IN NATALIE’S OWN WORDS…My grandfather once told me, “No one is leaving this planet alive…so stop stressing and get on with living.” This has become my mantra. I have tried to live my life of late with reckless abandon. From travelling to dining in an undiscovered restaurant, I want to taste all that life has to offer. I think this joie de vie is reflected in my writing. There are no boundaries or limitations to what I chose to write about…the good, the bad and the completely ugly in life are all vital food for my pen. I have been back in the United States since the age of 17, after spending a wonderful youth in Trinidad. I have lived in New York, New Jersey, California and finally Georgia. I graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in psychology. After graduating I became a police officer with a Metro-Atlanta police department. During my time there, I have been an investigator with the domestic violence unit. I have also worked crimes against women and children including rape, molestation and child abuse. My experiences on the force and throughout life, has given a plethora of material to write about. I believe that it is my duty and my calling to write for the many of us who have stories that may never be heard. I think it’s why my novel is so easy to relate too for many. I write of things that have happened to some of us, but can happen to any of us. At this moment I am working on my sophomore novel. I just completed writing my first play called, God Loves Me Too.
How long have you been writing and how did you get started?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, maybe in my teens, I believed art, especially drawing, was my talent. Occasionally, I would write poetry. At age 14, my best friend at the time, after reading some of my poetry, told me that I was going to be a writer when I grew up. I laughed at her because I didn’t believe I was that good, and besides, at that time, art was my true passion. However, over the years, art took a back seat and writing became my true love, if not my first love. She has remained so to date.
Give a brief description of your debut novel, Girls Just Don’t Do That.
The novel surrounds the lives of four main characters. There is Delia who finds herself suddenly attracted to her high school nemesis, Jayne, who is no longer the cubby high school teenager, but a chocolate vixen that has a problem with lesbians. Then there is Shavonne trapped in a relationship with Tracy who physically abuses her when she is drunk or high. Lastly there is Stacy who is in a great relationship with the perfect man and has plans to marry him in the near future, but that is until she met Kendal and finds herself inexplicably drawn to her and they become friends. This story centers around these four people and some of the things they experience while navigating through college life. It is about the decisions they make and the consequences of those decisions. It is about us, how we live, how we love, and what we experience as African-American lesbians but using their experiences to reflect it.
How did the concept of Girls Just Don’t Do That come to life?
I have written several short stories over a period of many years. None of them I ever thought to publish. I just did it for my personal enjoyment. I decided one day to begin a book of short stories and maybe get this book published. I sat down one day and began writing and found that I could not stop writing. It was like the characters were forming right before my eyes. It began with Delia and her disappointment with finding out that Jayne was to be her project partner. The remainder the characters came tumbling forward with their own situations. I was even amazed at some of the events that took place and my characters’ reactions to them. For example, honestly, a part of me was rooting for Jayne and Delia to make it. I guess the cosmos didn’t want it to happen that way. This novel caught me completely off guard. It was almost as if this story was buried in me and lay dormant waiting to be awakened. Once I began writing, it took over completely because it had to get out. This was how Girls Just Don’t Do That was born. It was a story waiting for the right time to burst out of me. I have always wanted to write maybe short stories about the lesbian experience in order to address such topics as sexual abuse, domestic violence, addiction, sexual confusion, and bisexuality. This story allowed me to do just that. I was, however, very surprised that it turned into a novel.
Your book has been out for a while, but it seems like it hasn’t lost its popularity. What kind of feedback have you gotten from those women who’ve read your book?
I have received letters from women from all over the country and the world informing me of the impact this novel has had on their lives. Readers in small cities and counties where lesbianism is still taboo tell me it made them feel more normal to know that people like them exist. I have had women who have been in abusive relationships thank me for writing on lesbian violence. I have had bi-curious women e-mail me with questions and I have had bisexual women tell me that they relate to Stacy’s situation with Kendal. I have had straight men and women love the story and were totally amazed that we deal with a lot of the same issues. I just feel so grateful to be given the opportunity to make such an impact on so many lives with my novel.
The four women featured in Girls Just Don’t Do That are one of the most of diverse set of black lesbians we’ve seen at Sistahs on the Shelf. How did you come up with the characters of Delia, Jayne, Shavonne, Tracy, Stacy and Kendal?
I get asked that question a lot, especially about Kendal. A lot of women want to know if she is real and if so, can they meet her? (smile). Sorry ladies, but none of the characters come from real people. I did, however, take some of the characteristics from people that I have met throughout my life. I study people and I study their reactions and while my characters are a collage of many people and many situations, they are definitely figments of my imagination, even though I am sure women like them do exist in this world. I have encountered women that act like Kendal or look like Delia, Jayne or Shavonne. Look around, they are right around you, somewhere in the crowd.
