I am notorious for letting excellent opportunities pass me by. I hold myself back. Shyness, fear, shame, lack of confidence … so many reasons for not saying yes to so many things.
But when I was asked to interview Natalie Baszile, refusal never crossed my mind. And thank goodness for that. It introduced me to Baszile’s beautiful debut novel, Queen Sugar. And it gave me the chance to have a great conversation with a thoughtful, generous, intelligent person.
I’ve done a couple of interviews before this one. First, I jumped into the Great Interview Experiment and interviewed Jade. Next, I interviewed my then co-worker (and today’s birthday girl!), Heidi Sabertooth, who was in the middle of very Slice of Life-like project: writing, recording, and posting online a new song every day for 100 days. Yes, Slice of Life on steroids!
So I’d done a couple of interviews. And I’d struggled mightily with both, but I still didn’t pause to think before agreeing to interview Natalie. And again, thank goodness for that! Because I learned something. I like doing interviews. I still struggled mightily, agonized over whether my questions were “good enough,” over how to start and end the interview, over how much of her time I was taking up, over whether I had to ask her permission to record our conversation so I could transcribe it later … over just about any and every thing I could think to agonize over. But despite all my stressing out, I so enjoyed myself!
I’ve been waiting for the interview to go live on the VONA newsletter page, and this morning it did, so now I can share it here. It’s quite long — Natalie was stunningly generous with her time. And if you haven’t read Queen Sugar yet, I definitely recommend it!
Why Is Everyone Black? – Finding Home with Natalie Baszile
Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile’s debut novel, unfolds over the course of the sugar cane life cycle — planting to harvest — charting those months in the life of Charley Bordelon and her adolescent daughter, Micah. As we speak, Ava DuVernay is turning Queen Sugar into a series for Oprah Winfrey/OWN.
I fell headlong and heart-full into Queen Sugar. From the first beat, I wanted to know Charley and Micah, wanted to go where they were going, see what happened to them. The novel isn’t all southern charm and endearing characters, — though it has plenty of both — and I struggled with the way it caught at my heart and wrenched me. I saw myself and my family in every character, and struggled with my emotions as I read. But for all that, I didn’t want the book to end. I could have read Charley’s story for years.
Baszile, a 2012 memoir alum, sat down with me over Skype, and we talked about character development, process, politics, and the power of VONA.
STACIE: First, I have to say how much I loved Queen Sugar.
NATALIE: Thank you.
STACIE: It’s an amazing book. It was also, actually, a very hard book for me to read. Right away, from the very first moment we meet Ralph Angel, I had a pain in my chest –
STACIE: And I had it for the rest of the book … which is not a bad thing, it just made reading difficult at times. One of my co-workers asked if it’s easier to read stories like the story in Queen Sugar if it’s fiction rather than news. And I want to say yes, but that’s a lie. Because the pain I’m feeling is just as real because what’s happening in the story feels entirely real.
NATALIE: I’m glad about that. (half laugh) I mean, I’m sorry –
STACIE: No, no, don’t be sorry! I hadn’t actually thought about it until he asked that question. I know it’s easy to think of reading fiction as being kind of escapist, but no. Some fiction, of course. But not this.
NATALIE: Right. That’s such an interesting thought. I can see how fiction hits you differently than nonfiction or journalism. When we watch these things on the news, we read about them and we know that they’re real, there’s no filter. If that same reality is surrounded in some kind of poetry, I think it does hit you differently. It comes in through a side door, you know?
STACIE: Sticking with Ralph Angel, I was surprised that a lot of the reviews I’ve read describe Ralph Angel as a bad person. One reviewer actually described him as a “ne’er do well.” I was surprised because that’s not how I saw him at all. And I was wondering how you respond when you hear those descriptions of him.
