LaToya Watkins’ writing feels like it might be biographical because of its richness and attention to detail. And it’s true even those closest to her have wondered.
“I will say that when I wrote this, it was originally a novella, I sent it to my grandmother to read,” Watkins said. “And she immediately – this is before her own death – she called me as soon as she finished and said, ‘Why did you kill me?’”
But Watkins says she drew from so much more than her own family in writing “Perish.”
“I consider myself nosy and almost a spy as far as the way I eavesdrop and kind of snatch things that really aren’t mine,” Watkins said.
“Perish” is about a Texas family confronting its secrets as family members say goodbye to their matriarch. One of its themes was Watkins’ study of Black migration. She says she wanted to explore experiences that were in between.
“For some people who didn’t make it or didn’t desire to go to those most northern places, they ended up looking for places where maybe slavery hadn’t necessarily reached, like the West Texas region, which was settled after emancipation,” Watkins said. “And they were just trying to escape like this extreme racism and tension in the rest of the country, or maybe go there and work on railroads and make money to travel northward.”
Watkins grew up in Texas but was surprised at how central the state became to her story.
“I feel like I didn’t know Texas, even though I’ve always been here, until I started to look at her and traveled through her and feel her, I didn’t understand her beauty,” Watkins said.
And she said she’s excited that there’s so much more of Texas for her to explore.
That rootedness in a place might be one reason Watkins’ writing has drawn comparisons to William Faulkner’s. Watkins has also been compared to Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and has appeared on the covers of literary magazines and “ones to watch” lists. She says she’s honored by it all but also acknowledges the pressure that comes with it.
“So I think I’m going to stick with writing the stories that I’m supposed to tell,” Watkins said. “And if I can leave a fraction of what these writers have left or are leaving with the world, I think I will have done my job.”
What Watkins really wants for readers of “Perish” is whatever they need from it.
“That people do understand or are able to see their own ways forward through the work that has been done in this family,” Watkins said.
She says sharing the stories in “Perish” has been a mission of sorts – letting out the nightmare that haunted her about someone’s untold truth.
“And I think that there are so many of us who are afraid of the truth as if it is a thing that will hurt us. And I think oftentimes the truth wants to heal us,” Watkins said.