Who was your favorite character? Which woman is closest to your personality?
Jayne is my favorite character. I love her unaffected, self-serving, “all about me” attitude. I can relate a little to her arrogance believing that she is unconquerable. There is so much more to her that has yet to be discovered. With Jayne I only scratched the surface. She presents a real challenge and like most red-blooded lesbians I love a good challenge. I would love to see someone turn the tables on her. As for the closest women to my personality (I get asked this a lot by my readers too), I think it’s a mixture of Delia and Kendal. I gave Delia my thoughtfulness and shyness despite the attention she gets from women, but I gave Kendal my “swag” (smile). A lot of my past girlfriends who have read the novel, however, say that I am mostly like Delia.
Delia was head over heels for Jayne, even though Jayne clearly didn’t do girl-on-girl relationships. Do you believe women like Jayne make it harder for those females who truly identify as lesbian to find someone special?
I don’t think so. Sexuality is a lot more fluid these days. Bisexuality and lesbianism are more acceptable and as such people are a lot more comfortable with it. Jayne is not comfortable with her attraction to Delia or any other woman. She hides from it and won’t even admit how she feels, even to herself. I can relate to some of it, being somewhat closeted while in college. I, too, was a member of a sorority where it would have been frowned upon, had people found out. The difference is I knew what I was to myself and my close friends. In my opinion, women like Jayne are in the minority, and she is more of an anomaly these days. Women who love women are proud, open and comfortable and they expect the same from their partners. I think Jayne would have more of a problem getting women to take her seriously. Many of us “real lesbians” or even bisexuals don’t want to deal with women like her because of the closet issues. There are too many other women that embrace their sexuality, and they are more appealing to most of us well-adjusted lesbians. In the end, even Delia got tired of it, and, in my opinion, it may be the main reason why Jayne lost her to Shavonne.
Despite being in a “perfect” relationship with her boyfriend Mark, Stacy finds herself very attracted to Kendal, a stud who has all the swagger of a man. How many ladies do you think find themselves in Stacy’s situation?
I think many do. I have always believed that sexuality is on a continuum. There is the very straight and the very gay and everything in the middle. There are degrees of gayness. Women who have been with men but now prefer women, women that prefer men but dig women, women who love them both equally and women who wonder why they even exist. The possibilities are endless and are according to personal experience. A lot of women are attracted to women, and even more so now because it is so much more acceptable. Straight women will tell you that they love the dominance and the strength of a man, it makes them feel safe. Stud women who possess these same characteristics can easily become objects of attraction for women because of this. I think Stacy fell for Kendal because of her dominance, her level-headed coolness and her focus. She wanted these qualities in a partner. She felt that Kendal was more of an equal, whereas she mothered Mark. She also was blown away by the emotional connection she felt with Kendal. Stacy’s situation is quite common. I think many women are introduced into the life much the same way. When I ask some of my femme friends why a stud and not a man, they say it’s like having the best of both worlds – the strength and dominance of a man but the sensitivity and the emotional capacity of a woman. I think many lesbian women that are attracted to studs may feel this way.
Shavonne was in an abusive relationship and was afraid to tell anyone. Why did she keep it a secret, even from her best friend Delia?
Domestic violence is shameful much like date rape. Not only is there the fear of it getting worse if you tell someone, but there is the fear of getting judged for staying. And people stay for many reason and they all differ. It can be for financial reasons, because they still love their abuser, they have children together, or just simply because they don’t want to be alone. It may be all of those reasons in some cases. I think in Shavonne’s case, she did not want to be judged by Delia for staying. Also, Shavonne still cared for Tracy and she felt that Tracy couldn’t afford to live on her own. In addition, I think she sincerely hoped that Tracy would change back to her old self, before the abuse became so routine. She believed that maybe the stress of losing her father and her scholarship made her act out when she was drunk or high. I think the main reason she stayed, however, was because she did not want to be alone. She finally left when she realized that the abuse was only getting worse and that her life may have been in danger. Her self preservation button finally turned on and it usurped the reason for staying.
Did it bother you to write such violent scenes between Shavonne and Tracy?
Not really. As a writer it is my duty to portray life as honestly and realistically as I know it. I am sure it made a lot of people cringe, but, in my opinion, they were very important scenes. Some women who are in abusive relationships may recognize Tracy in their partners and get help. Domestic violence in our community is real and I wanted the scenes to be as raw and real as possible. People like Tracy exist. Society erroneously believes that domestic violence only affects the heterosexual sector – that girls just don’t do that. This is a grave misconception. As a result of this misconception, many lesbian victims aren’t taken seriously when they ask for help, and aren’t privy to the same resources as heterosexual women. I have personally known two people that have been killed by their lovers because of domestic violence. One of them was an acquaintance and we hung out in the same circle.
