By: Charli Engelhorn
Natashia Deón’s debut novel, Grace, was published in May 2016. A graduate of the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, Deón has received numerous awards and recognition since publication, such as a nomination for the NAACP Image Award and winning the 2017 American Library Association’s Black Caucus Award for Best Debut Fiction. Grace was also named a New York Times Top Book 2016; a Kirkus Review Best Book of 2016; and a Book Riot, The Root, and Entropy magazine Favorite Book of 2016.
Deón spoke with contributing writer Charli Engelhorn about Grace, life after publication, where stories come from, marginalization in America, literary culture, and the little things that make you laugh.
The Coachella Review: You were a busy woman before the publication of Grace—a criminal lawyer, a professor of both law and writing, a mother, a graduate student, a nonprofit founder. How has the completion of your first novel and ensuing publication and support added to your personal journey?
Natashia Deón: I’ve been thinking a lot about it and feeling so blessed and fortunate and grateful, and it’s all overwhelming. I think the biggest change is that I could do things before under the radar, and now not so much. I enjoy getting to know people personally; I love being around people, and it sort of changes the dynamics. I didn’t realize that was happening until a couple of months ago. People used to just ignore me, and there was always someone else to look at, but now it feels like they’re looking at me, and that’s strange. I’m still a teacher, I still take classes, I’m still a student, still a mom, still a lawyer who’s practicing. I’m still writing. But now people invite me to come and do things, so that’s the extra. But life for me looks pretty much the same as it did before the book except for that piece, which is confusing sometimes and disorienting.
TCR: Since publishing, you’ve had the opportunity to deepen your relationship with the literary world, serving as a judge for this year’s LA Times Book Awards and a delegate representing the United States. What does it mean for you to be recognized in this way, and how have these experiences added to your life?
ND: I feel so honored to be recognized that way—just to be part of this system and another part of the Los Angeles literary community. I’m not one to be a judgy person, but I feel like I have a great opportunity to contribute in some way, I hope, to this prestigious award. When I was an NEA judge last year looking at literary organizations, it was the first time I could see that being a judge meant I could make a difference to our community, because I got to choose organizations that meant something based on my experiences, such as supporting a program for caregivers who are writers. There’s a lot of big books out, and we get lists from all over, so when I’m looking at writing, I’m making the decision to look even further . . . is there something else? I’m also considering those books that have been chosen by other awards because if they’re good, they’re good, but maybe there is something that has been overlooked. I remember when Grace was out, you saw the same books on each list, so when I found out I’d be reading two hundred seventy-five books, approximately, I thought, wow, there’s a lot of opportunity to see something more.
The delegacy was in partnership with the University of Iowa. They have this program called the Lines and Spaces program, where they bring in writers from America to go to different countries. The U.S. embassy was having a twenty-fifth anniversary of their presence in Armenia, and they wanted a reconciliation project between Turkish students and Armenian students to deal with the ramifications of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish. We spent two weeks with the students working on what it is to move forward. It was really powerful for me to see something like that in a different culture and how small I am in all of it. To go somewhere else and have sort of a different perspective of their struggles changes the way I see things, and it gave me humility to go to a community I’ve never been in and say, “Hey, I’m here to help you with reconciliation,” because who am I? By the end, we were all best friends—it was like the end of a really good summer camp. I’m still friends with them all and still know what’s going on in their lives.
I didn’t know what was going on in Turkey, but more than that, it’s about not feeling connected. I was told we couldn’t talk about the Armenian genocide, and I thought, why am I here? As a black person in America, seeing how people want to move on from history and not talk about it, I know how that affects me. You know, with Grace, people ask, “Why do we need to keep talking about slavery?” Well, because we’re still in it. It just looks different. And slavery never failed. That’s the most incredible thing. It never failed, people just turned against it. It’s exactly what’s happening right now. We are repeating history as far as I’m concerned. History is still here. So, I said, I’m not going to do to them what people do to me in America. You’re going to have to send me home. They made an exception that I would be able to talk about it, and we were able to talk honestly and relate to each other. And the Turkish students—their ancestors are the oppressors—and they were so humble and gracious. They said, “We’re sorry,” without adding, “But it wasn’t me.” There was no extra, just we’re sorry. It was beautiful to watch. That’s what I value. There are people I would never know if not for writing. People I can’t imagine my life without.
