Charley Bordelon is a widowed single mother who is just barely scraping by, teaching art to inner city kids and living in a dilapidated rented bungalow in Los Angeles. But when she discovers that her late father has left her an 800-acre sugar cane plantation in rural Louisiana, she suddenly sees a chance to steer her life back on course. No one in the family had any idea that Ernest Bordelon sold everything he had in order to secure a cane farm outside his tiny hometown of Saint Josephine, and certainly no clue as to why. With nothing left to lose, Charley decides to honor her father’s wishes and heads south to start her new life as a sugar cane farmer. So begins Queen Sugar, the debut novel from Natalie Baszile that charts Charley’s successes and struggles as a novice farmer, as a dedicated mother and a grieving daughter, and as an African American woman in the Deep South.
Once in Louisiana, Charley and her eleven-year-old daughter Micah take up residence in the home of Miss Honey, Charley’s grandmother and the matriarch of the extended Bordelon family. Miss Honey is a towering personality, a Bible-quoting dynamo with a quick temper, but also a woman whose generosity and love for her family know no bounds. Miss Honey believes in loyalty above all and soon she has opened her home not only to Charley and Micah, but also to Charley’s half-brother Ralph Angel and his young son, Blue. Like Charley, Ralph Angel is a single parent surviving the emotional toll of a spouse’s death, but this is where their similarities end; Ralph Angel has a history of drug abuse, violence, and petty crime, and no one but Miss Honey is happy to see him back in town. While Charley balances the needs of family and farm life, Ralph Angel-broke, bitter, and hiding from the law-conspires to claim what he sees as his rightful share of her inheritance.
Baszile has created a world rich with local Louisiana detail, and she captures both the tensions and intimacies of small town life. Charley inhabits a complicated position within the white male cane farming community, and Baszile paints a nuanced portrait of how much-and how little-Southern race relations have changed over the generations. When Charley finally discovers the sad truth behind Ernest’s desire to bequeath her the sugar cane property, she understands that her farm’s success will be a vindication for both father and daughter. In Charley, Baszile has given us a heroine who is by turns feisty, ambitious, vulnerable, and compassionate, and whose depth of emotion leaps off the page; her portrayal of Charley’s successes and failures to be a good mother, provider, and role model for her daughter will resonate with readers facing the same daily challenges. Honest, engrossing, and heartwarming, Baszile’s Queen Sugarannounces the arrival of an exciting and accomplished new voice in contemporary Southern fiction.
Natalie Baszile holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and an MA in Afro American Studies from UCLA. She lives in San Francisco with her family. This is her first novel.
The novel demonstrates a real affection for the people and landscape of Louisiana. Do you have a personal connection with that state?
I do have a personal connection. My dad was born in Louisiana, in a little town called Elton; so even though I’m a California native, a suburban kid, I feel that I have the right to claim the place as part of who I am. With one exception, my dad’s siblings and most of their children, my cousins, still live in south Louisiana. They are wonderful people-warm and welcoming-and it doesn’t matter how many months or even years pass between visits, they are always happy to see me. Louisiana, particularly south Louisiana, is so different from what I knew growing up. It’s a peculiar mix of cultures and ethnicities-black, white, French, Spanish, Italian, and most recently southeast Asian and Latino-and I find the people to be friendly and incredibly generous. A friend here in San Francisco recently said that folks in south Louisiana won’t rest until they’ve fed you and introduced you to someone else they think you’ll like-and it’s true! That’s how I’ve met so many of the people I now consider close friends. As for the landscape, I will confess that south Louisiana is pretty flat, which was jarring to my senses when I first started going down there to do research. I was accustomed to more variation-all the shapes and elevations you see in a city, along the coast, or in the mountains. But I quickly came to appreciate beauty in the gentle curve of a bayou, and the contrast between blue sky and endless acres of green sugarcane.
What prompted you to write Queen Sugar? How long did it take?
