Past as Place in Subduction

side by side series of the cover of Subduction

In Kristen Millares Young’s Subduction, one of the main characters, Peter, a member of the Makah tribe, talks about the past as a physical place that can hold you. In the heart of the book, Peter says he thinks that he has been pulled “into his past until he was here, but not here, inhabiting the places [the family] had been happy together, for time is a place, he was sure of it, and his soul was stretched thin across it, near to breaking, an aching that was his only memory of love.” To be in the past, for Peter, is to take away from being in the present. And Peter’s past is traumatic—making it all the easier to gravitate to, and all the easier to get stuck in, and rendering it difficult for him to keep a grasp on the present. Subduction explores this idea of people’s histories and stories, whether personal or communal, as places that can anchor or be explored and learned from.

The novel follows two main characters, Peter and Claudia, as they spend time in Neah Bay at the Makah reservation. Claudia is a Latina anthropologist who has just been left by her husband for her sister; she has lost any sense of family that she had. She goes to Neah Bay in order to visit an old interview subject, Maggie, who suffers from dementia. Claudia hopes that after working with Maggie she can finish her book, and success will take her to a place where she doesn’t have to live in the past anymore. Meanwhile, Peter, Maggie’s son, returns to the reservation for the first time in years, having left after his father was tragically killed at home. Peter comes back in order to help his mother and hopefully learn something that lets him fully leave his past behind.

Both of the main characters experienced trauma in their pasts. Claudia feels she has lost her entire sense of home, has become more and more disconnected to her Hispanic roots (she is confused for a “white lady” throughout the novel) and has lost her family. There is no pleasant past for her to root a home in, communally or culturally. She can’t seem to escape her traumatic memories—they are a type of prison. “Waking was like drowning at the bottom of the well,” she says. Likewise, Peter came home one day to see his mother holding his dead father. Neither Peter nor Claudia have a strong sense of home or family any longer, and the past pulls them out of the present and away from the creation of new homes.

Claudia tries to get past her personal trauma by avoiding it, like a place you could avert your eyes from. At one point, she tries to overdose after her sister and husband become lovers. When talking about this trauma, she talks around it, labeling it as a “bad decision.” She says she had hoped “an overdose would flash memories and the smell of sulfur, a fireworks finale. Instead, it was like nodding off on a redeye, getting colder and colder in the darkness between distant glimmers until—they, too, disappeared.” She had hoped overdosing would be a celebration that cut to black, but, instead, she ended up waking up from the darkness, back in the past, back in the well of trauma.

As a result, Claudia tries to get lost in her work, where she writes stories and histories down, recording the culture of the Makah, and stays away from the places where her trauma lives. But while Maggie’s past may bring achievement and success to Claudia, it is a difficult thing for Maggie herself to relive and revisit. Claudia notices this and says that “dementia swept the memory clean, sending brief surges of lucidity downstream, bursting banked trauma at the least opportune time.” Here, downstream is the past that she can’t get out of. Downstream is heading back to the traumatic past, which is hard to escape from. This is part of the reason why Claudia relies on stories so much. Stories are a place for Claudia to visit in her mind, a place that gets her away from the downstream depression she feels.

Peter feels the past is a painful place as well. He talks about how he can’t eat frybread anymore, for it always takes him back to the trauma, to his painful personal histories. Since Peter found his father dead in his mother’s arms, the smell of blood and oil mixing together in their home, he hasn’t had the appetite for his favorite food. He “had never been able to eat frybread since, never been able to go to a powwow in some distant city when he was missing home without staggering out, tears streaming from the oil and flour smell that hovered over the fairgrounds, the stray ladies in the parking lot thinking he was just another sad drunk who shouldn’t be around children.” The memory takes him back, encloses him in the room where he saw his father dead. The smell, the taste—they are tied to the memory. The memory, Peter’s history, is a place in the past that prevents him from being in the present.

This is why Peter tells Claudia that members of the Makah think the creek in the reservation is haunted, the Makah telling stories of two medicine men having fought there, with only one returning. That “when the smallpox came, people went up the creek to die. That’s why it’s haunted, Dave said, but I don’t buy it. All the beaches here would be thick with ghosts. The whole goddamned place.” The creek is haunted because it is a place that contains the memory of traumatic events, and being in the same physical place as those memories means the events echo for the people that know that history, those stories. This is why Peter stayed away from home: because going back to the physical place of his father’s death meant he would hear nothing but the trauma of his pain. This is the same reason why Claudia goes to visit Maggie and the Makah at the reservation—to record the echoes of stories and histories that aren’t her own, to get lost in someone else’s stories and histories.

