What It Means to be Human: Natashia Deón’s The Perishing


Natashia Deón’s second novel, The Perishing, is both a work of compelling fiction and social commentary on the past, present, and future cycle of racial violence we find ourselves in, as a nation that birthed itself through slavery and built itself on capitalism through enslavement.

Deón begins the novel, set in 1930’s Los Angeles, with her protagonist, a young Black woman, awakening in an alley—naked, disoriented, and immediately engaged in a fight for her survival. Desperate to regain her memory and find a shred of familiarity, she is instead quickly arrested. Released into foster care to a loving Black family in South Central Los Angeles, she is given the name Louise—Lou for short. Though detached from memories and familial identity, Deón’s protagonist inherently understands the Black experience and the violence she anticipates her body, and others’, will encounter in the story, one of the main themes of the novel.  “We’re all on the verge of somebody else’s violence,” muses Sarah, a Black woman serving a prison sentence 100 years in the future, in Chapter Zero.

Lou discovers quickly that her body heals instantly from wounds and injury, and does not keep scars. She keeps this power hidden from her new friend, Esther, an aspiring Chinese-American actress and the daughter of Mr. Lee, owner and trainer of a boxing gym in Boyle Heights. Mr. Lee built his boxing gym to serve the people of “the most racially and religiously mixed neighborhood in Los Angeles,” where, despite the oppressive systems in place, people still believe in the American Dream, “an idea not limited to race, religion, tribe, or culture,” Lou narrates—adding, “we’re told.” While Mr. Lee spends his days training fighters to find their power shot, Lou and Esther finish their school days in the gym doing homework, sneaking wine, and watching men spar.  It is in this gym where a Black fireman, Captain Jefferson Clayton, arrives one day to help an injured fighter, and Lou feels time stop as she recognizes the man from sketches she has been drawing. She knows him, but cannot recall from where.

Lou graduates high school and goes on to be a reporter for the Times, writing the obituaries and death reports of the city’s Black, brown, and poor white Catholic communities. In covering violence and trauma and death, Lou comes to understand her city, the larger system of race and politics and power at play, as well as her place both within and outside this timeline. She begins to have dreams from different times and places, though she always inhabits a Black body.

Lou’s narrative is braided with Sarah’s. From a prison cell, Sarah reflects back on her former self, her former life as Lou: This time period, she remembers, is the one where she learned to fight back. Lou, Deón reveals to us, is immortal. When other Immortals find Lou, and try to remind her of who she is, her life is already in grave danger.

Deón is a master of historical fiction, and there is perhaps no better author to capture the historical racial violence of L.A. than one with such an enormous respect and love for the city that raised her. Through Sarah’s retelling of past lives and Lou’s dreams and flashbacks, Deón brings the reader to the collapsed St. Francis Dam, a disaster that took the lives of 400 civilians living along San Francisquito Canyon in 1928. That death toll only includes American citizens, and not the countless agricultural laborers, many undocumented, who tended the farm lands for greedy landowners. She sheds light on the kidnapping and hanging of seventeen Chinese immigrants in Chinatown known as the Chinese Massacre of 1871. She brings the reader inside the convenience store in South Central, as one of the young witnesses to the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins as “orange juice mixed with her blood”—her murder the catalyst for the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

There are other glimpses of history not set in Los Angeles. Lou has a dream in England in 1620, in which she remembers a former life as a young cobbler apprentice in love with a friend, a white woman. While the cobbler’s gender is not stated, their love is forbidden for many reasons. While making shoes “made to fit either foot,” the cobbler reflects, “it doesn’t make sense to me that one straight shoe should or could fit both feet without regard to the difference.” In another memory, she and her brother hide their “Moorish brown bodies” from being hunted and killed during the Spanish Inquisition. Through the voice of Sarah, and ultimately the concept of a Black Immortal, Deón explores the idea of “epigenetic trauma,” of inheriting generations of trauma in one’s body. While Immortals are born without memory, the oppression each experiences in different times and places quickly brings a kind of familiarity: an understanding of racism both individually and institutionally. “There is no cure to the ills of living with people—not wisdom, not old age—because most of us live in triage,” Sarah says. It is this triage that Deón captures exquisitely with The Perishing.

Deón’s novel does not solely focus on the pain of American history and the pain of Black history around the world throughout time. A white character belittles Lou by questioning her current life: “Look at who you are in this version of the world…You used to be royalty.”  Through the characters of a white police officer and a white high school friend (both of whom Lou regards as friends in parts of the novel), Lou is consistently confronted by white supremacy and white privilege. But in conversation with another Black Immortal, Leticia, Lou is reminded it wasn’t always this way: “The legacy of enslavement affects everything we see here,” Leticia tells her. Before the transcontinental slave trade, Leticia quietly laments, Black people were “nation builders, architects, peacemakers, lost in time.”

Deón also asks deeper questions of how to heal and how to reconcile with a past that we—as Americans and global citizens—are only beginning to face. “You believe it’s possible to turn distrust into trust?” Lou asks Captain Jefferson Clayton. After a pause he responds, “I believe strangers can grow together.” In Lou, Deón has created a voice that transcends place and time, one that carries the weight of inherited trauma but also the joy of Black culture. Lou drinks in the musical notes and booze and smoke of 1930’s Prohibition-era jazz clubs: “A scramble of jazz notes spit on us from the stage, drawing our attention. It’s Black giving to Black, myself being reflected back to me.” Deón’s prose is evocative, visceral, and melodic. While Deón weaves the novel with lyricism, she does so with a deft touch, balancing the narrative with short punches of dialogue. When Lou’s social service worker drives her through Boyle Heights to jog Lou’s memory and see if anything looks familiar, Lou notices Black kids, Mexican kids, and Chinese kids walking and running down a main street. When asked if she recognizes anything, Lou simply responds, “Freedom.” It is in moments like these where The Perishing decenters the whitewashed narratives of this iconic time and makes space for the LA Confidential untold.

The Perishing is ultimately a message of hope—specifically, the gritty, dangerous truth behind hope, which is that hope keeps you in the ring, pushing off the ropes. Hope keeps you in the fight. While Lou finds solace in watching the sparring in Mr. Lee’s gym, she dampens the violence of the sport as “not real violence,” and then explains why:

Real violence has no rules…But boxing will kill you just the same because rules never kept no one breathing. People do. I have to remember the people. Remembering the centuries of violence would leave my mind in a bad place, a sick place, from overexposure, a place where I’d no longer be able to see the humanity in us. If I surrendered to my bad experiences with other people, I’d only see our biology on the outside—a weak frame.

Most readers will identify this weak frame clearly on display in a biased and fractured justice system. The Perishing becomes both protest and love letter, reflection and question. When Lou comes to realize her true identity she asks another Immortal, “What are we?” “Human,” the other Immortal says. “Fighters,” she says. “And our survival depends on our collective abilities, not our individual might. That’s what it means to be human.”

Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione writes creative nonfiction and book reviews. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her work can be seen at About Place Journal, Sentience Literary Journal, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is based in Los Angeles and can be found on Instagram @thingsivelearnedfrommydaughter and Twitter @LABacchione. More from this author →