Interview: Maud Newton, Author of Ancestor Trouble

Author Maud Newton / Photo by Maximus Clarke
Ancestor Trouble author Maud Newton / Photo by Maximus Clarke

In her debut book, Ancestor Trouble, Maud Newton explores the nature of inheritance. She begins with an investigation of her own family: a father who “extolled the virtues of slavery,” a grandfather who married at least 11 times, a great-grandfather who killed another man with a hay hook.

By the end of Ancestor Trouble, Newton has considered epigenetic studies, DNA-powered surveillance, intergenerational wealth, Renaissance-era inheritance myths, and spiritual practices that recognize ancestral ties.

The New York Times has called Ancestor Trouble “a literary feat” that “simultaneously builds and excavates identity.”

In addition to her memoir, Maud Newton is an essayist, critic, and fiction writer. Her blog, which she started in the 2000s, has been praised by The New Yorker, among other big names. She does not blog as frequently as she used to, but she writes a monthly-ish newsletter.

Surya Hendry: I noticed that you said that this book was over a decade in the making, especially because you had a blog, where you were discussing all of the ways that you found out about the history of your family. What was the process like, consolidating a blog into these eight highly organized sections of a book?

Maud Newton: I worked on [Ancestor Trouble] as a book for seven years. But yeah, those blog posts started in 2007. So that’s been a really, really long time.

I viewed those posts as a distraction from what I thought of as the important work of the novel I was working on. So I was constantly researching in these genealogy databases, and whatnot. And I was berating myself for wasting time on that.

Then, in 2013, an editor at Harper’s, Chris Beha, asked me if I wanted to write an article about my family. And about America’s “ancestry craze,” as he put it. I was like, sure, why not? That sounds fun. And then, as I worked on it, I realized, “oh, wow, I have a lot to say about this.” But I still wasn’t really sold on writing a book right then.

And then my agent asked me: if you were to write a book, what would it look like? So I thought about that for a weekend. And then I realized that I wanted to write the book that you have now.

SH: I was really curious about structure. You move really elegantly back and forth between your own family and these much larger ideas. Were there any memoirs or books that inspired you in that structure?

MN: Well, thank you. I was a little nervous, how that would land for the reader.

There are a lot of books that I like that sort of do both. I didn’t have any in particular in mind as a model while I was working. There were many, many books that sort of inspired me over time, from Emily Raboteau’s Searching For Zion, which has a little bit of that back and forth between memoir and cultural consideration, to Alexander Chee’s personal essays to Sarah Smarsh’s book.

It was hard to figure out how to make the narrative voice consistent. So to the extent I succeeded, I’m glad that it works. It took me a while to figure out how to write about all of the more general scholarly, philosophical, and scientific parts without sort of slipping into an anthropology voice. But once I was able to do that in a few sections, I became more competent across the book.

SH: I was surprised (and delighted) to see the way that you wove together more scientific ways of viewing genealogy, like 23AndMe, along with spirituality—both spirituality around the world and your own personal spirituality. Did it surprise you, the way that you were braiding those things together in your book?

MN: I expected that it would not work for everyone. I was very scared about that part when I started writing the book, honestly. Because, as you know, I have all this religious extremism in my family. I had responded to that by becoming what I called a fervent agnostic. So I wasn’t an atheist (although I tried that on briefly).

When I started working on the book, one thing that had moved and disturbed me was a book about an exhibition that I mentioned, called the Eternal Ancestors. This book was a companion to a Metropolitan Museum of Art Show that was displaying the art of the Fang people of central Africa. This art was actually relics, relics of spiritual significance.

There’s some debate about whether they were intended to represent the ancestors or whether they were merely beautiful containers. But, you know, one thing that’s clear is that in many cases, if not all cases, these were made to sort of guard or stand over the physical remains of the ancestors. So when the Christian missionaries went into these regions, they said “these [art pieces] are demonic or worthless, get rid of them.”

