Kristen Millares Young
Graduate student, Master of Fine Arts
I fell into investigative reporting on a dusty, diesel-poisoned street in Havana, Cuba.
It was the fall of 2001, and I was studying at the University of Havana. As a Harvard College undergrad, I had delved into the history and literature of Cuba, the land of my mother’s birth and grandmother’s longing. I tried to understand my family’s life beyond the confines of my Floridian childhood.
Ducking the noonday sun in a doorway, I watched a group of jineteras. Jinetera is what Cubans call a prostitute; jinete means “one who rides a horse or a bicycle.” I approached them with a smile and the knowledge that some of these sex workers were not so different from me: college-educated with a knack for getting along with strangers. I had much to learn about what brings people together and what divides them and about the slippery trail between success and ruin. Still, I wanted to share what they taught me. The next summer, while researching Havana’s sex tourism for my thesis, I walked with packs of prostitutes trolling for tourists, wheedled answers from police officers and government officials, fought back pimps hoping to expand their harems, and came out clutching a story to tell.
While I learned to crave facts and respect context in Havana, I didn’t fall in love with the hum of newsrooms until I arrived at The Miami Herald. As a cub reporter covering the ghettoes, I witnessed what society ignores and misinterprets. Sidewalk sprays of blood, dulling to brown as late afternoon thunderstorms gathered, became familiar to me.
I left Miami in search of Western skies and found a pile of balance sheets waiting on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s business desk. I wore high heels and chignons like the corporate spokespeople I tried to outmaneuver, combing through the footnotes of financial documents. Later, I took on the local port authority, revealing fraud and cronyism that became the focus of a federal criminal investigation.
As I witnessed my newspaper fold, I said I’d be damned if I let the best parts of journalism wither on the vine and co-founded InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism center. I learned radio reporting with KUOW and studied video and graphic design as a fellow at UC Berkeley’s Knight Digital Media Center.
Still, that knowing whisper scurried up my thighs, along my sides and over my shoulders to my waiting ears: “There’s more to this world than journalism can convey.”
After the newspaper closed, I began volunteering on the Makah Indian Reservation in Neah Bay, WA. I welcomed the change of pace in my life after watching so many good people lose their jobs. I organized computer drives and volunteered to write newsletters for the Makah Cultural and Research Center and the Sophie Trettevick Indian Health Center. I helped grandmothers set up frybread stands and swept the floor of the senior center, swapping jokes with elders. I sat in a friend’s sweat lodge and let it pour out.
A story came to me. It lodged itself in my heart.
I’ve decided to move beyond the constraints of reporting to address life’s shape-shifting truths through fiction. My novel Subduction is an account of life, love and betrayal in Makah country that seeks to relate rez reality while doing justice to the goodness of its people and their constant struggle.
- Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative writing and GO-MAP scholar, University of Washington, expected graduation spring 2012
- Multimedia reporting fellow, Knight Digital Media Center, University of California at Berkeley
- Bachelor’s degree in History and Literature of Latin America, Harvard University
- Attended University of Havana, Cuba
- Intern/Reporter, The Miami Herald, Buenos Aires Herald and TIME Magazine
- Reporter, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
- Reporter, KUOW-94.9, National Public Radio station, Seattle
- Co-founder and investigative reporter, InvestigateWest, a non-profit journalism center based in Seattle
What I’m Doing At UW
I came to the University of Washington to earn a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. I seek to deepen my knowledge of this craft to wield it well in my first novel, Subduction. My sole vocation as a writer is to help readers understand each other by tracing human decisions and behavior to their twisted, morning glory roots. If I can help others look beyond the light glinting off the surface of things and grasp the shadows at play underneath, I will consider myself a successful novelist.
I wanted professors like David Bosworth, Shawn Wong, David Shields, Heather McHugh and Pimone Triplett to challenge my comprehension of character, to nudge my words closer to nuance, and to draw out the stories that ache in me to be born. I wanted them to walk beside me, speaking small utterances of encouragement. I wanted my colleagues to read my work honestly and spare nothing in their counsel.
