Ancestry Looking Forward: Orphan Black and Real Cosima

Cosima Herter and Graeme Manson

My Longreads profile of Orphan Black’s brilliant science consultant Cosima Herter — known to the show’s actors and creators as “Real Cosima” — ranges from science, chance, and emotion to Darwin, humanized mice, DIY synthetic biology, and much more. Here’s how it starts:

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.



You’re Invited to the Global Family Reunion

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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.

Tickets are available at EventBrite. Proceeds benefit the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. Free admission for kids.



Exorcising the Past: A Reading & Talk

Marie Mockett's childhood notebook

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!

This image is from one of Marie’s childhood notebooks; she shared it with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop when they visited her writing studio.



Family Tree: Slate, Tin House, Begats

Grave map

At Slate, Ariel Bogle recaps a discussion I had last week with AJ Jacobs, Wilhelmina Rhodes-Kelly, and Chris Whitten on how technology is affecting the family tree. I talked a little bit about what drew me to research my ancestry in the first place.

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.

In related reading: at Tin House, my series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry is ongoing. Guests so far are Laila Lalami, Celeste Ng, Saeed Jones, and Christopher Beha. And at The Begats, I’ve written in the last few months about Alexander Chee’s jokbo (gorgeous books recording his family history back to the Joseon Dynasty, which began in 1392), ancestor worship in the Old Testament, and some disappointing (but not too surprising) discoveries about my self-given namesake, Maude Newton Simmons, among other things.

The stark and stunning image above is a grave map — taken from Alex’s jokbo — for one of his ancestors.



A Wintry Update

Autumn and Ducks in Tallahassee

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. 

After Emily’s death in July, we got Florian to keep Percy company, and then after Percy’s death in November we didn’t want Florian to be alone, so we got Wanda. They’re great — we’re so comforted by their companionship and antics — but losing pets is as awful as Laurie Anderson says. I actually got Emily after I lost my dog, Ripley, back in 1997. After Emily’s death, I finally felt ready to have a dog again, but our co-op doesn’t allow them, and neither did Percy.

Right now there’s a snowstorm 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-ranging reading, which I’m sure will all be reflected in my book, if you’ve missed my meandering fixations.

I hope to fixate here, too, from time to time. Until that happens, or in case it doesn’t, you can as usual more frequently find me on Twitter, Tumblr, The Begats (my other Tumblr), Instagram, and Facebook. It’s also possible to sign up for my verrrry sporadic “ideas and intimacies” dispatches at Tiny Letter. And I’ll be speaking at A.J. Jacobs’ Global Family Reunion on June 6, if you’d like to catch up in person.

For now, we’ve just gotta get through January. And I keep reminding myself, so I’ll remind you, too: the days are already getting longer.



Dear Readers

 

If you’re interested, I’ve created a newsletter, ideas & intimacies, at Tiny Letter.

As it says there: please, come and go as you please.



The Family Tree: Talks with Writers on Ancestry, for Tin House

 

The Family Tree at Tin House

 

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.



Like We Say Back Home, Vol. 3

Martha Rebecca Johnston Alexander

In the past couple years my mom has taught me and reminded me of a few more of my Texan granny’s favorite expressions. Some highlights:

  • Quiet as a little mouse peeing on cotton. (Usually used when someone reacts with stunned silence to some sort of diatribe or revelation.)
  • You can’t get all your coons up one tree. (You can’t get everything you want.)
  • Told them how the cows ate the cabbage. (Describes a serious dressing-down.)
  • Pitiful as a sick kitten on a hot rock. (Depressed and listless, very sympathetically so.)
  • She got her tail up over her back. (In preparation to sting, like a scorpion. Granny called scorpions “stinging lizards.”)
  • Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine. (In blissful unawareness of some terrible or embarrassing thing.)
  • Put that in your pipe and smoke it. (A phrase she often used when schooling my father on the ways of my mom, i.e., the intractability of Texan women in general.)
A lot of my favorites are in the prior installments, here and here. The second one is also a goldmine of contributions from readers. 


Farewell, One Page Magazine

panda mask

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.



My essay’s on newsstands until June 17 or so

America's Ancestry Craze: Making Sense of Our Family-Tree Obsession

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 own) 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.

You can read more about the essay and my writing of it in the Dallas Morning News and at PEN, and hear more in interviews with KERA and Wisconsin Public Radio.

I’ll be at Cafe Society this Friday, June 6, to discuss the essay and the book.



On spontaneity, authenticity, and excitement in writing

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 as I was beginning my essay that’s just out in Harper’s, and a lot of what I said about spontaneity, authenticity, 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 start delving into my book on the science and superstition of ancestry, I thought I’d post the letter here, both for myself and for anyone else who might like to see it. 20130404_01020130404_011

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(If you’re curious about all the letters I mention, here’s the threesome about the affair: from the other woman, from my grandfather, and from my grandmother to the other woman’s husband. And the letter concerning my grandmother’s sister, who died in the mental institution, is here.)



