‘Queen Sugar’ author Natalie Baszile to speak at event
By Lou Fancher
San Francisco author Natalie Baszile, whose debut novel “Queen Sugar” was the featured selection in this year’s Brentwood Library CityRead program, will make a personal appearance at the program’s Oct. 23 conclusion at the Brentwood Community Center.
Beginning in mid-September, 500 free copies of Baszile’s book were distributed to readers taking part in the 14th annual CityRead event. The program aims to foster community conversations about the generational, racial, economic and other divides that are bridged by the story.
“When you see hundreds of people connecting over one book, and taking a night off from their busy schedules to meet the author face-to-face, it’s inspiring,” said Youth Services Librarian Lindsay duPont. She said the program has blossomed, growing from 150 participants four years ago to 325 people who took part in 2015‘s two CityRead events.
The selection committee comprising staff and members of the Friends of the Brentwood Library selected “Queen Sugar” based on its strong critical reviews, an engaging narrative written with a voice reflecting diversity, and the author’s Bay Area connection.
“Queen Sugar” tells the story of Charley Bordelon, an African-American woman from Los Angeles who moves to Louisiana with her 11-year-old daughter, Micah, to assume the leadership of a sugar cane plantation after her father dies. The Deep South culture and characters they encounter force reinvention — or at the very least, the discovery of new family connections and individual strength.
In an interview, Baszile said, “I’ve always appreciated and believed that ‘Queen Sugar’ was an African-American story. But it’s also an American story. The themes are themes we all can live and learn from.”
Baszile has a master’s degree in Afro-American Studies from UCLA, and is a graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers where she was a Holden Minority Scholar. She moved from her hometown of Los Angeles to the Bay Area in 2003 with her family that includes two young daughters.
Underlying the family themes, especially the central mother-daughter dynamic, the question of whether or not Charley will save the farm provides the book’s basic, “what if” tension. “It’s a 50-50 equation, so for interest, there had to be other issues raised; the relationships that provide a whole universe to be explored.”
Baszile writes with a loose sense of where a story is headed, relying on gut instinct for the story’s arc and “epiphany moments” when the pieces fall together. “That’s the joy of writing,” she said. “Your mind makes surprising connections — from chapter two an idea bubbles up in chapter 10. It’s exciting.”
During the 11 years it took Baszile to write the novel, she said the San Francisco Writers Grotto offered vital support. “Writing is solitary, but to go to the Grotto every week and have readers who are friends and colleagues was really important. I had over 100 people who know what it’s like to craft a story with words. They had a front row seat and they’ve also been through it themselves.”
And with “Queen Sugar” taken under the wing of Oprah Winfrey, adapted for television by writer/director Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) and having premiered Sept. 6 on OWN, Oprah’s television network, Baszile has encountered new challenges. Changes to the story have turned Micah into a boy and Charley, a well-meaning but struggling woman in the book, is more glamorous and aspirational. “There are things that work in literary fiction that don’t work for a broader, more commercial audience,” said Baszile, while acknowledging that some people will have difficulty “making the leap” to the series. Opening the narrative to address the experiences of a young boy provides new possibilities. “You give something up to gain something,” she said.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the attention “Queen Sugar” has received is how it encourages her to shine a particular spotlight on the literary world. “When I came to literature there was an elegance and dignity in the way African-Americans were portrayed,” she said. “That fell off in the 1990s. It wasn’t reflected in the books I saw. ‘Queen Sugar’’s reception and the series are confirming what I believed. It has been most gratifying to find that people were hungry for a story with the whole range of African-Americans portrayed.”
Looking out on the bounty of books written about people of color in the last year, Baszile stresses the need for more books written by authors of color. “There’s a temptation for lots of people to jump into the void and write books about race and racial tension. I’m not opposed to white authors writing books about black characters as long as they do it with nuance, sensitivity, respect and even humility.”
Perhaps one way to achieve both goals — more writers who are people of color and more awareness from authors in general — is to join in the reading of a good book.