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.

Read the rest here.

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.

Read the rest here.

When the gift of a DNA testing kit becomes “the gift of divorce”

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A stem cell and reproductive biologist signed up for 23andme and was so into it that he also gave kits to his parents. And then he discovered an unknown half-brother. He was excited, he tells Julia Belluz at Vox, but the rest of his family had a different reaction.

Years of repressed memories and emotions uncorked and resulted in tumultuous times that have torn my nuclear family apart. My parents divorced. No one is talking to my dad. We’re not anywhere close to being healed yet and I don’t know how long it will take to put the pieces back together. 

After this discovery was made, I went back to 23andMe and talked to them. I said, “I’m not sure all your customers realize that when they participate in your family finder program, they’re participating in what are essentially really advanced paternity tests.” People find out that their parents aren’t who they think they are. They have nearly a million people in the database. If there happens to be anyone in there you’re related to, they’ll find your match. This is a solid science….

I’m really devastated at the outcome. I wrestle with these emotions. I love my family. This is nothing I ever would have wished. My dream would be to introduce Thomas to dad, to incorporate a new family tradition, to merge families. We all get to broaden our horizons and live happily ever after. At least right now, that’s not what happened. I still hold out hope that in time we can resolve things. But I also worry that as these transitions happen there may have been some permanent emotional damage that may not be able to be undone.

23andMe’s way of protecting people is by giving users the chance to click that box to opt into the relative finder program. I think they’re trying to protect people from themselves. They believe in the power of information and of learning about yourself. Some people can’t handle the information. Some people don’t even know they can’t handle it.

Talking with genetic genealogists while researching my Harper’s piece last year, I learned the term “non-paternity event,” a very formal way of saying, basically, your dad (or another of your male ancestors) isn’t who you thought he was. These kinds of discoveries are a… if not very common, not at all uncommon outcome of DNA tests.

Non-paternity events — called NPEs in the field — are sometimes estimated at about 10%.

brassforeclosure

Volunteer Genealogy Instructors Wanted

brassforeclosure:

  The Six Generations Project is seeking qualified individuals with experience in history, library science, genealogy, education and archive management.

  All positions are for volunteers seeking life experience, resume experience, documentable volunteer hours, and/or education credits through third-party institutions.

  Posirions on board of trustees, in admin, and handling presentations in schools and classes are available.

  Email mee with inquiries:  brassservices@yahoo.com

Even as Picasso and other modernists were taking enormous inspiration from Central African reliquary art, missionaries in Africa were calling for the relics’ destruction.
Most of the Western artists appropriating techniques from these artworks seem to have thought of them only as beautiful objects, when in fact they were much more: devotional relics that actually contained the remains of tribal leaders and their ancestors. Over the past century, their descendants have been deprived not only of their ancestors’ remains but also their traditions.
Arguably our own distance, here in a West dominated by scientific materialism, from the spirit behind reliquary isn’t as vast as we might think. In Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary, curator Alisa LaGamma writes of the lost byeri tradition of the Fang communities of Southern Cameroon (and Gabon and Equatorial New Guinea):

That these works are considered masterpieces in the West elicits both pride and frustration in the heirs apparent of this tradition, given how devoid their own lives are of concrete evidence of their heritage. While their great-grandparents held on to the relics that were then conceived of as the most sacred aspect of ancestral veneration, today that is no longer a source of solace to their descendants.
The desire for a substantive bridge to one’s past is fundamental to the human condition. In the West this has most recently manifested in attempts to draw upon DNA analysis to chart and decipher our genetic makeup.

The sculpture above, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2007 Eternal Ancestors exhibition, is sometimes called the Black Venus, and was created by a Fang artist from what is now Gabon.

Even as Picasso and other modernists were taking enormous inspiration from Central African reliquary art, missionaries in Africa were calling for the relics’ destruction.

Most of the Western artists appropriating techniques from these artworks seem to have thought of them only as beautiful objects, when in fact they were much more: devotional relics that actually contained the remains of tribal leaders and their ancestors. Over the past century, their descendants have been deprived not only of their ancestors’ remains but also their traditions.