Queen Sugar took almost exactly twelve years to write. I quit my job on June 15, 1999. I remember the exact date because that was the day I left my family business, started writing in earnest, and officially thought of myself as a writer. I got a book deal in July 2011.
It all started when my grandmother, my father’s mother, died in 1997, and my family and I flew down to Elton for her funeral. My grandmother had been a prominent member of her community, a founding member of her church, and she seemed to know everyone. When she died, everyone in Elton, as well as people from nearby towns, showed up for her funeral. The little church was packed. People stood in the aisles, poked their heads through the windows, spilled out into the churchyard. I’d never seen anything like it. At the time, I’d written a story about a father and son-the characters who eventually became Ralph Angel and Blue-who were living in their car somewhere out West. As I sat in the family pew, watching all the people approach my grandmother’s casket to pay their respects, it occurred to me that this was where the father and son were from, and that they would eventually make their way back. I suddenly understood that I needed to tell a larger story. It’s funny to think that I created Ralph Angel and Blue before I created Charley and Micah, but that’s the way the characters came to me.
The novel is organized by month, charting Charley’s progress toward harvest time. Why did you decide to structure the book this way?
I wanted the novel to take place during one season, which, for sugarcane, begins in March when farmers start cultivating their fields, and ends on December 31st when the harvest, called grinding, ends. What better way for readers to truly understand what happens during each period of the growing cycle than to divide the book into months? I also thought it was important, critical even, that the reader feel the pressure of time passing just as Charley does, so organizing the book by month seemed like the natural choice. Finally, I always love books that are divided in some interesting way; it’s like taking a breath, inhaling, and then exhaling.
Charley is a nuanced character: tough yet vulnerable, stubborn yet compassionate. Did she arrive fully formed when you began writing the novel, or did she develop over various drafts?
Charley definitely evolved over time. For a long time, she was too well-mannered, too polite. All the other characters were flawed in some way, and that made them human, relatable. But for the longest time, Charley never lost her temper, never fell apart; she never made a mistake. It was a huge problem because readers didn’t understand her; they didn’t understand what motivated her and couldn’t get a firm hold on her character. At one point, one of the women in my writing group got so frustrated, she actually yelled at me: “Charley is ruining the book!” That was a real wake up call and I realized the reason Charley was unknowable was because I, as the writer, was afraid of misbehaving, of making a mistake. I was too well-mannered. I was constantly editing myself-in my life and on the page-and while Charley was not me, she was the most “like” me. We both needed to loosen up. Because the truth is, perfect characters, just like perfect people, are boring. Once I relaxed and allowed myself to be more vulnerable, less reserved, experience the full range of emotion, I could imagine that for Charley. And once I did that, she came to life.
The level of detail you provide about sugar cane farming-equipment, methods, terminology-is impressive. How much research did you need to do before writing this book?
I did tons of research; I had to. Many of my closest friends live in south Louisiana, and some, for a time, even farmed sugarcane, so I knew the story had to ring true. That was always my goal, the ultimate test: that whenever my Louisiana friends read the book they would agree that I got the details right. The farmers I met were incredibly generous. They let me ride on tractors and in combines, and they took me through the sugarcane mills. They even let me plant sugarcane. From 2005 until 2011, I visited Louisiana every quarter so I could experience a different aspect of the growing season and also soak up the culture. There was no way I could sit at my desk and make up those details.
The name Ralph Angel is an unusual one, but also ironic considering his behavior. How did you choose this name?
I don’t recall where I was the first time I heard the name Ralph Angel, but I do remember what happened when I heard it: I felt a jolt-as though someone had dropped a huge cement block nearby or something exploded underground. The ground sort of shook, and I remember thinking, “What a strange name. He’s going to be a character in a story one day.” I knew right away that whatever else Ralph Angel would be, he would be troubled in some way, and that when the story began, he would be far from home.