Random House Will Publish My Ancestry Book

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.



America’s Ancestry Craze: My Harper’s cover story

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My essay, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” illustrated with Chuck Close’s “Emma,” is the cover story of the June issue of Harper’sIt’s an outgrowth of a longtime obsession, as people who visited this site in the long-ago days when it was frequently updated might recall. Friends and readers 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.

I’ll be talking about the piece and my interest in ancestry more generally at my dearest Lauren Cerand’s Cafe Society on June 6. Details are in her Tiny Letter. You can also follow my continuing obsession with the subject — a sort of miscellany clipboard for the book I’m writing — at The Begats. (Updated to add: my book will be published by Random House!)

The images above are, in order: one from my editor at Harper’s, Christopher Beha; two from my friend Alexander Chee’s Facebook page; two from the fabulous Amanda Stern (with special appearance by Busy); one from my old pal A.V. Cook‘s (holla, Florida!) Facebook page; one from Virginia Hatfield; one from Patrick Nathan; one from Cathy Day; one from Joe Mozingo; one from Liz Arnold; one from “deep Ontario,” thanks to Javier Moreno; one from the redoubtable Jason Diamond, with Bloody Mary; one from Mark Snyder; one from Giulia, at LaGuardia just after midnight; one from my college roommate, Jen, who picked up her copy at JFK; one from the Winter Park Public Library; two from the excellent Maxwell Neely-Cohen; one from Adam Fleming Petty, whose daughter got to it first; one from my my brilliant brother-in-law, Joseph Clarke, at Atticus Bookstore in New Haven; one from my tweep Mary-Alice Farina; one from the amazing Carrie Frye, writer and friend extraordinaire, taken at Downtown Books & News in Asheville; one from the writer Karen Abbott, whose forthcoming book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, about women in the Civil War looks so so good, at the UWS Barnes and Noble; one from my great old friend Nelson at a Barnes & Noble in Charlotte; one from another great old friend, Kellie, in Rochester; one from the Paley Center’s Creative Director, Ellen O’Neill (“Glad to have the Woolworth’s booth represented,” she says); one from my old-school-bloggy pal Tito Perez; one from the outstanding Amitava Kumar, one from Darby in Cleveland (another old-school blogger holla), one from the man behind Law on the Fly, one from my mother-in-law, Jane, in Seattle, one from the wonderful Rahawa Haile, writer and fellow Miami expat, from the Ft. Lauderdale airport, one from my old friend Gigi M Simon, who worked with me for years and picked it up at Barnes & Noble, and one from Facebook friend Elizabeth Wade McCullough, who says “the Boston Athenaeum’s copy is looking well-thumbed,” one from Lorraine Portman in Pomona Park, Florida, one from my wonderful (23andme-discovered) cousin Kristin Gossett, in Austin, one from a dear old friend, the writer Stephany Aulenback, whose new kids’ book, If I Wrote A Book About You, is just out, one from the writer and keeper of inventory, Chelsea Hodson, who’s “like the lost love child of David Lynch and Joan Didion” and who will be at Cafe Society with me on June 6, another from Amitava Kumar, in the library at Hampshire College, Amherst, one from the writer Rachael Maddux, with special appearance by Charlie, one from my old friend Erin Kenyon Zack, in Miami, one from my best poker pal, Kate Monahan, at India House, one from the wonderful writer Maaza Mengiste, and one from my filmmaker friend Luci Westphal, from a stopover at the Newark airport on a transatlantic flight between Denver and Berlin The last one is of my cat, Percy, just because. 



More Ancestry Ponderings at The Begats

Genealogy of Adam from 1611 King James Bible

I’m working on a book about the science and superstition of ancestry, and my new site, The Begats, ponders ancestry miscellany of all kinds: genealogical, historical, cultural, scientific, religious, superstitious, personal. If you’re into this kind of nerdery: submit stuff! If you’re not on Tumblr, you can also follow along on Twitter or Facebook.

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.



Doubter in the Holy Land

Holy Land

My Lives piece about visiting Jerusalem is in the New York Times Magazine this weekend.

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.

 



How to Tell if You Are in a Muriel Spark Novel

Muriel Spark.
 

Are you trapped in a Muriel Spark novel? I put together some clues for The Toast:

You believe you can make insomnia work to your advantage by deciding what to think about.
 

You identify communist intellectuals from the variety of dyspepsia remedies on the bathroom shelf.
 

Such bad luck! You killed the nanny instead of your wife and have had to spend most of your life in hiding.

More here



Talking with Chang-Rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea may be my favorite of his novels yet. I spoke with him for Barnes and Noble Review. Here’s an excerpt.

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.



Supporting Girls Write Now

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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 in TR’s legal publishing division and am known as Rebecca, Senior (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.



Christmas Housekeeping, or Misinterpreting Decay

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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.