Two and a half years after Queen Sugar was published, everyone is talking about Natalie Baszile’s debut novel.
“Selma” director Ava DuVernay’s screen adaptation of the book premiered last week on OWN with a two-hour special. When I spoke to Baszile the week before the premiere, she hadn’t yet seen anything of the finished television series, also titled “Queen Sugar,” except trailers.
“I am excited [to watch it],” she said of DuVernay’s work. “From what I have seen of the trailers, from what I have seen of the script that I’ve read ... I think we have a similar intention, we have a similar goal, long-term, for delivering something to audiences ... that is something different.”
“That is my firm belief,” she added, “that all people, but especially African-American viewers and readers, deserve something a little bit different than what is out there.”
With diversity of representation in film, TV and literature a particular point of heated debate right now, Baszile’s words strike a chord. But her point, she makes clear, goes beyond the easy, superficial question of simply ensuring a modicum of black representation in entertainment. “I really came to literature during the reawakening, the second wave renaissance of literature during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” she told me. “Toni Morrison published Beloved, she published Jazz. You had Toni Cade Bambara publishing, you had Alice Walker publishing.”
But then, she noticed, something happened.
All people, but especially African-American viewers and readers, deserve something a little bit different than what is out there. Natalie Baszile
“As I started to write Queen Sugar, especially in the late ‘90s ... all of these great diverse stories that I had grown up on and was inspired by, started to disappear. All of a sudden you saw a very, very narrow portrayal of the African-American experience on the bookshelf. All of a sudden the only thing you saw were titles like The Bitch Is Back or Stackin’ Paper, and there’d be a picture of a woman, scantily clad, on the hood of a car.”
“I’m not saying those books don’t have a place,” she hastened to add, “because they do. But they didn’t reflect my experience, and they did not reflect the experience of so many African-Americans I knew who were my contemporaries.”
Against a backdrop of what Baszile perceived to be a one-note portrayal of black life in American literature, she told me, “I really felt almost like it was my duty as a writer ... to write books with whole African-Americans, balanced people ― yes they had challenges, yes, they were facing obstacles, but they weren’t broken in the same way that other characters I saw out there were broken.”
In the TV adaptation of “Queen Sugar,” the portrayal isn’t always the same as the picture painted in Baszile’s book. The novel tells the story of Charley, a financially strapped, widowed art teacher from Los Angeles with a young daughter named Micah. Her wealthy, real estate mogul father dies, leaving her with a shocking legacy: a sugar cane plantation in Louisiana, where he grew up. Her half-brother, Ralph Angel, a single father who dotes on his son Blue but resorts to crime in supporting him, heads back home not because he received an inheritance, but because he has no other hope left.
I really felt almost like it was my duty as a writer ... to write books with whole African-Americans, balanced people. Natalie Baszile
In DuVernay’s story, Charley is living the high life as the wife and business partner of a famous NBA star; Micah is their teenage son. She flees to Louisiana, where her father lives on a sugar cane plantation, when video evidence suggests her husband was involved in the gang rape of an incapacitated woman involving other members of the team. When her father dies, everything changes yet again.
I asked Baszile about the TV special’s revisions, many of which are significant and some of which seem rather charged, like transforming Charley’s husband into an alleged rapist ― and she was circumspect. “[DuVernay] gave me a heads up about a lot of those changes,” she told me. “Many, actually, most of the changes she made, I agreed with. Readers come to literary fiction with a different eye, and a different set of expectations, and this was the world of film and television. It was glitzier, it was more glamorous, it was shinier.
“I think Ava has made some strategic narrative choices that will allow her to continue the conversation I started in the book, themes that were very, very important to me in all the years that it took me to write the book.”
Here are some more eloquent thoughts Baszile on her love for Louisiana, the strength found in multigenerational family love, the importance of Black Lives Matter, and other themes excavated in “Queen Sugar”:
On why she chose to write about the South:
“While the book is not strictly autobiographical ― in the sense that I’ve never farmed sugar cane, I’ve never actually lived in Louisiana ― my dad was born in Louisiana and raised there. And most of my family on my dad’s side still lives in Louisiana. When I did start to discover Louisiana on my own, it was as a young adult. It was when my dad would return once a year in the spring, to visit his family and take his mother on a road trip. I started to tag along. My first introduction to Louisiana came when I was in my late teens and early 20s.
“The place was so different from what I knew growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles that I was kind of just mesmerized by it and really drawn in.”
On the culture of Louisiana:
“The relationship that people in Louisiana have to the land is totally different to my experience growing up and living in in urban and suburban areas. I’d never met people who hunted and fished and literally ate what they caught, like, for real. People live their lives according to what season it is. It’s duck-hunting season, or it’s quail season, or it’s deer season ― it’s fascinating to me. And that’s not just white Southerners, that’s black people too. I’d never seen a black cowboy, but they’re there. They have their horses, and they have their land. You had black people from all over South Louisiana who would get together for these things called zydeco trail rides, where there were literally like 500 black cowboys fully decked out in the gear on horseback. Have you ever seen that? it was mind-blowing. To see all these aspects of Louisiana culture and the way it overlapped with race and class, it was like a goldmine.
