Do you mind if I ask you questions that you’ve been asked recently? Can I start with what that silly lady asked in the Take-Out line?
I have nothing else to say about that lady. I’m happy now. I have snacks.
What are you eating?
Chicken tamales. And this is Tapatio sauce.
Shouldn’t you be eating that with green sauce?
Nope. Tapatio or die. Or Sriracha or die. Whichev’.
What’s up with your Valley-girl-nese?
It’s my native tongue.
But you were born in Los Angeles and didn’t grow up in the “Valley”?
Close enough. And it makes me bilingual.
Fine, multi-dialectical. (Is that a word?)
If I’m in a courtroom, generally I speak eloquently. In my law class, less eloquently, except for my Latin. I’ll occasionally steal from husband’s English accent because there are some words that English people like him have in rotation that Americans don’t. With my friends, it’s “awesome, rad, and oh mi gah” all day long. Or if I’m feeling froggy, I’ll update myself a little with sentences like, “Your eyebrows are on fleek.” But that was last summer.
I love language.
And I believe there’s room for creativity in spaces shorter than a sentence. In a single word. A letter. An accent mark. Oh, if I could write in Chinese characters!
I love the way people mistake dialect and word choice for intelligence rather than exposure or creativity or something else. One of my favorite quotes is from Walt Whitman (and has also been attributed to an eighteenth century lexicographer): “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.”
Is that why you write in dialect?
In part. I also love the musicality of language. And I love terse language. But I’m not a grammar enforcer—not in my classrooms with college students or informally on Facebook or Twitter where people tend to regulate, or in the high school classrooms where I volunteer.
In fact, I’m a serial grammar offender. Spellcheck owns me. It’s a suspicious force, Spellcheck is, and it sometimes decides for me what I really wanted to say. I once texted a client, “I’m drunk driving at the moment, I’ll call you back.”
So grammar is not important to you as a writer?
Of course it is. But not in informal settings. And not in everything I read or write. I’m not a language snob and I don’t believe that language has to be complicated to be beautiful or important. I’ve sat in plenty of writing rooms and on panels listening to professional writers and editors give backhanded compliments about the use of metaphors and of dialect, inferring that metaphors are a cover-up for intelligent storytelling, and dialect a tool to show the lack of intelligence of a character. I used to have no opinion. Then I began listening to more progressive editors and writers.
My first awakenings were listening to the lyrics of rap songs in undergrad at Cal State, Long Beach, and thinking wow, how can a person drop that many f-bombs and have metaphors that ring? Or have lyrics that are so ingenious and precise while using slang and street names. Much respect. And then one day, I read the opening of Sapphire’s, Push. It was “curtains” for me. I understood.
Have you always been a writer?
Since I can remember. At six years old I used to write scary stories to read to my two-year-old sister. Of course, I write fiction now, and lawyering is non-fiction storytelling for me. I represent people who are seeking forgiveness for what they’ve done in their pasts. I ask the State of California to deem them rehabilitated, among other things. I have to retell their stories.
In business planning or in conflicts, I have to anticipate and protect against wrong endings.
Writers and lawyers live in worlds of words. Probably more than most people, where every word counts—on the page as a writer and for lawyers in courtrooms where a mistake or wrong word choice could cost another person her life or freedom or money. But writers around the world who have to fight for their freedom to writer, suffer that, too.
And for me, there are also my young students who are quick to say, “Ms. Deon, that’s not due today because you said…”
Are words part of every aspect of your life?
Not at home so much.
My nine-year-old son is non-verbal which means he doesn’t speak. Mostly. He uses sign language that I don’t always recognize and he can speak about seventeen words total, plus sounds. But with him, I understand EVERYTHING. We have beautiful moments. There’s nothing he can’t ask me or say, and no conversation we can’t have. He’s taught me that communication is more than talking, more than words. There is something else. Something we can dwell in, if we choose, and there are no words there, just love and wonder. We can capture it on the page, if we’re lucky. So when grammar-lovers regulate others as they do in informal settings, I think to myself, you’ve missed the most important part—what was said.
So, you’re a lawyer?
For the poor and working poor.
A law professor?
He’s a keeper.
A feminist and social activist?
You’ll have to read Grace to be sure. Res ipsa loquitur.
Founder of the reading series Dirty Laundry Lit?
I also teach Sunday school at church.
I’ll bet no one gives you the side eye about that.
(Laughing to myself). No, no one.
So you’re religious?
I’m a Christ-follower.
Everyone follows something. It may not always be organized but they believe in something, even if it’s themselves. And even if there’s no choir, we all have theme songs. I still throw my hands up and have a religious experience when I hear “Eye of the Tiger.”
So you don’t claim “Christian”?
I do. But I prefer to not confuse people about what I believe. Too many people use the Cliff Notes version of Christianity and I don’t want to argue. What’s been popularized as American Christianity makes it reasonably difficult for people to believe that a Christian can and should genuinely love and respect all people. So, that’s that. I’m a Christ-follower.
Don’t you also believe that artists are created for the enjoyment of other people?
That’s not what I said. Well, maybe. But that’s only half of what I meant. And since this question is from a real conversation as well, I was asked if I ever feel used? I said, of course I do. I’m an artist. Being born an artist means you’re created for other people’s enjoyment. It means that you make things that you hope others will appreciate. Otherwise, you might be wiser to keep a diary or a bolted shed. Maturity as an artist is deciding how other people will enjoy you. I used to think it was only sex.
So, your novel, GRACE… Do you consider it to be a Civil War novel, a slave narrative, or something else?
All of the above…but not in the traditional sense. I didn’t set out to write a Civil War novel but that’s what it became, in part, because slavery is inextricable from the war. A friend recently said to me, I’ve just read a novel about slaves and there’s this book and that book about slavery and I said, great, those writers deserve my utmost respect and humility. There would be no me without them. Period. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Edward P. Jones, and so many more. And others who have also revolutionized the literary world: Oprah Winfrey. Maya Angelou. Octavia Butler. James Baldwin. Phyllis Wheatley. Zora Neal Hurston. Langston Hughes, and more, including the writing organization that first believed in me—PEN Center USA—and also, the Los Angeles literary community (Chiwan Choi, Mike The Poet, Michelle Franke, Romus Simpson, Samantha Dunn, Zoe Ruiz, Tod Goldberg, etc.). I could go on, jumping through time. So many more.
Why are they important to you?
Because of the legacy they’ve left and are leaving for those of us who are coming behind them. And I do mean they are putting in physical labor to pave a way for other writers, beyond the work of writing. Those artists are among the most courageous strangers and friends I’ve ever known. And sure, there are artists who write purely for art’s sake, but as a writer of color and a woman, I don’t have that luxury. But my heroes aren’t only people who look like me but are artists of all backgrounds who understand that there is a moral responsibility to literature. And it requires bravery and empowering others.
Back to my question, what kind of novel is GRACE?
Grace is a story of love, and freedom, and motherhood featuring a cast of multi-ethnic women. That’s what I cared about in my version of the Civil War—America’s rich history that is multi-ethnic and complicated.
I wanted to explore the Civil War while inside feminine brown skin, like mine. I wanted to show this slave-narrator as thinking and wanting and loving, the way all women do—today, or in the 1800s, or thousands of years ago. I wanted her thoughts to take her beyond the single-mindedness of freedom north, but that’s part of it. I wanted her to be like we all are, asking ourselves if what we have right now is freedom?
Thanks, Self, for that release.
And thank YOU, The Nervous Breakdown. xox
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. A practicing lawyer, she currently teaches law at Trinity Law School and Mount Saint Mary’s College.