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A conversation with Yxta Maya Murray

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A conversation with Yxta Maya Murray

YXTA MAYA MURRAY seems to do it all. Not only is she an acclaimed fiction writer, but she has also made her mark as an art critic, playwright, poet, journalist, curator and law professor. She graduated from Stanford Law School in 1993 and began writing after completing her federal court clerkship. Murray’s 1998 novel crazy put her on the literary map and she continued to expand her work while building a stellar career as professor at Loyola Law School.

Murray’s honors include a Whiting Award and an Arts Writers Grant, and she was named a Huntington Library Fellow for her work on radionuclide contamination in Simi Valley, California. This latest honor is tied to Murray’s latest novelGod is gone like that (published March 15 by Curbstone Books), which takes the form of an Environmental Protection Agency report written by a fictional federal agent, Reyna Rodriguez, who documents an actual nuclear reactor meltdown in 1959, along with other incidents, occurred in 1964 and 1969, at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. This toxic legacy lasted for decades, resulting in cancer clusters that devastated many who hoped to enjoy suburban life in the San Fernando Valley. Worse still, contamination may have been released further into the environment by the 2018 Woolsey fire and 2019 floods in the area. Rodriguez’s report includes fictional interviews with people who were affected by the toxic disasters.

in God went like that, Murray perfectly combines her legal training with empathetic storytelling to create a compelling, vivid, and ultimately moving novel that serves as a powerful indictment of government abuses and structural environmental racism. Throughout, she creates intimate and authentic mini-portraits of the victims as they try to understand and cope with the devastating harm caused by a government and supposed experts they should have trusted.

Murray took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his new novel.


DANIEL A. OLIVAS: Your novel is based on an actual reactor meltdown and subsequent incidents that occurred between 1959 and 1969 at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Simi Valley, which were then exacerbated by fire and flooding decades later. When did you learn about this ongoing environmental disaster and when did you realize that your research would become the basis for a novel?

YXTA MAYA MURRAY: I learned about the 1959 disaster in 2019 when I began researching wildfires in California after the Woolsey Fire, which began in November 2018 and burned nearly 100,000 acres of land in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Like most everyone else here, I found the fire seasons increasingly terrifying and thought I’d write a feature on the region’s wildfire stories, toxins and water shortages – which I ended up posting on Longrids. In the course of this work, I found Daniel Hirsch’s article, “Failure of Government Candor: The Contaminated Santa Susana Field Lab Fire,” which was published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and I learned for the first time that there had been a partial reactor meltdown and two other fuel-related incidents at something called the Santa Susanna Field Laboratory in Simi Valley. In his article, Hirsch explains that the site of these accidents had not been cleaned to “background levels” (that is, where it would have been in the absence of human activity) and that the Woolsey Fire started about 1,000 feet from the site of the former sodium reactor experiment of the lab, the nuclear reactor that suffered meltdowns and fuel incidents in the 1950s and 1960s. It was plausible, Hirsch said, that radioactive particles spread during the fire to surrounding communities, a theory that was confirmed in a 2021 study.

Many people have written and organized around the lab and SRE—Michael Collins has been writing about it for more than a decade, and the Santa Susanna Field Lab Task Force, an advocacy and educational organization, has been running for more than 25 years and is today administered by Physicians for Social liability los angeles. What’s more, since 1990 studies by UCLA and the California Department of Health have shown a higher risk of certain carcinomas among community members in close proximity to the site and strong cancer links among former workers at the lab (also known as Rocketdyne). So this wasn’t news – except to people like me who for some reason had never heard of SRE and Santa Susana, even though I’ve lived in the San Fernando Valley since 1995. I feel a little confused by this, especially after learning – and it’s a connection that blows my mind—that the Kardashians even entered the picture in 2019, when Kim and Kourtney brought all their fanfare to an event advocating for the site’s cleanup.

These details caught my attention, and then… there was the fact that I had experienced some of the same health issues as the people affected by the disaster. I started reading everything I could find on the subject and soon stories were forming in my mind. I am a law professor and a writer, and the shape and ambition of the book slowly became apparent to me. I decided that if the project was a novel, that would mean it was a work of art and couldn’t be a short work—that is, it couldn’t just be an argument for reclaiming the contaminated land. Art requires ambiguity, openness, more questions than answers. Milan Kundera talks about the “polyphonic” qualities of the novel. I think in terms of the inevitably broad understanding of reality that women and queer people of color must maintain in order to live and thrive. Such values ​​have driven the project.

