A Writer’s Insight: Yxta Maya Murray

Yxta Maya Murray’s story, “The Simplest, Most Important Things” appears in the winter 2021 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses her research of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, how the unseen past of a place can impact the present, and the limitations of law, art, and empathy.

Shakirah Peterson, Editorial Assistant: This story is premised on the 2006 Santa Susana Field Report. Can you tell us more about what the report entails? What inspired you to use this document to write this story?

Yxta Maya Murray: In the Fall of 2019, when Los Angeles and Ventura County roiled from the Saddleridge, Tick, Getty, and Easy fires, I began researching the history of drought and wildfire in Southern California. Somewhere in my readings, I found an article expressing concern that the 2018 Woolsey Fire had spread radionuclide contamination in Simi Valley, and I did not know what the heck that could mean. Though I have lived in the San Fernando Valley since 1995, I had no idea that I lived forty minutes from the site of a 1959 nuclear reactor meltdown that had never been fully cleaned up. From that moment, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, the one-time site of the doomed Sodium Research Experiment (an experimental reactor), became a particular fixation of mine. I found eventually the ’06 Santa Susana Field Report, undertaken by an advisory panel, and a 2011 Department of Energy report setting forth anonymous interviews the DOE had taken of former employees at Santa Susana.

The ’06 report sets forth a breathtaking tale of catastrophic errors that occurred in 1959: One of the experimental aspects of the SRE was the use of the chemical tetralin, which wound up clogging up the interior workings of the reactor and preventing it from cooling down. As a result, the fuel elements in the reactor melted and sent radioactive gases throughout the chambers of the building hosting the SRE. Panic reigned at SSFL for weeks after. Last-ditch efforts to contain the meltdown’s effects included men scrubbing down the building with Bactine and Kotex menstrual pads and venting the gases, at night, into the surrounding atmosphere. The ’06 report, which lambasted these errors, as well as the failure to notify the surrounding community of what happened for twenty years, is riveting, and offered the origins of “The Simplest, Most Important Things.”

SP: I am intrigued by the realistic details added to this story. For example, Elisa states that she used an “IBM Selectric typewriter” to write a report on the “Sodium Reactor Experiment”. How much research did you conduct to add such intricate details to this story?

YMM: Much of the specifics about SSFL itself comes from the 2011 DOE interviews that I mention above. Dozens of former employees told their stories in this dossier. Precious details such as the kind of typewriters the SSFL’s secretaries used, the flimsy jumpsuits worn by tech workers during clean-ups, and the on-campus ponds that were home to strangely silent birds and other, damaged, wildlife vibrate through this document. Many interviewees also described their lack of fear during their employment there, despite the fact that two more fuel breakages occurred at SSFL, one in ’64 and one in ’69. But, at the same time, the interviewees mourned the loss of co-workers to cancer, though the names of the deceased were redacted from the dossier. One interviewee said: “JKL, the project manager, is dead. The shift manager, MNO, is dead. Another guy I worked with, PQR is dead. All cancer related deaths.” Another interviewee, who apparently was not of color, described a co-worker as a “black gentleman” (it’s the only time the term “gentleman” is used in the interviews) who came down with beryllium poisoning, and who apparently died from that exposure.

I realized while reading these interviews that Santa Susana was a site of trauma connected to World War II (Wernher von Braun worked there for a time) and the Cold War. It also functioned in the era of Jim Crow, whose long-ranging and potentially never-ending effects would later be felt in the Simi Valley-based Rodney King trial in 1993.

The dynamics of SSFL worker exploitation, the intimations of racism divined from between the lines of the interviews, and the interviewees’ efforts to articulate the unspeakable moved me to no end, particularly as I experienced cancer myself from 2001-2015, as have all the members of my immediate nuclear family. I learned so much researching this area of history, including how atrocities of this kind do not exist in isolation, but are attached to a wider spectrum of state and social wrongs.

SP: Are there any plans to write more stories using this report?

YMM: As you can probably tell from my answers to question #2, SSFL and its aftermath became a consuming passion for me, and I am drafting a novel-in-stories. It is a fictional version of the 2011 dossier. It is titled God Went Like That.

SP: The romance between Elisa and Dr. Ben is palpable from the opening scene. Elisa states that Ben “looked at her with a different intelligence”. In the end, he shows her how to view things differently too, gifting her a camera and reminding her that her “vision is important.” Can you tell us more about the decision to allow them to connect over photography?

YMM: I wanted to tell the story of a woman of color who had been sickened by her exposure to SSFL, inspired in part by my own experience as well as the journals of Audre Lorde. Elisa in many ways appeared to me as a whole, as an artist who meets a person at SSFL who launches her toward her destiny. I am particularly interested in photography, especially in that of the American artist Ming Smith, and Smith’s genius and stamina became a kind of model for the character. But I realized also, while writing the story, that Elisa’s relationship with Ben helps her “learn how to see”–and that, together, they taught each other the revelations of clear sight even while the government blinded them to the dangers that surrounded them every working day.

SP: We find out that Dr. Ben dies from lymphoma from the reactor accidents. Elisa asks the interviewer if his family received any compensation. She answers her own question with: “I will bet that they did not. But money doesn’t matter anymore.” She goes on to show “gratitude for having known him that little while.” This was a beautiful, yet heartbreaking reality. I’m curious to hear what you may have wanted readers to take away from this story?

YMM: I teach law as well as write fiction, and my training as a lawyer informs everything about the framing of this story. Here, an agent of the EPA conducts interviews in an effort to get community input on a proposed remediation plan (one of the traditional administrative gestures of the agency), but also to gain insight on the inclination of the community to sue the federal government for exposing them to radionuclides. In my research, I learned that there is little chance of such a lawsuit succeeding, on account of immunity barriers with which the government shields itself. But I also was made to think that even if a lawsuit were allowed to proceed, monetary damages could never make a victim “whole.” And, more than that, the solution of literature–to hear a story; to tell a story–also may be powerless to alleviate the anguish suffered by people who have been made to endure cancer or other diseases as a result of government negligence and environmental toxins. Beyond narrating a history of the SRE and the racism that shapes every chapter of this nation’s past and future, the story concerns the limits of law as well as the limits of art, and even empathy.

SP: Where can we read and follow more of your work?

YMM: This year, I published a short fiction collection and a novel. The book of short stories is titled The World Doesn’t Work That Way, but It Could (University of Nevada Press, 2020), and it includes the tale “Paradise,” which was published in The Southern Review in July 2020. My novel, Art Is Everything, was published by TriQuarterly Books in January 2021.

Yxta Maya Murray is a novelist, art critic, playwright, and law professor. The author of nine books, her most recent are the forthcoming story collection The World Doesn’t Work That Way, but It Could, and the novel Art Is Everything. She has won a Whiting Award and an Arts Writers Grant, and has been named a fellow at the Huntington Library for her work on radionuclide contamination in Simi Valley, California.

Shakirah Peterson is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Louisiana State University. She writes across all genres: poetry, fiction, nonfiction. She is originally from Los Angeles, California, where she earned a BA in communication studies at California State University, Long Beach.

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