NATALIE: Ultimately, I always go back to what my desire was for him, and what my intention was in creating his character. I’ve lived with the book long enough at this point that I’ve come expect a range of reactions. Some readers say, “Oh I hate him,” or “Oh, I don’t like that character.” I’ve gotten that from some readers. But I’ll say this: soon after the book came out, I also had people coming up to me and say, “Oh my God, I’m so glad he’s in the book.” They seemed to get the heartbreak, and they really connect with that deep sorrow, which is what I always thought about. There’s also a kind of sweetness about him, you know? He’s not a ne’er do well at all. I am most gratified when readers have come to me and said, “I know somebody like this.”
STACIE: Yes, yes. Because that is, of course, why the pain is in my chest. Because Ralph Angel is my older brother.
NATALIE: And that’s what I was going for, something more nuanced. Not the villain, not the antagonist. Nothing that’s that straight-up cardboard and one-dimensional. A real human. With real humanity. That’s what I always go back to. I take comfort in those moments when readers tell me how deeply touched they were, even in the pain of reading about him, that they really tuned into his humanity. That’s what I always wanted.
STACIE: That’s why I’m so surprised when I read these descriptions because I think, “Well, did you actually read the book?”
STACIE: I know it took you 12 years to write Queen Sugar. First of all it would have taking me that long just to do the research on cane farming because – oh my God so much to know! – so I assume part of it was research time, but was it also finding your way to the story?
NATALIE: For me it was two things. It was finding the story and honestly, just figuring out how to write a novel. I was certainly that person who sat down and thought, “Oh, I’m going to write a novel,” without any idea of what that entailed. I think that was a blessing, because if I’d known up front what I was up against, I don’t think I would have continued. I don’t know; maybe I would have. It also took me 12 years because I had to find the story. For the first five years, the book wasn’t even called Queen Sugar, wasn’t even set in sugar cane country. The story had nothing to do with sugar cane. For those first five years it was really just the story of this young woman and her daughter who were going back to this little town in south Louisiana. It was more about the family dynamic.
But there was something so deeply flawed in those early drafts. I found that people didn’t understand why Charley was going back. I remember someone even asking me, “Is she running from the police? Is that why she’s leaving?” “Is she on drugs?” She was by far the most difficult character to write. It took me five years to figure out why was she going? And it wasn’t until I really got that piece that the novel really fell into place. Before that, the book was really episodic. It just didn’t have the feeling I felt in my heart.
Plus, I had part time jobs, and two little kids. I remember hating summers because the kids were out of school, and it was like, “Oh my God, now I’ve got to take this little kid to summer camp and by the time I drop them off, and they cry, and I sit with them for a little while and finally get home to my desk, I’ll have to turn around.” So, there were years when I wouldn’t even bother to write during the summer. I would think about the book; I would do little revisions, but I couldn’t really sink in until school started again. On top of all that, I went back to school. So, even though I was pretty much at the desk all the time, there was lots of life happening.
STACIE: Thinking about Charley and why she would leave LA. I didn’t question why she would leave, I was interested in how completely able she seems to be to leave California behind. She calls her mother once, but she doesn’t contact friends. I get why she’s not calling Lorna [her mother]. But she doesn’t stay in touch with anyone, and that was a surprise to me, made me wonder if she’d been that alone while she was in California? Because in that case, it makes even more sense that she would go to Louisiana.
NATALIE: Honestly, I think I was struggling to hold the whole universe of this book in my head for so long and was trying to develop the characters and make the story rich that, I could only focus on Charley. And it’s funny because I’ve actually never thought, “Wouldn’t she have friends in LA? Wouldn’t she have connections?” On a creative level, it took all of my energy to hold those four characters together. I think to add another relationship, say a best friend who she’d call back in California, would probably have driven me over the edge.
STACIE: I wondered – I mean, I know this is not the story of your life, obviously – but do some of your family members see themselves in characters in Queen Sugar and did worrying about the possibility of that give you pause in any way while you were writing?