“Honestly, had I not already been laboring over this book for 11 years and had Oprah and Ava not come calling, I’d probably still be writing that book in order to incorporate all of the stuff that I witnessed and experienced.”
On Louisiana’s complex racial dynamics:
“When I would go down to Louisiana to do research for the book, one of the surprising things to me was all of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that race plays out in the South. Because I was an outsider, because I went down there with a certain sense of freedom, I could observe a lot of those dynamics from the outside. It’s not that I went down there and was totally naive about the South, but because I had not grown up in that, I didn’t feel the weight of those dynamics. I was going anywhere I wanted to. I was doing what I needed to do. And many of the first people I met were white.
“It was a very, very strange experience to go down to the deep South, Louisiana, to have many of my initial guides be white. For me to be a black woman, keenly aware of what was going on, and to also be connecting to the black people down there. Some of the farmers, people in their 70s, 80s, from my dad’s generation, who grew up in the segregated South, who were happy for me, but also baffled by me, but also intensely proud.
“I remember being at this party once, and all of the help was black, and my husband and I were the only black people at this event. I had a very strong connection with the people at the party but also the help. It was this surreal experience to be there and experience race and class and gender simultaneously, to be an insider but also to be an outsider.”
On the challenges of writing about race in the South:
“As much as I wanted to write a Southern story, I was not at all interested in writing a story that was all moonlight and magnolias. I was not interested in some syrupy sweet narrative where everyone’s getting along. I wanted it to be complicated. I wanted it to be difficult. I wanted to celebrate everything about South Louisiana that is beautiful and welcoming but I also wanted it to explore and acknowledge the ugly side, because Louisiana has an ugly side.”
On the vital importance of mother-daughter and father-son relationships:
“I have daughters. Two daughters. I am intimately familiar with the joys and the challenges of raising girls. [Writing about] that came very naturally to me.
“I love that multi-generational story. That is an experience that I wish I would have had more of. I didn’t grow up around a vast extended family, because we were out here in California, and my dad’s people were in Louisiana and my mom’s family was in Detroit and the Midwest.
“The experience I had when I went back as a young adult and spent time with my grandmother and my aunt, and what that was like, and really had to learn, as Charley learns in the book, what it means to have to respect your elders ― that’s steeped in Southern tradition, that is something that has always been part of African-American tradition. That’s an American experience that I think people are losing. So I really wanted to explore that in the book. What is it like to be a grown woman to then have to defer to your grandmother?
“As far as Ralph Angel and Blue ― black men don’t always get a fair shake in their portrayal. So as flawed as Ralph Angel is in the book, and he is very flawed, I also wanted to give him dimensions, and show a character, a black man, who is really trying to do his best, and who if nothing else was going try to protect his child. That something I hadn’t seen in a lot of books I was reading where there were black characters. They were out there, but it wasn’t a common theme. So I really wanted to try to explore that and present that as an option for readers.”
On trying to run a sugar cane plantation in the deep South as a black woman:
“I imagine Charley as being deeply troubled, deeply ambivalent about her role, because she comes down there ― she doesn’t know anything. Her experience in California as I imagined it is very much like my mine, more an experience of integration and inclusion. So when she goes down to Louisiana, she has to confront that dark history. She wants to be a good employer, but then again she’s caught, because as, in the book, Prosper Denton tells her, ‘Black folks would rather work for a white man.’ That is a historical fact, not that black people felt exploited or suspicious of other black people, but that gets into that grey area, of who should be in a position of authority? Who’s getting ahead and who can be trusted?
“My dad, who was from Louisiana, used to have a saying, and it was something like, ‘Folks always believe the white man’s ice is colder.’ It speaks to this dynamic about the ambivalence, I think, that black people felt, maybe not now, but somehow the white man is going to treat you better, even when you know that that’s not true. There’s this belief that somehow, that is going to be the case, and it goes against everything you know ― and yet.”
On Black Lives Matter:
“Queen Sugar took me 11 years to write. In that time, really, we were at the very beginning of this whole movement. There was Trayvon Martin. There was Oscar Grant. And I think that was it. I was thinking about that, that was definitely on my mind, when I was thinking about Ralph Angel’s character and what happens to him in the book. That sense of almost inevitability, and what is his motivation in doing the things that he does in the book. When he has those brushes with the police officer, the state patroller, what is that like for him? That was very much on my mind. But the culture had not exploded the way it has since I sold the manuscript and the book came out in hardcover in 2014.
“It was definitely an issue I wanted to address in the book in a way that was unapologetic and heartbreaking. Because I was heartbroken. It was very important to me.
“Could I have predicted it would have become one of the defining cultural questions of our time? No. But it was on my mind, and one of the things that I’m both curious about and excited about in the [TV] series is, how are they going to deal with that? I know that they are. What are they going to say? How are they going to explore the issue, in a way that’s subtle, in a way that’s nuanced and complicated, and doesn’t let the characters off the hook but doesn’t let the viewers off the hook, white and black?”
This interview has been condensed and edited.