I first heard Natashia Deon read from her novel Grace six years ago. She stood at the podium in full silence for 30 seconds, encouraging all of us to lean a little bit closer to her, to listen. And when she finally began reading, I am not exaggerating when I say that I heard people gasp.
Grace is now a novel out in the world. It follows the life histories of three women — an enslaved woman, her daughter, and a Jewish woman, set in the antebellum and post-Emancipation South, a period that most Americans know nothing about but that we point to again and again as proof of American progress. It is an exploration of race, memory, trauma, and joy.
In addition to being a writer, Natashia is a public defender. A few months ago she wrote an extraordinary essay about defending a man accused of sexual assault. It's a meditation on accountability and historical amnesia and a call to action to reconcile with our nation's traumatic past and troubled present that I've come back to again and again.
I spoke to Natashia the day after the shootings in Orlando and a week after the Brock Turner verdict. Our conversation ranged from writing to questions of morality and justice. It's cheesy to say this, but Natashia speaks with love — not in the Hallmark sense of the word, but in the way the word is used in the New Testament and in the speeches of Dr. King — as a lens to view the world, as a measure of reason.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: Can you talk about how this book came to be?
Natashia Deon: My son was born with a rare genetic condition that affected his brain and development. He wasn't immediately diagnosed. But instinctively, I knew something was wrong and I was afraid he would die. At one point before his diagnosis, I was walking down the hallway holding him, and I had a vision. It was nighttime. I was in the woods in Alabama. [I saw] the moon there and a girl running in a yellow dress. It had blood on it and she was pregnant, and I knew she was a slave. I could hear her. I knew she was afraid and that shortly after giving birth she had been shot and killed.
I was standing in my hallway frozen, and I told my husband to take my son. I needed to write down what I saw, which became the opening of the novel. The rest didn't come like that, but that's how it started. I remember thinking, Now what do I do? I'd been given this story from wherever stories come from, wherever imagination comes from. I knew that I had to write it. But I left it. Then, six months later, a friend of my mom's, a former prostitute who was Jewish, died. I knew then what the rest of the book was about.
KG: How do you see writing and the idea of justice aligning?
ND: That's one of the things that I grapple with in Grace because I don't believe there's justice when somebody is killed. Justice is restoration, it's giving them back what they lost. If you steal $100 from me, we go to court, you have to give me my $100 back. When somebody dies, you can't get that person back. All you can do is punish. It doesn't actually feel like real justice even when it's carried out. It's a sort of revenge that comes out of another definition of justice, a place where justice is decided based on what seems fair. A life sentence for a fourteen-year-old boy who commits an armed robbery and someone dies? Twenty-five years to life for a mom, like a client I had who walked out of Costco with $503 worth of unpaid groceries because her children were hungry? It was her third strike after two other strikes in her late-teen years.