An Interview with Visiting MFA Faculty Natashia Deón
Antioch LA Visiting MFA Faculty in fiction, Natashia Deón, is a NAACP Image Award Nominee and author of the critically-acclaimed novel, Grace. Awarded the 2017 American Library Association’s Black Caucus Award Winner for Best Debut Fiction, Grace was also named a New York Times Top Book 2016, a Kirkus Review Best Book of 2016, and a Book Riot, The Root, and Entropy Magazine Favorite Book of 2016.
A practicing criminal attorney and law professor, Deón is the mother of two, and is the creator of the popular L.A.-based reading series’ Dirty Laundry Lit and The Table.
Her writing has appeared in Lenny, American Short Fiction, Buzzfeed, LA Review of Books, The Feminist Wire, Asian American Lit Review, Rattling Wall and other places.
In January, Deón spoke with Antioch about what justice means, writing, evolutions in her ideas of literary citizenship, and what it’s been like to live a life dedicated to social justice.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Antioch: Let’s start by taking a step out of the literary world to see what we can glean about your lawerly ideas of justice and citizenship. What does justice mean to you?
Natashia Deón: Justice to me is a moving target. It is peace of mind for the person who was victimized, which is to say it can mean something different for everyone and that there is not a one-size-fits-all definition of justice.
For instance, if we were talking about a death penalty case you could have many family members who have suffered the loss of someone who has been murdered—it could be a mother, a brother, a wife. Depending on who they are personally, they might want the death penalty—they might want the person to be killed. But for someone else in the family justice might mean a sentence of life in prison.
Of course, justice can be found without connotations of punishment, too, for instance, for women who have been victimized, say 30 years ago. For them justice could be making a stand, saying what they need to say just to be heard, and being taken seriously. So justice can mean something different for different people, what it means exactly I can’t say. All I know is I believe justice exists.
Antioch: So is justice something that you’ve had to take on faith or is it something you’ve actually experienced?
Natashia Deón: Oh I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen it. The legal work that I do is to work with people who have committed crimes and I’m often sitting next to them as they come to terms with what they’ve done.
Like last week, I was sitting next to a client in court asking for his rights to be restored, asking for him to be treated as a citizen again. His crime was recent, back in 2008, when a man cut him off in traffic, and my client got out of his car and shot the guy with his gun. He could have killed him but fortunately, by the grace of God, he lived.
I met my client back then and to be standing next to him now is to stand next to a different man. You would never expect that this person would have a violent bone in his body. He has children, he is actually the primary caregiver now to his autistic son, and he is really such a gentle man. He is so regretful. He says he had an anger problem, he says that he was ten years younger and dumber, and he says that he is sorry.
Last week at the hearing, the man he shot showed up—he limped in through the door just to sit in the audience. I turned to him and asked him if he had anything to share and he just said, “No,” he was just there to see what would happen. He had let go. So, you see? A person’s idea of justice always depends on who is seeking it, how they seek it, and that person’s idea of justice can change over time. People want the world to be black and white but it’s not.
Antioch: I’m not surprised you have an appreciation for the grey, it seems like your writing tends to explore the in-between—is that part of why you started writing?
Natashia Deón: I don’t know… but I don’t think I ever started writing—I think I’ve always written stories—it’s just that I never considered myself a writer. Writing was just something I did to entertain my little sister and brother to help pass the time. I’ve always been telling stories but I never believed I could be a writer, at least not until a lot later.
Antioch: When did you believe?
Natashia Deón: Hmm… I first started to trust my voice after I picked up this book, Saphire’s, Push. I remember reading the first page and thinking, “Whoa, you can tell a story like this? In this voice?” Push was eventually turned into the movie Precious, which is a story about a girl in the projects who has a baby with Down Syndrome. She is the narrator of the story but she doesn’t sound like she’s supposed to, at not least according to the narrators I was used to reading, because she doesn’t have perfect diction, you know? And I was like, “You can write this way and people will publish it? You can do that?”
Antioch: I’m curious, even after you realized it was possible to write true to your voice, did you still have ambivalence when putting that voice on the paper?
Natashia Deón: No, but only because I had such a powerful impetus.
