LaToya Watkins

Interview with LaToya Watkins

By Liz Blood

Liz chatted with Featured author, LaToya Watkins, about her new work, invisibility, literary communities, and the many great authors she's been reading.

LB: I’d like to get right into your chapbook, "Albino." What inspired this story? I really enjoyed reading it. 

LW: Thank you and I'm so glad you enjoyed it. “Albino” was inspired by a story my dad told me a few years ago. It centered around an abduction and murder in the neighborhood he grew up in. When I went back to research it, there was hardly any information printed about it. That was sad to me, really sad. The man who married the murdered boy's sister later on was my dad's best friend. I grew up with some of the kids in the family and I'd never heard the story. I wanted to make it real, to make a memory where there didn't seem to be one.

LB: You’ve created a lasting memory with this. Did it shock you that it was hardly reported? 

LW: Yeah, it did. I wanted to find out what had happened, but all that seemed to exist was a 50-word write-up about a local kid from the projects who went missing. The write-up focused more on his parents living on government assistance than it did on his disappearance. There was also a short passage in a book written by the man convicted of murdering the boy. The man became a writer while in prison and was eventually granted a stay of execution. His discussion of the boy and what he said really happened between them was only about a page long. I couldn't stop thinking about this kid and how it seemed that he'd never really existed.

LB: That’s incredible and awful. Kudos to you for writing a different story. 

LW: All of the characters—even the boy himself, are from my imagination, but I was finally able to get some sleep after I created that world and was able to honor the boy in that way.

LB: In your own writing, either in this particular story or more broadly speaking, what problems are you trying to uncover or solve? 

LW: There are invisible people out there—people with lives and hopes and dreams and no one seems to see them. This invisibility is not necessarily about race. There are many things that factor up, but, often, people see race in all of those things. If you look at language, for instance, people are often made visible or invisible by the way in which they are able to communicate with others. People who "don't speak well" are often dismissed and people who "don't speak well" are often from low-income families. If you narrow that down a bit more, people who use or speak in black vernacular are often considered uneducated. People who don't always speak proper English can be clever, crafty, and educated, even if they continue to make use of their own mother tongues. But the words of such people are often ignored and those people are rendered invisible. I like to write about people who have voices but are voiceless.

LB: In your story, “Albino,” the main character is an albino African American woman. She is mistrusted within her community, slandered, and ostracized. I see her as a voiceless person, like you've mentioned. She has a voice, but it's ignored. Can you tell me a little about the choice to make her albino? 

LW: I thought it was important to set her apart within in her community. Her standing out creates a barrier between her son and the community, which makes the invisibility generational, similar to how language, economic status, mental illness, and many other factors that complete the individual are often inherited. Even without physically inheriting her albinism, Donboy, her son, has inherited her condition because he is related to her. Essentially, she is an albino because there are no other albinos in the town and she needed to be something foreign and strange. This causes Donboy to be something foreign and strange within the community, too. But, outside of the community, to a stranger who has no knowledge of Opal, the mother, or her albinism, Donboy represents the community. This is ironic because he cannot "really" be part of it. So, his abductor not only hurts Donboy, but he tries to hurt the community. I’m not sure if he succeeds or fails, but he does end up hurting someone.

LB: Speaking of community, how have literary communities, online and otherwise, influenced your development as a writer?

LW: When I first started writing, I was a lone writer. I'm sort of an introvert, so I wanted to write stories and end it there. I took writing workshops when I was in graduate school and was forced to interact and communicate with other writers. It was great for shedding some of the shyness. Then, I started publishing and people who found my work forced me out of my closet. Now I have literary buddies across the nation and around the world. I have become a better writer because I have a great community of writers to push and encourage me to keep going when writing becomes difficult. I've also learned to push and encourage other writers. Now that I think about it, my literary communities have actually made me a better person. I don't know what I'd do or who I’d be without some of the people I've met on Twitter and online, at Kimbilio Fiction Center, or places like Bread Loaf. 

LB: Writing is always a little bit lonely. But, it does seem that community is key. 

LW: Yes! Community is key. And people like Amy Gentry, who read my work and love it. That love carries. Now I have Awst.

LB: And Awst has you—mutually beneficial. What writers have most influenced your work and/or the chapbook?

LW: Tough question. I'm always being influenced. I was on an African book binge when I wrote “Albino.” Today I’d say Gloria Naylor, Edward P. Jones, and Zora Neale Hurston. I was also reading Suzan-Lori Parks and William Faulkner. They did things I thought were brilliant. I wanted to channel some of that.

LB: Can you name one thing you wanted to replicate?

LW: I wanted to use certain sensory details more than others. I think this is why I made the main character in “Albino” almost blind. The writers I was reading made me think about how important details—like the smell and feel of things—are in fiction. They help create a world. 

LB: I noticed a theme of denial running throughout the story. As we’re speaking, I can see that denial could be interpreted more broadly—as something that is done to and done by the main characters. A line about the town that Joe Junior speaks caught my eye: “Something always screaming in Wadem. People don’t like to acknowledge it, though.” What are you getting at there?

LW: Some members of oppressed communities tend to take on the views of their oppressors. Joe Junior's childhood community is an ignored one. That said, the members of that community have taken on the practice of the mainstream society and goes on to ignore itself. Its own members. The ignored screaming is the truth unfiltered by mainstream society, the truth that the people within the community choose to ignore. Joe Junior is speaking to that.

LB: What are you working on right now?

LW: I’m working on a novel with many different narrators. It's about a middle-aged man who falls from grace. Southern religiosity and spiritualism are peppered throughout. I’m having so much fun mapping it all out.

LB: Do you have a muse?

LW: My muse has always been my grandmother, who I viewed as violent and frightening. She influenced my writing for so long that I thought without her in the world I would no longer be a writer. She passed away a few years ago and, still, she inspires me. If I have a muse, it is her.

LB: What are you reading?

LW: I just finished Mat Johnson's Loving Day this morning (awesome!); Angela Flournoy's The Turner House (I see why she's been NBA shortlisted); Charles Baxter's There's Something I Want You to Do: Stories (Yes!), and I just started Ravi Howard's Driving the King

LB: We'd love some parting words of wisdom, a message you'd like to give our readers, shout-outs, thank-yous, or one last thing you want us to know. Do you have anything in mind?

LW: I’d like to thank Amy Gentry for curating this series and the kind and very talented women at Awst Press for giving "Albino" a home. I'd also like to thank you for the chat tonight. I enjoyed it. Truly!

To purchase "Albino", follow the link below.