writing for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among others. Random House senior editor Andrea Walker pre-empted North American rights from Julie Barer at Barer Literary.”
Andrea and I first met while she was at the New Yorker, after she wrote nice things about a novel excerpt of mine that Narrative published, and since then I’ve followed her career with admiration and excitement. I’m thrilled to be working with her and the rest of the Random House team! And now you know what I’ll be doing for the next couple years.
Friends and readers who connected with me on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram have been posting photos of the cover, and every time I see one it gives me a thrill. You can subscribe to read the article online, download the app to buy the issue, or pick it up on newsstands on May 21, which is my birthday.
I’ll be talking about the piece and my interest in ancestry more generally at Lauren Cerand’s Cafe Society on June 6. Details are in her Tiny Letter, if you’re interested.
You can also follow my continuing obsession with the subject — a sort of miscellany clipboard for the book I’m writing — at The Begats.
My new site, The Begats, obsesses over ancestry miscellany of all kinds: genealogical, historical, cultural, scientific, religious, superstitious, personal. If you’re into this kind of nerdery, submit stuff!
And if you’re curious about my own family history, I wrote a lot of posts about my research back in the day, starting here.
A friend and I were beginning that strange dance of making plans to make plans, when I mentioned that I’d be traveling to Jerusalem soon. “We should get together right away,” he joked, “before you come down with Messiah syndrome.” It was the kind of precision-targeted crack only an old friend can manage. I can’t remember whether I laughed or winced first.
When I was young, my mother had a feverish conversion and started a church in our living room. I’d always been a tiny bit anxious that I might one day follow suit, hear the calling myself, start roaming the streets, preaching salvation. A committed but fearful agnostic, I’d never intended to tempt fate by visiting the Holy Land. But I was going to the Jerusalem Book Fair, and my husband, Max, who grew up in the comparatively staid Eastern Orthodox tradition, was joining me.
CRL: Someone asked me, “Is that the difference between a Western hero and an Eastern hero?”
MN: What did you say?
CRL: Maybe. I don’t know. But the Western heroes we know — in literature, it’s someone who is picaresque, larger than life, very vocal. And she’s totally the opposite of that. The heroes of my previous books are very Western, in a certain way. But maybe this one isn’t.
I wasn’t sure when exactly the announcement became official, which is the reason I held off on posting this here, but I’m excited and delighted to report that my employer, Thomson Reuters, awarded $3000 to Girls Write Now last year, as part of the company’s 2013 “Community Champion” awards, because of my volunteering there. (By day I work at TR and am known as Rebecca, Tax Editor and Writer. Otherwise, obviously, I usually go by Maud nowadays.)
Girls Write Now pairs talented at-risk teen girls with mentors — authors and journalists — who meet with them regularly one-on-one and support their writing. What impresses me most is that the girls go on to college. So these mentoring relationships have the power to change the mentees’ lives not just for a few months, but forever. You can see this happening in my favorite video, from 2009, of one of the girls’ readings.
The last time I stayed with my father in Miami over the holidays, I made the mistake of thinking he was lonely. I had a bad habit of trying to decode his emotional state from external markers, in this case his threadbare green bathmat. Part of a towel set my parents acquired when I was seven or so, it had been in a sad state for more than a decade, but on my most recent visit the previous winter, it was covered with holes, actually disintegrating. Each morning before work, my father stepped out of the shower and wiped his feet on it. Evidently he did not register its lack of absorbent effect, the feel of cold tile against skin.
My husband, Max, and I planned to stay with him for more than a week, into the new year, but to celebrate Christmas Day itself with Max’s family at his grandparents’ place a few miles away. As we started to finalize arrangements to open presents, have dinner, and in between take a walk to see the flock of wild peacocks his grandmother had mentioned in recent phone calls, the specter of the bathmat rose from my memories of the last visit. I couldn’t put it out of my mind.
My father had, to put it kindly, never been gifted at housekeeping, but I worried what it might mean that he was living this way, moving through his days with so little attention to the world around him. Was he depressed? Ill? Deteriorating? Although we weren’t always together at Christmas, under the circumstances I thought it might be cruel to spend the holiday with other people when I was in town.
My essay, “Cleaning Up on Christmas,” about the time I stayed with my father to keep him company on Christmas Day and ended up in his house alone, cleaning, is up at Medium.
On a rooftop of a prison
in South Africa Nelson Mandela
tends garden and has a birthday,
as my Jamaican grandfather in Harlem, New York
raises tomatoes and turns ninety-one.
I have taken touch for granted: my grandfather’s hands,
his shoulders, his pajamas which smell of vitamin pills…
“Even from the very beginning, I was interested in the ways that you love somebody and still betray them or hurt them without meaning to. You know, that kind of thing and how that works in families.”
Masha Hamilton, a journalist and novelist and, until recently, the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, spoke with me over the summer about her latest book, What Changes Everything, and about conflict, from warzones to brownstones, at Community Bookstore over the summer.
I reviewed Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter, a fascinating history of the tweet and its creators, for the technology issue of the New York Times Book Review. Here’s an excerpt:
A hundred and forty characters doesn’t sound like much, but as Twitter has shown over the course of its short, intense life, they’re enough to aid a revolution, ruin a reputation or direct help after a disaster. Critics tend to focus on the irresponsibility or narcissism of the form, or to say it breeds snark or false praise, or that it enables people to feel politically involved when they’re just ranting from their couches.
Sure, Twitter can facilitate the spread of misinformation. It sometimes operates (as a friend of mine once put it) as a live feed from the id. Some people use it solely to tear things down, and others to ingratiate themselves around the clock. And of course political one-liners are no substitute for being on the barricades, no matter how much @pourmecoffee makes me laugh. But ways of tweeting are so diverse that these criticisms serve as a kind of Rorschach test, revealing more about the critic and what attracts his or her attention on Twitter than they do about the form itself.
Twitter’s utility and appeal lies not just in its brevity but in its randomness and ability to surprise. Within its confines, the uses to which it can be put are virtually unlimited. Even now, on the eve of its anticipated I.P.O., its true function refuses to be pinned down, and “Hatching Twitter,” a fast-paced and perceptive new book by Nick Bilton, a columnist and reporter for The New York Times, establishes that uncertainty and dissension about its true purpose has characterized Twitter from its inception.
It was my habit to start the day with a perusal of a few pages of a metaphysical work. It is a practice as healthy to the soul as the morning bath is healthy to the body. Though I have not the kind of intelligence that moves easily among abstractions and I often do not altogether understand what I read (this does not too greatly distract me since I find that professional dialecticians often complain that they cannot understand one another) I read on and sometimes come upon a passage that has a particular meaning for me. My way is lighted now and then by a happy phrase, for the philosophers of the past often wrote more than ordinarily well, and since in the long run a philosopher only describes himself, with his prejudices, his personal hopes, and his idiosyncrasies, and they were for the most part men of robust character, I have often the amusement of making acquaintance with a curious personality. In this desultory way I have read most of the great philosophers that the world has seen, trying to learn a little here and there or to get some enlightenment on matters that must puzzle everyone who makes his tentative way through the labyrinthine jungle of this life: nothing has interested me more than the way they treat the problem of evil. I cannot say that I have been greatly enlightened.