See, I had this weird vision right before I started writing Grace. I was with my son being transported to this other place and that became the opening of the novel. When it happened, I felt like I had to tell that story, I had to tell the story of the girl who I saw in that vision and I was compelled to finish the book with her as a sort of imaginary finish line.
But of course, it didn’t go as I expected. At first I wrote it as a short screenplay and when I finished it started winning awards, like all over the country. Next thing I know I’m sitting in a meeting with someone who wanted to option it—haha! They probably never should have invited me in because as they are talking about my story I’m just like, “No, that’s not how it goes,” and, “No, that’s not who Cynthia is.” So I didn’t sell it to them because I realized I needed to write the story myself. Once it was done and once I’d told it my way, then they could buy it and make their movie.
Antioch: Earlier you said, “nothing in this world is black and white,” and I’m wondering if you’d apply that same idea to the protagonist in Grace, to Josie, the daughter of a black slave and a white man who is born with white-ish skin and blond hair. It seems like you positioned her as the embodiment of the grey, the place in-between. Does that ring true for you? What was it like for you to imagine her place in the world?
Natashia Deón: For me to write Josie, to write any character really, is just understanding that people have been the same for thousands and thousands and thousand of years. We still have needs. We still hunger. We still smile and laugh. We still want familial bonds. For me it’s community that binds, not only us, but our storytelling. So with Josie I wanted to show humanity, how we have always been, but also the tragedies of humanity.
Obviously, American slavery wasn’t the first slavery, it’s just the first one that made it so that if you were black you were a slave, it was the first time slavery was based on color and not class or religion or where you were from. And I wanted my characters to confront that by challenging it in a subtle way with their own racial identities.
And I also wanted Grace to be about women because I know women. I love women. I am a woman. I have a mom. I wanted to show the complexities of womanhood and to explore how it can be limited by other aspects of society, like culture and race.
For example, a little backstory on me, I am married to a white guy, an English white guy. I am telling you this because all the time people ask me if it would have been easier to marry someone who was black like me, someone who would get “it” and so be able to support me better in my race.
That’s a funny question to me because racism affects everyone. Black people will look at other black people and be racist to them. White people will look at white people and be racist to them. Point being racism affects everyone. So everyone sees everyone differently and my husband’s race isn’t necessarily going to make anything easier or harder.
Now, the level of wokeness is a whole different thing—wokeness being your ability to know that there are issues and that all of us are a part of the problem in our own way—we all contribute to the issues in our system. Slavery never failed, people walked away from it. So just like that, we have to decide, are we going to keep doing this to each other? Or, are we awake enough to make that decision now? To just stop?
Antioch: I just read “What we Could Do With Writing,” an essay by Casey Llewellyn in The Racial Imaginary. The writer is white and she has this line in there, “The biggest fear of race in the bottom of me, I think, is that race can really keep us from each other.” As I read that I could sympathize, but more I wanted to say to her, “yeah, but separation is always there. Different race or not you are never gonna be like, one and the same with another person.”
Natashia Deón: Exactly. There is always difference. The desire to get rid of that is privilege talking. You gotta be okay with separation from another person and their experience, you have to allow everyone ownership of their own experience. It’s just like we were talking about earlier with notions of justice, how they are different for every person and how they shift and change over time. That difference can be beautiful if we let it exist.
Antioch: So you have been charged with teaching what is sort of a bedrock course of the Antioch MFA in Creative Writing, “Literary Citizenship.” During last residency’s class you seemed to intentionally avoid giving us a definition of citizenship so… now that I’ve got you here: what is literary citizenship to you?
Natashia Deón: Hahaha. I used to have an answer because I used to think I knew what it was, but maturity is knowing that you don’t know anything, right? So now I don’t try to pretend I know. Instead I encourage other people to think about what it means because it’s not up to me to give you the answer, but I need you to be able to think. We are losing our ability to think in this country, relying instead on whatever a group or a think-tank tells us to think, and when we give that up we are giving up our ability to grow.
But I used to talk about literary citizenship until one day when somebody in the crowd approached me and told me the word was an assault to so many people in this country who have to negotiate that word. She reminded me that for some people that word is like a cringe—it assumes papers that prove you belong to a land and without those papers, what are you? An alien?
