The first in her family to graduate from college, LaToya Watkins applied to law school because it seemed like the next big step in making her kinfolk proud. In the period between getting accepted to Texas Southern University’s law school and enrolling, Watkins was nudged by a cousin to write a book about their family. The suggestion wasn’t completely out of the blue. As a girl growing up in Dallas and Lubbock, Watkins had always journaled. But aside from a vignette that she’d started while tuning out a lecture on Shakespeare in high school, she’d never written so much as a short story. She’d read plenty of novels, though, by the likes of Jackie Collins, John Grisham, Stephen King, and Danielle Steel. And now she had an idea for a novel of her own.
Thirty days of frantic work later, Watkins sent out the manuscript and, just as quickly, received excited letters from small, print-on-demand publishers. They thought she could be the next Kiki Swanson or Omar Tyree, street-lit authors whom she read and loved. But despite her aversion to Shakespeare—or perhaps because of it—she wanted to do something more ambitious, something that the academy would recognize. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to see if I’m really good. If I go to grad school and take some creative writing workshops, a professor will be able to tell me whether I can write.’ ”
The subsequent scramble to bail on law school and enroll in a graduate program in aesthetic studies at her alma mater, the University of Texas at Dallas, meant that Watkins was the last student admitted to the school’s renowned novella workshop. A classmate had already warned her about the teacher, Richard “Clay” Reynolds, a Quanah-born novelist, poet, playwright, and literary critic with a fierce reputation. “ ‘He’s a racist, he doesn’t like women, a redneck’—those were her words,” Watkins explains over the hum of chatter at Chocolate Secrets, a wine bar and chocolatier in Dallas’s Oak Lawn neighborhood that has become a hub of the city’s growing Black arts scene.
During the first class, Watkins recalls, Reynolds “was sitting there, talking all redneck”—meaning with a deep, flat twang—and looking the part, with his beard and boots. “This is every man I’ve gone into a West Texas gas station and been reluctant to pass, not knowing whether I should speak or if he was going to speak back,” she remembers thinking. She figured the class was going to be a disaster but decided to make the best of it. “I’m going to get what I need and then go on about my life,” she told herself.
That semester, Watkins worked on a novella, Pitiful Laughter, about a family gathered around its dying grandmother. The West Texas setting would become a staple of her fiction as she advanced in the program. She was drawing on her years in Lubbock but was also being pragmatic. Finding faculty who were willing or able to supervise projects on Black life and culture was difficult, she says. To secure committee support, she became adept at carving out a niche within the master narratives they cared about, like the western. But rather than cowboys, oilmen, and ranchers, Watkins focused on Black Americans who had tried, as had those in her family, to leave rural East Texas for big cities such as Los Angeles and Oakland but didn’t make it all the way. Maybe finances ran short. Or a baby was born, and then another. So they stayed, in towns like Big Spring or Odessa. “There was nowhere else for them to go,” she says. “That was the end of the line.”
In time, Watkins and Reynolds bonded over their shared love of West Texas, building a “relationship that stumped people,” she says. Granted, “he was who he was and where he was from”—at the time of his death, in April, “a seventy-two-year-old man from Quanah, which, during his time growing up there, was a very segregated—racist, if you will—place.” But she came to feel that the warnings about his redneck reputation “weren’t true, as far as I was concerned.” Once, Reynolds confessed that he’d pegged her all wrong too. He thought she “wouldn’t want to work hard” and would “be gone by midterm” because she’d enrolled last and then arrived late the very first day. By semester’s end, they surprised each other.
Watkins’s novella was among the final batch in the class to be workshopped. She’d seen “people leave that class crying, people leaving mad,” smarting from Reynold’s harsh critiques. She resolved to “just put my head down and take whatever he gives me.” And he went all in, ripping apart Pitiful Laughter’s structure and dialogue, diction and grammar, even its basic paragraphing. She had braced herself for that but was floored by what came next—an answer to the question she’d had since the beginning of the semester. “He was like, ‘You know what? You got chops, though,’ ” Watkins says. He praised her character building and storytelling, saying that the novella “soared” at certain moments. “ ‘I want to see this revised,’ he said. “And I was like, ‘I’m guess I’m a writer.’ ”
Watkins’s debut novel, Perish (Penguin / Tiny Reparations Books, August 23), revises and expands on that early novella. It tells the story of Helen Jean Turner, the dying matriarch of a Black family, and her descendants, many of whom are returning home to the fictional West Texas town of Jerusalem to say their last goodbyes. Helen Jean has suffered from dementia for years, so her children and grandchildren have mostly made peace with her imminent death. What they struggle to come to terms with is her difficult life and its hold on theirs. The first part of the book, “Seed,” is a single short chapter that finds Helen Jean in 1955, at sixteen, trying to give herself an abortion; the father is her own. Years earlier, her mother drowned, leaving Helen Jean alone in a family of men, where “a girl child ain’t safe,” as Alice Walker wrote in The Color Purple, another novel about childhood sexual abuse. Helen Jean had terminated other pregnancies with turpentine concoctions, but this time a voice, which she attributes to the God of Moses, instructs her, “Bear it or perish yourself.” The novel’s remaining twenty-one chapters—the second part of the book, “Harvest”—detail the unrelenting generational pain sown by that twisted covenant.
