On the shelf
By Natashia Deón
Counterpoint: 320 pages, $ 26
If you purchase books linked to on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org whose fees are supported by independent bookstores.
Natashia Deón, like her fiction, is too multifaceted to be defined in a few words. A former corporate lawyer, she is now a defense lawyer working on clearing the records of the former inmates. She teaches law and writing around her home state of Los Angeles, and in 2016, she became a recognized author with her debut, “Grace.”
That novel mixed a ghost story with a chronicle about the last years of slavery, in the tradition of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. Five years later, her new novel, “The Perishing,” explores a new genre built to last as long as its heroine.
In Los Angeles during the 1930s, a young black woman named Lou wakes up in an alley with almost no memories. After becoming the first black woman journalist at the Los Angeles Times, it paves the way for the amazing as she wakes up to an even greater fate, bound by the fact that she may be immortal.
This summer, Deón spoke to The Times about the inspirations behind “The Perishing” – mainly her upbringing as a black woman in Los Angeles, her hometown newspaper and both transformations over the decades. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How was your LA when you were growing up?
I grew up around Jefferson and La Brea, near Dorsey High. It was a black neighborhood. There was the black ice cream parlor, the black church, black dry cleaners, fish market, grocery store – then called “Boys”. When I was 10, crack cocaine came to our neighborhood; it had a devastating effect. We had pastors, teachers, police officers, people we trusted in the community who were hooked on it.
With all that danger, we moved to Santa Clarita. It was the first time I was followed in stores, the first time I realized that the color of my skin was an indicator of others on the content of my character. Da Dr. King was killed – [my mom] sang in his choir for a period of time – many members of our church moved to West Adams and started this church, which is still there: West Adams Church of Christ.
How did your personal experience shape “The Perishing”?
I’m mourning LA, while it’s still alive. It’s like caring for someone who was addicted to something. You know you’ll lose them, but they’re still here. That’s very much what LA feels to me. Even in my church, many elders died – or the man who owned the ice cream shop was hit by a car and killed right there at the intersection. I feel that the further I move from LA, the more I lose.
I’m talking about love and camaraderie; it is different, even among blacks. In the 90s, we lost an entire generation of black boys due to gang violence. The survivors are the ones who became baby daddies. It’s all just a different way of being black in LA. That’s a little why I mourn it. I think that’s why I chose LA
There is a refreshing contrast in your book between Hollywood and the rest of the city, which of course came first.
Chapter 1 of “The Perishing” opens, “Los Angeles has always been brown.” Before Hollywood’s golden age, there was the city of Los Angeles; one who fought for water to prevent yet another browning drought, or, perhaps more truly, to make lawns green. A place that Afro-Spaniards helped to establish. Before them, Indians. I wanted to show Los Angeles through a lens outside of Hollywood and through the eyes of a black woman who arrived in the city as detached as possible. I wanted to show how our city, a resort of cities, has created a home for so many.
Why did you decide to put it in the 1930s in particular, and why try this new genre?
I like science fiction and fantasy. I like the ability to move through time and become and become again. I feel that is what it means to be a black woman. Often in this country we do not just have our grief to bear. If the boyfriend messes up, a sibling we carry messes up to and it can often change the course of our lives. George Floyd gets killed or something like that, it affects us deeply. We have to keep transforming, keep transforming: “How am I going to be in this room today?” Then it’s happening tomorrow.
I was thinking of the 1930s because I knew I wanted to cover two historical events. I had a dream that is in the novel. During the dream, I was a black woman in LA with a Chinese man I had fallen in love with – was white past, but I was still black. This terrible thing happened in the dream. I was crying when I woke up at 3 in the morning and it was so real to me that I started to google. I learned about the Chinese massacre in LA, and it fit the framework of my dream. I knew I wanted to join, but did not know how yet.
The other reason was that I grew up in Santa Clarita at the mouth of San Francisquito Canyon, which is where St. Francis Dam broke and killed all these people – washed the corpses way out to Ventura. They did not talk to the migrant workers; brown people were not spoken to.
This is not just a fantasy novel in a way, but also a non-linear story. Why?
I wanted the freedom to go where I wanted, do what I wanted on the page, and immortality was the best means for me to show that repetition. How I as a black woman could exist in 1960 or 1990 or 2015 or 2021 and be in a Black Lives Matter protest (another name but for the same rights) in Los Angeles. The same with women’s rights, violence against queer bodies. We need to see ourselves and decide that we do not have to be monsters.
I have to ask how the Los Angeles Times became so important in your novel.
I’m not sure when they had their first black journalist, but the reason I chose the LA Times is that I first wanted to write about the black newspapers, but there was limited information. There was research that kept pointing me back to The Times. I kept going back there to hear people’s voice, the diaries, the remarks. Lou works extensively with “Death Desk”, a revelation by obituaries and “real” reporting, by reporting on the deaths of black people, sometimes other colored people.
I wanted to honor the work they were trying to do, even though they were still racist, still failed at that time. When I explore the racist past of the LA Times, I focus on us. I give as much screen time as possible to what blacks did right.
What were you trying to achieve with the novel?
To make our country and the world better. I know it’s a high goal and too much to ask for, but if I could ask for something, why not this? I wanted to reveal our cyclical pattern of injury in the hope that together we will choose to do something different this time. Historically, people have identified various others to abuse and kill. Our arguments, as fresh as we think they are, are tantamount to broken records.