I’m interviewing Rupert Thomson about his latest novel, Secrecy, at Book Court tonight at 7. Some quotes from the book about confidences, secrets, and lies:
- "I hadn’t done what they said I’d done, but there’s a kind of truth in a well-told lie, and that truth can cling to you like the taste of raw garlic or the smell of smoke. People are always ready to believe the worst."
- "I always chose the lie that was most suited to the circumstances, the one that would be believed."
- "I had no idea why he had chosen me as an audience. I rather wished he hadn’t. The wrong kind of knowledge could be dangerous. People were always being persecuted for what they knew."
- "That was the deeply paradoxical nature of a confidence: it might draw you in close, but it also contained the seeds of banishment, exile, and even, possibly, annihilation."
Welp, I finally got my hands on some of the columns written by Maude Newton Simmons, my mysterious self-given namesake whose writing ambitions were a complete surprise to me when I learned of them a few years ago, and my fears came true.
I can’t bring myself to post screenshots of the truly offensive things she wrote, though I’m sure I’ll get into it all in my book. Let’s just say it’s definitely a lesson in being careful which long-dead barely-known relations you fetishize.
Because Maude/Maud* was almost the Emily or Molly or Haley or Sophie or Jennifer or Betty of its day, I have another great aunt Maude, too. I would like to think I slightly resemble her, if only because she looks amazing in a sexy lacy black dress that I would totally wear. She’s standing next to my great-grandfather, Zone, the guy with the umbrella, aka the self-declared Texan communist.
I don’t know much about Maude Johnston Baldwin except that according to the census she worked as a seamstress in a dress factory and according to my mom she and her mom and the rest of her siblings “dipped snuff.” (“I remember each Johnston carried a can around to spit in and after a meal we all would sit in the living room and each one would spit from time to time and argue and fight,” says Mom. “Zone’s family was a striving, hell-raising bunch!! I hated being there.”)
* I prefer the unornamented form of the name.
Genealogy = Pandora’s box.
Kati Horna (1912 - 2000)
Leonora Carrington, 1960
cc: tinglealley, author of “How to Be Old: Two Women, Their Husbands, Their Cats, Their Alchemy,” featuring Leonora Carrington and her friend, Remedios Varo.
On Saturday I sat down with my friend alexanderchee, who recently finished up his second novel, and he shared with me the most breathtaking family history records I’ve ever seen in person outside of a museum.
Published in a collection of nine bound and slipcased volumes, his family’s JokBo — genealogy records — are written in HanJa, which Alex says is the Korean name for Chinese characters. A friend of his who knows Chinese says that the characters in these books are an old-fashioned, almost archaic form of the language.
Alex’s family on his dad’s side, the Korean side, are Yangban, members of the traditional ruling class. His records date to the Joseon Dynasty, which began in 1392. Not everyone’s JokBo are this elaborate and beautiful, but Alex explained that in general knowledge of ancestry is so important in Korea that “if you don’t know who your family is, you enter a space of disgrace.” This is especially difficult and painful for Korean adoptees who return to the land of their birth hoping to make a connection with the place they came from, he says. The emphasis placed on ancestry is because of ancestor worship. “Each ancestor becomes a little bit of a house god when they die.”
In the photos above are portraits of three of Alex’s ancestors, three stark and stunning “feng shui grave maps” (I hope I haven’t turned any of them upside-down and in so doing displeased the ancestors), and a couple of photos of the books themselves. The pictures in the books are a small part of the whole; mostly they’re devoted to detailed family genealogies: birth dates, marriage dates, dates of death, and career accomplishments. A woman who marries “dies to her old family,” and her record becomes part of her husband’s record and starts over again in his book.
I learned so much more, but I’ll stop there for now. Thank you for sharing your family history with me, Alex!
“ One of the many sexual conquests left in Byron’s wake was Claire Clairmont, though it would be more accurate to say that she’d made a conquest of him. Part of a crowded household that included her mother, Mary Jane, her stepsisters, Fanny and Mary—the daughters of pioneering feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, who died eleven days after giving birth to Mary—and Mary Jane’s husband, the radical philosopher William Godwin, Claire had come of age in an atmosphere of intense intellectual competitiveness. ‘In our family,’ she said, ‘if you cannot write an epic poem or novel that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging.’
Maud Newton: In a Lives piece for the New York Times Magazine, you write that your mom was left in a French orphanage in Fez in 1941, and that, over the years, you had many theories and stories about how she might have ended up there. Your thirst for the truth eventually led you to take a genetic test, but in the end, science couldn’t give you the kind of answers you were seeking. “Only stories could,” you said. Do you think the mystery of your mother’s origins is part of the reason you’re a writer?
Laila Lalami: I think it certainly played a part. When I was growing up, I could never shake the feeling that there was something different about my family. All my friends had maternal aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, whereas my extended family consisted solely of relatives on my father’s side. We also did certain things differently at home, like sing French lullabies instead of Arabic ones, or eat pain perdu with mint tea—habits my mother brought with her from the French orphanage. Being different meant that I became more sensitive to detail, more attuned to all the ways in which a person belongs to or is held apart from a group.For me, the desire to write came from my love of books and my need to tell stories. But I think there’s a connection between feeling like you’re different and wanting to tell a story. When you write you can, at least temporarily, tame that feeling of difference.
Stuff I Like
This is my great-grandfather, John Dunlap.
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"I know that people look at me and wonder why I have not succumbed to the progress of technology. Why have I not frozen or filled in the lines of my...
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