It is as I had hoped. Subduction is improving greatly with each workshop. The UW MFA Program is helping me hone my art and burnish the discipline I need to write for many years to come. I’ve majored in prose, but I’m also studying poetry to bring the spare cadence of verse to my work.
When I have finished Subduction, I will write another book, and another one after that, each time gathering up my visions and carrying them a little farther down the road. I am blessed that UW’s Creative Writing MFA Program is on that path and deeply grateful for the support of GO-MAP (the Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program).
On making a difference
Many who would never pick up a newspaper or a scholarly article will read fiction. For fiction to be effective, a reader must feel the truths of the story in their bones. It is my hope that reading a work of fiction set in a marginalized community will raise awareness and understanding of the psychological effect of economic, social, cultural and political oppression. However, it would be folly for me to say that this choice was deliberate on my part. The plot for Subduction, my first novel, came to me unbidden and refused to leave until I gave it my full attention.
I am still finishing Subduction, but the process of watching the characters develop independent of my will has been a revelation. The characters speak to me. No, not to me, in front of me, allowing me to record their conversations. They get mad, frustrated, if I leave them in limbo for too long; and when I return, they refuse to turn their heads at my tapping on the door until, finally, one of them crosses over and unlocks it, and then sits back down without looking at me. When I hover over them, clucking to keep them in line, they scatter across the page.
I am listening for the next story. It has to come from the heart.
I have reported, written, recorded and produced original and widely disseminated news across all media. My main calling as a journalist is to serve as a public watchdog of our country’s governmental and corporate powers and to protect public resources whether financial, socio-cultural or environmental.
My primary goal is to produce books of fiction and non-fiction on a regular basis. I plan to continue being a multimedia investigative journalist. I’d like to share my passion by teaching what I know.
On finding love at Machu Picchu
In 2003, I met a man named Brian, a friend of my sister’s. We stayed up all night, talking, and parted ways. Six months later, I was on my way to a newspaper gig in Buenos Aires and remembered that Brian knew an Argentine family. I called him and learned of his plans to walk across South America; he asked me to meet him in Tierra del Fuego to find passage to the Antarctic as boat crew.
I declined; who wants to be stuck at sea in the bitter cold only to find your companion has unforeseen personality disorders? I did want to see Machu Picchu, though. He agreed; we began corresponding from different continents. Our emails grew longer, more wistful and frequent. We decided to spend three months trekking together. We had only spent nine hours in each other’s company. I hadn’t slept outdoors since grade school. I bought hiking boots and wore them out dancing to break them in.
We moved into a tent together, sleeping by glaciers and in forests. I finally broke in those boots and, with them, my feet. Brian and I were married in 2007. He now directs operations at Jadora, a for-profit company dedicated to developing carbon offset projects to provide indigenous people with financial opportunity while mitigating global climate change and local environmental degradation.
The best thing about the UW
I love biking to the UW from Columbia City along Lake Washington, through the Arboretum and across the Montlake Bridge. After a quick shower at the IMA, I can sprint up the stairs by Padelford Hall into a world that cares about my intellectual development. The exercise allows me to arrive at my classes with a mind clear enough to focus on the rigorous discussions of literature and writing that await me. The university is giving me a place to gestate my next self, the author.
I am a steering committee member for a new community arts project called “98118! Represent!” Sponsored by the Columbia City non-profit Spoken Word Lab, 98118! Represent! is an effort to document “A Day in the Life of America's Most Diverse Zip Code.” We're asking poets, photographers and community members to help us record 24 hours in the life of our community. We’ll ask local businesses to display the work, which we intend to bind into a book.
Advice to future graduate students
I found that working for seven years between undergrad and grad school helped me appreciate the opportunities for personal enrichment and community development that higher education has to offer. Make sure that you are pursuing an educational course that is true to your nature and relevant to your future career. Research your potential grad programs, read the professors’ work, go to their events and lectures and talk to their former grad students. Do your due diligence. It will make you a worthier candidate, a more compelling applicant and a more fulfilled student.
KUOW: Addicted On The Rez