NATALIE: Miss Honey, the grandmother, is absolutely inspired by my grandmother. No question. Some of the characters are more composites of people in my family or people I met along the way. There are seeds of real people in all of the characters. Did I worry about it? Not so much. What I did worry about were the bigger questions. When I would allow myself to sit back and fantasize about the reader’s reaction, that’s when I got worried. Especially with Ralph Angel, I worried about how are Black people, specifically Black men, were going receive him. With Charley, too, I was very worried about dodging all of these cultural stereotypes about Black women. I’d think, “So I’ve got this single mother. Oh God. And then I’ve got this single Black father who has some addiction issues. Oh my God. How are Black people going to receive this? Am I going to be criticized for this?”
I was more worried about Black men’s reception than Black women’s because I knew there were a variety of Black women characters in the book. I got to the point where I was so worried about how I was portraying Ralph Angel, that I was paralyzed. It’s impossible to write a character when you’re worried about everyone’s expectations. I finally confessed this to one of mentors from Warren Wilson, David Haynes, who really watched over me during those early years. I remember calling him and saying, “How am I going to write this?” And he finally said to me, “Natalie, just write the book. Stop worrying.” And I realized he’s right. I had to allow the characters to be who they are and not craft them in a way that I was anticipating somebody’s reaction because then they wouldn’t be fully realized. So, no, I wasn’t so much worried about family members as much as what my imaginary readers would think. That was on my mind.
STACIE: Taking a detour away from the book for a second. Do you by any chance listen to the podcast Another Round?
NATALIE: Yes. Not often. But yes.
STACIE: There was something – I don’t remember if it was Heben or Tracy who said it – early in the show. They were talking about things they were interested in reading, and one of them named it their FUBU Book Club reading list – the For Us By Us reading list. So what’s on your FUBU reading list?
NATALIE: Recently, it’s been, of course, Ta Nehisi Coates’s book. Between the World and Me. And Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I loved that book. Painful, intense, but so powerful and inspiring. Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus. Loved, loved, loved that book. I love Roxane Gay, of course. Those are the most recent ones. . I have not read Marlon James, [A Brief] History of Seven Killings, but I heard him speak and was just totally like, “Oh my God.” So, those are the people who are on my radar screen at the moment. I have another book on my bookshelf, The Fisherman by [Chigozie Obioma], which I actually bought months ago, that I feel myself circling around now. It’s rising to the top of the stack.
STACIE: Going back to how the book came to you, I just got through reading the first three installments of Marjorie Liu’s new comic, Monstress, and after the first comic, she talks about where Maika, the central character came from, and she said that the character just appeared to her – this angry young woman standing on the edge of a battlefield – and she had no idea who she was, what the story was, and couldn’t figure it out. She said Maika just stayed with her until she was finally able to see, oh, here is the story this young woman is supposed to be telling. And I’m wondering if characters come to you first, does the story come to you, how does that work for you?
NATALIE: Characters first. And always a single image. So, with Charley, what I first imagined was that opening scene with when she and Micah are making their way over the border from Texas to Louisiana into sugar cane country. It’s an image I saw from above.
But I have to say, even before that, the image that came to me was of a father and a son sleeping in a car in LA. That even pre-dates Charley and Micah, and of course those two characters turned out to be Ralph Angel and Blue. I was living in LA at the time, and I was taking a writing class at this little community center on La Brea. Just as I walked under this overpass, I got this image of a father and a son in a car. That’s what started it. So, character always comes first. An image, some flash of a picture. I’ve never written a story in first person so there’s always a little bit of distance between me and the character. I always see them from the outside. I don’t hear their voice at first, ever. It’s always visual.
STACIE: I like that for both Charley and Ralph Angel that the car was connected, that sense of movement away from LA or through LA. That’s interesting.
NATALIE: That is interesting. I never thought of that before.
STACIE: I read Warmth of Other Suns a couple of years ago – an amazing, amazing book – and I had this really weird head-smack moment about midway through, where I was like, “Oh wait. I’m a child of the Great Migration! How have I never actually made that connection before?” I had been to Louisiana a few times and was surprised by how connected I felt there, even though I wasn’t vising family. Why would I feel at home? Not only am I completely a northerner, I am also a bit of a northern snob. How am I feeling at home in this place. And it wasn’t until I had that moment with [Wilkerson’s book] that I was like, “Oh, maybe this is what that connection is.” Because this is where my mother’s family comes from. And I’m wondering if that’s part of what makes you feel that connection to Louisiana, the fact that it’s in you, even when you’d never lived there.