You’ve been a patrol officer and a detective for the Metro Atlanta area Police Department, and later a Domestic Violence/Sex Crimes investigator. So how often do you think abuse goes on in lesbian relationships?
I think domestic violence is more common than many people realize. Women are very emotional by nature and being with women makes them 10 times more so. In my opinion there is less of a balance than with unemotional men. The emotional and love well runs very deep among women and many of them aren’t prepared for the feelings that being with a woman can evoke in them. It can drive some women crazy literally, and they do things that they can’t imagine they are capable of because of these emotions. Pushing, shoving, grabbing, slapping and making threats in anger are more common than you think in some lesbian relationships. Some lesbians even think it’s more acceptable because we are closer matched to each other in strength. They don’t view it as domestic violence because they have been programmed to think that domestic violence is strictly between a man and a woman. In heterosexual relationships, in most cases, the male is the abuser, but sometimes women can play this role. From my experience in investigating lesbian violence, the femmes and the studs play the role equally. The same goes for femme-femme relationships. Tracy’s case is on the severe end of lesbian violence and thankfully not really the norm, but women like her do exist.
What should a woman do who finds herself in such volatile situations with a significant other?
There are several options depending on the severity. If it’s an extreme case as in Shavonne and Tracy’s situation I would suggest reporting the crime and getting with a victim advocate such as ‘Partnership against Domestic Violence’ here in Georgia. Depending on the state, the organizations will differ, but you can go online to research them. They will all have information on resources such as shelters, counseling and job training, if necessary. I would also advise the victim to leave the situation if it is not too dangerous to do so. Get the police involved and obtain a restraining order. If that is not enough, because you truly believe your life or your safety is in danger, consider moving to an undisclosed location. You may even have to change jobs, if necessary. I am also a strong advocate of women owning a firearm for protection. Protect yourself by any means necessary. In some cases it is possible for the abuser to genuinely want to seek help, but this is rare. Don’t stay because you are hoping she will change, go because more than likely she will not. People make promises sometimes to seek help when they see that you are serious about leaving, but only the actions should matter. If they never go to counseling, or they keep repeating the act, then your have no other option but to go – or stay at your own risk. Self-preservation and self-love should be paramount.
You describe several types of black lesbians with your essay “Dyke Categories,” which I find quite interesting. How did this list come about? What category do you fit?
My best friend, who used to be bi-curious, started dating women. Coming into the lifestyle, she was confused about a lot of things concerning the life. As a joke I emailed her a breakdown of femmes and studs and she loved it. She forwarded it to some of her friends and they forwarded to their friends and so on. I posted it on BlackPlanet, which was a meet and greet website years ago, before MySpace and Facebook became internet icons. It became a big hit with the lesbian community, seemingly overnight. I have seen it on many internet pages over the years. I included it my novel because I knew that those who read it before would smile and remember. Those new to it would be tickled. It was meant to be funny observations on black lesbians. I think however, I really hit the nail on the head with it, because it is so true for many. Unfortunately my best friend passed before she actually saw it in the book. The novel is dedicated to her memory. As far as the categories I think I am most like the new age stud. Some of the qualities of the new age stud don’t fit me exactly. I have had a lot of people tell me that they are a mixture of one or two categories. I tell my readers if a category does not fit them completely or not at all, don’t be alarmed. It is just my experience with the life, but it may be completely different from what they have experienced.
I hear you’re working on a sequel to Girls Just Don’t Do That. Where will your sophomore novel find these women next?
My new book will not be a sequel to the first book. Sorry to all fans of the book that are really expecting that. Some stories are better left that way. Think of the many good movies that they made a sequel to; most of them are never half as good as the original. I don’t think Alice Walker would ever make a sequel to The Color Purple. That would be sacrilege! (smile) I am no where as experienced a writer as Alice Walker, but I believe in leaving well enough alone. I will tell you that as a bit of a compromise, because secretly I, too, wanted a part two, Jayne will be in this novel. I just couldn’t let her fade into oblivion. She is way too interesting.
Tell us about your stage play, God Loves Me Too. Where and when will it be held?
The play is about ordinary people that may have a relationship with God, yet struggle with issues of sexuality, fidelity, or just doing the right thing because we are human. In this play, I do not try to make a judgment call on anyone’s lifestyle or personal struggles. Instead, the play suggests that you can be a “sinner” and still love God. Oftentimes as lesbians/gay people, we have heard so much that loving people of our own gender is wrong because the bible and society says so. That we are all going to hell. That our “sin” is worse than any other. I am neither disputing nor am I defending this position. I simply want to put it out there that we love God and God loves us too. It is a play with some underlying religious themes but it is by no means a Christian play. There may be some strong language and themes. This play is for anyone that has or wants a relationship with the creator. But it is also for those who aren’t believers but still have struggles with issues because of human conscience. Really, it is for all humanity. I just completed the first draft and I have a lot more tweaking to do. After that comes the hard part, because producing a play is very new territory for me. If all goes as well, I hope to have it out by the end of 2009 or early 2010. I already have the opening location but plan to keep that a secret for the time being.
