TCR Talks with Twice Nominated Author of The Perishing, Natashia Deón
By Sara Grimes
In Natashia Deón’s second book, The Perishing, Lou, a Black youth with no memory of her past, wakes up fighting for her life in an alley in 1930’s Los Angeles. She gets taken under the wing of a police officer who helps her as she adjusts to life in a foster home. But, as Lou transitions into adulthood, she starts to unpack the nuances of her school, foster life, and relationship with the tokenizing police force for racism, both ordinary and violent. As Lou forms subversive romantic relationships and takes on a role as a journalist at the Los Angeles Times, we see her become increasingly empowered to wrestle with the fault lines of privilege and racism in America. She stitches together dreams and automatically draws loves from past lives. Lou, as it turns out, is immortal; she dies, then returns to life in another Black body.
The Perishing is a seminal read on Black Lives Matter, both as a violently political and deeply personal movement. Deón is the perfect person to tell it. Her roles as criminal defense attorney, a clemency project activist, and college professor at UCLA make integrity and truth vital to her writing. We spoke with Deón just as her novel was being nominated for a second NAACP Image Award, and we discussed how The Perishing is informed by her unique approach to craft, her work as a criminal defense attorney, and her leadership in communities of color.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: Congratulations on your NAACP Image Award nomination. What does the NAACP Image Award nomination mean to you?
NATASHIA DEÓN: For me, to be recognized for Black excellence in entertainment is the highest achievement in entertainment. Not just for the actors, singers, and others who are nominated but also for literature . . . My people, Black people, can be the harshest critics of our own performances and creative work, and collectively we push to be better. When it comes down to this NAACP Image Award nomination—grateful it’s my second—alongside giants like President Barack Obama, Zendaya, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and more, it means everything to me. It’s the best nod.
I always thought it was BS when actors would say things like, “I’m just honored to be nominated.” This is the first time I wholly understand what that sentence means.
TCR: The story doesn’t happen during the Civil Rights era we normally think of when considering advocacy for people of color but during the Great Depression. What made you choose that as a historic focal point for your Black protagonist?
ND: I’ve always been intrigued by the Golden Age of Hollywood and Black life in Los Angeles. The time following the Great Depression was a pivotal time in Black L.A., in addition to the expansion of Route 66 from Chicago. The era was ripe with stories and possibilities and was crammed between the two world wars, so it made the choice, for me, easy.
TCR: Was there a Lou in your family?
ND: My aunt, Louise “Lou” Bolden, died several years ago, and she was a beautiful human. Lou is named after her.
TCR: Lou’s immortality lends itself to an original format where Sarah [the person Lou becomes in the future can reflect back and comment on Lou, and sometimes the language becomes haunted by Lou’s dreams. Were there specific stories that gave you inspiration for that format? What inspired that particular device?
ND: When I imagined The Perishing, I knew I wanted a mature voice to narrate Lou’s story because there were many things Lou couldn’t or wouldn’t know. I considered many narrative structures, including a close third, then an omniscient narrator, first person, and settled on a type of first-person narration where the narrator is narrating her present and past in first person.
My end goal was for Lou to learn and grow as we, the readers, learned and grew. In many ways, Lou is learning about Los Angeles as the reader is, and, with the help of a different character, her future self—Sarah—she is also reflecting on Los Angeles. Having two narrators helped me to tell the story I wanted to tell and in the way I wanted to tell it.
TCR: Lou’s voice has a specific sense of agency and clarity, even as a child. Why was it important to you to have a child with a sense of clarity versus confusion?
ND: Because, for me, that’s who children are, including my own. Both brilliant and naïve at the same time, and they carry so much awe and wonder. I wanted Lou to encompass that life stage . . . before she outgrew it.
TCR: How does your experience working as a defense attorney allow you to see the universal truths reflected in the story? How did that work inspire you to create Lou as someone who needs to decide when compassion and condemnation are appropriate?
ND: My work in criminal law probably affects every part of me. I used to be able to compartmentalize the experiences, but I can’t anymore. Or, maybe, I’ve stopped kidding myself.
Working with vulnerable people who have been, or will be, thrown away—imprisoned—for a time affects me. As do the people they’ve hurt or killed. (Not all of my clients have done horrible things.) The concepts of justice and injustice, mercy and grace, and what it means to live as a survivor affect me.
TCR: How did your experience with the Black Lives Matter movement inspire the direction the narrative takes? You punctuate the narrative with news clips, and it works really well. How did you balance advocacy and storytelling in this project?
ND: When I was growing up in Los Angeles, the Black Lives Matter movement took the form of the L.A. riots, or L.A. “uprising,” in the 1990s. That civil unrest ignited following the beating of Rodney King and the not-guilty verdict of the officers who were responsible, and there was also the killing of Latasha Harlins. I remember all of this like it was yesterday.
For my parents, the Black Lives Matter movement took the form of the 1960s L.A. riots, the protests following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the bus/sit-in protests that led to the Civil Rights Act.
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and others are our right now. All this to say, in my mind, all of these moments are the same moment, repeated. Each generation re–baptized. We keep repeating the same pattern. I’m ready for it to be over. At least, fail differently for once.
TCR: You’re a graduate of UCR Palm Desert’s MFA program. How did the community there influence your writing?
ND: My time at UCRPD was life-directing. It helped me to begin to plot a course as a professional writer. And, because of my time as a PEN America Fellow before coming into the program, I had a good idea of who I wanted to be as a writer and had a draft of my novel. What the professors and students in the program did was help to strengthen my writing by exploring techniques, learning to talk about my work and my decisions on the page, how to work with other writers, and the program helped me to feel less alone as a writer. They are a huge part of my literary family. But also, no community can be everything to a writer. As writers, we all have to find our people. It requires us to get up and walk.
TCR: At the end of the book, you spend several pages on acknowledgements. How do you think our communities can raise us up?
ND: It’s funny you ask this. I just finished the acknowledgement section of my new book, and it only says, “To everyone I’ve thanked before.” Ha! I may add some new names, but basically, that’s how it’s gonna start.
Seriously, I have to live in gratitude because all of this shit is hard. It can make you angry even when you get everything you think you want. As writers, we’re always vulnerable—bad reviews, snubs, friends, money. And that’s just our professional life. But all of it is personal, isn’t it? We’re putting some part of us on a page and are asking people to say yes to it. We’re in the business of asking permission to exist in a place—a journal, a residency, with a literary agency, a fellowship, a publisher—and like my criminal defense work, it affects us. Gratitude is what centers me on what’s good. It reminds me of why I chose this life.
TCR: The Perishing is, at its heart, a tribute to community. Why do you think it resonates so powerfully with the NAACP organization and the greater community?
ND: Probably because it’s about us. Black history here in L.A., including the overlooked and little- known parts. And also, because God’s hand is on it.