A haunting excerpt from GRACE, the debut novel by Natashia Deón universally hailed as a new, essential slave novel, and a revealing Q&A with the author on how her work delving into our country’s dark past relates to Black Lives Matter, racism, oppression, sex, power, transformation and, even, love.
It’s Johnny. The ten-year-old boy that Cynthia dance with.
I saw him attack a grown man once.
I came in from fetching eggs and found him waiting like a cowboy at high noon. He had readied hisself for the man to come out his momma’s bedroom, had his painted clay marbles tucked between his knuckles. When he caught me watching him, I smiled. But he turned away from me, focused.
I hid myself behind Bernardette’s door and from there, watched the boy watch the man through the crack of his momma’s door. Her noisemaking wasn’t motherly. Only the parlor music that spilled in the hall offered relief.
But when Man finished his pleasure inside his momma, Man held her the way she holds Johnny at night. So when Man walked out, Johnny beat him around the waist with both fists, caught one in Man’s crotch. Man twisted Johnny’s arms behind him. Told Cynthia, control your son, said, have a nice day.
Happened so fast, Cynthia didn’t do nothin.
Johnny lets men walk by now.
He watches ’em go in her door one way, buckling their belts on the way out. They step over him in the doorway like he ain’t a boy wanting his momma.
We all hear her good reasons through our thin walls and empty hallways. She yell, she got bills to pay, his mouth to feed, clothes and shelter Johnny needs.
We only grumble. Go back to our own hard days and hard nights. I tend to my swollen and parched brown ankles—be on my feet all day—got to shut up the voices in my head telling me to leave this place and go North. But Johnny, he’s tracking years, thinking of the future, wanting his momma’s touches, remembering the present as if it’s time already gone.
So sometimes, he’ll hang on her arm when a customer comes, wanting her to touch him, even if it’s to push him away.
Sometimes, he’ll kick and scream ’til she picks him up—an accident hug—before she sets him at the end of the hallway.
Sometimes, when she in the middle of her doing her business, he’ll walk in on her. Stand next to her. Asking for water.
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AFLW: Your book is set in the slavery-era South yet you’re an L.A.-based writer. Did you go back to Alabama to do research and write or did you research and write the majority of the book in Los Angeles? What was your writing process?
Natashia Deón: I went back to Alabama in my memory. As a child, I used to spend my summers there in Tallassee, Alabama, which is one of the main settings in GRACE. My family is from there and some of us still live there. It was where we were when American slavery ended so it’s in my blood.
I wrote the book mostly here in Los Angeles but discovered its structure while in Virginia on a writing residency. The novel took almost seven years to complete but I wasn’t always writing earnestly. That happened in the last two years.
When I started writing GRACE, I had two children under two years old, was working two full time jobs and was commuting three to four hours a day for the first three years of the book, so I learned to write whenever I could. In traffic. At a stop light. At lunch. Getting one good sentence out became a victory. I still write this way.
AFLW: GRACE, which is your debut novel, is receiving national acclaim as a new, essential slave novel from outlets like the New York Times, Buzzfeed and People, and is on nearly every summer must-read list out there. Beyond the sheer compelling nature of your writing, why do you feel it’s resonating so deeply for so many right now?
ND: It’s funny. In recent days, weeks and years as I’ve written this story, I’ve heard some version of, “I don’t want to read another book (or watch a film) about slavery. We want to move on already.” I was expecting silence, not the embrace that’s been happening. But like in every field, there are silences, too.
There has always been a push to limit the voices and experiences of people of color in this country. It used to be a racist’s position — “Too much history and I’ve heard your complaint already” — but more and more it has become the position of other people who think they’ve moved on. People want to see something else. Other stories told about Black life. As if it’s not all related and there’s not room for those, too. We haven’t even been out of slavery in America for as long as we were in it.
Life has a way of repeating itself until we understand the lessons. At least change our frame of mind, our approach to the same problem.