Arguably our own distance, here in a West dominated by scientific materialism, from the spirit behind reliquary isn’t as vast as we might think. In Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary, curator Alisa LaGamma writes of the lost byeri tradition of the Fang communities of Southern Cameroon (and Gabon and Equatorial New Guinea):

That these works are considered masterpieces in the West elicits both pride and frustration in the heirs apparent of this tradition, given how devoid their own lives are of concrete evidence of their heritage. While their great-grandparents held on to the relics that were then conceived of as the most sacred aspect of ancestral veneration, today that is no longer a source of solace to their descendants.

The desire for a substantive bridge to one’s past is fundamental to the human condition. In the West this has most recently manifested in attempts to draw upon DNA analysis to chart and decipher our genetic makeup.

The sculpture above, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2007 Eternal Ancestors exhibition, is sometimes called the Black Venus, and was created by a Fang artist from what is now Gabon.

"My maternal grandmother, Peggy Schutze, was a life-long aspiring writer but never published," Amy Shearn tells me, "and her novella was found in a big black trash bag on its way to the garbage, after her death. So now, 10 years after we found it, The Little Bastard is just out from the small press Anchor & Plume — hooray! — with artwork by my mother and an introduction by me.” Below Shearn tells Begats readers a little more about her grandma and the book, which you can preorder here. — Maud Newton 
I have what you could call a Grandma Fetish. It is born of a general attraction to old ladyish things – family histories, vintage patterns, hand-written letters, teapots – and nurtured by not having known my actual grandmothers particularly well in life. There was between us no drama, little subtext. Just the vague, romantic sense that their stories and artifacts might somehow illuminate my entire existence.
I stole my paternal grandmother’s nickname for my daughter’s middle name, I stole that same grandmother’s mother’s life story for my novel, The Mermaid of Brooklyn. The grandma fetishism carries over to other grandmothers too – I’m currently having a crafty nun repair a quilt my husband’s grandmother made from his grandfather’s old work shirts, though as a bemused family member pointed out, “Um, you could get a new blanket for much cheaper. But the story the fabrics and stitches can tell us!, I don’t have to tell readers of this site.
Then there is my maternal grandmother, Peggy, the writer.
I wear her green opal ring every day, as if married to the version of her I have pieced together from photographs, her writing, and what oral history the family coughs up. And what a version she is! Sifting through the nursing home after Peggy’s death, my aunt (herself a writer) found a Hefty bag full of papers on their way to the trash. It was general knowledge that Peggy wanted to be a writer. She’d gone to the University of Missouri’s well-regarded School of Journalism; her children report that her Royal typewriter provided the soundtrack to their childhoods; we grandkids were regularly sent handmade books when we were small. And now, here, an inch away from being lost forever, was heartbreaking proof of just how badly she’d wanted to write, not just to write nice little things for the family, but really to write.
In the trash bag were letters from Peggy’s acquaintance, the accomplished journalist Martha Gellhorn, encouraging Peggy to pursue her writing. There was a radio play and some scraps of fiction and there was, in this sad trash bag, a novella-length story, clearly based on Peggy and her husband’s early, Bohemian years in a St Louis public housing project, called The Little Bastard.
It took me a while to realize what could be done with this wonderful, lively, strange piece of writing, but finally, over a decade after first reading it, I retyped it, combined the two different beginnings and endings that had been included in the stack, and set about to get it published. 
During the course of the publication process, my Uncle Jim (another writer, sigh), wrote me, “You clearly have unearthed a Peggy Schutze who is not my mother, as I defined her.” My mother and uncles mostly recall Peggy’s eccentricities, which makes sense. How embarrassing, as children in straight-laced midcentury Midwestern small towns, to have a mother who rides her bicycle everywhere, who infamously invites all the neighborhood children to birthday parties, who postpones household chores in favor of reading novels in the bathtub and writing book reviews for the church newsletter, who turns her children into hilarious caricatures for the family Christmas letter (AKA the ur-mom-blog). And yet, to me, from my comfortable distance in contemporary Brooklyn, where all these behaviors would be completely ordinary, how whimsical and fun she seems!
So, she was a little batty, a bit off. So, by all reports, she was not entirely emotionally available to her children. The way I see it, Peggy is proof of what happens to creative people who aren’t able to do their work. I know I go a little batty when I go too long without writing. I can only imagine what would happen to me if I found myself a small town mother of four children, and wife to a minister. 
But then, that is the joy of the Grandma Fetishist. My relationship with her is unfraught. To me she is a palimpsest of the kind granny I remember from childhood, and the delightfully odd and vibrant young woman I encounter in her writing. In publishing her fictional story The Little Bastard (tellingly, both of her living sons have queried, somewhat nervously, “Am I the ‘little bastard’?”), I like to think I am also helping to share her own story, the story between the lines, the story that says: “There have always been woman who wanted to create and whose lives only permitted family. Sometimes these women made quilts and sometimes they made food and sometimes, clacking away late at night when the chores were completed and the children asleep, they made stories. But sometimes, in some way, they did the work. Somehow, the work must be done.”