Charley’s relationship with Remy is both romantic and extremely challenging. While he is a smart and sensitive man, he is clearly influenced by the racial tensions of Saint Josephine and his comment-“It’s almost like you’re not black at all” (p. 282)-is heartbreaking. How does Charley manage to move past this?
Remy’s comment really knocks the wind out of Charley. She is deeply disappointed because she and Remy are otherwise so compatible. Ultimately, Charley decides to take Violet’s advice: to love and accept Remy for who he is and the role he can play in her life. He’s a lovely man as you say-smart and sensitive-and the fact that he’s thoughtful and self-aware enough to acknowledge his own limitations helps a lot. But what Charley comes to understand is that he doesn’t have to be everything for her; she doesn’t need him to be. I love Violet’s advice because she reminds Charley to draw strength from herself. She reminds Charley that ultimately, she’s the architect of her own life, and that’s such an important thing for women to know.
Do you think Miss Honey was too forgiving of Ralph Angel’s misdeeds? Was she too determined to blame herself for his failings or do you believe that the sadness of his life is her responsibility?
I think Miss Honey can’t help but be forgiving. She loves Ralph Angel the way any mother loves her child, or in this case, her grandchild. It’s incredibly difficult to give up on someone and draw a line through his name when you feel that he is a part of you. But I will also say that Miss Honey is blinded by her own guilt. She carries the burden of Ralph Angel’s failure, and feels responsible, not just for Ralph Angel, but for Ernest, and that is as motivating a factor as her love. I have my thoughts about Ralph Angel, but I want readers to form their own opinions. I will say that to my mind, Ralph Angel is a tragic figure-a troublemaker, yes, but so much more than that-and on some level, all the characters are implicated in what happens to him. His presence in the book speaks to larger social issues with which this country still grappling.
Southern women’s fiction has been extremely popular for the past few years. What do you think is its greatest appeal?
Southern women writers, both black and white, can write about some of the most complicated relationships in American culture because they’ve lived them. They’ve lived and breathed the power dynamics, and can render that experience from a variety of perspectives. They have played out those intimate relationships over generations. I think readers are curious about that intimacy between blacks and whites because it plays out all over the country, but northern or even western women writers don’t have the same long, nuanced history. They haven’t experienced the intimacy to the same degree. And so, whenever a certain kind of southern woman writer is gritty enough, is honest enough, to write about that history and those relationships, it makes for compelling, fascinating reading.
What books are you currently reading? Do you read for pleasure or for inspiration?
I currently have a mix of books on my nightstand. I don’t write poetry, but I love to read it for its calming effect, and also for its precision of language and imagery. I’m currently savoring Natasha Trethewey’s newest poetry collection, Thrall, and Jake Adam York’s Persons Unknown. I told a friend recently how much I love New Orleans, so he gave me Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer; and I just bought Solomon Northup’s narrative, Twelve Years A Slave, which some of my Louisiana pals read years ago and told me about. I’m also reading short stories by Tom Barbash, Caitlin Horrocks, and a wonderful young Nigerian writer, Chinelo Okparanta. Then there are the novels that are my touchstones, the ones I’ve read a dozen times and always have within reach: Ernest Gaines’s Of Love and Dust, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. When I need a change of pace, I dip into Best American Essays. The truth is, I have a bad-I say “bad” but it’s actually a delicious and satisfying-habit of buying books even though I know I won’t read them for months. I can’t help myself. Just last week, I was in my local bookstore circling around Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. I was on the verge of buying it, actually had in my hand, but forced myself to put it back because my shelves are sagging under the weight of all the books I’ve bought and have yet to read. Books are my weakness; they’re like Kryptonite. Books . . . and shoes.
Are you currently working on another novel? If so, can you offer any details?
I have the idea for my next novel. I’m reading and taking notes, but I haven’t started writing. I can tell you that it’s also set in Louisiana but I don’t want to say much more. I think it was Chang Rae Lee who said if an author talks about a book often or too early, “it loses too much wind.”