Practicing attorney and mother of two, Natashia Deon pleaded with her publishers not to release her first novel, “Grace,” this summer. “Are you kidding?” she said. “Nobody’s going to notice ‘Grace’ if you release it in competition with all those two-million-dollar books.”
But people have noticed. “Grace” received extraordinarily glowing reviews from the New York Times and many other publications. Released only two weeks ago, “Grace” is already in its third printing and on the shelves of major book outlets.
“With her debut novel, ‘Grace,’ Natashia Deon has announced herself beautifully and distinctively,” said the Times reviewer. “[She] is not merely another new author to watch. She has delivered something whole, and to be reckoned with, right now.”
What Deon has delivered is a wrenching story of slavery in the antebellum South, and the cycle of abuse and violence that afflicted enslaved women. It is the story of a mother’s love that is so strong she continues to watch over her daughter after her own violent death. It is a story of an era in American history that unsparingly depicts the insurmountable obstacles faced by women caught in the iron vise of slavery — the virtual impossibility of escape and the degradation these women are forced to endure.
“Grace” spans 30 years encompassing the time before and after the Civil War, narrated beyond the grave by Naomi, the steadfast mother of the principal character, Josey. In reviews, Deon’s writing has been described as visceral, with a startling ability to make the reader feel present — feeling, touching, smelling the world of her characters — their terror, their rage and their hopeless sorrow.
Deon said she wrote the novel almost intuitively, understanding the arc of her characters’ lives and the reality of their world. “I needed to get the story out first,” she said. “There was no way to hold the entire novel in my head at one time. If a question came up, then I had to go to look for that, to research that.”
As an example, while her novel was being readied for publication, she clashed with her editors about whether the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 was something slaves in the South experienced as hopeful. “I felt that something was wrong, that the Emancipation Proclamation may have seemed hopeful but it wasn’t that way for the slaves trapped in the South who had almost no way to get to freedom. I had to research more history and go back and change the trajectory of the story.”
What stays with the reader in “Grace” is the intensity of a mother’s love for her daughter — as she watches her child experience the same brutality and debasement she had suffered. From the afterlife, Naomi could not slip away and leave Josey. “After the first few weeks, I thought I’d leave Josey’s side when I knew she was safe,” Naomi relates. “Then I decided I’d leave after I saw her lift her head for the first time. Then, after she’d rolled over, then babbled, then walked, then ran. Then when. Then when. Then when.”
Deon is the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and has held residencies at Yale, Bread Loaf, Dickinson House in Belgium and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She was named one of 2013’s Most Fascinating People by L.A. Weekly. She has a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of California, Riverside in Palm Desert and is the creator of Dirty Laundry Lit, a popular Los Angeles-based reading series. “I wanted to create a place for writers to come together and be celebrated, to share and to party.”
Deon said she has always been a storyteller, from childhood. “I never thought I would be a writer,” she recalled. “But I always wrote and drew pictures. I had a little sister, and we did story time. When I tell stories I feel I become that story. I remember telling about Jonah and the whale. I could feel it — the water, the boat, something you saw and smelled.”
Deon opens her novel with Naomi explaining about justice — that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is being spared the bad you deserve, and grace “is getting a good thing, even when you don’t deserve it.”
Deon said she is both surprised and gratified by the reaction to “Grace.” But, as reviewers have noted, it is a reaction well deserved because of the visceral power of her writing.
Deon appears with Eduardo Santiago at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 17, on the deck of Café Aroma. There is no charge for admission.
For more about Deon, visit www.natashiadeon.com.