Meanwhile, the pieces ended up influencing Picasso, Matisse. They essentially created Western modernist art. I was really disturbed and moved by that. That was one of many things that caused me to feel that in the West, there was some sort of spiritual importance of ancestors that we have disavowed. And that would be helpful for us to consider.

I’m not sure that I say this explicitly in the book, but I’m not necessarily tied to the objective reality of a spiritual relationship between the living family and the dead. I feel that I have that relationship now with some of my ancestors. But to me, it’s irrelevant whether it’s just some sort of psychological journey that I’m on. It’s been a very healing sort of thing to think about ancestors back through time, before the harms that my more recent ancestors enacted.

SH: Something that I’ve heard biologists and philosophers say, when they really deeply study ancestry and genealogy, is that they look at the individual very differently—sometimes they say they run into strangers and they can’t help but see the historical self alongside the present self. Have you had any similar experiences since writing this book?

MN: That is so beautiful—I got chills when you said that.

I’m still very much situated in our individualist Western society. I don’t want to make myself out to be someone who’s transcended all of that.

But I definitely see myself as part of a continuum of humanity now, in a way that I didn’t fully appreciate before. It’s really opened up this tenderness, and the sense of connectivity with other humans. I’ve come to define kinship really expansively.

SH: Is that partially due to some of the relatives and connections that you found throughout the process of research for your book?

MN: Closer to home, leaving aside this sort of larger spiritual or psychological conversation—obviously, there was a lot that my ancestors did that was really terrible, and really painful. And I feel a responsibility to continue listening and understanding my research for those histories, which are continuing in our society.

What brought me to this work in the first place was a fascination with my mother’s family. My mom and my grandmother told these really fun and funny, over-the-top stories about our ancestors. Over time, I became aware that they weren’t entirely fun. I learned that my mom’s father supposedly married 13 times, and that his father had supposedly killed a man with a hay hook.

There’s a lot of mental illness on my mom’s side of the family; I see, and have always seen some of that in myself. So there was a fascination and excitement and an anxiety that drew me to researching those ancestors. I also ended up delving into my father’s side, and that history of slavery, and the treatment of indigenous peoples.

One thing that really came alive for me was realizing that sometimes I would make an assumption about someone. The hay-hook-killing grandfather: I was like, “Wow, this is crazy! What an infamous guy he must have been.” I conjured these scenarios of him, drunk in a bar and bringing in a hay hook. That turned out not to be true. He was a much more sympathetic person. I mean, maybe he did do terrible things as well. But in that context, he was kind of a hero.

I discovered that I’m descended from this accused witch in Massachusetts. Recognizing that someone could have been persecuted—and also involved in persecuting others—was a theme that just came up time and again. And because it kept coming up, it forced me to go deeper and deeper. Both in acknowledging the harms, and in thinking about all of the aspects of my legacies of those legacies, including how I can show up better, what gifts I might have gotten from these ancestors that I can carry forward.

Maud Newton Ancestor Trouble book cover

SH: Were there any resources that you drew on, to understand how you could move forward and help to create a better world as you researched your own ancestors’ violence and racism? I think that there might be other people who, in doing the same genealogical search, would end up thoroughly overwhelmed, would not find the same path forward that you kind of gestured to in your book.

MN: After many, many years of therapy and a meditation practice, and the experience of my own family, I have really come to believe that ignoring toxic histories is toxic for the individual person.

It might feel in the moment like it’s better to sweep it under the rug or not look at it. But it’s still there; we still know about it. And so, I have really come to believe in the importance of acknowledging it to ourselves, acknowledging these histories within our families.

Particularly, in our current world, where there are these sort of abstract debates about, "Does racism continue? Does it not continue? Slavery was so long ago, what relevance does it have now?" All of this kind of stuff. I believe we can short-circuit some of that by stepping forward and saying: my ancestors did this. And here’s how I feel about that. And, I’m listening for ways that I might be able to help—by advocating for reparations, or any number of things.

