Waves crashed on a San Diego beach as a woman advised her niece on how to stay safe as a young woman at college. Minutes later, the scene shifted to the year 1848, where a pregnant, runaway slave had just started feeling labor pains while fleeing her captors.
These dissimilar scenarios opened short stories written by authors Dana Johnson and Natashia Deón. Johnson and Deón visited California State University, Northridge to read from their most recent books, in the Whitsett Room.
The event, hosted by the Northridge Creative Writers Circle, began with Johnson reading the first five pages of She Deserves Everything She Gets, a short story featured in her 2016 anthology In the Not Quite Dark: Stories. Deón followed with the introduction to her novel, Grace, also published in 2016. Both stories dealt with themes of race and inequity, written from a black female’s perspective.
She Deserves Everything She Gets served as a meditation on the concerns, struggles and expectations imposed on women — while the narrator contrasted her pink-collar college experience in the ’80s with her young niece’s coddled lifestyle and relative naiveté. Johnson, a Los Angeles native who won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her book Break Any Woman Down, elaborated on how her personal experiences influence her writing.
“These are just stories that I want to tell because I’m interested in the subject matter, and I guess because I come from where I come from and know the people that I know, they end up being these stories about these kinds of folks,” Johnson said. “But I’m not trying to write for people. I’m just writing what I’m interested in.”
Grace paints a markedly different portrait, set in the pre-Civil War Deep South. Its opening line, “I am dead,” exudes a curtain of sorrow that hangs over the tale of injustices during the American slavery era.
A practicing attorney and law professor featured as one of Los Angeles’ “most fascinating people” by LA Weekly in 2013, Deón said the theme of justice is as prevalent in her writing as it is in her law career.
“I’m always asking myself the question, ‘What is justice?’ and trying to solve it,” she said. “I don’t think that I do necessarily, but one thing I decided with the novel is that when someone dies, there’s no such thing as justice. Everything you do after that, because you can never get that person back who you lost, is just a form of revenge. Even though it seems acceptable, it’s still the same.”
The two works shared connections to real-world narratives about marginalized communities and individuals. Ilana Masad, a writer who reviewed In the Not Quite Dark for the Los Angeles Times and hosts The Other Stories Podcast, attended the reading and noted a possible link between the stories.
“Unfortunately, I think there are still a lot of parallels,” Masad said. “It’s still so true that people of color are the entertainment or the underserved, the ones who aren’t spoken about so much, and it’s not fair. Dana’s character might have to deal with some of the same stuff the character in Grace has to deal with because times, they have changed — but times, they have not changed enough.”
CSUN creative writing senior and Northridge Creative Writers Circle President Sunny Williams said she was moved by both writers’ abilities to bridge the racial divide with their storytelling.
“Both of them have a huge feminist aspect,” Williams said. “Women are marginalized — not necessarily a minority, but black women are a minority. The fact that they can cross the borders of ethnicities and cultures and speak to women, and hopefully men as well, that’s what both of them have as strengths with their writing.”
Grace and In the Not Quite Dark were available for purchase at the event, and both writers stayed to sign copies for attendees. Following the readings, the authors also fielded questions from an audience that included CSUN students, professors and community members.
Queries ranged from each author’s inspirations to advice on conquering writer’s block.
“I have less block and more writer’s laziness,” Johnson said. “I don’t really believe in block. To me, writing is like going to the gym. You might not go on the treadmill for an hour, but you can do, like, 10 minutes. You really can. There’s no block.”
Johnson and Deón said they appreciated the receptive group of current and aspiring creative writers.
“I love being in a room with really engaged people who are super interested in writing, and the questions they asked were serious and were brought up because they really want to write,” Johnson said. “My main piece of advice would be to own your identity and understand the importance of your identity, and the importance of writing for that identity.”
“Writing is about community. It’s about our most ancient way of connecting with each other, which is storytelling,” Deón added. “That’s what blows my mind, reading and having people here. It feels like we’re all sitting around a campfire and I get to talk.”