TCR: In Grace, Naomi’s life and environment are developed so clearly through her sensations and observations that we are drawn in . . . her struggles become ours, her hopes our hopes. Where did Naomi come from, and how did you approach getting into the mind of this character and expressing her experiences of slavery and society during this historical period?
ND: Writing comes from all sorts of places, but I had a daydream, or I don’t know what it was. I was walking with my son down the hallway, and it was daytime. My son was an infant at the time, and I thought he was sick and was going to die, so that was my reality. The doctors kept telling me nothing was wrong, and it wasn’t until he was three months that he was diagnosed with this rare metabolic condition, where his brain can’t get rid of a certain chemical. There are only three hundred people in the world that have it, and it’s incurable and causes developmental delays and seizures. I used to carry him around the house all the time because I was afraid he was going to die alone. Which is part of the book . . . just being afraid for his life, and then all of a sudden, it was night in my hallway. I was standing in the woods in Alabama where I used to go all the time as a kid, and I remember the full moon being there, and there was a girl and she was running and I could hear her thoughts and her voice. She had on a yellow dress that had blood on it, and she was pregnant. She ran past me, and I remember when she ran past me, I could hear her. I was thinking, I’m still asleep, I never got up this morning, so I wasn’t afraid while I was in it because I thought I’m just dreaming. Then she got killed, and it was daytime again, and I was standing in my hallway totally freaked out. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before or since. I gave my son to my husband and said I needed to write down what I just saw ’cause something weird just happened, and I sat down and started writing it out, and it became the opening of the novel, largely unchanged from exactly how I saw it. I could hear her voice saying these things, but she had a much thicker accent, a Southern accent, so I had to lighten up the dialect and stuff like that, but who she is in the book is how I first met her and how I first sensed her as a person and a character. The rest of the book is the craft of writing, but I felt like I knew who she was because of that dream or daydream. I don’t have words for it, but that’s why she’s so real to me.
I did a lot of research about that time, but also my family is in that small town in Alabama where the book is set, and at the end of the civil war, they started the first church and never left. All my family is still in Tallassee, Alabama, except for us. When my grandmother came to live with us at the end of her life, she would remember things because her mother was six years old when she was freed as a slave. I also found a lot of information I didn’t know. Like, when the book was being shopped, I remember an editor said, “I think everything should revolve around the day slaves were freed,” and I said, that’s just not how it happened. When I would see the scene in my mind’s eye, wherever imagination comes from, I would literally see these slaves frozen on a battlefield—they wouldn’t move. So, I talked to my characters, that’s part of my process, and I said, “Why are you here? Why aren’t you happy and dancing, you just learned that you were freed,” but they weren’t moving, and I didn’t know what that would mean. It was only after I researched it and found out that the Emancipation Proclamation, the second one, came in the middle of the civil war, two years in. The slaves wouldn’t have been able to walk across battlefields. There was still another two years left in the war. And they would have had nowhere to go. So, it changed part of my book about them not leaving and not being able to, and you don’t learn that in the history books. We think we know so much about that time, and there are so many books, but I didn’t want to write something I had read before. I wanted to be surprised, and I wanted to tell the readers what I was surprised by. I wanted to retell the story so it could be more historically accurate.
TCR: The novel touches on the lives and experiences of other women during this era, namely Annie, a white plantation owner, and Cynthia, a Jewish Madame. Why was it important for you to weave the stories of these other women into the novel?
