“We have to tell the stories of folks who have no stages and no film to capture them,” says one of the characters in Natashia Deón’s The Perishing.
Deón’s novel moves between the past and future, following the story of Lou, a young Black woman who is transported to 1930s Los Angeles to discover truths about her lineage. The novel illuminates the ways in which we are connected to our histories, that behind every door lies a past self, glimmering with potential.
From the years 1930 and 2102, Déon’s characters Sarah and Lou witness the devastating horrors of the world and the reverberations of slavery to modern-day capitalism. They also witness the intricacies of grief and love. In the wake of a death, Sarah muses, “My kind of grief is continual because grief is the form love takes when someone dies.” Deón’s work allows for a multifaceted portrait of humanity, a symphony of emotions both vivid and complex. A deep sense of mourning runs through the novel as characters ask what it means to grieve a future once imagined for themselves and others.
Author of the critically-acclaimed novel Grace, Deón is an NAACP Image Award Nominee, practicing criminal attorney, and college professor at UCLA and Antioch University. Grace was named a Best Debut Fiction by The American Library Associations, Black Caucus and was named Best Book by The New York Times. A PEN America Fellow, she has been awarded fellowships and residencies at Prague’s Creative Writing Program in the Czech Republic, Dickinson House in Belgium and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. As a 2017 U.S. Delegate to Armenia in partnership with the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, Deón founded REDEEMED, a criminal record clearing and clemency project that pairs writers with those who have been convicted of crimes.
Of Deón’s writing, critic Jennifer Senior writes in The New York Times, “Her emotional range spans several octaves…She writes with her nerves, generating terrific suspense.” Of The Perishing, author Jamie Ford says, “It’s a lush, genre-smashing, philosophical experience of a novel that blew my mind even as it broke my heart.”
Where did this novel come from for you, and, more specifically, how did you find the voices of Sarah and Lou?
I wish I could say it came from one place. My first novel, GRACE, had a clear genesis which was a dream. THE PERISHING seemed to be a story that was on its way all of my life, beginning with unanswered questions in Sunday school church as a child, then it became the feeling I get when I meet someone for the first time and it seemed I’d known them forever, or before this life…whatever that means. But what made me get up in the middle of the night to begin penning THE PERISHING was, like my first novel, a dream that scared me. I was a character in my dream—a fair-skinned, white passing Black woman who was in love with a Chinese man and he loved me. I could feel that in the dream. We were both living in Los Angeles in its early days, the mid to late 1800s. I could tell by the architecture and adobe buildings in the dream. The dream ended in fear. When I woke up that night, I was so convinced it was real that I began Googling details of events that happened around that time in history in L.A., and if it were possible for people like those I saw (and who I was) to exist. That’s when I read for the first time about the Chinese Massacre of 1871. And [there] was the spark. It became Chapter 35 of THE PERISHING.
I’m wondering how your background as a lawyer and your activism as founder and CEO of the REDEEMED Project, which pairs writers and lawyers with those convicted of crimes to help clear their criminal records, influences your writing.
For me, every part of my law practice influences the novel. From the courtroom scenes to the larger themes around what it means for us to be part of this human “situation.” And what it means to be civilized. I founded REDEEMED in part because I wanted to be a bridge. No, a window. No, a door. One that let writers into a world they might not ordinarily see. We romanticize violence so much in our writing and entertainment culture without looking at the afters. You’d be hard pressed to find anything on Primetime without violence. In real life, our society doesn’t spend a lot of time with victims after the sensationalism is over. And even less time with perpetrators of crimes. I wanted the most creative problem solvers in the world—writers and artists—to see the state of our society honestly. To take them into the spaces we’ve reserved for people we’ve thrown away. A place where human being are kept in cages for years, decades; told when to wake, to sleep. Their lives can be taken from them, literally, despite how they change or how long we’ve kept them. I don’t believe there are disposable people. In many ways my characters, Sarah and Lou, struggle with what it means to be perishable even when you’re fully alive.
The novel considers the complexities of intimacy and marriage, with the opening pages focusing on Sarah’s six past husbands and her new relationships with women. Sarah numbers the husbands and recounts how they were taken from her. How do you see the characters in The Perishing reckoning with love and loss and the way past love affects present experiences?
