on ancestor veneration, whiteness, & creativity: maud newton in conversation with jeanna kadlec
Maud Newton weaves many subjects in her hybrid memoir Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, which is a heavily researched family history, a searing indictment of whiteness, and a call to action. Under her microscopic lens, no subject is safe: not her ancestors who enslaved people, not DNA kits and Ancestry.com, not her puritanical father or her mother who started a church in their living room.
And, most especially for white folks, not ourselves.
What I especially appreciate about Maud, as a friend, is that she’s not afraid to talk about the spiritual side to real life. In our conversation here, we dove into everything from our shared evangelical backgrounds to our current practices of ancestor veneration to being writers on “Lit Twitter” who sometimes feel way too weird for, you know, “Lit Twitter.” And much more.
Ancestor Trouble is forthcoming from Random House on March 29, 2022. You know the drill: pre-orders are everything.
This interview has been edited for length
Jeanna Kadlec: So Maud, I know and adore you, but for any readers who may not know you already — can you introduce yourself? Who you are, what you do?
Maud Newton: Absolutely. I’m a writer. I first became known in the literary world as a book blogger. I wrote about my family a lot on my blog, and the problematic aspects of my family, and my background with evangelical Christianity, which I know you can relate to in your own way.
My sun is in Gemini, my moon is in Aries, and my rising is Sagittarius. But I do have Saturn conjunct my sun, so that’s a little bit of a mitigating aspect to all of that air and fire.
JK: We love the poet-philosopher axis of Gemini/Sag, which is so evident, I think, in your work. There’s so much literary community to what you do, with the blog and Twitter, and then there’s this book that's all about this hunt for truth in your background and about spirituality itself.
MN: Thanks. In the chart system that I usually use, my Jupiter and Neptune are directly opposing my sun in the 12th house, so that feels resonant for me. Although I also really enjoyed your Astrology for Writers class that used the other [whole house] sign system, as well!
JK: It’s always fun to put a different layer on it.
So, speaking of how the search for truth and spirituality is baked into your chart already: What is spirituality to you in this moment?
MN: The distinction between spirituality and creativity has come to seem less like a bright line or a firm division than a continuum.
In part, that's something that I took from a teacher I encountered sort of early in my ancestor work — her name is Taya Mâ Shere. We were talking about those doubts that can arise, you know: Am I really in touch with ancestors? And she said, Why should we assume what we would imagine would be separate from our ancestors or their influence in us? And I found that really kind of a fascinating thing to ponder over time.
When I retreated from evangelical Christianity, I became what I called a fervent agnostic. I was really committed to my agnosticism and not knowing. To some degree, that's my personality anyway. But I've really kind of expanded my view of what spirituality is to encompass imagination, and that's felt really exciting and free.
JK: I love that you immediately bring up this continuum of spirituality and creativity because I wanted to ask how the writing process was for this book and how it did or did not connect with your spiritual practice.
MN: The writing process was a lot of different things, and I think you can probably relate to this a little bit because I know that you have also written a memoir with a lot of non-personal stuff in it.
My spiritual stuff overlapped with personal stories, and the sort of more heavy research I was doing into all kinds of areas like genetics and ancient philosophy — there was a little bit of a connection, but much less so.
At the same time, though, as I wrote the book, I was always a little bit afraid of the spiritual part of it, [especially] my emerging conviction that ancestors were spiritually important to all of us. My research bore out the fact that insofar as we can tell, where records have not been lost, ancestors across the world and across time have had this spiritual significance for humans. I was like, I don’t really want to do a thing that I’m not comfortable with, but I also didn’t want to do a gross sociological project [where I was] detached and just writing about other people’s experiences. So in writing the book, I had to really allow myself to go there, to find a way into that spiritual work.
JK: Was your process of coming into ancestor veneration, then, co-present with the writing of the book?
MN: I didn't write everything in the book in order, but the last part of the book is the last part that I wrote. I had to really work through all of that previous stuff to get there.
JK: I want to ask how you took care of yourself emotionally through all of that, because there's so much intense family background that you dive into just from the memoir perspective. The journey that you take us on through both your upbringing and also these stories and the family history that obviously you weren't physically present for is so immersive. Sitting with that for any amount of time takes some kind of toll.
