Migration and return: De’Shawn Charles Winslow on going back to West Mills


Narratives that feature the history and intrigue of Black Southern culture draw me in. De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s 2019 debut novel In West Mills featured characters mining the untold to understand their place in their small town and the world. The book gave a multigenerational look at secrets and revelations, and his second novel, Decent People, adds the urgent draw of an unsolved crime with a sleuth driven by love and a sense of justice.

A character in his first novel refers to another character as “blood but not family,” a clear insight that echoes through both books. Winslow likewise builds the bonds that are family but not blood, showing how people find and create kinship and support.

Decent People begins with Jo Wright, set to retire in West Mills after decades in New York. She is on the verge of completing the dream, finally sharing a home with her long-distance love, Olympus Seymore. That plan is upended when Lymp is accused of the murder of his three half-siblings. Their estrangement seems reason enough for the sheriff to assume Lymp’s guilt and stop investigating. This is where Jo begins the challenging task of finding the truth.

Winslow sets the story in the 1970s. The official markers of Jim Crow are gone, but the West Mills canal remains the divider between the Black and white communities, a parallel to so many remaining divisions. The town is a junction point that features Black characters seeking exodus, those returning, and many making do where they are. Queer characters search for community amid judgment. The reckoning between unacknowledged children and their parents becomes central. Adult friendships and intimacies are solidified. The family tensions coexist with the solace of chosen kin and unlikely allies.

We spoke via telephone and email about distance, unknowing, and returning to a complicated home.


The Rumpus: While reading Decent People, I thought about the literary and mystery bones of novels by Walter Mosley and Attica Locke. In addition to Black Southern settings and migration, they show characters finding answers that can be hard to reconcile. In In West Mills, a central character wants to “unknow” what she has just heard. How does the desire to “unknow” work as an idea in Decent People?

De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Once the person learns something about their history or a close friend or family member’s history, they have to change the way they view themselves and their personal situations. Sometimes that knowing can become work, an opportunity, or a burden to face a bunch of realities they’ve been ignoring. Well, it forces you to face the fact that they are imperfect.

Rumpus: You set this story in the 1970s, so you had characters with a backstory during Jim Crow, and they’re dealing with the aftermath of major legal changes in America. The book is in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Loving decision, but you show clearly that changes are slow and challenging in West Mills.  How did you balance that will to change versus the more general idea of progress?

Winslow: There was a continuity that I didn’t realize was happening. The town and the people weren’t changing. The town was changing physically with new businesses popping up, but the people’s mindsets were very much the same. Black people stay out of white folks’ way and largely vice versa, and you have the respectability politics of it all.

My mother is the second oldest of nine children, and she and the first three or four of them went to segregated schools. When her younger siblings graduated high school, it was integrated, but I also know that my aunts and uncles, the younger ones, didn’t have close white friends. Even though they were in an integrated school, things were still highly segregated. That speaks to what you just said about the will to change being there.

Rumpus: One way to find some change was through migration, and In West Mills centered characters who migrated. You feature characters leaving for educational opportunities. Queer characters leave to find community. The reasons for leaving were always central to character development. How did that movement away from West Mills become important as you shaped identity?

Winslow: Some characters from In West Mills definitely moved away to find more people, more community, and feel less like pariahs. I know education was available, and I won’t say a lot, but I know a fair amount was available to Black people in parts of the South. But so many people went north because they felt there would be less resistance and maybe access to more types of education instead of just becoming a schoolteacher, a nurse, or a nurse’s assistant. Leaving was about trying to protect themselves and succeed in a way they felt the South wouldn’t allow.

Rumpus: On the other side of that, Decent People shows the hopes and the challenges of returning. What factors shaped this reverse migration that’s central in the novel?

Winslow: The returning is about rest in a way.  I would imagine that it was also work for them, leaving to go and pursue safety, community, and higher education, moving to these very fast-paced places with a lot of competition and a higher cost of living. By coming back home with some money and some education, they felt they could rest a little bit easier.

Rumpus: The mystery in Decent People is compelling, and I don’t want to ask anything that might disrupt that reading experience, but I want to ask about the sense of truth-telling that the characters manage.  Someone in Decent People says, “There was no way out, so lies would have to suffice.” Let’s talk about lies and secrets as different literary elements. I’m interested in how you used the unspoken, unsaid, or untrue and how those are so necessary to the storytelling, especially when the lies and secrets are protective.

