Natashia Deón is a 2017 NAACP Image Award Nominee. The New York Times and Kirkus Review named Deón’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Grace, a Best Book of 2016. She is a practicing attorney and law professor, and creator of the popular LA-based reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit. Her works have appeared in American Short Fiction, Buzzfeed, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, and other places. Deón is the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship.
I first met Natashia Deón when she was the guest fiction writer at Antioch’s December 2016 MFA residency. In addition to presenting a seminar, she gave a reading from Grace. On March 14, 2017, I interviewed Deón by telephone.
Judy Gitterman: In your daily work, you’re an attorney working on post-conviction appeals. This work likely involves representing defendants convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, rape, or child molestation. Do your experiences as an attorney inform your writing?
Natashia Deón: Absolutely, all the time. They say that as writers, as you know from your program, everything affects you, especially politics. It’s part of the stories that I tell. In Grace, the novel, there are a lot of things like justice and mercy, forgiveness and issues that I have to deal with in the courtroom, so it is part of the story that I choose to tell. How do we forgive somebody who does something like that, like molestation, or murder? Are there degrees of it? For example, what’s not forgivable?
JG: Because you write about these topics—mercy and justice—how does that affect your representation, for instance, when the defendant has confessed to the crime?
ND: Recently, I had a case that actually affected me that way. During the time when the woman who was raped recently—the big case where she was behind a dumpster, passed out drunk, and this guy raped her—he was on the swim team at Stanford. He was given [a sentence of] something like six months, something completely obnoxious. She wrote a beautiful letter, a victim’s statement of how it affected her and how she didn’t deserve that. Just as that was happening—when there was so much response and so much heartache over this case—I [was defending] the case of a man who had done a similar thing with a girl who was fifteen years old. The sentence he got was less than a real battery; it was the lowest possible conviction you could get for what he had done to her. I believed everything he [had] said. He said, “I just touched her accidentally. I shouldn’t have done it.” That’s why the sentence was so low.
But then I didn’t actually get the victim’s statement until I was there, on the courthouse steps, about to go into the courtroom, and it talked about how he had raped her. It was so real it was just like reading the story about what happened to the woman who was raped behind the dumpster. That made it hard to go into the courtroom that day to defend him and to ask the court to forgive him for what he had done. I wrote about that experience in an essay. It affected me in both ways, as a writer and in defending this person. I defended him, but I couldn’t even look at him after that day. I was totally changed.
JG: Who are some of your literary influences?
ND: I have so many. Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, contemporary poets—I’m in love with Chiwan Choi’s book I’m reading, The Yellow House—Alice Walker. I love Dr. Seuss. I think everything I read influences me—they touch me, in a way. They influence the kind of writing that I do. The Bible. There’s so many. Roxanne Gay, I love.
JG: Did any influence the novel, Grace, more than others?
Before I thought [voice] had to be so literary, especially the story that I wanted to tell. I thought that literary meant a certain highbrow.
ND: Sapphire’s Push. Because it was the first time I read a book where I felt I had permission to use the voice that I use in Grace. Before I thought it had to be so literary, especially the story that I wanted to tell. I thought that literary meant a certain highbrow. But the voice I was hearing for Grace wasn’t that way. It had a lot of dialect—simple but intelligent. When I read Sapphire’s Push, it was the first time I knew that I could use the voice I’d heard to tell the story that I felt I was supposed to tell.
JG: You’ve mentioned that you worked on Grace for seven years and it was originally written as a screenplay. Can you talk about how you began writing Grace and how the work developed into a novel?
ND: I’d never written a novel before Grace. I’ve written stories. All my life, I’ve always told stories. My sister and I used to always sleep in the same room. She was four years younger than I, and I always told her stories. I told the same stories the same way because she would demand it, even though they were totally made-up. I’ve always written. I’d written screenplays. And then, I was walking down the hallway and I had this vision of this woman and she was running. She had blood on her dress and it was a yellow dress. I remember thinking that she was a slave and knowing that she was a slave. I knew it was Alabama, and it was in a town where I used to visit until the time I was about eighteen years old every summer.
My family is from a small town called Tallassee, Alabama, and I knew it was there. I recognized the place, and that vision became the opening of the novel. But when it first came, I’d never written a novel; I’d only written screenplays. I wrote it down but I didn’t know what to do with it for a long time. I just had the opening. It was only two pages and it’s largely unchanged. It’s still chapter one of the novel.
