Ancestor Hunger and Religious Conversions

I don’t usually cross-post from my newsletter, but I’m making an exception here. This might be my last post before the site is finally redesigned.

If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you may know that my mom started a church in my living room when I was a kid. It was a tongues-speaking, Rapture-awaiting, exorcism-full ministry focused on hippies, drug addicts, refugees from cults, and assorted others in need. Every Wednesday night, they worshipped in our house in a ritzy Miami suburb. They banged tambourines and Hallelujahed and bound up Satan in Jesus’ name until my father came home and shouted at them to get out or until the neighbors called the cops.

For most of my life, I feared I might have some extreme religious conversion, too. As an adult, after trying on atheism and then Episcopalianism and not feeling a commitment to either, I responded to this fear by becoming a fervent agnostic. I was deeply committed to not knowing. I clenched around uncertainty, all the more so once I learned that my mom wasn’t the only female preacher in her family.

Around the time I turned forty, I started meditating. I studied the Alexander Technique, which, as taught by my teacher, is basically another form of meditation. His approach is especially good for writers and other bookish people who have difficulty being in their bodies. Through all of this, and a billion years of therapy, I opened up to possibilities that had made me anxious before.

When I started writing my book, I could feel myself going in a spiritual direction. I was afraid of what I’d find and where I’d end up, but I decided to follow where the book led me. Recently I went to an ancestral lineage healing intensive, and I’m going to another this summer. It makes me uncomfortable to tell you this, but I’ve decided to own it.

I hand in the draft of my book on June 3! If my editor feels it’s far enough along, I’ll finish revisions by the end of this year with an eye toward a publication date in Spring 2021.

In the coming months, I’ll be starting another newsletter, Ancestor Hunger, for anyone who’s interested in knowing more about that. You can sign up at Substack, if you’re interested. (More info on the About page.)

Updated June 18 to link to the Ancestor Hunger newsletters so far:

  • The Family Face — and Gesture (including Thomas Hardy’s “Heredity,” Tim Spector’s Identically Different, and Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know)
  • Ancestor-Focused Spiritual Practices (including book recommendations, the Biblical story of Rachel and the household gods, and some people who’ve inspired me)
  • Visits From the Dead (including Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books and Claude Lecouteux’s The Return of the Dead)
  • DNA Testing Giveth, and Taketh Away (including Alex Wagner’s Futureface, which I reviewed last year for the New York Times Book Review; a discussion of autosomal DNA testing and inaccurate geographical assignments; and an except from my old Family Tree interview with Laila Lalami)
  • Sharing Some Ancestor Hunger (on my granny and the title “ancestor hunger,” and including an excerpt from my Family Tree interview with Celeste Ng)


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.