Natashia Deón on LA’s New Historical Novel “The Perishing”
On the bookshelf
By Natashia Deón
Counterpoint: 320 pages, $ 26
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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 and works to clear the files of those previously incarcerated. She teaches law and writing in her hometown of Los Angeles, and in 2016, she became an acclaimed author with her debut album, “Grace”.
This novel mixes a ghost story with a chronicle of the last years of slavery, in the tradition of “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. Five years later, her new novel, “The Perishing,” explores a new genre built to last as long as its heroine.
In Los Angeles in the 1930s, a young black woman named Lou wakes up in an alleyway with almost no memory. After becoming the first black female reporter for the Los Angeles Times, the innovative gives way to the fantastic as she awakens to an even greater fate, linked to the fact that she could be immortal.
This summer, Deón spoke to The Times about the inspirations behind “The Perishing” – primarily her upbringing as a black woman in Los Angeles, her hometown diary, and the transformations of the two over the decades. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How was your LA 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, the Black dry cleaners, the fish market, the grocery store – then called “Boys”. When I was 10 years old, crack came to our neighborhood; it had a devastating effect. We had pastors, teachers, police, trusted people in the community hanging on.
With all this danger, we moved to Santa Clarita. It was the first time that I had been followed in store, the first time that I realized that the color of my skin was an indicator for others of the content of my character. When Dr King was killed … [my mom] sang in his choir for a while – many members of our church moved to West Adams and founded this church, which is still there: West Adams Church of Christ.
How has your personal experience shaped “The Perishing”?
I cry for LA at the same time that she is still alive. It’s like crying for someone who was addicted to something. You know, you lose them, but they’re still there. This is really what LA feels like to me. Even in my church, many elders have died – or the owner of the ice cream shop was hit by a car and killed right at the intersection. I feel like the further I get from LA, the more I lose.
I’m talking about love and companionship; it’s different, even among blacks. In the 90s, because of gang violence, we lost a whole generation of black boys. The survivors are the ones who became the baby dads. It’s just a different way of being Black in LA. That’s kind of why I cry 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 the golden age of Hollywood, there was the city of Los Angeles; one who fought for water to prevent another drought from browning, or, perhaps more honestly, to make lawns green. A place that the Afro-Spaniards helped establish. Before them, the Amerindians. 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 seaside resort, has made a home for so many people.
Why did you decide to install it in the 1930s in particular, and why try this new genre?
I love science fiction and fantasy. I love the ability to go through time and become and become again. I feel like that’s what it means to be a black woman. Often in this country we do not only have our grief to bear. If boyfriend gets confused, brother gets confused, we wear this and it can often change the trajectory of our lives. George Floyd being killed or something like that affects us deeply. We must continue to transform ourselves, continue to transform ourselves: “How should I be today in this space? Then tomorrow arrives.
I thought of the 1930s because I knew I wanted to cover two historical events. I had a dream which is in the novel. During the dream, I was a black woman in Los Angeles with a Chinese man I had fallen in love with – was passing white, but I was still black. This terrible thing happened in the dream. I cried when I woke up at 3 a.m. and it was so real to me that I started to google. I learned about the Chinese massacre in LA and it fit into my dream setting. I knew I wanted to include it but I didn’t know how yet.
The second reason was that I grew up in Santa Clarita, at the mouth of the San Francisquito Canyon, where the St. Francis Dam broke and killed all these people – washed the bodies all the way to Ventura. They did not count migrant workers; dark people were not counted.
It’s not just a fantasy novel in a way, but also a non-linear story. Why?
I wanted the freedom to go where I wanted, to do whatever I wanted on the page, and immortality was the best way for me to show that repetition. How, as a black woman, I was able to exist in 1960 or 1990 or 2015 or 2021 and be in a Black Lives Matter protest (different name but for the same rights) in Los Angeles. Ditto for women’s rights, violence against queer bodies. We have to see each other and decide that we don’t have to be monsters.
I have to ask how the Los Angeles Times got so prominent in your novel.
I don’t know when they got their first black reporter, but the reason I chose the LA Times is that I wanted to write about black papers first, but the information was limited. There was research that kept referring me to The Times. I kept going back there to hear people’s voices, diaries, obituaries. Lou works largely on the “Death Desk”, an imitation of obituaries and “real” reporting, reporting the deaths of black people, sometimes other people of color.
I wanted to honor the work they tried to do even though they were still racist, always failed back then. When I explore the racist past of the LA Times, I focus on us. I give as much screen time as possible to what black people have done well.
What were you trying to accomplish with the novel?
To make our country and the world a better place. I know this is a lofty goal and asking too much, but if I could ask for something, why not? I wanted to expose our cyclical model of prejudice in the hope that we, collectively, would choose to do something different this time around. Historically, people have identified other people to be mistreated and killed. Our arguments, as fresh as we think, amount to broken records.