For the past few years, when asked about what makes me want to teach, I have given an answer that includes, in some form, the concept of being a good ancestor. I’ve become really taken with the idea that we always leave a part of ourselves, and to a certain extent we get to shape what that looks like. That idea has grown inside me in the past few years – maybe because of the amazing work of Layla Saad, who explicitly acknowledges in her work the importance of being a good ancestor. It’s almost certainly an idea that has been nurtured as I broaden my reading interests and read many more works by Indigenous authors, whose work tends to acknowledge the concept of being and communicating with ancestors much more than Western authors tend to. Maybe it’s my growing interest in maintaining a yoga practice. Or maybe it’s just a part of growing older. Whatever the reason, I have been fascinated by the concept of understanding our ancestry.
Maud Newton’s book explores her own interest in that subject, giving us a vulnerable look into her process and the outcomes. She doesn’t flinch from the more difficult parts of her history, both recent and further in the past – like many of us who are white and living on colonized land, Newton discovers that her family participated in colonizing and slavery. She acknowledges what it was like to discover these things about her family and herself, and does not stop there. She doesn’t belabor these points, but nether does she gloss over them – she gives them the depth they deserve, and also provides some insight into how she chose to manage her new understanding. She takes us through an understanding of trauma in many different forms, how it manifests across generations, and what that might mean for her personally (and maybe for others as we learn alongside her).
Newton grew up with her mother and father and sister. Her parents never seemed to like one another very much – they openly admit that they married to make smart children. We learn a great deal about both Newton’s maternal side (a hardscrabble group of Texans) and paternal side (a seemingly more genteel group from the deep south). Newton acknowledges from the outset that she’s not in contact with her father, and that she severed communication with him nearly 20 years ago due to his unrelenting racism. She speaks with nuance about every member of her family, including those for whom she has little to no respect for the choices that they have made.
She also makes clear that growing up she experienced many overt messages of hatred (including breaking toys with dark skin), which she rejects completely. But she also confronts the way that there are some messages that are packaged differently, that seem to come from those we love, that we don’t always confront directly (the racist jokes told by someone we admire, for example). She felt lucky that her father was abusive, in some ways – that made it so easy to reject outright his messages. She is able to admit that she’s not sure she would have been able to confront those messages in the same manner had he shown her affection – that is a powerful idea. It’s well worth exploration of how terrible ideas are shared to maintain terrible systems – someone is supporting that, and some of those people are doing it because they are afraid of some personal consequence for going against those notions. Newton’s portrait of how she navigated her own search for understanding about her past was honest, vulnerable and an earnest example of being willing to do the work. (I’ll say that this opinion is also coming from a cis white woman, and others might have a different take on how vulnerable or helpful this particular memoir might be).
Ancestor Trouble is an in-depth look at Maud Newton’s own personal family history, that vacillates between her own reckoning with her past and deep dives into genetics, epigenetics, the research process more generally, and cultural practices. It’s not strictly a memoir, but neither is it just a book that is giving information about a topic for the sake of the information. Newton is very much the writer and the subject. It’s also somewhat of a roadmap for those of us who have also thought about what it might be like to consider our own ancestry. Overall I found this book to be thoughtful, provocative in the best ways, and well worth a read.