I started taking classes. I wrote it first as a screenplay. It took maybe three months, six months, to write the screenplay. Then, when it was being optioned, I was invited to a meeting, and I remember sitting there listening to all the talk about the screenplay: how it should develop, who should play what. I said, no that’s not how it goes, that’s not the story. I should have never been there in the first place, but I think I was there for a reason, in hindsight. I had to tell the story.
The first thing I did, I enrolled in UCLA extension. I had this idea but I didn’t know what to do with it. At first, I thought I could copy and paste it from my screenplay and put it in a Word document and it’s a novel. It was horrible, as you can imagine. I started taking classes and I started at page one. The only thing that survived totally was the opening, the vision that I had.
JG: Your mention of Tallassee leads to my next question. Grace is a work of historical fiction and it takes place in Alabama and Georgia. You said you visited that area up until you were eighteen. Did you go back while you were writing the book?
ND: No. I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to remember it the way I did in my childhood. I’ve found that going back to old places, like going back to the old place [where] I grew up in Los Angeles, it doesn’t look anything like I remember it. In our memory, we create our own version of what that reality is. The house looks much smaller. Of course, I was younger when I was there and the neighborhood looks different. I wanted to remember [Tallassee] the way that it was in my memories, the way that it was in that vision. I didn’t feel the need to go back, but I did look on Google Earth just to remember. But then I didn’t want to; I felt I was losing something by even looking. I have to go back this August for our family reunion and I don’t want to go back. All I remember is how green everything looked, just green. Those memories are going to be altered a little when I go back.
JG: Your writing meets head-on the brutality and violence that blacks, slaves, and women endured before, during, and after the Civil War. How did you approach writing these graphic and violent scenes?
Most of the violence that is in those pages are actually from real-life situations, especially the rape. … I wanted to present the crimes of rage that actually change people’s personality and their ability to see the world or trust the world.
ND: I was honest with the violence. I wanted be honest and I had to make a decision. I’m a graphic writer anyway. I couldn’t imagine that kind of violence in my own mind. But there’s some cases that I’ve had recently—2013, 2014 or 2015. There was a point in my career where I said, I can’t do this work anymore because I can’t read these stories, hear this testimony. Because I was representing victims. Most of the violence that is in those pages are actually from real-life situations, especially the rape. A lot was cut out by my editor. I think it haunted me. I wanted to present the crimes of rage that actually change people’s personality and their ability to see the world or trust the world. You could see how it happens and I wanted to show readers that there are some things that you just can’t un-see.
I had a victim I represented. The rape was so brutal and she ended up coming to a clinic that I worked at as an attorney. It literally ripped her as if she’d had a baby—one end to the other, so she had one orifice there. She was raped over several hours by multiple people. When you see that kind of devastation, you ask how does somebody get up, put on their clothes, and walk and go to work or go to school. It’s just devastating. So, it’s not violence from a time gone—this is what’s happening today. Women today. I had a second-grade teacher just a few months ago, end of 2016. A similar case involving her boyfriend. Forty-years-old. We still have these things that happen. We think that’s somewhere else, some other time, but it’s right here. I couldn’t imagine that for anyone.
There’s a line in Grace where one of the characters in the book, a child molester, tells a little girl, “You can touch you anywhere you want.” That was a line from testimony, a case that I had in 2014. So, all that stuff, the violence, is very real.
Women have to deal with it all the time. A lot of this is covered up. These victims are often mothers who are dealing with all this stuff and it’s hard to be good mothers. They’re trying to raise children, and there’s no safe place. It was especially bad for people from older generations who had to endure a lot of things through time. Now there’s more help. Where did you go back then? When there’s no help, no therapist, no one you can talk to that can say, Yeah, that happened to me too. It was such a prison.
JG: There are two stories in Grace—Naomi’s own story (told as flashbacks) and the story Naomi tells as a ghost following the life of her daughter Josie, who is born the day Naomi dies. The chapters alternate between these two threads and stay in Naomi’s point of view. Did you write one story before the other, and how did you settle on the structure of the interwoven narratives?
ND: Initially, when I wrote the story, it was in chronological order. It was the mom’s life, she dies, and then Josie continues. But it didn’t fit well. It didn’t work well for me because I wanted to show the cyclical nature of abuse and how we’ve come to where we are and that we’re still in the cycle.