I love Love. I love how unruly and beautiful it is. Love and its expressions may be all that’s left of us after we die. When I say “love,” I mean love untethered to marriage or family and instead the love affairs we have with words or people or ideas, and yes, family, spouses or partners can be part of that. Marriage for Sarah is a vessel to hold a certain kind of love; to frame her relationships with men and women and to also show the cultural limitations on love through time—race, gender, tribe, religion, etc. It’s fascinating to me how societies want to control the most powerful force on earth. I wanted to include in my writing some of the ways we have throughout time.
Race pervades the novel and rises to the surface of characters’ interactions. One moment that sticks out to me is when Lou looks at Mrs. Prince and plainly thinks, “I can recognize the difference between her and me now. She’s very white and I’m very brown.” In the novel, Lou and Sarah are reincarnated in new bodies across time, and those incarnations cross gender boundaries, but in every form they are always Black. Could you speak a little more to this choice and the way the characters’ Blackness affects them in different spaces?
The Trans-Atlantic slavetrade was the first time in known world history that slavery was based on the color of one’s skin. Not only that, slavery became your birthright. Before then, you could be an indentured servant (or slave) from anywhere in the world and with any skin color. The majority of the time, a slave was paying off a debt or was bounty from war. But the children born by slaves, generally, weren’t saddled with, for instance, their parents’ student loans, or their mortgage debt. American slavery was gross that way—you and yours were owned by other people forever. Our skin color became the uniform of slavery. Even today, whether a Black person is a descendant of American slaves, color affects how we’re viewed throughout the world—whether at a traffic stop in L.A. or visiting some European country.
But before American slavery, Black people lived around the world and participated in life like anybody. Now, the histories told of Black people (not in Africa) usually start in slavery. With my novel Grace, I started there. I am a descendant of slaves and my history was and is important to me. But recently, I was reading about the first samurai in Japan. He was a Black man; an African and also a sailor. Some accounts that I’ve read of his life begin his story with some version of him being a slave to someone on the ship which he wasn’t. With The Perishing, I wanted to [show] a truer picture of Black people by moving through time. To the before this.
The rich landscape of Los Angeles, with the history of Prohibition, the creation of Route 66, and the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, animates the novel. What was the process like of choosing to set the novel in Los Angeles during this time?
I was in high school in the 1990s when a body washed up from the Pacific. The body was identified as one belonging to someone who was washed away when the St. Francis Dam broke sixty years earlier. I grew up in the Santa Clarita Valley from the time I was eight years old, [and] my house sat near the mouth of San Francisquito Canyon where the bodies drowned and I never knew till that body was discovered. I knew about the man, William Mulholland, and I knew the street named after him—Mulholland Dr.—but I didn’t know about the lives lost and one of the biggest engineering failures in the history of the United States.
For about a week after the body was found, one of my high school teachers had our class discuss the body and the dam as local history. We even went on a field trip to the site of the dam break—it was just a 5 minute bus ride away—and we walked among the ruins that were still there. I was never able to shake the experience. My teacher did a great job. And, maybe growing up a block from the canyon left me communing with ghosts. I don’t know. But I knew I wanted to explore the disaster and how the value we place on lives shapes the history we choose to tell.
“We have to tell the stories of folks who have no stages and no film to capture them,” Mr. Hill, Lou’s English teacher, says, which inspires Lou to write. Did writing this novel expand your own sense of the written word’s relationship to unveiling and recording less remembered histories?
I respect journalists. I respect that every time they tell the truth, they may be risking their lives. Journalists around the world face this real threat. I wanted to honor journalists and their integrity; ones who are not just here to sell papers but those who are here to tell the truth and shame the devil, so to speak. A journalist has the power and the responsibility to carry the voices of others as best they can. And they don’t have to do it alone. I chose to make Lou a journalist—first for the school paper and then for the L.A. Times—because I wanted a chance to honor journalism, especially those journalists who take the time to cover (and uncover) the stories that have no big headline.
Natashia Deón is an NAACP Image Award Nominee, practicing criminal attorney, and college professor. A Pamela Krasney Moral Courage Fellow, Deón is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel, Grace, which was named a Best Book by The New York Times. Deón has been awarded fellowships by PEN America, Prague Summer Program for Writers, Dickinson House in Belgium, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Meghana Mysore, from Portland, Oregon, is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Hollins University, where she is a teaching fellow and graduate assistant. The recipient of fellowships and support from the Tin House Winter Workshop, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and The Rona Jaffe Foundation, Meghana is also the second-place winner in prose in the 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Annual Contest and the runner-up for the 2021 Melanie Hook Rice Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Yale Review, Boston Review, Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, The Rumpus, Indiana Review, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. You can find her at www.meghanamysore.com or on Twitter @MysoreMeghana.