How was it emotionally for you to walk through that, and then also to be coming to this space of ancestor veneration as a spiritual practice?
MN: I had a lot of therapy.
JK: Yes. *both laughing*
MN: Decades, decades of therapy. So that was the first thing. I have found the Alexander Technique somewhat helpful. My teacher was my introduction to mindfulness meditation, and I've also on and off worked with Ethan Nichtern, who used to be associated with shambhala, but who's in the Tibetan tradition of meditation. So that was all really helpful.
But, you know, it was a lot. Being tenacious with it while also trying not to beat myself up with it, not to [keep] myself in it in a way that was compounding the trauma of sexual abuse. I had to proceed a little slowly sometimes.
JK: That makes sense. I think anyone who reads it will be able to appreciate the depth that you go into, that you excavate emotionally. I had a lot of respect for the tenacity it must have taken — in addition to the craft of it, because you are toggling between memoir and research — to sit with that for a length of time.
MN: I would say, on an astrological level, my Mercury is in Taurus and my Venus is conjunct my Mercury in Taurus. So despite the intense air and fire, I do have this part of me that really needs to take time with things and really kind of get to know them, for better or for worse.
I feel like I demand a lot of the reader, and some readers will be like, sign me up! Some readers will be like, wow, okay!
JK: When it comes to memoir, I'm not interested in an easy read where the author has not done any self interrogation and is just here for a quick anecdote. Like, you have done so much self interrogation and then you're connecting it to this really incredible bevy of research about psychology and epigenetics and white supremacy and so much more. It’s a satisfying read.
MN: Thank you. I just knew from the beginning that if I was going to write this book, this is how I wanted to write it. Because of my chart, in order for me to stay interested in a project like this, it had to be something very disparate, but also very detailed.
JK: I love a blended memoir, a hybrid memoir, that brings together lots of different things.
I did want to go back, though, to the end of the book — which also was my favorite part! — because it's where you really bring us to this gorgeous conclusion around ancestor veneration, but also that incorporates so much history. You hold so much space for the culpability and the responsibility of the harms of white supremacy and whiteness as a category, while simultaneously allowing this really delicate space for the grief of whiteness that has lost its culture and history — going back to the colonization of Europe, like how Europe became Europe.
Both of us practice some form of ancestor veneration. Given this, and talking at length about the rupture of that practice and the Christianization of European-heritaged folks, I was wondering if you could say more about how you see that loss impacting us culturally and spiritually right now?
MN: Absolutely. I'm glad that that resonated for you.
One thing that I find so fascinating and infuriating about Christianity is the ways that we can see it obfuscating religious practices in other places in real time. When we try to talk about, for example, what happened in what we now call England or Scotland or Wales or Ireland, we run up against this [issue] that we can't really know what was there [note: because of Christian writing of history]. So it's not accurate to say that we know there was [pre-Christian] ancestor veneration. And it’s like, huh, I wonder why we can't say what was there!
So I really want to, for myself, and then also for the reader, to really tease out: well, okay, we know that there were these practices. It's true that we can't say with certainty what the intention was, but it seems to connect to these other practices in other parts of the world. It was really important to me to acknowledge what we can know and acknowledge what we can't, and draw that line.
But it was also important to me, after writing that first part about my ancestor work and how transformative that experience was for me, to [finish the book] [by taking] the reader back into the difficulties of my family, to the harms of my family. What I find as someone who is interested in spiritual communities but not super comfortable belonging to a specific spiritual community is that a lot of this work is kind of seen as a form of salvation. Oh, we’ve dealt with this, we’ve healed this, we’ve arrived at this. Well, it doesn’t really work like that. We’re still in this world.
My family history is still my family history. So I felt a real awareness that some readers would be like, wait, hold on. I thought we were doing this happy movement out and like, oh, everything's cool now. And I was like, yeah, reader, sorry, but no. I'm still a white person who still comes from this history of ancestors who enslaved people, ancestors who participated in genocide and colonization.
JK: Part of why I really love how you write about things at the end of the book is because of how grounded you are and how you do hold space for that tension.
I do want to circle back, though, to this idea that you've alluded to a few times in our conversations as spiritual people who are intellectually interested in craft and literature, whose books aren’t explicitly “spiritual,” but are also in some way perhaps too spiritual for “lit Twitter.” How do you navigate that space? You mentioned that some folks simply haven’t asked you about the spiritual component at all, and that’s a pretty big part of the book!