When I wrote Grace, which was before the election of Trump, people were saying, “Why are we still telling these slave narratives?” And I tell them it’s because we’re still in it. There’s still people angry, who think that something wrong happened. People who think the Civil War—they think everything was wrong. They’re still angry and they still want these things, and we’re still in it and we don’t even realize that we’re in it. We haven’t told this story—exposed this thing. And now we’re seeing it so much, this hate and this anger that never went away. We haven’t healed.
We’ve grown a scab over the wound [of slavery] but it’s all infected. There’s pus underneath it. On top it looks like it’s healing and it’s fine until you take the stitches out and it oozes a little bit…
We’ve grown a scab over the wound but it’s all infected. There’s pus underneath it. On top it looks like it’s healing and it’s fine until you take the stitches out and it oozes a little bit; the pus oozes out, and it’s like, oh, it’s still not healed underneath that skin.
To me, that’s what we’re seeing right now in society. But when I wrote the story, I wanted to show the cyclical nature, that we’re still in this. We haven’t fixed a lot of problems and the problems that we have just passed down from generation to generation.
The reason I chose the flashbacks for the mom is because I’ve always generally been fascinated with people who have near-death experiences. They say, “My life flashed in front of my eyes,” and then they tell the story. And I wonder (and that’s something I put in the book): who chooses what we get to see in our lives? What impression, what moment: being at a wedding, seeing our child being born, meeting the love of our life. Whatever that is, who shows us that? What in our brain, what chemical reaction made us save that one, made us say, “Let’s bookmark this.” Do we do that or does something else? Does the universe do that?
I wanted to use that as a structure to go back in time to show how the narrator came to her moment, but also to show the cyclical nature of Josie going forward. How we’re still in this cycle until we choose to break it. Like any cycle of abuse, you have to choose to walk away. Or choose to deal with it head-on and move away from it. But when we pretend like it’s not there, we end up staying in it. We go from one abusive relationship to another one to another one with a different-looking person but it’s still the same kind of abuse in a different way.
For America, I think that was the theme that I wanted to talk about. How do we look at this thing head-on and choose to do something different? We’re doing that now with the election of Trump. So we’re looking at this thing. Problems that have never resolved and seeing that we’ve only been forming new abusive relationships instead of fixing the problem.
JG: At a seminar during Antioch’s December 2016 MFA residency, you mentioned that at one point your editors wanted you to eliminate the spirituality part, which would have resulted in taking out half the book. Can you tell us how you dealt with that request and about your final decision to stick to your original intention?
ND: I knew that my editor knew what he was talking about. Because I’d gone through the MFA program and had dealt with so much criticism, I had to trust that he knew what he was talking about and that it wasn’t working, but I also had to make the decision that I wanted it to work and that I was going to have to earn it. So, I needed to do better. Sometimes people can be right but only you the writer know how to fix your own work. They can only offer you suggestions. That’s one part. It’s earning it. And then the second part is knowing why you’re going to make the change. If I don’t understand or agree with the reason for changing something, I won’t change it. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever change it. It means that either I need to grow as a writer and come to that or just not do it. So, usually I don’t make changes until I can understand why and justify them in my own mind. It doesn’t matter if they’re right or not because at the end of the day, the book on the shelf is your book with your name on it, and it’s your decision. If you don’t understand a comment then don’t do anything, because eventually, down the road, as you grow as a writer, you come to that [realization] if they’re right. It’ll happen anyway.
JG: That’s what happened with Grace?
ND: By changing other things that weren’t even related to the spirituality, in the sense that certain things had to change that informed each other. There’s a scene between two of the characters—a love scene between two of the women characters. My editor said, “No, you can’t have that”—but the reason he gave didn’t matter to me. I don’t care what people will think about it. Those things didn’t matter to me. What mattered was that I wanted to show this loving relationship and then the type of relationship that it was, but as I began to write, I didn’t need that scene. He said it didn’t work [for] reasons that I didn’t agree with, but it turned out it didn’t work for a whole different reason. It didn’t need to be there. I didn’t want it to be gratuitous. There’s so much violence, there’s sex in the book already, and I didn’t want to water down the loving relationship. He was right that it didn’t need to be there, but for different reasons.
As I changed that part of the story—they’re not going to have sex here—it was the butterfly effect. You can take out something else because you don’t need this conversation, you don’t need this. Because everything serves the story to get you to this point and then it starts changing.
