Interview with Natashia Deón

Read it Forward's editor Abbe Wright interviews Natashia Deón about her debut novel Grace.

natashia deon

Natashia Deón’s debut novel Grace is a sweeping, intergenerational saga featuring a group of outcast women during one of the most compelling eras in American history. It is a universal story of freedom, love, and motherhood, told in a dazzling and original voice set against a rich and transporting historical backdrop. It was named one of the Best Books of 2016 by Jennifer Senior in the New York Times, People magazine called it “an immersive tale” and Newsday deemed the novel a “haunting portrait of slavery, love, and violence.”

In Grace, after she escapes the brutal confines of life on an Alabama plantation, fifteen-year-old Naomi learns that, for a runaway slave in the 1840s south, life on the run can be just as dangerous as life under a sadistic Massa. Striking out on her own, she must leave behind her beloved Momma and sister Hazel and take refuge in a Georgia brothel run by a freewheeling, gun-toting Jewish madam named Cynthia. There, amidst a revolving door of gamblers, prostitutes, and drunks, Naomi falls into a star-crossed love affair with a smooth-talking white man named Jeremy who frequents the brothel’s dice tables too often.

The product of Naomi and Jeremy’s union is Josey, whose white skin and blonde hair mark her as different from the other slave children on the plantation. Having been taken in as an infant by a free slave named Charles, Josey has never known her mother, who was murdered at her birth. Josey soon becomes caught in the tide of history when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reaches the declining estate and a day of supposed freedom quickly turns into a day of unfathomable violence that will define Josey — and her lost mother — for years to come.

Naomi narrates the entire novel from beyond the grave, unable to leave her daughter alone in the land of the living, and the result is unforgettable. Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright sat down with author Natashia Deón to learn more about the root of the idea for this novel and the sometimes-fraught relationships mothers have with their daughters. 

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Read It Forward: This novel has an incredibly innovative storyline. Where did the idea come to you?

Natashia Deón: Well, my son was sick and I was walking down the hallway, always holding him. I had a vision or daydream, whatever you want to call it—I feel like a weirdo every time I describe how it went down—but, it was nighttime and I was in the woods. I remember it was a full moon and there was a girl. She was running in a yellow dress that had blood on it, and she was pregnant. Shortly after—it happened so fast—she gave birth and then she was shot and killed. That’s the opening of the novel. I was holding my son at the time, and I told my husband who was sitting on the sofa, “You have to hold him, I need to write down what I just saw.” It hasn’t changed really since I wrote it all those years ago.

RIF: And in your mind was that always the opening scene of this novel?

ND: No. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t do anything with it at first. I was like, okay, I have something, and it came to me so powerfully, it was so real, almost like I was there. I saw it, and then I didn’t do anything, Then my mom’s friend died. She was Jewish and a former prostitute and when she died, I suddenly knew what the whole story was about. I wanted to honor her, how to create a character about her that showed her complications and how scary she was in life, but how she had so much heart.

RIF: At the crux of this book are relationships between women. How they can be uplifting and how they can be thorny. Why are women so complex, especially when dealing with one another?

ND: That’s a great question. I think it’s because we don’t have a defined place. We just get this little piece of the pie, and we think we have to protect it. We don’t understand that there’s enough pie for everyone. Men, they’re comfortable. Their roles are defined. They can be whatever they want. But women, if you’re not in a home, then what? If you’re not protected by your family or you’re not married or if you don’t have children, what are you? I wanted to explore what freedom means to different women. You have to redefine what it means to be a working woman when there are no role models. What was it like to be Hillary Clinton during the election? How do you behave? If she was talking like Trump was, she would be considered crazy.

RIF: Right. And eviscerated even more than she was. 

ND: Yes. But she’s done all the things. She’s married, she had a baby, but then she also got a lot of power. In our insecurity, we start lashing out at other people. Women can’t be comfortable when it’s always shaky ground for you and everybody around you.

RIF: What seems to always be fraught are mother-daughter relationships, and there are a lot of those in this book. Why are those so compelling to write and explore as a writer? Especially, as a mother yourself.

