Natashia Deón is a force.
She’s a writer with a debut novel, Grace, that was named a Best Book by The New York Times and essays published by the Times, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere.
She’s a practicing criminal attorney.
She’s the literary impresario behind the Dirty Laundry Lit, The Table, and Release Series reading events in Los Angeles.
She’s a college professor at UCLA and Antioch.
She’s the founder and CEO of Redeemed, an initiative that pairs professional writers and lawyers with clients to help clear criminal records, and the author of #EndArrestExecutions, a proposed law that aims to prevent police officers from carrying out the death penalty on untried civilians.
She’s a wife and mother of two.
And in the midst of all of that, Natashia’s second novel, The Perishing—about a young Black woman in 1930s Los Angeles who comes to believe she is immortal—will be released in November by Counterpoint Press.
Expo Editor Annlee Ellingson connected with Natashia via video chat to talk about her new book, the ways her writing informs her advocacy and vice versa, and what role “hunger” plays in her work.
Exposition Review: You are a writer, a lawyer, a teacher, a founder—when people ask you what you do, what do you say?
Natashia Deón: That’s such a great question, because I’m in the middle of an experiment. I’m trying to figure out who I am in the world differently. So when people ask me what I do, I’ll say, “I’m a mom,” and then I’ll stop. Or, “I’m a writer,” and then I’ll stop. They can mean a lot of different things. I just want to feel what it is like to not have any labels.
ER: What came first, writing or the law?
ER: How long have you been writing—since childhood?
ND: Yes, I’ve always written since I can remember. I used to make games and things like that [for] my little sister who was a few years younger than me and for my brother, my neighbors. I’ve always written stories.
My parents are from Alabama, so when they came to L.A. in the Great Migration, it was more about “You’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer.” Never did I think that I would have an opportunity or have a life as a writer. Who does that? Why would they do that? What about—how do you make money? It was especially important because of the sacrifices [my parents] were making, so I never thought in a hundred years that I would actually be a writer.
Writing is something that came, but I chose law because I could write. It’s a profession that allows you to write and you have to write well and it has to be believable.
ER: You started out as a corporate lawyer. Now you’re a criminal attorney. What motivated that transition?
ND: I was just sort of—what’s the best word? I think “burned out.” “Disenchanted” was the word. I was disenchanted with the law. When I went to law school, I was one of those people [who thought,] “I’m going to change the world! I’m going to show up when people need me on the street!” You know, all these things that I thought it was.
ER: What does your practice look like today?
ND: I have my own individual practice where I work with nonprofits, setting up nonprofits, any type of trademark issues—things that are related to small businesses.
I also founded Redeemed, which is a nonprofit that pairs professional writers with people who’ve had contact with the criminal justice system or who are currently incarcerated. Some of them I do represent in court arguing for expungements or second chances to get them out of prison, to seal records so that they can get their rights back, because you lose constitutional rights when you’re convicted of a felony, and it’s hard to get a job, or housing, for that matter, with a background like that.
So that’s the kind of work that I do—very on-the-ground, small things that don’t make a lot of money. I’ve been paid in tamales, and Southern California Edison does not accept them, I can tell you that.
ER: I’m glad you brought up Redeemed, which offers an opportunity for writers to use their skills for a cause that they care about. What motivated you to found this nonprofit?
ND: There’s a lot of different things, but I guess the closest to the birth of Redeemed was that I was representing somebody and I won. It was a really hard case, and I just remember not being—not extending enough compassion for my client. I think that was because this is somebody who was rich, who wasn’t marginalized in any way, he wasn’t a woman—all the things, the boxes that I check that really make me passionate, he didn’t have. Like, he could afford to pay me. So in the moment where I could have been more supportive, I chose not to.
It breaks my heart to think of that now, because everyone who has contact with the criminal justice system is a trauma. I know that I wasn’t there for him the way I should have been for reasons that I came up with. I still won, I still did the job, I was still professional, but I wasn’t who I needed to be. And part of that was writing the affidavit, the personal story. Pretty much after so many calls, I thought, “You know what? I have the hard part. All you have to do is tell the story of the worst day of your life,” not even knowing that’s basically what I was saying.
So I founded Redeemed because no one can tell a story the way professional writers can. For all of us who write, every time we write a character or tell a story, we are a lawyer for our characters who don’t exist, or who don’t exist as they actually are. We’re telling a version of their story, and we’re asking people to believe it. All of us have to be convincing lawyers for our characters, for our stories, whether they’re fictional or real, even if we’re writing stories about ourselves.
ER: Redeemed recently expanded with Clemency Project—can you share more about that?
ND: It’s really helping people who have been incarcerated for a very long time. It’s not like the Innocence Project—they did it. But it’s saying, is the punishment right for their crime? Should they be in prison for seventeen years, twenty years? Even if they should be—say it was a murder—is this something they did at seventeen? Are they still the same person at fifty? What’s the threat?
It’s just trying to see the humanity in people. None of us want to be judged by the worst thing we’ve ever done, and that’s what happens when you go to prison. When you’re in prison, you’re known for your crime, and a lot of times when you come out, you’re still known for it. All of us have done something that was illegal, that we shouldn’t have done, we would never do again. It’s just human nature.
For me when I look at them, I see people who are being labeled by the worst thing they have ever done, and they have to carry that burden for the rest of their lives, whether they’re in or out. And I think as a civilized society, we can decide that if they’ve worked hard and they’ve earned it and they show evidence of their reform, that we should be giving them second chances.
ER: What can you share—statistically or anecdotally—about the success of Redeemed so far?