With Perish, Watkins joins a tradition of Southern writers who delve into the taboo and grotesque to expose a dark past and a dim, backtracking present. In a Dear Reader letter that prefaced the advance copy of the book, she cites Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel The Prince of Tides, set in the South Carolina Low Country, as inspiration for this tale “about suffering, silence, and love.” The story of a family gathering to grapple with the life of a matriarch on her deathbed also recalls William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (“I read a lot of Faulkner in grad school,” Watkins says). As in that classic novel, multiple characters across three generations narrate Perish in alternating chapters: Julie B., who closely guards her own secrets in a failed attempt to protect her family; Lydia, who escapes to Dallas, and to the middle class, only to realize that her body carries her fraught childhood with her everywhere she goes; Alex, a beat cop whose unacknowledged personal pain spills over into the streets of Parkley, the Black side of town in Jerusalem; and January, who is so determined to break the cycle of suffering before it consumes her children that she just may get out of Jerusalem for good. Their first-person perspectives flow like conversation but often clash, making clear how breaking silence can dislodge lies and finally set everyone free.
Watkins believes that, too often in families and communities, “there are things that you just leave alone, that you put in a corner, and you let God take care of.” She hopes her characters reveal a universal truth: “No matter where we move or how good our lives become, how bountiful, we still have to deal with the stuff that we are carrying in us.” Near the close of the book, a character fittingly named Homer—Helen Jean’s late-in-life husband and a father figure to her grieving brood—signals how heroic that quest is. “Everybody want to say bye,” he says of the pilgrimage to Helen Jean’s bedside, “show the dying that they here and they somehow living on in spite of everything.”
Like Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Perish lures readers past the pain with a spellbinding, buoyant use of language. Black Texans will hear the relaxed ways we sometimes talk among family and friends: the dropped copulas (“Momma dying” rather than “Momma is dying”) and the emphatic double, even triple negatives (“I can’t never ask her nothing again”); the stressed “been” and the habitual “be.” The familiar musicality is of such perfect pitch that you almost forget Watkins’s focus on her craft, that her prose is as studied as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classically metered 1896 dialect poem “When Malindy Sings,” a standard of the Black American literary canon.
Watkins credits Reynolds’s feedback with helping her figure out “character voice,” the language in which her protagonists speak and think. In early drafts, she’d emulated the dialect in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Which is understandable; Hurston’s 1937 masterpiece represents the golden age of Black Southern writing—even, one might argue, of all Southern writing. Reynolds acknowledged Watkins’s craft but pointed out that phonetic misspellings, apostrophes indicating collapsed syllables, and dropped G’s were no longer in fashion. He encouraged her instead to write in her native tongue, African American Vernacular English. That proposition was as daunting as the translation exams required for her doctoral program. Watkins had never spoken AAVE in racially mixed company for fear of perpetuating Uncle Remus caricatures. But the cost of such code-switching, she came to realize, is that Black people “become comfortable hiding ourselves”—from ourselves and each other.
To get the sound of Black Texans onto the page, she began speaking AAVE at home with her children in hopes that they wouldn’t feel inclined to hide themselves. “The more I spoke it at home, the more I was able to sit with my characters and hear them speak it. I feel like my characters are most comfortable speaking their native tongue, and I’m most comfortable and able to know them when they’re speaking in their native tongue.”
With Perish, Watkins joins Houston-born novelists Attica Locke and Bryan Washington in putting Texas on the map of the renaissance in Southern Black writing, a movement that is being spearheaded by authors such as Kiese Laymon, Natasha Trethewey, and Jesmyn Ward. (Washington and Laymon are now teaching at Rice University.) All of them, she says, are willing to “speak of the South as something troubled and beautiful at the same time,” recalling Langston Hughes’s 1926 Harlem Renaissance manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which stated, “We younger [Black] artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame . . . We know we are beautiful. And ugly too . . . [W]e stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
One contrast between then and now is that today’s writers are more committed to using dialect to mark regional identities. “Jesmyn Ward’s work is a little bit different than mine,” Watkins says of the Mississippi writer. “And Kiese [also of Mississippi], his is just his. He speaks that way, he tweets that way, he Instagrams that way . . . Someone who is from New Orleans, that’s going to be a little bit different.”
Watkins, who won the Pushcart Prize in 2014 for a short story about a Black woman in West Texas whose son becomes a religious cult leader, is thrilled to be portraying her home state in print. Last year, during a trip she took to France, she met people who told her they felt sorry that she was “from Texas, the South, America.” Their attitude, she says, was “We know how your country feels about you.” Watkins isn’t oblivious to the perils of inhabiting a Black woman’s body in the U.S., but their narrow view of her home surprised her. “There’s also a history I have here and a beauty I see in this place,” she says. “I’m excited that people are writing about Texas in a way that shows that we are living and we are fighting, here.”
Dallas native Angela Ards is a journalist and an associate professor of English at Boston College.
This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Texas May Have Finally Found Its William Faulkner—and She’s a Black Woman From Dallas.” Subscribe today.