So since then I have to say that I don’t really like the word “citizenship” and I’ve stopped using it. So in the Antioch class on literary citizenship I tried to shift it away from citizenship and toward identity.
It’s like in your reaction to the essay you were referencing in that we are striving, not to get rid of difference, but to allow for it without granting or revoking inclusion. We all belong.
But in that we all belong I see another sort of tragedy coming.
Antioch: What tragedy?
Natashia Deón: We are being asked to embrace one or the other without taking time to recognize that there is a divide, that there is difference. Like we have to be all on one side or the other but I don’t think it’s like that.
For example, I have a really good friend who is a leader in the LGBTQ community, and I am totally an ally, but I recently had to have a conversation with her about how I felt as an ally. I said, “I love you but I am also Christian. And I hear the negative rhetoric about Christians that is so often a part of the LGBTQ community and when I hear it I don’t feel accepted.” But I also told her that when I go back to my other, Christian community some of my ideas aren’t accepted there either. And so I’m left with this feeling of not really belonging anywhere, not totally, not wholly, but even if I don’t totally belong, I need to be able to say I am welcomed.
Antioch: So are your ideas of citizenship starting to take on notions of hospitality?
Natashia Deón: Yeah, exactly, that’s all I want. Like, if I am talking crazy let me know, let me fix it. Or let me challenge you. Let us challenge each other. But in order to do that we have to welcome each other in.
Antioch: Switching gears a bit: A few years ago you wrote and article for Buzzfeed, “My Son’s Lifelong Silence Has Taught Me to Listen,” in which you write, “Professionally, as a lawyer and as a teacher, and artistically, my goal has become more clear because of him—to give voice to the voiceless. They are our teachers. They are my son.” I find that idea so touching, but also so impossible. How do you take on the responsibility of speaking on someone else’s behalf?
Natashia Deón: For me the literary readings I hosted, Dirty Laundry and Table Lit, were that space. My law practice is that space. Like I was telling you about that guy who shot someone… my clients, they almost never speak. Instead it’s the words that I write that speak for them. Giving voice to the voiceless is my life. Advocating for my son who doesn’t speak, and for other student’s in his class who have disabilities.
Like here’s a good story: My son is in a class with other kids with disabilities, which is part of a school that also has typically-abled kids, right? So, at my son’s 6th grade graduation, there is a big procession in which all the students walk in to take a seat before the ceremony. The graduation is a big deal—we brought the whole family out for it—and when we got there we realize the school isn’t going to allow the children with disabilities to walk, they had to be seated up front while the other students walked.
So I went up and grabbed my son’s hand and said we needed to go. He was crying, he wanted to stay, but I was like, “you don’t know yet son, but I know. You and your classmates earned this just as much if not more than everybody else. You deserve to walk and do everything that typically-abled students get to do. I am not going to sit here and support this.”
So that’s what I mean by being a voice for the voiceless. And, of course, not just reacting in the moment but following up so that action turns into permanent change. Later I went to the principal’s office and told them what was wrong with what they did. They apologized, saying they didn’t know. So now it won’t be like that anymore, now everyone will get to be a part of the precession.
Antioch: Last question before I let you go: From the outside looking in, Antioch, as a University with a social justice mission, seems like a really good fit for you. How has it been for you to be part of the school?
Natashia Deón: I am just such a fan. You know? We are so akin. I am, like, all in with the school’s mission.
But to be honest with you, it scares me a little too, because a lot of people say they are what Antioch says it is. It’s easy to talk about being about social justice, but for me social justice isn’t like a speech or a platform because social justice is my life. This isn’t a hobby, everything in my life is related to social justice: my son, my law work, my family, my writing—this is my life. All of my eggs are in the social justice basket. I don’t have a back up plan.
But so far it seems like Antioch is really, actually working toward its mission, evidenced by the writers they bring in to talk and teach, the students they enroll, and the books they suggest as reading, all of those things reflecting the world they want to be a part of creating.
But for me I see the vigor of their social justice mission most when they make mistakes because so far the University has shown it is eager to address and correct them. Antioch does this very rare thing: Antioch listens. And they are constantly applying what they learn in the process. I don’t know any other university with this mission, let alone one that is so dedicated to realizing it. But I am still new, still just a huge fan, still kind of like, pinch me, and please don’t let this be a dream.