ND: Well, Cynthia is based on a real person I knew, who was a former prostitute and lived around the corner from me growing up. She terrified me, like I could never talk to her, but she was my mom’s friend, and when my father left, she was the one who came around with groceries and stuff like that. But she terrified me because we were super conservative, Christian old school, my mom was church lady, and here she comes cursing with her feet on the table. But she was always there for my mom, and on the day she died, I knew I wanted to honor her and all her history and complex feelings, honor her as a woman, because I started to admire her before she passed away because she was so strong. That’s where that line, “All women have different kinds of strong,” comes from. When I was researching the book, I did research on Jewish history in the south and discovered the largest population of Jewish people outside of Europe at that time was in Charleston, South Carolina, so I had this opportunity to legitimately put this character in there. With Annie, I wanted to put her in there because she represents to me white woman who are generally overlooked… just the patriarchy and how it affects all women and how mothering affects us. I wanted to show that everybody is affected by a system that promotes violence and dishonors or disrespects women and holds them as property.
TCR: Let’s talk a little about the title. No one is named Grace in the book, but many of the various meanings for the word seem to live under the surface of Naomi’s journey. What does the title signify for you?
ND: My novel had two other names before we rested on Grace. I didn’t know what the book was about, and the line about how Naomi would have named her good thing Grace if she had the chance, that was the last thing I wrote in the whole novel. My editor said, “Grace, that’s perfect.” I didn’t know that’s what I was writing about until it was over. Some people will say, “Oh, you have a theme to your novel; it has a point.” But I didn’t know that it was about grace, the theme of it or what I thought about it… it just became. Now, when I teach my students at UCLA, I teach them that your story already exists in the future, and there is a story it wants you to tell for it. We think we’re choosing the story, but it’s chosen us. I felt very much chosen that day in the hallway, this story chose me, and it wanted to be told a certain way and had its own message, so I didn’t know until that very last moment, after I had written it for seven years, that it had anything to do with grace. That’s the best part, when the story surprises you.
TCR: Your second novel, The Perishing, was recently acquired by Counterpoint for publication. This story is about a young black woman who finds herself in 1930s Los Angeles, another time of historical strife and significance for the black community. Since you haven’t had any more dreams or visions, what led you to write about life in that period of time, especially from the vantage of a young black woman?
ND: I didn’t have another vision, but I did have dreams while I was asleep, and I had a dream about a Chinese man—it was around late 1800s, and I was in Los Angeles, I don’t know how I knew, but there were adobe buildings and stuff like that. So, this Chinese man, who was a doctor, was murdered by this mob, and it was pretty brutal. I was a love interest of this man, not his wife or a prostitute, but I was with him at this inn, and I woke up and he wasn’t there, so I went looking for him and came upon this scene. I was told to run. I was so disturbed about this dream that I woke up and started researching it. I knew what streets they were on because I saw the streets in my dream, and then I found that there was the Chinese massacre in LA in the 1860s—it actually happened, and one of the people who was killed was a doctor, and that freaked me out, so I wanted to tell that story. Then, I had another vision that was similar, kind of further in the future, and I needed something—a time in history that was midway where I could tell both stories, so the character is going through time.
I also wanted the story to take place between the two world wars because I didn’t think there was a lot of information about sort of being in between. There are Great Depression stories, but my story is on the way out of the Great Depression, so I wanted to see what life was like for black people at that time. When we think about Hollywood, we’re not talking about the people who just live there every day, and I was curious about the history and moving into the Great Deal, which sets up what ends up happening to minority groups in Los Angeles and how they got sort of pushed aside and ghettoized when it was not like that before. In 1932, it was like a Beverly Hills for black people, but then something happened, so I wanted to know what it was, and through research, I figured out what had happened. Similarly to retelling the story of American slavery, I wanted to retell the story of Los Angeles and how South Central became that bad—it started in the 30s with the violence—and even what they are experiencing right now, this sort of resurgence.
TCR: Is there a correlation you’re examining between how black Americans and other marginalized populations are treated today with the worlds you inhabit in your books?