"My maternal grandmother, Peggy Schutze, was a life-long aspiring writer but never published," Amy Shearn tells me, "and her novella was found in a big black trash bag on its way to the garbage, after her death. So now, 10 years after we found it, The Little Bastard is just out from the small press Anchor & Plume — hooray! — with artwork by my mother and an introduction by me.” Below Shearn tells Begats readers a little more about her grandma and the book, which you can preorder here. — Maud Newton 

I have what you could call a Grandma Fetish. It is born of a general attraction to old ladyish things – family histories, vintage patterns, hand-written letters, teapots – and nurtured by not having known my actual grandmothers particularly well in life. There was between us no drama, little subtext. Just the vague, romantic sense that their stories and artifacts might somehow illuminate my entire existence.

I stole my paternal grandmother’s nickname for my daughter’s middle name, I stole that same grandmother’s mother’s life story for my novel, The Mermaid of Brooklyn. The grandma fetishism carries over to other grandmothers too – I’m currently having a crafty nun repair a quilt my husband’s grandmother made from his grandfather’s old work shirts, though as a bemused family member pointed out, “Um, you could get a new blanket for much cheaper. But the story the fabrics and stitches can tell us!, I don’t have to tell readers of this site.

Then there is my maternal grandmother, Peggy, the writer.

I wear her green opal ring every day, as if married to the version of her I have pieced together from photographs, her writing, and what oral history the family coughs up. And what a version she is! Sifting through the nursing home after Peggy’s death, my aunt (herself a writer) found a Hefty bag full of papers on their way to the trash. It was general knowledge that Peggy wanted to be a writer. She’d gone to the University of Missouri’s well-regarded School of Journalism; her children report that her Royal typewriter provided the soundtrack to their childhoods; we grandkids were regularly sent handmade books when we were small. And now, here, an inch away from being lost forever, was heartbreaking proof of just how badly she’d wanted to write, not just to write nice little things for the family, but really to write.

In the trash bag were letters from Peggy’s acquaintance, the accomplished journalist Martha Gellhorn, encouraging Peggy to pursue her writing. There was a radio play and some scraps of fiction and there was, in this sad trash bag, a novella-length story, clearly based on Peggy and her husband’s early, Bohemian years in a St Louis public housing project, called The Little Bastard.

It took me a while to realize what could be done with this wonderful, lively, strange piece of writing, but finally, over a decade after first reading it, I retyped it, combined the two different beginnings and endings that had been included in the stack, and set about to get it published.