The spirituality part, surprisingly, it’s working out. Everything changes each part that’s connected to it. It changes. I started to understand different things about the story and once I cut one chapter, I understood the spirituality thing better. I was telling [Naomi’s] abilities in the beginning. That was one thing that happened. Telling how she was moving. Once I took that out I realized that it didn’t matter, and there was a way I could make it part of the action. People could learn things without me telling them things, without me telling them the rules. It just changed the whole flow of the novel.
So, she still does the same thing. But I don’t have to tell the reader, here’s the rules, now remember these rules, now let’s apply them. So many stories tell you the rules. Those were the films that I was watching. For example, “This is your scepter and it does this.” Instead, she just did it through action. You see her passing through things; you see her doing things.
JG: Speaking of sex scenes, you also mentioned that your pastor asked to see the manuscript and that you were quite nervous about it, especially the sex scenes. What was his reaction, and was it what you expected?
ND: No, it wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t show it to him before it came out. I showed it to him after the book was already in imprint and going out. I didn’t want any regrets or anything to make me feel bad about it. But he read it, and he said, “I read the whole thing.” (Nobody ever asks me about the sex scenes [laughing]. Of all the interviews I’ve done, no one says anything. This is the first time.) I said, “So you read the sex scenes?” He said, “I read the whole thing.” I said, “Okay.” And I just left it at that. That was that.
JG: Early on in Grace, there’s a place where Naomi says that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting the bad you deserve and grace is getting a good thing even when you don’t deserve it. Naomi says she would have named her daughter Grace had she had the opportunity to name her. Can you elaborate on how this theme plays out in the story?
Social justice isn’t so much standing to defend as it is about understanding what the other side is saying, coming to some middle point. In order to stand, you have to be a bridge in society. That’s what social justice is. Standing up for yourself and being a bridge.
ND: First of all, Naomi gets to be with her daughter even after she’s passed away. She gets to be there for her, in her life. Which is getting something more than she thought she deserved. She’d killed somebody, not the person she’d been accused of killing, but she had killed somebody. But even though she’s dead and she’s supposed to move on, she doesn’t. She gets this time, these years, to spend with her daughter when she’s alive, though she’s not able to touch her, not until the end when she gets to touch her grandchild. To me, all of that is grace—getting something more than she thought she deserved. Also, sometimes people deserve justice and that’s also what happens in the ending. To me, it was a merger of all these things: mercy, grace, and justice at the end of the book, where they all come together.
That line that you’re reading is the last thing I wrote in the whole novel. I had no idea that that’s what I was writing about until it was over. I got a fellowship to go to Belgium, and I was sitting there and I was supposed to be there for ten days writing, and my editor already had Grace. We were beginning to do the edits. I was sitting there and I was supposed to be writing and editing—and I only wrote that one line, and that was it for the whole ten days.
JG: What advice would you have for young writers today who want to write about social justice for African-Americans and women in our society?
ND: I would tell them first of all to read, to live, to travel. To travel even if it is to the town next-door. Even if you can’t afford Belgium or something like that, or you don’t get a fellowship and you can’t go to New York or Boston. Travel to the next city over and just sit in a café and listen to people. Go places where people don’t agree with you. To understand.
You don’t want to preach to the choir. You want to preach to change hearts, to change minds. Social justice isn’t so much standing to defend as it is about understanding what the other side is saying, coming to some middle point. In order to stand, you have to be a bridge in society. That’s what social justice is. Standing up for yourself and being a bridge. Right now, we live in a society so divided, one against the other. I guarantee you even people who are on my side, we call it the Christian left or just the left, the social justice side, there are people even on my side, who if they get in power their plan is to crush the other side. Now you have exactly what’s happening to us that’s going to happen to the other side. It goes back and forth. I believe in a different America, where we can live respectfully with each other. We have to listen to each other, at some point be a bridge, but still stand up against injustices. That’s social justice. Defending, standing, and also being a bridge so we can have a better America instead of becoming the bullies we hate or being bullied. It’s another option.
JG: What are you working on now?
ND: I have a new novel right now. I’m really excited about it. It’s a historical novel, and has a supernatural element. I’m excited because I haven’t actually gotten too far into it—everything is a possibility when you start. It’s exciting to be beyond the blank page, the frightening blank page. I know how it goes and I’m so excited. You know, once you start writing it can be like, I suck, I’m horrible, this is the worst story ever written. But right now, I’m on the high and am thinking, This is great!
JG: What time period does it take place in?
ND: So far, I think the early 1900s. But I don’t want to say too much—I don’t want to jinx it!