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Dallas author LaToya Watkins mines Texas’ traumas in her searing debut novel, ‘Perish’

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 8/16/2022 Shawna Seed, The Dallas Morning News

Perish, the powerful debut novel of Dallas writer LaToya Watkins, is the searing story of a family called home to say goodbye to its matriarch, Helen Jean.

As they gather, family members confront the strain of trauma, violence and abuse that has marked their family for generations. Perish will be released Aug. 23. We caught up with Watkins — who has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas — to talk about the novel’s Texas setting, hope in bleak times and what she’s writing next.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Perish is set in a fictional Texas town, but it’s very rooted in reality. How did you go about creating this place? Is there a real Texas town that inspired you?

I think the town in Perish is based more on an entire region than it is on one town. To create it, I gathered the common characteristics of some of the towns I visited, drove through and read about during my research. Texas is a large state with an interesting history, but what is striking to me is how the histories and current events of each region vary.

I was curious about the formation of communities in the West Texas region. West Texas was largely settled during the Jim Crow era, a time that saw the organization of many of the western counties and the coming of the railroad and development of farm and ranch centers on land that had previously been dominated by Native Americans.

Post-emancipation segregation practices and customs were already in place from the beginning of Anglo-American encroachment. As communities developed in the region, they were formed based on race. Typically, the separation of the races evolved along the same lines as elsewhere, creating a uniform but unforced racism — separate communities, separate schools, separate businesses, in most cases.

I chose to set Perish in a fictional town, fashioned after an entire region, because of the unique societal aspects centering this uncontested system of segregation. I wanted to put them in that place and watch them grow out of it.

The town is called Jerusalem, a name often associated with ideas such as refuge and redemption. The Turner family’s history there, though, is one of trauma and violence. Why did you choose that name?

It’s true that the name is associated with refuge and redemption, but the city itself has a complicated history. Because it’s a site of major significance for the three largest monotheistic religions and is considered by many to be one of the holiest cities in the world, conflicts to control it have been ongoing for thousands of years.

On the one hand, you have the association with ideas of refuge and redemption, and on the other you have this constant conflict to control this place with great religious, political and historical power. I was thinking of that when I chose the name of the town that would hold Helen Jean and her children, their complicated histories and their uncertain futures.

A persistent theme in the book is hope even in bleak circumstances. One character talks about not wanting to give her children hope “where there ain’t none.” How do the Turners dare to hope?

I think each generation moves toward whatever form of hope they feel is available to them. Helen Jean dares to hope in that opening scene. She makes promises in that outhouse that are rooted in a kind of hope for her future. We see her hope for other things in later chapters of the book as well. Each of her grandchildren hopes for some sort of inner change or truth. I think it’s that hope that keeps them going — keeps them alive. They are all holding on to something that they hope will make them better — that will save them.

The book’s structure, in which different characters narrate each chapter, is such an effective way to show how deeply abuse has permeated the family. One chapter’s villain is another chapter’s victim. Did you always plan to write it this way?

I actually started out with more than 15 perspectives. In the end, I held on to the characters that I felt needed to forgive and be forgiven. I often think about how we might all be villains in someone else’s story. Along those very same lines, we might just as well be victims in other stories. Keeping this in mind helps me create characters that are balanced in ways that we are as humans.

Perish was never just one character’s story. Allowing this story to be told in multiple perspectives allows each of them the opportunity to say to readers what they might never say to each other.

Helen Jean’s husband, Homer, is such an interesting character. He never narrates a chapter, yet he seems to have a perspective on the family that no one else has. How do you view Homer’s role in the narrative?

The book centers women and their power and how they shape the world for their families. After Homer comes into Helen Jean’s life, there is no power struggle between them. He doesn’t attempt to change her. More so, he takes his position as a witness until it’s time for him to be more than that. That said, his influence should not be underestimated. He has been a visitor in the family long enough to study them and know more about what’s happened than even they do. Homer’s role — his voice of reason — is vital when it comes to where the members of this family will end up.

As Perish opens, Helen Jean has attempted to induce an abortion by drinking turpentine. When you were writing, you couldn’t know the book would be released at a time of dramatic change on abortion policy in this country. Does that scene hit differently now?

It’s quite sad. That scene is set in the 1950s. It should not be familiar, should not be something that someone could be forced to consider or do because they don’t have other options. But it is. Today, it is. And this seems unreal and unfair and like an undoing. Turpentine is poisonous. It can lead to everything from bleeding in the lungs to kidney failure to brain damage to death. In Helen Jean’s case, she was desperate enough to try it because in her heart she knew that she couldn’t give the child what it needed. I shudder when I think of the desperation that might accompany the decisions being made to control our bodies today. I’d say the scene hits different now. It’s different because now we have found ourselves back in the 1950s.

What’s next for you?

I’m in the research phase of a book set between 1955 and 1987. It follows the life of a young man born in South Dallas and abandoned by his teenage mother. He’s a complicated character, and I’m falling in love with him and his world. I’ve lived in Dallas since I was a young girl. There is so much I didn’t know about this city. Right now, I’m having a lot of fun uncovering some of the history of this place that I thought I knew.


By LaToya Watkins

(Tiny Reparations Books, 336 pages, $27)

Author event

LaToya Watkins will discuss her debut novel, Perish, at 6:30-7:30 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Wild Detectives, 314 W. 8th St., Dallas. For more, visit

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