Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Natashia Deon talks about her extraordinary debut, GRACE, slavery, God, writing, and so much more

 “A haunting, visceral novel that heralds the birth of a powerful new voice in American fiction.” Starred Kirkus Review

Deón’s powerful debut is a moving, mystical family saga set over the course of 25 years in the deep South.
Starred Publishers Weekly

Natashia Deón is one of the kindest, most generous writers I know. An attorney, writer, law professor, and creator of the popular L.A.-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit, Deón was recently named one of L.A.'s "Most Fascinating People" by L.A. Weekly.  I was introduced to her by the novelist Gina Sorell (Mothers And Other Strangers, coming May 2017 from Prospect Park Books) when I was desperate for research help on the law. Natashia literally saved my life--and she gave me more than I could have ever hoped for. Of course, I adore her. But more than that, she's a brilliant writer, and Grace is like a punch to the heart (in the best way, of course.) She's the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices fellowship and her debut novel, Grace, is due out June 2016 with Counterpoint Press.

I'm so thrilled to have Natashia here. Thank you, thank you for everything, Natashia.

Grace is totally extraordinary. What sparked the writing of this book about a runaway slave?

A dream. When my son was born, he was sick. Within a few days, I knew something was wrong. I had just had my daughter the year before and when he didn’t behave the way she did, I became afraid for his life. It turns out that he had a rare genetic condition that affected his brain and body but doctors didn’t know that yet. I didn’t know. I only had a discomfort and fear. And during his first month, while I was walking down the hallway with him, I had a daydream, and in it I saw a pregnant slave girl and she was running for her life through the dark. I wrote what I saw and GRACE began. 

It blossomed a few months later when I knew that I wanted to feature a cast of multi-ethnic women. That’s what I cared about in my version of the Civil War—America’s rich history that is multi-ethnic and complicated. And I wanted to explore the war while inside feminine brown skin, like mine.

I’m always curious about research, how a writer goes about, what you learned and what surprised you. You’ve captured generations. Care to talk about this?

When my parents left Alabama for California in the 70s, they packed lunches, drove during the day and slept on the side of the road at night. My parents were the first in their family to leave the south since the end of American slavery. And even as a child, I wondered, why didn’t they leave before? It was, after all, the site of the crimes.

There are a lot of private and personal answers to that. But I was mostly surprised at the answers that were in plain sight. I was taught about slavery like everyone else in an American public school and like many people, I hadn’t connected the dots. For example, how 3 million slaves were set free with the Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of the Civil War. Not after the war in a time of peace, or before the war started. And, how the Underground Railroad, which I grew up believing was a monumental savior to slaves only went as far south as Virginia. I wanted to explore that.  

How do you do all that you do? You’re a practicing lawyer, and you run a lit series, and you teach law AND you write genius novels. How do you manage the time crunch?

God. I think He divides times for me. (smiling) As for my part, I let myself miss things. I used to try to cross everything off of my To Do list everyday, but after my first child was born and I found myself sitting in the corner, in the dark, completely overwhelmed, it occurred to me that I can miss things. That sometimes, my best intentions are not possible.

Now, I see my To Do list as a goal sheet and give myself a high-five on the days I do it all and if I don’t, I tell myself, “Good try. Or, you blew it today.” But no matter what, tomorrows will come. Except after my last.

One of the things I found so overwhelming in the novel is that when the slaves were freed, they were not really free—and in many ways, things became worse for them. (There is the line, “I don't know what’s worse. Living in fear or dying.” Can you talk about this please?)

In Grace, I wanted to explore what it means to be free today, not just for a slave or in the 1800s, but today—both physical and mental bondage. Freedom is not a cure, it’s an event, a beginning that marks the end of some state of bondage—a marriage, a job, whatever. And I believe that after childhood, fear plays a major role in freedom. Even as a law professor who teaches Constitutional law, I encourage my students to explore freedom and the role fear plays in it. And how almost any defense, or loss of freedom can be rationalized with that emotion. Even death—for the person who’s feared, or for ourselves to end our own fear and anxiety. I don’t advocate either.

But Grace is primarily a story of love, and yes, freedom, and motherhood. I wanted to show this slave-narrator as thinking and wanting and loving, the way all women do, today or in the 1800s or thousands of years ago. I wanted her thoughts to take her beyond the single-mindedness of freedom north—but that’s part of it—that’s the beginning I was talking about. I wanted her to be like we all are, asking ourselves if what we have right now is freedom?

The relationship between Josie and Naomi is astonishing—Naomi’s love affair with a white man produced Josie, who is mixed race and looks white. Both have different experiences of American racism, and of love, and of the bond between mother and daughter. And today, there is still horrific racism going on. Do you think there will ever be an end to this?

I have hope. I believe that the generations that are coming behind us can end this. Racism is a choice. I have faith that with more voices, louder voices, united voices, the absurdity of this manmade system of racism will speak for itself and the next generations will chose different than us, from our parents, grandparents and so on. And with educated and intentional advocates of all backgrounds, the change will be a system-wide overhaul that includes education, prisons, wealth, and health. Maybe it won’t happen as quickly as I hope, but I believe. I believe in Americans.

I loved the language of the novel, which brings me to the question—How do you write? Do you outline? Do you just follow your Muse?

Thanks so much, Caroline. I love language. In this novel, I wanted to explore dialect and the way we attribute language to intelligence. I wanted to show that language is a matter of exposure and utility, not necessarily intelligence. My struggle in writing this novel was to have my protagonist express herself as an intelligent human being without having all of the words. I failed her once or twice.

As far as how I write, I write as thoughts occur to me, or as events happen. One part usually leads to the next logical thought. Unless I’m PMS’ing. Ha!

But I outlined this novel and wrote it first as a screenplay. It won several screenwriting awards but at one point I decided that I needed to finish this story. If it remained a screenplay, it would need directors to bring the complete story to fruition—a director of the film, of photography, sound effects, lighting, actors, etc. And at the table when I was negotiating the option for the screenplay—this incomplete story—I realized that I needed to complete it. And oh, what a journey it’s been.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My faith as a Christian and what it means to love all people. More specifically, how can I love all people genuinely and without judgment. The political climate has gotten me to think more and more about who I am and what I believe. I was forced to look at my beliefs and my Cliff Notes version of Jesus and say, wait a minute. 

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

You’ve done a great job. Thank you!

1 comment:

David Von Behren said...

My dear, you are a literary light....so happy for you dear friend....