We think, maybe, that holding it close and keeping it quiet is better for us and our families. But it’s actually poison, in my opinion.

SH: One way that you gestured to that in your book was your section where you talked about all kinds of inheritances including generational wealth. But you also talked about heirlooms and mental illness, familial patterns, all of these different kinds of inheritances. It made me wonder if there was anything of yours that before you framed it as an inheritance, you didn’t see it as an inheritance.

MN: Something that I didn’t realize that I write about in the book is that I had sort of divided my family into the racist side and the non-racist side—or maybe, I would have told myself, the non-fundamentally racist side.

My mom’s mother’s family was very poor. My grandmother grew up with a sometimes-absent father on a subsistence farm, essentially. It’s never like I was a pull-yourself-up-by-your- bootstraps, just-get-out-there-and-work-hard kind of a person. But I did think that’s what my grandmother had done. I thought this family was poor. I had sort of imagined they came from Ireland.

And that’s not what I found. I found that in her family, people had also enslaved Black people, and all the way back in Puritan Massachusetts, they participated in killing Indigenous people, displacing Indigenous people, driving Indigenous people underground.

I hadn’t expected to find that, on that side. I had these photos of my grandmother and her grandfather and sister riding in a wagon behind an emaciated horse in 1914, and another photo of her with her grandmother and her sister, all of them looking very poor and somewhat dirty. And so without realizing it, I had taken these images as a sort of final statement on their relationship to our country’s painful and troubling histories. It was good for me to have this evidence: like, these people were poor. And these people also came from people who enslaved people and sued each other over who had the right to them.

I think sometimes it’s hard to hold both of those: someone can persecute; someone can also be persecuted. But I think actually, that’s probably more common than not.

SH: In your book, you talk about how even though genetic data is a source of discovery for you, it’s also increasingly weaponized. You talked about how 23&Me data undermines privacy, how the federal government is increasingly interested in using genetic data for policing. It made me wonder—if you started writing your book now, would make all of the same decisions in using your genetic data as a source of discovery?

MN: At the outset, I knew that there were risks and I am by nature, kind of a pessimist. It’s not like I had a rosy view of these sites. But I might make a different decision now. I continued putting my information into these databases, but the more I see the ways that it’s used, the more troubled I become by it.

You’re alluding to the ways in which it’s possible to identify so many people from their relatives’ DNA—the eugenical and racist possibilities of this data, and the ways in which it’s already being used to racist ends. Images that purport to be DNA mugshots, for example.

SH: Yeah. I was curious about it. Because one reason that I was really invested in the spiritual portion of your book is that I began to see this individual path of healing that was perhaps less of an avenue for data weaponization—a much more personal journey. I was wondering if you also found some kind of safety, as you started looking towards more spiritual options?

MN: I realized that my yearning around all of this was a spiritual yearning. I think people your age and younger are more aware of that aspect of the yearning, whereas, people my age and older, and even some people younger are…it’s a little bit more invisible.

But I do think it’s there for a lot of people. And I did find that it was really meaningful to step outside of this realm of empirical truth, and really relate to my ancestors, and all of the harms and burdens and all of the joy and the gifts in this more imaginative or spiritual way. It really cracked open a different way of thinking and feeling around all of my family history.

It was a tender thing, to think of people who also would have found all of these things that my ancestors more recently did unthinkable.

In some ways, I constructed the book the way that I did to make an argument for it. I know that some readers feel surprised in an unpleasant way to find that coming up at the end. But it was intentional. And then at the same time, there was a reason that I chose to plunge the reader back into the trouble—so that we weren’t ending on this Western high note of like, everything’s great.

The harm continues. The trouble is real; the reckoning continues. The reconciliation is a really important part of that for me, and I think it will go on for the rest of my life.

SH: You say that you think this will go on for the rest of your life. And you seem like a pretty extensive archivist, and researcher. I’ll admit, as I was reading the book, I was really curious about where you were going to find a natural place to tie everything up. When did you know that this project was done?