ND: We formed in 2018, [and at] the end of 2019 we took our first twenty-five cases. We won all but one. One is still pending because Covid hit, but a lot of cases were delayed because of Covid—courts were shut down—and we just started taking new cases. It’s slow. We took only three new ones since we reopened at the beginning of the year, and we’re just sort of walking through everything. We can’t go into prisons to do the Clemency Project work, so everything is snail mail. The shutdown has really impacted the way that we work, the way we can meet, train volunteers, and things like that. But so far we’re winning.
ER: And then you also started the hashtag #EndArrestExecutions. Can you talk about that project?
ND: Right after I think it was George Floyd—it was one of the murders that happened during 2020—and I was just really grieving. I [wrote] a new law basically that said police officers cannot execute civilians who haven’t been tried or convicted of a crime, and usually their crimes wouldn’t result in the death penalty. That’s what we’re allowing officers to do. Right now it’s basically an HR issue—it’s not a criminal one. So when people say, “What happened? Why aren’t they being convicted of murder?” [it’s] because there’s really not a law for officers to be convicted. That’s why you see settlements and not murder convictions.
#EndArrestExecutions says that you can’t executive the death penalty on an untried civilian. It was picked up by the National Lawyers Guild. With a team of five women lawyers, [and] one guy lawyer, we basically drafted laws to amend current California law which would make police officers subject to first degree murder and murder charges for killing someone, especially for an infraction like a taillight is out or a misdemeanor.
ER: I still get chills remembering the reading you put together for bridgette bianca’s poetry collection be/trouble, because it was a release party. It was a big old party with an emcee and a DJ and a rowdy crowd. It was so fun! And when I was standing in line to get my book signed, the emcee announced from the stage that the book had sold out, and bridgette collapsed on her signing table. She was so moved by all the love that you created.
ND: No one celebrates us when we get older. You know, it’s like we need to have a party and celebrate each other.
ER: What motivated you to start the Dirty Laundry Lit, The Table and the Release Series readings?
ND: Before I had a book and I just loved authors, I had just come back from Bread Loaf, and I met my favorite author ever. And I was just like, “Oh, my gosh! She’s going to be in L.A. Her book just came out. It’s going to be so packed! We’ve got to get there an hour early so we can get a seat!” It was at Book Soup, so it was that gauntlet of two seats all the way back. When we got there, no one was there. I put my jacket and everything on the chairs. And then when it got [to be] time, no one was there.
I remember my heart was so broken. I was like, “This woman has spent the last seven years probably,” which is the average length of time it takes to write a book—five to seven—“and nobody’s here to see it. This should never happen to any writer, especially a writer as talented as her.”
So I started Dirty Laundry thinking, We’re going to make it a party. You don’t even have to know who they are. We’re just going to have a party. It’s going to be fun. We’re going to celebrate that they’ve done it, that they’ve gotten their book past this imaginary finish line. Because we don’t get those kind of celebrations, and I wanted whoever was on the stage to know that we’re happy they’re there, we know how hard it is, and we’re all supporting you. That’s L.A. to me. That’s the L.A. writing community. We have the best writing community in the world, as far as I’m concerned.
ER: Let’s talk about your second novel coming out later this year, The Perishing. What inspired this story?
ND: A dream. Grace started with a daydream. This one started with a dream and a memory, and I didn’t know what it was about. I had a dream about the Chinese massacre in . I didn’t know that’s what it was about. I actually was a character in the dream, and I was dating someone who was married, and he was killed. He was Chinese. And it was so real to me that when I woke up I just started … doing a Google search. It was several Chinese people that were killed, and I knew it was L.A., and I knew it was the 1800s, and then I researched it and sure enough, there was a Chinese massacre, and I started to write a story about this.
And then I went to a Lutheran Christian school in L.A., and my best friend at that time, her name was Esther, and she was Chinese. I don’t know what happened to her, but I remember we would just be together. She just came to my mind, and I knew that I was going to write about her, or my imagined version of this Black girl and this Chinese girl in L.A., and a lot of the things that were happening in the 1930s are happening right now, including the massacre of Asian women in Atlanta.
ER: We’ve talked about your law practice and your advocacy work and your writing and the reading series. Is there a common theme that has emerged across all of these things?
ND: I would probably say just trying to connect every gift that I feel God has given me to serve humanity. That’s what I want to do. … That’s why I started Redeemed. I wanted to serve better. I guess that’s the theme. I always wish I had a better answer. But for me it’s just that simple. I don’t intend to do it. I don’t want to be known for it. It’s just what happens. And it’s an honor that anyone would even care what I’m doing because for me it’s just the right thing for me in that time.
ER: The theme of Exposition Review’s new issue is “Hunger.” Does that idea resonate with any of your creative or advocacy work?
ND: Yeah, absolutely. First I think of Roxane Gay’s book. I think of actually being hungry. But I also think spiritually, coming from a spiritual place, I hunger and thirst for righteousness. For rightness. And I don’t believe that what we’re doing or the way we treat each other is the way things are supposed to be. So I hunger and I thirst for rightness. We could be better than this. So yes, “hunger,” because I know I’m hungry for that, and I know that I’ll never totally be satisfied.
ER: It’s so funny that you brought up Roxane Gay because I stole my last question from her. She always wraps up her author interviews with this one question, and I love it so much that I’m just going to borrow it and ask it of you: What do you like best about your writing and how you do it?
ND: I like that I have freedom to be gross or to be intellectual or to be just old or tired or whatever. I like the freedom that I have in my writing, and it’s other people who have to tell me, “Reel it in, girl! Reel it in!” My editor does that a lot: “Natashia, we had enough farts here.” Or “Natashia, can you just bring us down from up here? Can you just make it more simple? It’s too legalistic” or whatever it is. I like that I don’t have to wear a seatbelt when I write.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.