An Interview with Opal Palmer Adisa
Natalie Baszile is the author of the debut novel, Queen Sugar, soon to be adapted into a TV series by writer/director, Ava DuVernay of “Selma” fame, and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey for OWN, Winfrey’s cable network. Queen Sugar was named one of the San Francisco Chronicles’ Best Books of 2014, was long-listed for the Crooks Corner Southern Book Prize, and nominated for an NAACP Image Award.
OPA: When did you know you had a novel in you?
NB: I began to suspect I had a novel in me when I realized a short story I’d written was actually just part of a larger story. This was 1997 and I was at my grandmother’s funeral in Louisiana. During the service, it occurred to me that her town was the place from where one of my characters had come. It was a startling realization, but also a relief. When I got home from the funeral, I pulled out the short story and started imagining the characters’ lives. The novel grew from there.
OPA: What education/life experiences prepared you to write this novel? And how long did it take?
NB: Queen Sugar took 11 years to write, and I have to say that everything I did in advance of selling the manuscript prepared me to write it. I was an English major as an undergraduate at Berkeley. That’s where I was first introduced to and fell in love with Afro-American Literature. Afro-American literature was experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor were just a few of the black authors who were all publishing books and I was completely inspired by their work. That’s when I started to thinking I might want to be a writer. I earned a M.A. in Afro-American Studies, and that experience depended my appreciation, not just for Afro-American literature, but for the history the diaspora. Those two experiences helped me lay the foundation. Years later, after I’d started working on Queen Sugar, I went back to school again and earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing because I realized I needed to learn more about the craft of writing. I also worked for my family’s business for eleven years after college. While that experience didn’t teach me anything about writing, I learned some valuable lessons about how quickly time could pass and how important it was for me to pursue my passion while I had the chance.
OPA: Did you always know you wanted to write?
NB: I always knew I wanted to write. I loved books as a kid, and initially thought I wanted to be a journalist. During college I secretly dreamed of moving to New York and writing for a magazine, but I was afraid to take the leap, which, looking back seems so ridiculous. But I’d also promised my dad that after graduation I’d work in his business. I’m the oldest of two girls, and my younger sister announced early on that she wanted to be an academic, so I suppose I felt a sense of duty–so that’s what I did for 11 years until I couldn’t stand it any more and quit. Writing is something I have to do. It’s an absolute necessity–physically, emotionally, and psychologically, spiritually. When I don’t write, I don’t really feel like myself.
OPA: Your novel, Queen Sugar, is set in Louisiana. Did you grow up there or do you have family there?
NB: I’m a native Californian, but my dad was born in Louisiana, which, I think, gave me permission to claim it as part of my identity. My extended family still lives there, and I love having southern roots, but I’m also grateful to have a western sensibility. I don’t think I could have written Queen Sugar if I’d been born in Louisiana. That book is all about discovery and being in a state of wonder. In so many ways, I needed to occupy a space outside of the culture in order to write about it.
OPA: Why is this story important to the Black literary tradition?
NB: When I first dreamed of becoming a writer, African-American literature explored a range of topics, but then it seemed to narrow for a time, which I think had more to do with publishing and less to do with reality. But there was definitely a period when it seemed that the only stories told (or published) about black peoples’ lives were either entirely urban or entirely rural, and I wasn’t seeing anything that reflected my experience on the book shelves. That lack of range was huge reason why I wanted to write Queen Sugar. Because it’s like Toni Morrison says: “If you don’t see a book you want to read, then you must write it.” I always hoped that Queen Sugar would tell a story readers hadn’t seen: the story of a middle class, suburban black woman from the west. The Black literary tradition is so rich. I’m very grateful to be a part of it.
OPA: Which black writers and other writers’ works have influenced you?
NB: Where do I begin? James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Zora Neal Hurston and Jean Toomer were some of my early influences. I love Andrea Lee’s story collection, Interesting Women, then there’s Zadie Smith and Chiminanda Adiche. I don’t write poetry, but I read it and have tremendous admiration for poets: Elizabeth Alexander, A. Van Jordan, Natasha Tretheway, Cornelius Eady, Yusef Komenyakaa, Lucille Clifton . . . . I just read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which blew me away, and am reading Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, which I love, love love. I love Amy Bloom and Elizabeth Strout, Michael Cunningham, Elena Ferrante’s, Anthony Doerr. So many writers . . .I also draw inspiration from other art forms. Kara Walker’s work is provocative and interesting. Then there’s Glen Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, Elizabeth Catlett, and Richard Mayhew . . . I could go on.
OPA: Are you willing to say what you’re working on next?
NB: I have an idea for my next novel, but I’m at the very beginning of the process, which feels so strange after working on Queen Sugar for so long. I have the tiniest seed of an idea, just a kernel, which I have to nurture and protect, so I can’t say much about it.
OPA: What does Natalie do for fun, when she is not writing, let us, just a little, into a glimpse of you – Natalie?
NB: When I’m not writing, I love to ride my bike and garden, although I have to confess I haven’t done much of either lately. I had a big garden when I lived in Los Angeles, but I still haven’t figured out how to grow anything but salad greens and lemons in San Francisco where it’s so much cooler. I like to entertain and enjoy entertaining friends over for dinner. I love to travel and have a long list of places I’d love to experience. I have a lot of things on my bucket list.
Natalie Baszile, a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, has a M.A. in Afro-American Studies from UCLA, and an MFA from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The Rumpus.net, Mission at Tenth, The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 9, and O, The Oprah Magazine. For more information visit her website: http://nataliebaszile.com or connect with her on FaceBook