MN: At the beginning of writing the book, I came up with seven subjects or sections, and they all survived. The only one that wasn’t in there was the one that you mentioned earlier about inheritance, generational wealth, those kinds of legacies.

I wrote a lot of the personal stuff out of order, and I wrote some of the other stuff out of order, but I more or less proceeded through the book.

The spiritual part was the last part I wrote. I had been trying to write it for a while. Those last two sections—once they came together, they felt fairly complete to me. Whereas some of the stuff in the middle was a little bit more like: how much of this should I include? I was concerned about the reader’s experience. It ranges all over the place. And the topics are very large. Luckily, my editor was very onboard with all of it.

I just decided to imagine that I was writing for a reader who was also really fascinated by all of this—a reader who also was curious about all of these different things. I knew that there was a risk that some people wouldn’t want to follow me on to all of those places

SH: I know that this book started out as a venture into fiction. Are you planning on returning to fiction in the near future, now that you’ve written this memoir?

MN: Yes, I am. I’m sure that once I get into it, it will be at least as hard as writing this book. But right now, the idea of not writing in first person and exploring some related stuff that’s not circulating so literally around my family feels really exciting.

The book I’m envisioning is not a fictionalization of what I just wrote. I feel fairly freed of those stories. I’m looking forward to never writing about my father again, honestly—all good wishes to him. That will be a nice chapter to close.

I’m excited right now, but if we talked in a month, it’ll probably look a little different.

SH: What are you reading right now?

MN: I have a big stack of books next to my bed. South to America by Imani Perry; The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.; How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman; Appleseed by Matt Bell; This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris (a reread); The Last Taxi Driver by Lee Durkee; Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo; and a couple of Claude Lecouteaux books, including Dictionary of Ancient Magic Words and Spells.

SH: Ancestor Trouble seems really structured. Are you typically an outline kind of writer? Or do you find that the characters kind of pull you in their own directions?

MN: You know, usually I write an outline, and it’s obsolete immediately. I think with this structure, there was so much uncertainty and wiggle room, that I kind of decided what it meant as I went along. It’s good to know that this kind of structure can work for me, at least in nonfiction.

I think I approach nonfiction and fiction really differently to some extent. So in fiction, at least historically, when I tried to write it, I was very hauled by the characters. I’ll be interested to see if that continues to be the case.

SH: You mentioned that you were an early part of the literature blogosphere, and you have a large and active presence on Twitter. And I was wondering how the Internet, and online communities, affects you and your writing practice?

MN: One thing that’s a little bit hard to convey to people who weren’t on the internet in like the year 2007, which is when I started blogging, is that it was very…random. I’m sure that all of us at some level thought that maybe somebody cool and important would read what we were writing. But that wasn’t really the vibe, or the primary motivation, because blogging was this weird and slightly shameful thing.

It was fun because I could have conversations with people about books and ideas across our blogs that my friends in real life weren’t that interested in having, honestly. I became friends with people through that, but at the same time, it was a complex sort of thing. You become part of a movement or whatever, without realizing that it is a cultural phenomenon. And suddenly, everyone’s calling you a book blogger and asking you to join panels about whether the blogs are killing literature. That was not expected. It took me many years to realize that I didn’t have to engage in that conversation.

I’m still online. I don’t honestly often feel that sort of sense of joy and excitement around it. Now, I do sometimes, or I wouldn’t do it. I think that’s partly a function of my age—it’s not new to me anymore. I think it has become harder to talk about things with nuance on the internet.

I’m not someone who’s up in arms about quote-unquote “cancel culture.” People who say terrible things can be accountable for those [terrible things]. But, the spirit of it is not to me…as joyful, as unprofessionalized.

Probably some of that is on TikTok. I like TikTok, but I try to avoid it, because I don’t want to spend my whole life just watching videos stream by.

But I feel like that’s the thing about technology and systems of communication. They’re always shifting.

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