Esther Kang

Sugar Queen: Palos Verdes-native author tells a heartfelt story based in the contemporary South

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In her debut novel Queen Sugar, author Natalie Baszile draws from personal experiences to breathe life into a fictional female sugarcane farmer in the South

Natalie Baszile outside her childhood home in the Palos Verdes Estates. Photo by Esther Kang

Natalie Baszile outside her childhood home in the Palos Verdes Estates. Photo by Esther Kang

It was a death that breathed life into a story, one that would many years later become author Natalie Baszile’s debut novel.

When her grandmother passed away in 1997, Baszile’s family flew out to Louisiana to attend the funeral. In her early 30s at the time, she had been aware that her grandmother, fondly known as “Miss Rose,” was a beloved staple of the small-town community. Yet Baszile was still shocked — it seemed that the entire town had turned up. The small church was packed to the brim.

“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘This is like a book,’” she remembered. “Just the quirky characters from her town were coming in and paying their respects … If you talk to writers, a lot of times they’ll tell you there are moments when a character passes you and you just know their story.”

Released earlier this month, “Queen Sugar” was at least 13 years in the making. The novel has already racked up acclaims across the board. New York Times bestselling author Lalita Tademy described the new author as “a fresh, new voice that resists all Southern stereotypes and delivers an authentic knock-out read.” Another reviewer, author Joshily Jackson, called the novel “a gorgeous, moving story about what grounds us as brothers and sisters, as mothers and daughters, and all the ways we fight to save each other.” An earlier version of the novel won the Hurston Wright College Writer’s Award.

“Queen Sugar” tells the tale of Charley Bordelon, a recently widowed African-American woman living in Los Angeles when she discovers that her late father left her 800 acres of prime sugarcane land in Louisiana. Thus begins a journey of beginning a new life with her 11-year-old daughter in the South, a region still mired in the past, retaining residues of segregation.

sugarqueenThough it’s a work of fiction, elements of the story are inspired by the author’s own experiences in the South as a Peninsula-raised African-American woman. During Baszile’s many research trips back to Louisiana — since 2005, she’s been visiting three, four times annually to learn about sugarcane farming — she experienced firsthand the micro-aggressions faced by people of color in the region. Louisiana was no California, and through Charley, the main character, she explores “what it would look like” in a contemporary setting for an African-American outsider to enter a world historically rooted in segregation.

“I wanted to see an African-American main character who had my experience, coming from the West Coast,” the mother of two explained. “I wanted a character who brought a Western sensibility, a character who reflected my experience and my sister’s experience. That wasn’t out there.”

The impetus for writing “Sugar Queen” was tell a good, complex story — “like a warm embrace, the kind of book that I love,” Baszile explained. But she also wanted the story to portray the reality of her experiences.

“I wanted to make sure that I represented the South in all of its complexity and not just have a syrupy sweet rendering,” she said. “I wanted to show this place that I’d come to love for the beautiful things and the difficult things, the lovely things and the atrocious things.”

Born in Carson, Baszile and her family moved to Palos Verdes when she entered the first grade. Her father owned a business distributing aluminum for the aerospace industry; her mother was a kindergarten teacher. After graduating from Palos Verdes High School in 1984, Baszile left her hometown for Berkeley, where she attended the university as an English major.

Thereafter she returned home to work for her father’s business while intermittently writing at night. For a brief time, she set out to become a professor of literature, returning to school for a master’s in Afro-American Studies at UCLA.

“As much as I loved it, I found that I didn’t want to spend my career writing analysis of analysis of other people’s books,” she said. “That was too distant and it wasn’t concrete enough for me. I wasn’t interested in being an academic. I wanted to write the books.”

She returned to work for her father, writing short stories here and there until the definitive revelation at her grandmother’s funeral.

On June 15th of 1999 — the date rolled off her tongue as she recounted on this day — Baszile quit her job for the last time and took on writing full-time. Her daughter, 3 at the time, stayed with a babysitter while she would depart every morning to “go to work,” which meant sneaking back through the kitchen and for hours staking out in her little writing room by the garage.

“I would work all day on this book, then three, four o’clock would come and I would ‘come home,’” she said with a smile. “The babysitter knew but my daughter didn’t. It was easier for her that way.”

Baszile wrote and wrote. Some years later, she and her husband, Warrington Parker, had another daughter and moved to San Francisco for Parker’s new job as an appellate lawyer. She finished an MFA program at Warren Wilson College, where she honed down her 567-page manuscript.

Northern California has since become her beloved home base; she’s now working as a part-time creative writing teacher at a private school in Hillsborough. She’s already begun working on a sophomore novel, based nowhere other than Louisiana. Once her youngest daughter graduates from high school, she could see splitting time between San Francisco and New Orleans.

“There’s something about South Louisiana that intrigues me,” Baszile explained. “Frankly I could probably write every book from now on about Louisiana and never run out of material.”

Author Natalie Baszile will hold a book signing at Book Frog in Palos Verdes on March 15 from 2 to 4 p.m. At 6 p.m. that day, she will be a guest speaker at “Art by the Ocean” at The Promenade on the Peninsula, sponsored by the Palos Verdes Chapter of The Links, Inc. On March 17 at noon, she will hold a book signing at Pages in Manhattan Beach.

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