NATALIE: Definitely. No question about it. As a matter of fact, just like you feel very much like a northerner, I feel very much like a westerner. My dad was from Louisiana, but my sister and I did not know Louisiana growing up as kids. It may as well have been a foreign country. I think it was because my upbringing was so suburban and so … white, in the sense that we lived in a neighborhood that was predominantly white, that when I started interacting with my southern family, I just loved how warm and welcoming they were, how forgiving they were. That’s the thing the really surprised me. No matter what you did, you were still family, and you always had a place. I really love that. My dad’s people are real salt-of-the-earth folks, not people of means at all, but their devotion to each other and their willingness to welcome me and my kids was really striking. It was such a welcome contrast to the fairly antiseptic suburban experience – loving within my household, but otherwise antiseptic – that made me feel connected. I was tremendously grateful for it, actually.
STACIE: There’s a line that Micah says early in the book when she’s voicing some of her frustration with being in St. Josephine, and she says, “Why is everyone black?”
STACIE: Which is the best question. That’s so great that she says that, because there’s so much in that question. And I haven’t heard anybody talk about it in any of the things that I’ve read about the book. I found that so powerful. In that moment, there’s clearly no space for Charley to unpack that with her because that’s not where they are – but I was hoping that somehow it would come back, and that we would get to see how Charley navigates that with Micah. I mean, we get to see other ways that that comes back, just not that direct conversation. But I have to say that I really loved that that question was there, and I hope that it plants something for other folks who are reading the book, too.
NATALIE: Thank you very much. It’s funny. You remind me of a story: My husband and I have two girls. One year when they were in middle school we took the to New York for spring break. In San Francisco – where there are hardly any Black people anymore – we had been telling them, “Okay, look. When you see another Black person on the street, you don’t just walk past that person. You acknowledge them. Say hello, give them the nod, something.” So we took them to New York, and we rented an apartment in Harlem, and naturally, you walk outside and … everybody’s Black, right? So our kids were walking on the street literally saying, “Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi …” to every Black person they saw, and we had to tell them to pull back. It was hilarious.
STACIE: In moderation.
NATALIE: Exactly. So that moment with Micah really reminds me of the experience of learning those unspoken – I don’t want to say “rules” – cultural mores, and begs the question, how do you give that to a child if they’ve never had that opportunity. Micah’s just such a little devil that I thought it was funny. In that scene I was seeing the world the way she would see it. And it seemed like yeah, she would wonder what’s going on here? What have you brought me to?
STACIE: I loved that. I was like oh, okay, Micah. I feel you. I know you’ve done a few different residencies. How has that been helpful to you?
NATALIE: I have found residencies to be invaluable. They are an opportunity to just climb inside of my work and live in that world I’ve been carrying in my head. I love it. I haven’t gone to a residency in a few years because after the book came out, I was busy doing book stuff, and it hasn’t been until recently that I even had new work to apply with. But I always found that even if I just went away for two weeks, I was three times more productive that I could be at home. I actually sat down and calculated it. At a residency, I typically work 14 hours a day. Multiply that by seven days a week, times two weeks or three weeks. That’s the equivalent of two or three months of work at home.
I have a writing office at the Grotto here in San Francisco, but by the time I pack my stuff, commute down there, walk to the office, set up my stuff, work … the day is interrupted and segmented in this way that it’s not at a residency. Even at The Grotto, I rarely have the experience of being totally lost in the work. If you can do it. If you can afford the time, I think a residency is the best gift a writer, or any type of creative person can give to herself.
You’re there with so many other interesting people. They may be visual artists or musicians or some other kind of creative type, but just being in that atmosphere is so inspiring. I remember going to Ragdale and meeting a composer. I knew nothing about music, but I remember being in his studio where he shared his composition with me. He showed me a place in his score where he’d erased so many times that the paper had worn thin. I was like, “Oh, I totally know what that is.” I knew exactly what that experience was like. It was so mind blowing that, there he was in a totally different medium, and yet we could connect over that experience of revision. It was great. I love residencies.