ND: I think the problems we are dealing with now are not new. We’re repeating the same problems over and over again differently because we haven’t solved them. So, I want to show how the past is the same as what we’re dealing with right now and how with all of our knowledge and maturity, we’re still doing the same things. We haven’t actually changed, we’re just answering the same questions wrongly still. Even with the good changes, I think we are going to run into the same issues all over again, just new people, new victims. A lot of the arguments I make in the book are the arguments people are still making today and not seeing, and we have a short memory span in America. I want to remind people, and hopefully we’ll find the answers through wisdom.
TCR: Let’s switch gears a bit. Your nonprofit reading series Dirty Laundry Lit focused on celebrating reading and writing in our culture. How did reading and writing shape your life, and why is it important for you to reach out and share those experiences with others?
I found that the writing community was so cliquish in LA. Every reading I went to was the same people . . . all white guys, maybe a token here or there. The events I went to that were for black writers, it was all black people, and the same for an Asian author; there was nobody else, and it’s not what Los Angeles looks like to me. So, when I created Dirty Laundry, I wanted everybody, all gender identities, ability levels, different income levels, different races, I wanted everybody who came into a Dirty Laundry event to see themselves on stage. To me, that’s what represents Los Angeles and what writing is about. When we tell our stories, we’re inviting people into our experience to help them see it better. I wanted to have a place for that. Especially for people who don’t consider themselves readers, I wanted them to fall in love with literature, with words, like I have.
TCR: Do you feel you’ve been able to see those goals realized?
ND: I’ve seen it in the communities, in the different communities. It was a different LA back then, I think—it started in 2010 and went through 2017—but I saw it realized because we were doing it, and I saw communities working together in ways I hadn’t seen before. We still have to be in our own pockets to gain strength to be able to go out there and not have to explain who we are and define words, you know, that’s important, too, but I saw change. The future is uncertain because to do an event is expensive and time-consuming. I would love to see it again, but some things just have their own time and serve their purpose, and I didn’t want to see us die on the line. Now, it’s time for new faces and new voices to come onto the scene. I never wanted to be one of those writers that occupies space, so I started The Table as a mentorship program to find new voices and empower them to get what I have so they can make their version of whatever this means to them, but hopefully it will still be inclusive.
TCR: What is the best advice you ever received about writing?
ND: Write as if no one you know will ever read it, especially if you’re writing sex scenes or things that reveal who you are.
TCR: What book do you think everyone should read, and what is your guilty pleasure read?
ND: I guess the book I wish everyone would read would be the one they see themselves in or their experience or their struggle, the thing that makes them feel like they are different from everyone else. I hope they find that book. I was talking to Janet Mock, who is a transgender advocate, a beautiful woman, and I got to write her tribute for Pen America. I was so excited about this piece. I learned she had read Their Eyes Were Watching God and how it inspired her to see that a black woman could want things. She was in Hawaii at that time, and she hadn’t transitioned, she was just a kid, and she said she saw herself in it, and it empowered her to make the decisions she would later make in life. For me, it was Precious, which is strange, because it’s about a girl on welfare living in the projects in New York, but for whatever reason, I saw myself in that girl. It was the first time I thought I could do this. If Precious can make it, Natashia can make it. So, that’s the book I want everyone to read, the one where they can see themselves and be inspired by it.
My guilty pleasure read? I like silly things. There’s this book about compliments that just makes me laugh. It’s about when you run out of compliments, what do you say, like, “You look really good under these fluorescent lights, baby.” It’s dumb, but it makes me happy. Just to look and laugh. The world is so dark, and it’s nice to have something that says, I’m still alive and I’m human.
Charli Engelhorn is an award-winning reporter, a freelance writer and editor, and the current managing editor of The Coachella Review. She is a second-year student at UCR-Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. When she is not reading and writing, she can be found frolicking in the woods with the best travel dog in the world, Jacopo. She lives in Los Angeles.