Natalie Baszile: Honesty is Key to Capturing Place and Character

Posted Tue, 11/27/2018 - 1:12pm by  |  Category: , , , ,

Natalie Baszile is the author of Queen Sugar, a breakout debut novel that follows the experiences of an African-American woman who unexpectedly inherits a sugarcane farm and relocates from Los Angeles to rural Louisiana. The book was named one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Best Books of 2014 and nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and has been adapted into a television series by writer/director Ava DuVernay, coproduced by Oprah Winfrey.

Natalie holds an MA in Afro-American Studies from UCLA and an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She began working on Queen Sugar in the late 1990s after leaving her job with her family’s aluminum distribution company, where she’d worked for eleven years.

Natalie found inspiration for Queen Sugar in her experiences visiting her father’s family in Louisiana, as well as extensive research into the history and culture of the south. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Natalie said her interest in writing about Louisiana grew out of her family ties to the state and how life there contrasted with her experiences growing up near Los Angeles.

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,” she explained. “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.”

Beyond capturing the landscape and culture of Louisiana, Natalie also wanted to portray African-American characters in a way that more closely reflected her and her peers’ experiences.

“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,” she told the Huffington Post. “All of a sudden you saw a very, very narrow portrayal of the African-American experience on the bookshelf. […] I really felt 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 2016, the Queen Sugar television series debuted on the Oprah Winfrey Network. The show is currently in its third season.

Asked how Queen Sugar’s evolution as a novel and a series has changed her relationship to storytelling and craft, Natalie told Signature Reads, “I am even more committed to being honest. I think that the beauty of storytelling—the moment that it’s most magical—is when the reader or the viewer recognizes something in the work that is undeniably true. […] The challenge for me in writing and storytelling is to be patient enough and observant enough and open enough to convey those moments of truth on the page.”

Hear more about Queen Sugar and what Natalie has to say about place and craft this Thursday, November 29, for the Word Works: Writers on Writing series. Tickets on sale now.