The government’s failure to ensure public health and trust is not only implicated in this disaster, but also, as we know, a systemic problem rooted in racism, classism, queerphobia, sexism, colonialism, and other evils. Tracing the story of the crash from 1959 onward, I wove it into the stories of fictional characters as well as other government and corporate misdeeds and defaults, such as those committed during the Cold and Korean Wars, the civil rights era, the rise of the feminist movement, the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the Rodney King trial, the Trump administration, COVID-19, and other major events in US history. The book emerged about individual resistance and dealing with injustice, as well as a hopefully complex exploration of personal experiences of state power and neglect.

Your novel is in the form of a report from an Environmental Protection Agency community engagement coordinator named Reyna Rodriguez. Most of her report consists of interviews with fictional victims. What inspired you to use this narrative structure instead of a more traditional third-person format?

During my research, I dug into many government reports, including a 2011 study on the health effects of these lab workers commissioned by the Department of Energy. It was a fascinating window into the lives of workers from the 1950s to about the 1990s. I took the dossier as inspiration.

One of the things that interests me, both as a lawyer and as a novelist, is how the law flattens personal narratives into its records and documents and thereby renders meaningless the human stories behind all legal problems. The 2011 report, which gave first-hand accounts, gave me a glimpse of what was possible, and I decided I wanted to write an exploded EPA study of Santa Susana’s impact on the community, done by a woman of color who already it could not adhere to the myths of objectivity and rationality that drive state and federal business as usual. My character, Reyna Rodríguez, breaks through the formulas of administrative law to tell the stories of victims; this project is related to one of my previous books, The world doesn’t work that way, but it could (2020), which addresses the disintegration of the EPA, the Departments of Energy, Education, and Homeland Security, and other federal agencies during the Trump years.

The novel’s 11 interviews—which include Rodriguez’s own self-interview—not only offer the circumstances behind the crash and subsequent mishaps, but also allow the reader to enter the lives of a very diverse group of people who sometimes reveal their best selves. personal thoughts and experiences. How did your research on actual victims inspire the creation of these characters?

The characters are my own invention, but they are created from the struggles of people of color, queer people, women, people with disabilities, people with cancer and their intersections who have survived in the United States. I tried to give a broad view of the disaster by noting its connections to other catastrophes such as patriarchy, war, climate change, queerphobia and white supremacy. In doing so, I learned that no matter where an environmental problem occurs, it will always cause environmental racism because people of color are everywhere and their lived experience will require them to endure an environmental or public health crisis along with a host of other emergencies. cases.

We learn towards the end of your story that the title of your novel is derived from the Christian story of the expulsion of Satan from heaven and the subsequent blessing of God to the remaining obedient angels who quelled their anxiety by giving them the gift of song in praise of God. This gift ultimately diminishes the angels’ ability to hear the prayers of the people in a very troubled land. While I never like to ask a writer to explain the meaning of certain symbols or images (it’s part of the joy of reading, after all), I’m curious about what drew you to this particular Christian story that eventually gave you the title of your novel ?

I only spent two years as a public servant: from 1993-1995 I clerked for two federal judges. Although this experience was brief, it changed my life because it taught me firsthand how those in power must distance themselves from those who suffer. The language of law and bureaucracy is designed to affect this detachment, and it can train its officials in barrenness and callousness.

The supposed non-involvement of the state actor with life “on the ground” is intended to create, as I have already said, objectivity, which is believed to be one of the necessary ingredients for justice. But I do not believe that official objectivity exists, and so I argue that the state and its agents must do the hard work of understanding the struggles of people who have been ostracized from the social order—Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Krasteva’s Wretched Women , the rising and unmuffled furies of David Wojnarowicz, to name a few.

So that was one basis for my engagement with this myth. The other was my understanding that the experience of serious illness can introduce us to firsts and last things in a brutal but also enlightening way. By this I mean that when faced with our physical frailty and mortality, we are forced to wonder where we come from and where we are going, and unless we are gifted with the security of certain kinds of religious faith (which, after youth spent in intense religiosity, no longer possess), we may find ourselves devastated to realize our ignorance in these matters, a shock felt not only in the mind but also in the body.

These two dilemmas piqued my interest in religious stories and the remoteness of those at the top—God and the people in government who dictate our lives.

Photo by Andrew Brown.


Daniel A. Olivas is an attorney, playwright, and author of 10 books, including How To Date A Flying Mexican (University of Nevada Press, 2022).

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