I think GRACE says, “Surprise, we’re still here. There’s something else to see. And we can’t fix it till we face it. Not just the pain of it but the ghosts that remain in our systems and in the way we see each other. Or don’t see.”
Three million people—slaves — were freed with the swipe of President Lincoln’s pen on the document called the Emancipation Proclamation. Those 3 million were the survivors. Two hundred and fifty years of slavery is a long run for any nation, enslaved or not, and it has been reduced to a few dozen acclaimed books, plays and experiences, and we think everything has been said. We’ve got it. And this means that the stories that have been told represent every slave’s experience. Not one was unique. That is as absurd as saying President Obama represents the Black male experience. Write that book and we’re done. Part of our problem is that we need to see ourselves, Black people, as people. Those slaves were individuals who dreamed and loved and had hopes in a system that devalued them. And here we are again, America, shouting “Black lives matter.” And others are saying, “But we know that, don’t we?”
I think GRACE’s acclaim has come, in part, by showing that there is something else to see here. Maybe we haven’t gotten it all. Maybe what we haven’t gotten is the basis of America’s new slaveries. Maybe the Underground Railroad was not the savior we were taught it was, neither was the Emancipation Proclamation. Maybe there were women we ignore in our telling of history that includes the lives and deaths of millions upon millions of people. Black men, women and children. Individuals like us. And it asks the question, “Is what we have right now, freedom?”
But more than that, GRACE isn’t just about slavery. Yes, that’s part of it. It’s who we were as a country and this is how it was for hundreds of years as matter-of-factly as birds being outside of your window right now. Somewhere. But this is also a story about women, motherhood, love and fear. And how we move forward and dare to live even when we’re afraid.
I think it resonates with people because it tries to tell the whole truth.
AFLW: Your novel revolves around a multiracial cast of women subjected to tremendous sexual and physical violence and yet you selected this upending excerpt about a boy’s longing for his mother who trades her body for money in response to our theme centered on the complexity, beauty and hardship of life. In a way, your book shares this theme with its every word. What was your intention of the book or message you wanted to give your readers?
ND: In the history of the world, women have traded their sexual value and submission for protection by men. Some call it marriage. Not always marriage. Some men have abused that. I’ve read that one in five women have experienced mental and/or physical abuse in their lifetime by men. This book stays true to those statistics and the realities of womanhood. I didn’t create those statistics for GRACE. Those scenarios created GRACE. But things are changing. Have changed. We’re owning our bodies, demanding a chance to be paid fairly, etc. It allows us to decide our own value and forces others to value other parts of us. This is not to say marriage has no value, it does. It’s a privilege to do life with another person helping to carry the burdens of life. This is not anti-men. This is women saying, “Don’t abuse me. Financially or otherwise. And I can love you just as eagerly and willingly this other way.”
AFLW: You created a subversive and supportive reading series in L.A. called Dirty Laundry Lit. How has the L.A. literary community helped you develop as a writer?
I definitely think it’s supportive. Maybe truth feels subversive. Love is a revolutionary act. Any time you have writers supporting other writers … or any type of community for that matter supporting each other, you create fertile ground for everyone to grow. In this way, I’ve grown, too. Dirty Laundry Lit has allowed me to meet and build friendship with amazing artists and people, and has allowed others to do the same. My partner in crime, Jeff Eyres, is a large part of the heartbeat of Dirty Laundry Lit. With our deejay, DJ Cazel, and the help of PEN Center USA, we were able to create something that feels a lot like love.
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Natashia Deón is the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and was recently named one of L.A.’s “Most Fascinating People” by L.A. Weekly. A writer, lawyer and law professor, she is also the creator of the popular L.A.-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit. Her writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Buzzfeed, The Rattling Wall, B O D Y, The Rumpus, The Feminist Wire, Asian American Lit Review and other places. Her debut novel, GRACE (Counterpoint Press), is out now.