Natashia Deón is the author of the novel Grace. She’s 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. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Rattling Wall, B O D Y, The Feminist Wire, and You: An Anthology of Second Person Essays, among others. She has taught creative writing for Gettysburg College, PEN Center USA, and 826LA. A practicing lawyer, she currently teaches law at Trinity Law School.
To read an exercise on creating tension by playing against reader expectation based on Grace, click here. (If you’re in the Austin area, you can see Deón at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday at 2:00 on a panel with Yaa Gyasi.)
In this interview, Deón discusses writing in dialect, writing within genre perceptions and writing violence.
In an interview at The Nervous Breakdown, you quoted Walt Whitman: “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.” How did you find that close-to-the-ground entry to the language of the characters in your book? To my reading ear, it sounded fresh and almost contemporary, not stilted the way that some historical fiction dialogue can. What was your approach to these characters’ language?
In every writing class I had ever taken before finishing Grace, I had been taught that one of the golden rules of writing was to never write in dialect. And even though “the rules,” which otherwise seemed sound, also said that it was acceptable to deviate from these “rules,” every writing instructor, writer, speaker, who discussed language and voice always seemed to come back to that same advice: Don’t write in dialect. Or, if you do, do so sparingly. I struggled with that advice. I struggled because the voice I wanted to create for the main character, the narrator of Grace, was in dialect. For a long time, it kept me from writing at all.
Eventually, I gave myself permission. Not because someone told me yes but because I told myself yes. Every day, writers have to tell themselves yes. You are good enough. What you have to say is good enough. You matter.
Maybe it seems obvious to other writers. It wasn’t for me. And coming to that realization was a moment of freedom. But permission was only the beginning. New questions arose about dialect. For instance, I didn’t want readers to assume that my narrator’s dialect was a reflection of her intellect as people often—wrongly—assume about a southern accent. But, rather, that her language was an expression of her exposure and physical limitations. As a writer, this was one of my biggest challenges. How would she express herself if she didn’t know a word like “compete” or “busking?” If it wasn’t in her vocabulary, how would she say those words without using the word? Then I’d have her describe the word in three words or less. And here she was about to narrate the entire novel. In something like poetry.
Maya Angelou once said, “English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything.” In writing Grace, I had to decide what I wanted the language to do. In the early drafts, the dialect was much more rugged. I thought accuracy was the primary point of dialect. So the language in Grace was phonetically accurate to the time and place. And it didn’t sit well with me. As I revised, I began to understand that I was creating a language pattern, somewhere in between the past and our present use of English in the U.S. And in this new understanding, I had to make a decision about how hard I wanted readers to work, and about other craft issues like what I wanted the dialect to do. Do in the sense that everything in a scene, every word, serves the scene. If I read that there’s a fire burning in the fireplace, it needs to serve—ambiance, some future purpose, frame a moment, a thought. Usually, it does more than one thing. In the same way, my narrator’s language had to serve and not just exist on the page…accurately.
So, her language evolves in the novel as she goes on her journey, and it reaches us here in the future, blending the past and present together, which is one of the themes in Grace. For this reason, her language softens. She learns new words, speaks differently as she’s exposed to new people, new experiences. The same way you or I would. And in this way, her language is close to the ground. It is alive. And my goal was for readers, after the first chapter or so, to read it effortlessly.
In a recent New Yorker review of the film Birth of a Nation, Vinson Cunningham writes, “The formulas of this genre are nearly as old as the movies. They were introduced to audiences at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted, over and over, for the screen…This decade has seen another burst of interest: in 2013 alone, there were seven feature films about slavery. Most of them bore the distinct trappings of upper-middlebrow art—they were the sorts of movie that attract critical plaudits and awards.” He goes on to write, “Slavery in this country was never a hero’s journey. It is a ghost story,” As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of your book, which, of course, is a ghost story. Your novel also doesn’t strike me as “upper-middlebrow art.” And, because of Naomi’s journey out of slavery, it feels like a different approach to the “slavery genre.” How much did you try to write toward or away from the ways this type of story has been told in the past?
When I first began to write Grace, as strange as this may sound, I never set out to write a slave narrative. All of the main characters are not slaves. I saw them first as people, not defined by their station, though their station was of serious consequence.
For me, Grace is and was always a story about women. Women who are survivors, who fight valiantly, and learned to keep their dignity and humanity despite their circumstances. Women who created families of their choosing when family was withheld from them—families that were more than blood but a powerful kind of kinship. And the black people in this story, some of whom are slaves, were not only brutalized bodies or victims of a dehumanizing system, but resilient lovers, dreamers, mothers, daughters, thinkers, heroes, and more. This was always Grace. And Grace is also a slave narrative.
There is diversity even within genres, within any life, real or imagined. Freedom in Grace isn’t a place to get to. It’s not north. It’s a question that all of the characters—Black, White, Latina, and other, have to ask themselves. It’s what we all have to ask ourselves today. Is what we have right now freedom?
I am honored that Grace is included with other great books about slavery—Beloved, The Known World, and others. And because America hasn’t been out of slavery for as long as we were in it, I imagine that there are books coming in the future that will continue to give fresh eyes to this period of time. And those books, like books about baseball, won’t care how many brothers or sisters it has.
The book contains some scenes that are really difficult to read: graphically-rendered murder and sexual violence. The scenes aren’t gratuitous at all. Each one is necessary and well-written, but I also wonder if you worried about losing readers. To paragraph a character from the novel, not all women have the same sort of strong, and not all readers have the same capability for reading scenes and stories like these. Did you think at all about how to keep readers turning the page in the midst or after such scenes?
Yes, I worried about losing readers. But not when I was writing it. I wanted to stay true to the story, to the things that have haunted me in dealing with violence in real life. Our country, our world, is a violent place. We live in a society where even death and the dead are removed from our sight at once. And most of us are blessed to be removed from those realities and the realities of violence, except for occasional episodes in our lives, or what we see on our computer, phone or television screens. I say this because almost all of the descriptions of violence in Grace are details of real life cases I haven’t been in a position to look away from as an attorney, a friend, family member, etc. The violence in Grace was my response to the quintessential command: Write what you know. The violence rings true because it is true. Of course, fictionalized. But I didn’t want to hold back in creating. I was asking readers to trust me to get them through it. I wanted to be trustworthy, for my narrator to be trustworthy. It was a gamble. A choice. And in the end, I wrote the book that I wanted to read, that I felt compelled to write, that I felt readers were ready and mature enough to hear. One that was honest in every way that it could be.