During the course of the publication process, my Uncle Jim (another writer, sigh), wrote me, “You clearly have unearthed a Peggy Schutze who is not my mother, as I defined her.” My mother and uncles mostly recall Peggy’s eccentricities, which makes sense. How embarrassing, as children in straight-laced midcentury Midwestern small towns, to have a mother who rides her bicycle everywhere, who infamously invites all the neighborhood children to birthday parties, who postpones household chores in favor of reading novels in the bathtub and writing book reviews for the church newsletter, who turns her children into hilarious caricatures for the family Christmas letter (AKA the ur-mom-blog). And yet, to me, from my comfortable distance in contemporary Brooklyn, where all these behaviors would be completely ordinary, how whimsical and fun she seems!

So, she was a little batty, a bit off. So, by all reports, she was not entirely emotionally available to her children. The way I see it, Peggy is proof of what happens to creative people who aren’t able to do their work. I know I go a little batty when I go too long without writing. I can only imagine what would happen to me if I found myself a small town mother of four children, and wife to a minister.

But then, that is the joy of the Grandma Fetishist. My relationship with her is unfraught. To me she is a palimpsest of the kind granny I remember from childhood, and the delightfully odd and vibrant young woman I encounter in her writing. In publishing her fictional story The Little Bastard (tellingly, both of her living sons have queried, somewhat nervously, “Am I the ‘little bastard’?”), I like to think I am also helping to share her own story, the story between the lines, the story that says: “There have always been woman who wanted to create and whose lives only permitted family. Sometimes these women made quilts and sometimes they made food and sometimes, clacking away late at night when the chores were completed and the children asleep, they made stories. But sometimes, in some way, they did the work. Somehow, the work must be done.”

In this fascinating slideshow, “Reproducing Spanish Royalty,” artist Michelle Vaughan discusses “genetics, history, and portait paintings,” including “the portraits Diego Velazquez was commissioned to create of the family of Spanish King Philip IV — a family notorious for in-breeding. Michelle has created digital works of art that tell stories about the nature of replication, family genetics, and painterly techniques.” (via Neil Gaiman’s Twitter feed)

In this fascinating slideshow, “Reproducing Spanish Royalty,” artist Michelle Vaughan discusses “genetics, history, and portait paintings,” including “the portraits Diego Velazquez was commissioned to create of the family of Spanish King Philip IV — a family notorious for in-breeding. Michelle has created digital works of art that tell stories about the nature of replication, family genetics, and painterly techniques.” (via Neil Gaiman’s Twitter feed)

"Keeping up with the Joneses" is said to have originated in reference to Edith Wharton’s great aunts on her father’s side. ”The Jones family history was marked by bitterness, greed, self-interest, and favoritism,” themes that recur in Wharton’s writing, Carol Singleton argues.
(Thanks to Carrie — tinglealley — for the Wharton genealogy tutorial!)

"Keeping up with the Joneses" is said to have originated in reference to Edith Wharton’s great aunts on her father’s side. ”The Jones family history was marked by bitterness, greed, self-interest, and favoritism,” themes that recur in Wharton’s writing, Carol Singleton argues.

(Thanks to Carrie — tinglealley — for the Wharton genealogy tutorial!)

Has Jack the Ripper’s identity been uncovered with DNA evidence?

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The Independent takes a look at a new book’s claims that DNA from a scarf, from a victim’s descendant, and from a descendant of one of the leading suspects identifies the notorious murderer.

An amateur sleuth with a book to sell and a scientist working in his spare time claimed to have solved one of the biggest murder mysteries in history by naming Jack the Ripper as a Polish immigrant in the 19th Century after discovering what they said was conclusive DNA evidence.

Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew whose family had emigrated to London to escape pogroms, is “definitely, categorically and absolutely” the man behind the grisly series of murders in 1888 that left at least five women dead and mutilated in the streets of London’s East End, said Russell Edwards, the author of the latest in a long line of speculative books on the affair.

(Thanks, Max.)

brownglucose

brownglucose:

I wish there were some website where black people could upload a picture of themselves and have their facial features mapped for the purposes of possibly linking them to certain areas of the Caribbean, Africa, South America, etc. That’d be dope. Idk what I’d call it though.

There’s a lot of research happening in this area, although some of it is funded by the Department of Defense, which makes me nervous.