A tiny figure in a tattered and bloodied yellow dress runs through the woods. Tripping over her own feet, she clutches her belly, throwing frantic glances behind her. This is the opening to Grace, a novel by PCC’s writer in residence Natashia Deon. The scene came to her, somewhere between daydream and hallucination, while in her home, clutching her newborn so, when she was transported to the 1850s Alabama woods. Feeling connected to the young slave woman, Deon felt compelled to tell her story.
Pulling it back to the present, Deon forms connection to contemporary women as well. “Nevermind I’ll find someone like you”, croons Deon. The ice cubes in her caramel macchiato chink together as she chuckles, sheepish but indulgent, at her impromptu rendition of Adele’s swanky pop song. Her laugh comes with ease, but quickly falls, her brow furrowing, as she recalls the weight of the song.
She serenades in order to explain the meaning behind a line her novel Grace. It reads “If a person never loved somebody pathetically and unrequited, they haven’t met themselves yet, so consider yourself introduced”. The universality of the line is startling considering the novel’s Civil War-era backdrop. Moreso, it confirms that the pangs of love are not the only inherited trauma.
Deon’s novel Grace invites a neglected perspective to the Civil War narrative. It creates an authentic psychological rendering of what she deems “outcast women of the Civil War”, forcing the reader to contend with the fact that the issues of the past are very much the issues of the present.
The novel’s dual perspective helps foster the spiritual connection binding generations of women together. In one storyline, Naomi, a runaway slave, is a ghost watching over her daughter Josy’s life. In the other, Naomi reflects on the events leading up to her death, until the two story lines converge at the end.
Slave. White. Wife. Woman. African American. Prostitute. Mother. Deon reconciles the messiness of these identities, relying on the factual and relatable rather than the superficial and socially constructed.
“As far as minorities, it’s eye-opening to read about our past and what we’ve been through, but at the same time it doesn’t change too much,” said Tatyana Roscoe, PCC student. It just gives the reader an insightful look at what’s going on.”
In her quest to show duality, Deon uses language to dismantle preconceived notions of slavery.
Naomi’s transition from a state of naivety to one of experience is subtly seen in her dialogue. As a child, Naomi is unable to put labels to her emotions, instead she expresses the feelings behind those emotions.
“You can have a limited vocabulary and still be intelligent,” said Deon. “Language is about exposure”.
Deon echoes the power of words in today’s society by emphasizing the importance of defining terms like justice and Black Lives Matter. Failure to define your own terms, she says, empowers the opposition.
“We have to be bridges, as black people, that’s our struggle,” said Deon. “We hold on to rights in one hand and push forward with the other and try not to lose the ones we already have.”
In the midst of Confederate monuments and flags, a resurgence of the KKK, and their violent culmination in Charlottesville, the racial and socioeconomic tensions that plagued the pages of Grace have only heightened in the days since.
“What they’re trying to do is redefine history. It’s a symbol of hate, it’s a symbol of denigration, it’s about imprisoning people,” said Deon. “Everyone knows it’s a white power sign.”
Deon wrote Charles, Josy’s adoptive father, in response to the controversy over same sex marriage and adoption during the Obama presidency.
In one of the novel’s most distressing scenes, Josy is raped and assaulted, while Naomi can only look on, powerless to stop it. Afterward, the novel explores the psychological repercussions of such an experience, in a woman anchored by the limitations of her race/gender, within a world that silences mention of mental illness. Naomi aches for her, angered by the familiarity of such subjugation in the lives of women around her. Despite being a caring and supportive father figure, Charles simply cannot comprehend the assault, as the privilege of his gender blinds him to its frequency and gravity, according to Deon.
“Is it enough to be a parent who loves this child, can you really give them everything they need?, Deon prods. “So, I’m asking are there limitations?”.
During a public reading on Oct. 19 in PCC’s Creveling Lounge, Deon chose a perilous excerpt in which Naomi struggles to run away from her captors while in labor. Deon transcends the physical bounds of reality and page as she becomes Naomi. Her voice strains, breathing slows and quickens at each moment of relief and terror. It carries years of oppression and grief, only this burden isn’t fictional. Luckily, there is grace after life.
“Love heals a lot and that selfless love we have for our children is one of the purest”, said Deon.