ND: I wanted to look at the idea that not every woman has the same kind of strength. We don’t all have the strength to raise three children, like her daughter who just can’t keep it together. We assume that we all have to be strong in the same ways. If some man hurt us, there’s one woman who’s like, forget it. I can just move onto the next one. But there’s another one that can’t move on. That was everything. And that’s okay. We have to be okay. It’s the same thing with mother and daughter. Daughters aren’t going to be like their mothers. For the most part, mothers have conquered something and they don’t even think to teach it to their children. Why do we have to teach them, you know? Then it becomes a criticism of their child, like, why don’t you know this? Even though the mother has learned this thing. And for that daughter, they look at their mom and say, “I don’t want to be anything like you.” That’s usually the thing. I don’t want that. It’s not who I am.

RIF: A lot of what the mothers go through are specifically to protect their daughters from ever living the same experience.

ND: Yep.

RIF: Hazel and her mother do it almost wordlessly. There are varying degrees of strength.

ND: Not everybody can be Joan of Arc rushing into the field. Sometimes you want a support team. We don’t have to all be Hillary Clinton, but we can be on the ground. We’re all connected.

RIF: So describe using a ghost as a narrator. To me this is one of the coolest parts of this book—a narrator that gets to live on past the moment when their heart stops. Describe how powerful that was to write.

ND: I have to believe that ghosts exist because I feel like I saw something. My son is disabled and I was sitting there with one of his therapists one day. She had just lost her mom and I remember I was watching her play with him. She didn’t really want to talk about her mother, and she didn’t mention it to me. My husband mentioned it to me because they had called him to say she may not be there. So she hadn’t said anything, but I remember sitting there playing, and a line in the book just came to me. What I heard was, losing someone is like a regret and having those regrets is like needing something so desperately that’s come and gone an hour ago. You don’t have money or means to get to that person and touch and talk to them. I heard that in that moment, but it’s not something that I think about normally. Like, what is it like to be dead? What are they doing now? But it occurred to me right then. It didn’t make sense. I wasn’t working on the book at that moment but then I understood and I was like, I have to put that in the book. That’s really good. I believe that in that way, they are talking to us, we can hear them. Writing this book has made me believe that ghosts exist because thoughts that aren’t even mine occur to me. For her mom to have just died suddenly, and that line, it felt like she was trying to reach her—

RIF: Through you.

ND: Like come and gone an hour ago and it’s too late. I didn’t believe in ghosts—in Christianity, there’s no place for that, it’s just silly. But it’s not. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.

RIF: The ghost in the book wakes up with the rest of the community and sees her daughter. She is right there like aching to touch her, but just witnessing is enough. It has to be. I love that part where she was like, I could go see my own mother, but I’m compelled to stay here and bear witness to this little girl’s life. If you had your druthers, what do you hope readers take away from this story?

ND: That there’s hope for the future, that we’re all surrounded by so much love. There are so many distractions that keep us from seeing that. I could feel it around me, but not everybody has that. I believe that there’s love, I believe that there’s hope. I believe that for everyone, especially women, especially at this time, being able to find that even as you’re walking through fear, we still keep focused on that love and that thing to keep moving us forward. Because you have to act even when you’re afraid, right? Every character, whether it’s Cynthia who’s running a business, even though she’s afraid this world, she’s a businesswoman. Everything is on the line. How do you find happiness even when you’re afraid? We have to because everything will tell you to stop. All I have to do is stand on my mark, do this thing, and it’ll be fine.

RIF: How did you find the time to write this? You’re a lawyer, you teach at law school, you’re a mom, and you’re a full-time wife. So in the tiny amount of spare time that I imagine you have, when did you do this?

ND: It took a long time—

RIF: And it’s not a novella!

ND: No. I write when I’m sitting with myself reading emails or playing with my son. I get this, “I have to write that down,” so I’m writing it down even though I’m doing other things. It makes it easy because all of a sudden I know what this chapter is about, or this paragraph. I don’t know where it fits but I know that I’m supposed to say something like that. Things will occur to me and I’ll write them out. I’ll have a line or two and then so when it’s time to get down and write for an hour, I know where I’m going.