STACIE: Which of course leads me to a VONA question. What was the value for you of going to VONA, what did you get out of going to VONA?
NATALIE: I’d heard of VONA, and I’d thought about applying in other years, but something always came up, or the timing wasn’t right. By the time I actually applied, I’d already sold the Queen Sugar manuscript, so I ended up taking Faith Adiele’s Memoir class, which was so different for me. It blew my mind. I had never written any nonfiction before that but I was interested in personal essays. The rules were completely different, and that was refreshing and inspiring.
And then there was the community. I really loved being with my people, with other people of color, and comparing what was on their minds as artists versus what was on the minds of residents of other programs and residencies. I loved that there was clearly a political question or a political thread – something personally political – running through so many of the conversations and so much of what people were writing and exploring in their work. I knew I had my own personal conversation with these larger questions, but it was so inspiring, and comforting to be with other writers of color who were grappling with these same questions … or questions I hadn’t even thought of. It just felt different. I’d always found these residencies to be inspiring, but there was a different kind of richness at VONA that I had not experienced before. I feel like I missed out on a lot of that richness because I went to VONA when they were still at UC Berkeley. My kids were home, so I didn’t stay on campus. I commuted for Faith’s workshop, maybe hung out a little bit, but I had to get back home. So I feel like I missed out on some of the really good stuff. What I was able to get was totally different and nurturing in this whole other way that I was really grateful for.
STACIE: What would you say to POC writers who are thinking of applying to VONA?
NATALIE: A place like VONA is important because once you get onto that writing circuit, and you start going to a bunch of other residences and conferences … how do I say this? The value of VONA becomes even more apparent. Other places have certainly have things to offer. There are residencies that are all about the community of women, not necessarily women of color but women, and I think that’s important, too. But in my experience, I found that VONA was a different kind of a conversation. The people there, the atmosphere, the work, was saying something slightly different that I had not seen. I had not seen people come together at other residences and operate on an unspoken frequency about why we were there. Sometimes, you go to a lot of those places and it’s all about jockeying and positioning, and the ego, right? And some of those places can be terribly hierarchical in a way that I think is really destructive, especially for writers who are just starting out. VONA is one of the few places where people come, and that sense of wanting to support each other and celebrate each other takes priority. That’s what you’re there for. You’re there for connection. It’s not about posturing to see who has the most books published, or who has the hottest agent. I think that that allows people to relax and connect in a way that can be challenging at other places where you have writers gathered. I’m not discouraging people from applying to other residencies and conferences. I think they all offer something, but knowing that you have VONA in your back pocket is a good thing. It gives you perspective that you won’t have if you’re out there on that circuit. You can carry that feeling of home with you. You need to be able to do that. So that’s what I would say to someone who’s thinking of applying to VONA. You meet people and you carry those people with you. So that, no matter where else you go, you know you have a home. VONA grounds you. You know you have people backing you up.
But, this is a conversation that people have been having for years, right? Junot Diaz’s essay, and the whole question of the dominant voice, the dominant perspective at MFA programs, that’s a huge issue. If you’re a young writer and you’re in an MFA program and the tone of that program, the writing in that program, the direction of that program, which experience is more valued, which voices are more privileged . . . it can be challenging. So VONA is a counter balance to that. I think you need that. Because this writing life is tough. It’s tough, and it can be isolating, and so to not have some kind of anchor, can really be challenging. That’s why I would say people should apply – as they should apply to Cave Canem or Kimbilio, you know you have a place that’s going to offer you a warm embrace, so you can get out there and duke it out.
STACIE: You were talking about people who were dealing with different political questions. I’m just wondering how what’s happening in the news is impacting what you’re writing. And even if it’s not the painful stuff because … yeah, that … but even like … Beyonce’s “Formation” video and the crazy, America’s-mind-is-blown reaction to the “Formation” video. How is that filtering in?