Maggie explicitly talks about these echoes of the past, these layers in the present, in the middle of the novel. Claudia romanticizes the beauty of the reservation, mesmerized by the birds flying around, while Maggie sees so much more than what is on the surface. She sees “a lot of places in time, all wrapped up in one you know? I see the stories my parents told me, and their parents, like how the sea covered this prairie for four days, back when the waters rose and sent our canoes every which way. And the whole time I am remembering, you’re thinking about birds.” Before Maggie mentions these layers, Claudia was just taking down notes, experiencing the moment. But she misses the context of the present, misses the history—which Maggie cannot afford to forget. We see this again when Claudia sees an older man she thinks looks cartoonishly harmless, someone who Maggie remembers playing a role in the death of her husband. Claudia is able to record just the present because she is not burdened with the past. The places she studies are not haunted for her.

Of course, both characters have ways to deal with getting out of the places where their histories have haunted them with. When Claudia was a child, her mother told her a story to escape and subdue the trauma of the past. She told her to “close her eyes and imagine being a big green float. You’re in the sea. You go up and down, but you’re always near the surface. That’s your job, to stay close to the light.” Through this story, this device, Claudia is able to keep connected to a place that isn’t her traumatic past, a place that doesn’t drown her. She is transported to the sea and is able to enjoy that space. By staying near the surface, she keeps her lucidity and is able to avoid the feeling of drowning at the bottom of the well. This is a meditative state.

Peter uses this kind of device, too. He struggles with the trauma of his past, which is why the place that feels most like home to him is his truck. He talks about how whenever he drove it, he fiddled “with the radio, rolling the windows up and down at will, wiping the oil stick with a paper towel just for show at gas stations because he knew there was enough, he was most secure when roaming.” This performance is part of a story he tells those watching him. He is performing the idea that he is at home on the road to the strangers around him. Performing the idea that he has a home to those that don’t know him and don’t know he left his home behind. His need to keep roaming is like Claudia’s need to float above the past. The past is a place you can’t always escape from, and Claudia and Peter are both worried that they won’t find their way back to the present once submerged.

Of course, Peter left his physical home and the past behind. But Maggie, his mother, had been waiting for him to return physically, and now is waiting for him to return to the community, to their Makah family, by learning a song that has been passed down the family line for generations. Part of the reason Peter came back was to help his mother clean stuff up from her house, stuff that she had been collecting for Peter. On one of her visits to Maggie, Claudia notices how “Maggie started keeping things to call [Peter] back. Or to provide a hiding place for her husband’s spirit. Who knows. Maggie said the dead don’t know how they affect those left behind.” The living are left behind in their place, in their past, by the dead.

Vocables hold space for words lost and left behind in songs, like the one that Maggie teaches Peter. They hold a sonic place for the forgotten words of a song after time has passed and some of the words of the song are so far away they are unreachable. This is why vocables are kept in the song. They “sound like words, but they don’t mean anything. They help carry the song through where words used to be, parts that have been forgotten.” Vocables and the stuff Maggie keeps hold space for what used to be forgotten. They allow the song to keep its shape, allow the song to keep its rhythm, even when words are forgotten or left behind. Even when the words are left behind, the meaning remains.

In Subduction, Peter and Claudia view the past as a physical place. They get lost in their histories like a maze one can starve in. But the stories they teach themselves, whether the research done on other cultures like Claudia is doing, or the songs taught to them from generations ago like Peter is learning, help guide them back and forth, from the present to the past, like they are going from one port to the other. In the acknowledgments to the novel, Young opens with the thought that “I write to improve the quality of ideas available to our society” and ends with the idea that “To love a writer is no easy thing.” Writers tell the stories, keep one eye on the past and one eye on the story they weave to connect themselves and others to the painful pasts that not everyone can escape. At one point, Maggie says that “stories reveal the teachings the way light casts a shadow.” But the past is the place that these stories are built from, the foundation for the light and shadows to teach us. They are the vocables that hold space until we learn what words are missing, or what the remaining words mean. In Subduction, both characters try to put distance between themselves and their own pasts while also passing on what they know, connecting their community and future community to the pasts they never fully escape but are never fully defeated by either. The past is a place we can build from and launch off of, into a better future.

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