What is a typical day like for you?
I don’t have a lot of typical days in my line of work. I am still policing but in a different capacity. But on a normal day, I work all day and then come home to a wonderful meal prepared by my woman. I spend time with her and play with our new puppy, Remi. I relax when I have the time. Sometimes I write or do household tinkering like painting or trying to fix things around the house. I am always thinking of ways to improve our home. Too much HGTV, I think. On warm and sunny days you will probably find me on the patio of a local bar, sipping on Bacardi and coke. Or I may throw something on the grill and sit and relax on the front porch.
What do you do for fun?
Travelling and dining are probably my most favorite things to do. If I can combine them both in a trip then I am in Heaven. I love the arts like going to a play, ballet or any other performance. I also enjoy concerts, spoken word or even a stroll through a museum. I love novel experiences so anything that is atypical yet artsy holds a lot of appeal for me. I think it’s the Libra in me. I love reading, of course. I used to enjoy the club scene a lot, but I think I am finally moving out of that stage. I still party occasionally, but I find that nowadays hanging out with my family or having a few cocktails with friends at a local bar is a lot more exciting for me.
What are your favorite books? Favorite authors?
My favorite book and author? Now this is a tough one, because there are so many good books out there. My favorite novel is probably One Hundred Years of Solitude written by my all-time favorite author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He also wrote Love in the Time of Cholera – another one of my favorite novels. A prerequisite to a relationship for me is The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I also have to include Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. I am also a big fan of Anne Rice and The Vampire Chronicles and read classics such as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Pearl by John Steinbeck and a lot of others too numerous to mention. Of course, Dan Brown for The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons and Stephen King both deserve honorable mention. I really, really liked What Looks Like Crazy on An Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage, and I believe she truly understands the essence of human nature. And, of course, I dare not forget Trinidadian-born author V.S. Naipaul for Miguel Street. There are so many more to write about and I can spend hours pondering this question.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully making a living on what I love doing the most, which is writing. My writing has to make me financially free so that I can continue writing worry free. I hope to have quite a lot more novels and maybe a few more plays under my belt. My friend and one of my biggest fans, Toiya Prather, is in the process of completing a screen play to Girls Just Don’t Do That. I fully expect the movie to be out by then. My 10-year plan is shaping up nicely and I see it coming into fruition.
What motivates you to write?
I believe this is my God-given gift. I can’t escape it. There are so many stories within me waiting to burst out. I know it is tied to my purpose for being on earth. God has given me a medium by which to reach people and touch them deeply. If I can use it for good and for his purpose then I am truly blessed. How many people really know their purpose in life? I do and it motivates me daily and keeps me humble.
What piece of advice can you share with aspiring writers?
Don’t let anyone or anything stop you. If you believe in your heart that you are called to tell your story, then tell it. If you can’t get published by a big publishing company then self publish. It is not as hard as you think. Stick with it and don’t get easily discouraged. You may change a life or two.
Why do you feel it’s important for black lesbians to tell their own stories, as you did with Girls Just Don’t Do That?
We are a largely invisible community. Our voice is small and we aren’t marketed because publishers don’t think there is much of an audience for this genre. As such many of us, especially in small communities, live in a bubble, thinking that we are alone or that no one else understands our worldview. We think that no one really gets it, and for the most part we are right. No one gets us really but us. We are a mystery to other groups from the way we love, to what we do in the bedroom. We have to get our stories out so many won’t feel so alone. So that younger lesbians will have good role models in some of the lesbian characters we write about. The L Word did wonders for the white lesbian community. They had a few African-American characters but it was definitely not about the black lesbian experience. Well at least in my opinion. I am sure many of us will be able to really relate to its central themes on many levels, but it is not entirely our experience. I live in Atlanta and we do it a lot differently down here (smile). So like I was saying the white lesbian community was put on front street recently with The L Word. The boys had Queer as Folk, which became main stream and now Noah’s Arc. What do we have other than our African-American lesbian novelists to speak on our experiences? I am grateful to Laurinda D. Brown, Fiona Zedde, Nikki Rashan and a host of others who are in the movement for our voice to be heard. I challenge all aspiring lesbian writers to write on our experience as we know it. Because, look around! No one else really is – and truthfully no one else really can.
Interviewed June 2009
Natalie Simone’s Reviews