Exploring the art of prose


It Happened Here: Setting in Natashia Deón’s GRACE

By Melissa Benton Barker •

Natashia Deón’s novel, Grace, is a both a warcry against and a lament upon the violence inflicted on the Black female body under the conditions of slavery in the United States. The novel is narrated in alternating perspective between Naomi as she remembers the circumstances of her own life in flashes, and Naomi as the restless spirit of a woman who was viciously murdered in her attempt to escape. She dedicates her afterlife to guarding over her surviving daughter, Josey, in an often futile attempt to keep her from harm. As a narrator from the spirit world, Naomi’s point-of-view encapsulates not only her own memories, but the perspectives of other characters and even the land, the physical space, around her.

Naomi introduces herself to the reader with these words: “I could’ve saved a whole lot of trouble by tellin ’em the things that I know.” The narrator insists that she has something to say, and demands that the reader listen, to save them the trouble that she herself could not avoid. The novel chronicles the trauma of slavery through generations of women: Naomi’s murder; the repeated rape of Naomi’s mother and the selling of her babies; Josey’s struggle for autonomy and self-reliance. Naomi and Josey’s stories stand in for the voices who have been unrecorded by history and lost but for the legacy of trauma. By speaking through the spirit-voice in the words of the first-person narrator, Naomi, Deón resurrects the voices of the unspoken, the anonymous ancestors whose cry she urgently brings to the page.

The story takes place in the Deep South of pre-Civil War Georgia and Alabama: barren slave quarters, vine drenched backwoods, and cavernous plantations. There is a suffocating, nightmarish quality to this Southern Gothic landscape, as if the land itself were blood-soaked and haunted. Here, in one of Naomi’s childhood memories, darkness feels safer than light, as the child Naomi finds safety in invisibility:

Dusk is where it’s safe.

And dusk is where the magic is. Where you can hide things in the orange-pink shade of a losing day. Even the green waters of Moss Lake get blended gone from dusk. You can stand a running leap away from its wave and not see the water. Like it’s just another part of the field.

Dusk blends me away too.

Later, Naomi describes the interior of a plantation house as “chaotic…things been put together wrong,” the house’s jumbled character reflecting the dissonance of the institution it holds. Even later, post-emancipation, the plantation buckles with defeat, the old ways of oppression shut down to make way for something unknown and new: “the houses’s white face rose and its windows were like eyes watching us. The broken shutters hung off ’em like the saggy lids of an old man.” The setting changes as the story moves forward, in tandem with the historical events that shape the characters’ lives:

…Tallassee, Alabama, is redeeming herself….Greening it over with her vines folded into walking paths, and climbing them up tall and wide things, erasing the brown of dirt and dead with the living. Full trees and bushes are crowding open skies, turning once-blue spaces to shade. Everything is coming back. Sagging limbs and leaves—square and round, prickly and straight—are weighty on her branches like jewelry. Her mosses are furs. Tallassee is finding her way….Redemption is taking place. It’s what happens to a plantation with no slaves.

Listening to the voices of Naomi and all the women she speaks for, the reader is confronted with the trauma and genocide that built this country, and this listening becomes a roadmap, a way to break out of a calcified habit of denial. Deón’s choice to use Naomi’s dual perspective (ghost and memory) allows her to reveal a greater scope than she might have been able to explore in a more traditional narrative, as well as to symbolically unleash the voices of the dead, generations of women who have been silenced by slavery and its traumatic legacy. Naomi’s voice—by turns confused and wounded, or determined and rageful in her quest to protect her daughter—allows the reader to enter the story on a visceral, almost physical level. The setting of the Deep South, and from a broader lens, the United States, built on the trauma of slavery, is present as strongly as any character in the story—the land acted upon and reacting to the actions of the people who occupy it. This haunted story is a uniquely North American tragedy—it couldn’t happen anywhere but here—and Deón’s skillful and poetic depiction of setting forces the reader to recognize this particular legacy of trauma as something that lives, breathes, and endures in the land, but that, like the plantation that collapses under the mosses and vines that run wild without tending, the institution is not the land’s natural state.

As the wildness of the land takes over, the death-defying relationship between mother and daughter heals and releases Naomi’s wounded spirit. In this manner, the braided story speaks to the powerful healing potential of the loving bond between women and their children—a bond that slave owners attempted to break with everything in their power, a bond that, in the story of Naomi, was too strong to be broken, even by death. This is reflected in the way the book closes with a hopeful, verse-like passage:

For the first time, there’s a new feeling resting on me.
Through me.
It’s leading me forward. To Momma.
The flashes are peeling away from me like an undressing. The final piece a blouse over my head.
I’m naked.
Fearing nothing.

MELISSA BENTON BARKER lives in Ohio with her family. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb, Jellyfish Review, Vestal Review, and elsewhere.