As a writing technique, I think having secrets gives the reader a question that’s dangling out there. If they remember that, most readers grasp that question and carry it with them. Propels them through the book. It creates that suspense, but it also creates the opportunity for more bad behavior because people are trying to hold on to these secrets or these lies. They just keep committing these acts, whether big or small, to protect the lie or protect the secret. That creates suspense and a propulsive experience for the reader.

Rumpus: Jo returns to West Mills, but her closest ally and sounding board is her brother Herschel, who supports her from New York. How did that relationship become central to the storytelling?

Winslow: I wanted Herschel to be a little bit like a therapist to Jo. I kept him in New York the whole time because he was old enough when they left to know so much, and I didn’t want him to end up becoming Jo’s co-sleuth. I wanted him to be like, “Listen, I worked hard for this life, and I have safety here in New York as a queer man. This is your battle because you want this man, and you figure it out. Here is a little bit of advice I can offer you as someone who lived there and is older.” I wanted them to have a close relationship.

Rumpus: Herschel is a gay man who found some distance from judgment and hate, and we see that harm threatening the next generation of queer children in West Mills who are too young to seek the safety of exodus. How did you define that harm in both novels?

Winslow: I was showing a combination of patriarchy and religious beliefs—and then some people would say that’s the same thing depending on the religion. In small towns that are largely Christian, people uphold these teachings, these beliefs that a man should be supreme in the home or that he should procreate so that the family name can carry on. People who aren’t even necessarily religious can uphold these ideals of hypermasculinity, and sometimes I don’t even know if they realize it. Some will try to uphold those beliefs so much that they will put their children through different types of torture, whether it’s physical or emotional, to uphold an ideal.

Rumpus: The book gives us a sense of migration and return, and I’m also interested in how those journeys work in your life as a writer.  Ernest. J. Gaines spoke about living in California while writing about Louisiana. Jesmyn Ward has touched on her return to Mississippi. What was your experience writing about the South from a distance?

Winslow: I was in New York, and then I went to Iowa. That’s where I started In West Mills. I was able to visualize my hometown so much more keenly, having not lived there in fifteen years. I believe it allowed me to write about the place with a little bit more compassion than if I had tried to write these books living there. I really do. It amazes me how vividly I was able to see the town of South Mills, North Carolina, and a lot of little details just came flooding in. I would write the name of the road down, and I’d say, “Let me change that. Let me make a name up for that because it was getting too real.” The distance allowed me to be able to write about the place with a little bit more compassion and with less tsk-tsk.  

Rumpus: I’m thinking about the idea that writing and publishing mainly default to heterosexual relationships. Have you seen that at work in your experience?

Winslow: A little bit. Because heterosexuality is what’s given to us in the mainstream, sometimes I fear that if I wrote an all-out queer book, I would have a lower readership. That is a real fear that I have and something publishing needs to work on. There’s a lot of queer representation out there, but I have seen articles about how queer books by and about queer people are published at a much lower rate than books that center completely around straight people. I definitely want to acknowledge writers like Robert Jones, Jr. and his novel, The Prophets, because he took a really big leap to write about two enslaved gay men. I think that book is going to open doors for a lot of young queer writers, especially Black male queer writers.

Rumpus: The Prophets was groundbreaking work. Any upcoming releases you’re excited about?

Winslow: Maurice Carlos Ruffin has a forthcoming book, The American Daughters, that is historical and centered around Black women in New Orleans. So, I’m excited about that. Regina Porter is working on her second book, which might be linked to The Travelers.

Rumpus: You’ve shown the importance of a deep connection between place and identity, especially when we consider the historical period. In your teaching life, how do you encourage students and other writers to develop those links between setting and character?

Winslow: I advise my students who write realism to try to know a great deal about the place they are writing about. I believe that if a writer knows a place well, the characters will, too. That familiarity with place tends to guide characters’ decisions and/or the plot.

Rumpus: Do you care to share any news on the next project? 

Winslow: All I’ll say for now is that I’m stepping away from the fictional town of West Mills for my next project. I’m going to use a real North Carolina town, and it’ll be set in the ‘80s. No murders this time, but there will be deaths.

Rumpus: What lessons from In West Mills were most helpful as you completed Decent People?

Winslow: Writing Decent People felt like the first time all over again, so I honestly don’t know, haha.




Author photo by Julie R Keresztes

Ravi Howard is the author of two novels, Like, Trees, Walking and Driving the King. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Atlanta, Best American Mystery and Suspense 2021, and Salon. He has recorded commentary for NPR's All Things Considered. Howard has received fellowships and awards from the Hurston-Wright Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to being selected as a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, he won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. More from this author →