MN: *laughs* I’m just kind of watching with fascination, you know? I definitely wrote the book I wanted to write, you know, so I'm prepared for whatever comes.
I think some people are choosing to just sort of interpret it metaphorically. Maybe people are trying to do me the favor of not engaging with it because they find it a little out there and maybe a little bit embarrassing for me. I'm anticipating that some people may really not like it. And that's okay!
One thing that I explicitly mentioned briefly in the book that my editor [ultimately] took out was how I was always afraid of having a religious conversion like my mother's. Like, was I going to start a church in my living room? Was I going to be passing out tracts on Sundays in the park?
And in some ways, that’s kind of what’s happened, right? It’s not a religious conversion in the sense that everybody needs to do this, but it's in the same neighborhood. This is important to me now. I do, for myself, believe that the spiritual weight of all of this unresolved harm in my own life and in the culture more broadly is really significant. At one point I had a brief couple of lines in my book about how I'm ready to own it now. I have, in some sense, done what I was afraid of.
So, my editor took it out, and I thought, she probably would have let me keep it in if I had wanted to. But I thought, no, sometimes it’s better to let the reader arrive at these conclusions.
JK: I hear that. I think we might have talked about this, but I love that you had this fear of a religious conversion. I so relate to this — I wonder if this is something that people who have had really intense religious experiences have, possibly?
Something I briefly touch on in my last chapter is that I had a really intense fear, when writing my memoir, of re-converting to evangelicalism.
JK: Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. But I just had this really intense fear that going back there and sitting with what my faith was for so much time — that there would just be that gravitational pull, in some way.
I think that's very real, what you bring up, and wanting to investigate that, in the context.
MN: I never really had a strong religious conversion when it came to Christianity. I definitely believed in a punitive, scary god. I was 100 percent persuaded that there might be demons all around me at all times.
JK: That's still intense! Like, you grew up in it.
MN: I did. The fear of conversion itself was a little bit secondary for me. Maybe because it happened in my memory, the idea of it happening when I was an adult was more ever present and scary.
But yeah, especially for my friends like you who have had that intense connection to the church — I get it. For all of us who left that world, there’s no way to fully disentangle yourself.
JK: I don't know how you describe it to people. On the one hand, it’s one of those experiences that’s impossible to describe to anyone who wasn’t there. But one way I try to put it is that my brain just has a Jesus lens that I can always click on. And it's never gone.
MN: Yeah! I so relate to that.
I don't discuss religion with my mother at all now, by my rule. But I've been able to kind of predict where she and my stepfather have gone in their beliefs just by watching their [choices and behavior]. Which is a little weird.
JK: You know how to interpret it.
MN: As writers, too, we're always kind of imaginatively putting ourselves in the mindset and emotional frame of reference of this world that we came from.
JK: That's a really good way to put it.
MN: It’s something valuable that we have to offer people who are curious about it.
JK: That is true.
My last question for you is, have you had any particularly magical creative moments this year?
MN: I am really into the park I live right next to. It's a really large park. There are a lot of trees, and I feel my creative work coalescing around it in some way that's still a little unclear to me.
But, at one point, my assemblywoman proposed creating a parking lot in the area, literally. I can see it from my window right now. I joined a big ruckus on Twitter about it, and I was going to protests about it. I was feeling a conflicted, icky feeling around her proposal and whether I was reacting in the right way, my sort of intense emotional feelings about this place.
And I walked outside. My dog was barking. And there was a kitten, a tiny black kitten, literally right across from this area in the park where the parking lot would ostensibly be. And my thought when I saw her was just, like, Oh, the trees and the park. They sent her to me.
My partner and I just kind of can’t believe she’s real. She has this very special quality in our house.
JK: I didn't know that that was the story behind her. That's so sweet.
MN: Also, just to really let my flag fly, after I had COVID in 2020, I had taken a pomegranate and left it at a tree on that land as a thank you to Persephone. It’s a goddess story that I was really pondering a lot while I was sick, and so somehow this felt connected to the appearance of the cat.
JK: I love that. What a perfect wrap to this conversation.
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