NATALIE: I’m so glad you asked that because it is top of mind for me. And it actually has caused me to switch – I had an idea for another Louisiana novel and I’d started it, but recently I switched to something else. The rage that I have felt in the last year has totally changed and informed my work. There was a point at which I was feeling so much rage that I actually couldn’t write because my whole body felt like it was on fire. I had to remind myself to breathe.
Last fall I was reading Between the World and Me, and I was reading, Citizen, I was looking at Kara Walker’s work, and I felt my whole chest collapsing under the weight and the intensity of those works. I felt this searing pain that was difficult but essential, and it totally changed what I’m thinking and writing about. What I’ve had to do is allow – I can’t even say allow enough time to pass because we’re still in the midst of this – I’d say it’s say only been in the last few months, since like … January 1st, that I’ve been in a place now where I can actually start to think critically and somehow translate that into fiction. I’m not a nonfiction person, I mean, I’ve written a couple of personal essays, but for me it’s all about fiction first, and it’s taken me all this time to figure out how I can possibly begin to explore these questions in fiction and not be shouting all the time.
STACIE: It’s so amazing that you just said that. I am first a fiction writer, but I do also write a lot of nonfiction. And in the last … year and a half … I have felt myself moving further and further away from my fiction. Whereas my nonfiction voice has been this really angry voice. But in the last month or so, I’ve been feeling frustrated because … where are my stories, where’s the fiction that I feel so close to but now I can’t seem to write. And I feel like what you just said … I haven’t given myself that time because I’ve just been so angry and in so much pain.
NATALIE: I’ve never felt anger that has just penetrated my entire, my soul, my spirit, my physical body before. It’s a searing rage. I love books, I love the physicality of books, I love book stores, books are my refuge, my sanctuary, my comfort – but last fall, for the first time ever, I remember looking at my bookshelf last fall and thinking, “some of these books don’t have any meaning for me whatsoever.” I tossed out a lot of books that I’d been holding onto.
It’s something, I tell you. I have no choice but to sit with it; to try to figure out how to live in that place of rage and deep hurt, and I don’t know what else, and try to be creative in that space. That’s been the real challenge for me. I think I’m there now, finally.
STACIE: The anger in my writing has been too challenging for some people, and they’ve pulled away, and I’m like, “I’m sorry, but this is me. All of those things before were me, but this is me, too.”
NATALIE: Absolutely. I think that is critical. It’s what inspires me about the books that I’ve named, you know? They’re just saying it like it is. Unapologetic. Unflinching. Bam, that’s it. And that is so inspiring to me.
STACIE: I’m curious to know what were the books that came off your shelves?
NATALIE: Mostly novels that I had been hanging onto thinking that I would read one day and finally decided, you know what? I’m not going to read them. Novels that I’d outgrown or that spoke to me at a different time in my writing life. A lot of times what happens is a book gets a lot of attention, and I run out and I buy it because I think, “I need to read this.” But even as I’m buying it, I know that that author has a different set of concerns. A lot of times this happens with the young, hot, writer of the day. But I’ll still buy that book, knowing that it does not speak to me. And sure enough, that book just sits on my shelf, even though they didn’t have the weight of the staying power. Those were the books I finally decided I didn’t need.
STACIE: And finally, what brings you joy? How do you move your brain away from all the pain?
NATALIE: Oh, so many things. My children are a great source of joy for me. I have two girls, and they are just fabulous in their own right – which has nothing to do with me as their mother. I love watching them move through the world. That gives me a tremendous amount of joy. Of course, books give me a tremendous amount of joy. There’s nothing better for me than losing myself in the world that somebody else has created, you know? That, and being in the work. Spending time with friends, traveling whenever I can, getting out of here and having my eyes opened to a different kind of life, a different kind of experience. This is a challenging time. No question, but I think … day to day, for me, it’s the connections that I have with people that make all the difference. That really does it for me. That’s it.
STACIE: Thank you so much!
NATALIE: Thank you, Stacie. It’s been really fun. I enjoyed it.
The Slice of Life Story Challenge of 2016 is almost finished! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!