RIF: Did you find turning your brain to a different task, whether it was getting on the floor and playing with your kids or drawing up a legal brief, did that help with the creative process? Like when you’re taking a shower and then a genius idea comes to you.

ND: Well, the type of work that I do is post-conviction. Erasing records, pardons, things like that. So I’m retelling this person’s story to say that they’re rehabilitated, that they can move on without this stigma in their past, this shame that everybody can see when you get a job or a house. Everybody knows what you did at 18, 19, even though you’re 50-years old—you’ve done it. Okay? You’re done. But that’s not how our society works. It’s chained to you.

RIF: You are marked.

ND: So we tell the story of what they’ve done since then. Now they’re volunteering here and they’re doing this. But sometimes people aren’t rehabilitated and I know it, and you know I know, and that’s in the book too. There’s a line in the book where I have this child molester. I usually don’t represent child molesters; they’re difficult. But I have this one guy and I’m raising this statement of the daughter who didn’t want to come who was the one molested. She was describing the moment when he first touched her. He admitted to giving her alcohol and they were smoking weed when she was 11. They’re at the dining room table, and then she falls into him because she was drunk, intoxicated. Her hand lands on his thigh and she’s like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, dad.” And he goes, “Don’t worry. You can touch me wherever you want.” That haunts me, like why would anyone say something like that? So it doesn’t make it hard to create a character who is a predator, who would be waiting for that opportunity.

RIF: Right. And how when you’re not a predator, how could you possibly get into that mindset?

ND: Exactly. What are the things that cause it? Why do they stop and come back to it? There are one-offs, so I try to distinguish some crimes. In the book, I talk about the heat of passion, somebody who just is dark—who’s just black. People make mistakes but there are also people who are what in law I call “on fire.” They’re in their crime, they’re on a cycle. Like every two months, it usually flares up again.

RIF: Like a forest fire.

ND: Like a forest fire. Every two or three months the people with psychological issues, it’s always on a cycle, it never stops. People think, “Oh, he’s fine now. You know, the problem’s over, we dealt with it.” But it’ll come back, and you can almost time it. It’s freaky.

RIF: Wow. There’s almost a corollary between your work and America’s past, going from slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation. All of a sudden, with this proclamation, people’s lives didn’t change necessarily; they were still marked forever—and have to carry, even though they’re now a “free” black man or woman, they’re still marred by society’s perceptions.

ND: Exactly. It’s kind of like this example just came to me. A long time ago when I was little, in the summers, we used to watch reruns of like very old shows. Like old Monkees and, Gidget. There was a show called Mister Ed, about the talking horse?

RIF: Oh, I remember Mister Ed. Yeah.

ND: A talking horse, like, wow, that’s cool. But it’s almost like that. Like I’m not really a horse, I’m a talking horse. But if anybody just sees the horse walking, it’s a horse. You might be able to talk but you’re still a horse. It’s the same thing. People are still looking at them saying, there’s no perception shift.

RIF: What has been the wildest part of this whole debut novel experience?

ND: Talking to you. Just all of it. All of it. The New York Times, People Magazine, Time. All of these things that I’ve loved and now I’m like, why is my name in there? I want to be able to support my family, I want to spend time with my children, I want people to read this novel. But when people are inviting me places, I’m like, “What?” You know it’s just me.

RIF: This book is incredibly powerful. It urges us to think about what’s beyond what our eyes can see and what we have experienced.

ND: I was reading a quote by Albert Einstein who said: “It is entirely possible that behind the perception of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we are unaware.” Our eyes can only see these colors, this physical world, we can only feel the things that we feel.

RIF: Right. But, what if there’s something out happening just right in front of our hands?

ND: Right now.

RIF: Yeah.

ND: Believe. Believe.

NATASHIA DEÓN is the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and has been awarded fellowships and residencies at Yale, Bread Loaf, Dickinson House in Belgium, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Named one of 2013’s Most Fascinating People by L.A. Weekly, she has an MFA from UC Riverside and is the creator of the popular LA-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit. She is a practicing lawyer.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.