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.



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.