Leading up to Queen Sugar’s premiere I had the opportunity to speak with Natalie Baszile, a California native with roots in Louisiana. We talked about what it means for her to have her work adapted by two of the most powerful women in show business, the history she wanted to bring up with her story, and why young creatives of color should pursue their heart’s passion.
TERRYN HALL: How are you feeling seeing your book about a black woman and her inheritance come to life at the hands of two very powerful black women, Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey?
NATALIE BASZILE: I’m thrilled. I actually saw the first episode — I was in New York with my husband for the past few days, and we saw episode one at the New York screening they held Thursday night, and it’s beautiful. It is a real celebration of the complexity of African-American people, and the complexity of African-American life. It is really a pleasure for me to see what Ava has done. I think she is very courageous in offering audiences something different, something that is more novelistic in tone and in pacing, and I’m just excited.
Did you have any hand in writing for the series? Queen Sugar is one book, will you be brought on to expand the story to fit a series?
No. You know as many first-time novelists will tell you, when you sign your name on the dotted line, you are signing away your input and your influence, and that was certainly the case with me. But I have to also tell you that in my case I was very confident. I mean, who can complain with Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey when they come to you and tell you that they love your book and want to adapt it?
Yeah, Ava is from California with roots in the South, and Oprah is from the South …
Exactly, exactly. They understood it, you know. I think at a very deep and personal level, Ava understood what I was trying to say in the book. I think that's what resonated with her. I think that her artistic vision and my artistic vision are aligned. Not exactly the same, but I think that they are in sync with each other, which I think is important. And so it's been a real pleasure for me to step aside with confidence and know that my story and that world that I created was in good hands. I could not have asked for a better team of women to take that story and run with it.
Can you talk to me about the concept of inheritance — it’s all throughout Queen Sugar. Why did that keep coming up for you and why was it important?
Absolutely. This theme of inheritance works on a number of levels. First you have the historical: the legacy of disenfranchisement with African Americans in the wake of Emancipation. You had this tremendous sense on African-American people’s parts of finally being able to own something, particularly in the South. To be able to have agency and own your land. It was about more than just survival, right? It was really all about self-empowerment. To know that that is the history of so many black people in this country, and then to think about what has happened in many cases with black land owners over the years — you have families who have lost their land, because they haven't paid the taxes or there are too many family members trying to divide up some acreage. Just reflecting on that history of land ownership was really critical to me. Even fast-forwarding to my own family and my parents owning a lot of real estate in Southern California, in and around Los Angeles, and my mother saying to me to this day, “Never sell this property. Never never sell it.”
Oh my God, are we related? You sound exactly like my grandmother — she has three houses and will not let them go.
Exactly! And what I am trying to educate my children about is that this is freedom, this is a certain kind of economic freedom going forward. There’s that passage in the book where Charley (the main character) is kind of reflecting on conversations with her father where Ernest tells her, “Real estate is the horse you need to ride.” This land is security, it is freedom, it is empowerment for you. This is tremendously important to me personally, and it's something I really wanted to get across in the book.
While reading Queen Sugar, it brought to mind other artistic work that centers on sugarcane production — like Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, the movie Sugar Cane Alley, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety — and the backbreaking intensity of harvesting sugarcane and what it's done to black people in the US and the Caribbean.
The day that I decided to set my novel in sugarcane country was July 15, 2005. Before that day I never knew that sugarcane grew in Louisiana. I had no idea, because my Louisiana family is from farther west. They’re actually in a little town closer to the Texas border and they grow rice and crawfish. So that’s what I knew of Louisiana and I’d already been working on the book for a number of years at that point. So when I looked up and found myself in the middle of a sugarcane field that a friend took me to, even though I didn't know a lot about the process of growing sugarcane — that was something I would learn in the years to come — I did know that sugarcane had this history that stretched all the way back to the Caribbean.
When I stood in that field, I could feel my story literally take on a new weight and a new significance, because all of a sudden it was a contemporary story with these really deep roots into the past, where I could think about slavery and all of these issues. It was a way to bring all of that past forward into the story. And even though the history of sugarcane is not top of mind for Charley, it is right underneath the surface of that book.
I’m a big stickler about Southern dialects and accents, can you talk to me about how you were able to capture that Southern African-American voice and do it justice?
In my experience of Louisiana, there is a very particular lyricism in the language itself. There are these wonderful turns of phrase that my family uses, that I just found them so endearing and true. It spoke to the brilliance of the way black people use metaphor, and I really wanted to celebrate that in the novel without having them sound like they were from central casting, where it’s like everyone in the South speaks the same way, because they don’t. And I even want to try to even capture the influence of French in the way people speak. It’s just such a beautiful way of using language. I was very keen on infusing the characters with some of that.
I read in another interview about how you left your job in 1999 to write. Can you talk more about what it means to pursue your writing deeply?
Sure. Actually this is a great question because I've been thinking about this a lot. So in ’99, yes, I left my job and committed myself to being a writer, which meant I thought about writing as my job. I was very fortunate, I have a husband who is very supportive who said, “You’ve been talking about this for years, you need to just do it,” so there was that. I would also try to have some kind of part-time gig, usually having to do with editing, or I worked for an independent publisher for a few years. I just ended a tenure teaching high school. Leaving in ’99 meant that I committed to myself to make writing the focus of my life. Aside from raising children, writing was it.
I’m thinking about this a lot lately because I think especially for African-American writers and writers of color, in many instances — and I don't want to exclude white writers, but I think it can be different — we are raised with a certain expectation about what we are going to do professionally, and writing is not always on the table as an option. And I understand it, because it is not guaranteed. That is a huge risk. It’s much easier to go to business school or law school or medical school. But here’s what I really believe — if you are called to be a writer, if you feel that in your gut and in your heart, it is very difficult to suppress that over the years. People of color who are creative really have to stop and think about their definition of success, because often we will suppress this instinct toward creativity because we have to do something practical to pay the bills. And while that is true, and while I would never encourage people to be irresponsible financially, I also think that there are too many creative people out there who are not pursuing their dream because they are afraid, and that was certainly the case for me.
By ’99, I left because I had to leave. I had to leave my family business, because staying there was literally soul-killing, because I was not feeding this deeper part of myself that was the true me.
And now you are about to watch your story on TV. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah! Yeah. It’s crazy. But I’m glad that I finally gave myself that gift and took the leap all those years ago, because here I am.
Terryn Hall is a Detroit-based, Virginia-bred writer, book lover, and digital strategist. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, and more.