The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Desiree S. Evans' work is deeply rooted in the south and imagines the many worlds of Southern Louisiana.
Photo by Kathleen Conti
Desiree S. Evans is an award-winning writer, scholar, and activist from South Louisiana. She was recently named the 2021-2022 Gulf South Writer in the Woods through a residency program of Tulane University’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South and A Studio in the Woods. She is the 2020 winner of the Walter Dean Myers Grant for children’s fiction awarded by the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books. Desiree’s creative writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and has appeared in literary journals such as Gulf Coast, The Offing, Nimrod Journal, and other venues. Her work has received support from the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices), Kimbilio Fiction, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Desiree holds an MFA in creative writing from the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin, an MA in international policy from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and a BA in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Desiree currently lives in New Orleans where she is at work on her first novel. Visit her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
by Desiree S. Evans
Mamma like to say, hold yoself still chile, why you gotta be so tenderheaded? So tenderheaded in fact, the child became known for it. Tenderheaded Lilly of the crowfoot grass and the blue bottle trees, tenderheaded Lilly of the backatown projects. Tenderheaded Lilly of the bush-thick mane, woven through with night dangling cowrie shells.
Mama like to say, sit quiet now, be still, stop ya fussing, gentle hands working the knots of Lilly’s hair, gentle hands sliding warm vaseline to dry scalp, gentle hands braiding sunbreath into holy nap. This ritual like a binding, this binding like a prayer.
Everybody knew to watch out for mama’s crybaby gal with the soft, raw heart; she cast a two-step zydeco dance in the dark.
in the earth,
in the ground.
in the thick
of the heat,
with mouthfuls of longing.
Tenderheaded Lilly growing
under the singing oaks.
Tenderheaded Lilly ascending
from the glass-dark sea.
a girl with black skin
and a head full of sorrows.
Here in the retelling, in the backroom, across the way.
Tenderheaded Lilly crying in the dark, all the names they call her settling like silt on the river’s bottom. The old women stir the pots and the old men spit tobacco, and the child emerges like fairy, like spirit, like heat.
Mama like to say, stop ya squirming. Truth is, the child was tenderheaded even in the belly, even in the birthing. Wiggling and jiggling, she came out tap-dancing.
In the town, everyone was watching that child weeping. But in the morning, a girl born to them, of soft scalp and nervous seasons.
Mama like to say, chile, you be the warning.
Your writing has a strong sense of place rooted in the south. How does the region inform and inspire your writing?
Growing up in the Deep South definitely shaped my writing. The South is a place where stories hold power—stories of renewal, resilience, of deep survivalism in the face of historic injustice. Into this container of turbulent history, I hope to write stories that honor my community’s past, as well as our current and future ways of living. In my writing, I want to reflect the world and respond to it. I hope to answer a call, and maybe even create a call.
In the South, we tell stories in order to build community, to share truths, to survive the bad days. In many ways, I write to and from the Black South. I love taking readers into my Black Southern Louisiana landscapes through stories and characters that introduce them to our specific cultural traditions, foodways, languages, music, and way of life.
Your writing is also grounded in the land directly. What’s your connection to the environment through your work?
My childhood memories are made up of muddy bayous, flooding rainstorms, and dusty dirt roads. Pecan trees and sugar cane fields. I am really interested in the way the land itself informs character and plot. Through writing I am able to explore this connection — how do we relate to the land around us? How does it define our socio-economic lives and the culture itself? As a child of Black ancestors who worked in Louisiana’s cane fields, I think about the ways the land remembers us, how it can shed a light on our history. What stories can it yet tell us?
“Tenderheaded” starts as a remembrance of a childhood memory many black girls share - sitting in the hands of a mother or elder working a comb and grease through a thick crown. But then the tone becomes ominous and that last line is a jolt. What does the warning foreshadow?
I love writing about Black girlhood. There is so much magic, as well as danger, that exists for Black girls in our world. I am interested in that tightrope walk that represents coming of age in a world where you can be seen as a disruptor to the dominant culture, where you can be named a threat. In many ways, this prose poem foreshadows a young girl discovering and coming into her own power, and all the ways that moment can change everything.
Your depiction of a mysterious, powerful child in this story is intriguing. What’s your approach to building complex characters, especially those of children?
I love reading books and writing stories that give Black youth agency and power. A friend once told me that reading some of my work was like reading fairy tales about magical Southern Black girls. Hearing that, I realized just how much I centered children in my work, even work aimed at an adult audience. I love diving into the complex headspaces and intricate worlds of child characters, ones too often discounted and ignored and written off. I ask myself: what does it mean to center these children as protagonists and agents of change? I then ask: what are the ways these characters work to navigate and understand the world around them; how do they survive in it? I also ask: how can Black children live and belong and own their own truths? I seek to write stories that reflect the complexity of the communities I come from, and that can speak to the child that I was, and to the children today building their own lives in those communities.
We know you are currently working on your first novel. Can you share a little bit about it?
I am actually working on a couple different novel projects at the moment, but the novel I’ve been working on the longest is a fantasy novel about magical Black families in the Deep South.
What does your writing process look like?
Jotting down observations on scraps of paper while riding the bus home. Falling in love with snippets of speech from an overheard conversation. Seeing a person on the street, and thinking, “That’s my character!” And then getting home and trying to bring all of these things into a sentence, a scene, a world. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I don’t — but usually my process starts with a character or a scene or a sense of place/universe. I dive in often not knowing where I will end up, but I try to listen to the characters and let them tell me who they are, what they want, where they want to go, and why they want their story told. After the first draft, I edit and edit until I feel that the story has a clear arc, theme, and a sense of what it wants to do on the page.
What advice would you give new writers?
Write. Just write! I spent a long time not believing in myself and not writing because I thought it was impossible, out of reach for me. It took a long time for me to be okay with the fact that writing has to be a part of my life, because it gives me life. It took me a long time to give myself permission to write. So my advice is simple: give yourself permission, give yourself the entire page.
For anyone coming to New Orleans, what’s the first thing you would recommend they do?
Too often people come to the city and only visit the French Quarter, and they think that is the only version of New Orleans that exists. Oh, they are so wrong. So the first thing I tell anyone: get out of the Quarter. New Orleans is so much bigger that just its tourist areas. Go find that gas station in Midcity with the city’s best poboy. Go and sit on a levee in the Bywater and watch the mighty Mississippi river. Visit Congo Square Sunday afternoons and listen to the African drum circle. Take the ferry to the West Bank and visit the second oldest Black neighborhood after the Treme. Go listen to the singing oak trees in the magical moss-covered playground that is City Park. Go and take a picture by the sign of your favorite New Orleans street name. And don’t forget to visit all the independent bookstores in town and buy a book for a friend!
How can people support you right now?
Keep an eye out for my future projects. Publishing is a long road and things take a while to come into being, but I hope folks are willing to follow my journey and celebrate with me when good things happen. Keep track of me on my socials — I’m @literarydesiree on both Twitter and Instagram.
Who is another Black woman writer people should read?
I am going to recommend a Black women writer from my Friday Night Zoom Club (this is a weekly zoom call I’ve been doing with a couple of other Black women fiction writers since the pandemic started in order to cheer each other on with our writing projects and lives). So I want to shout out the wonderful science fiction writer Nicky Drayden. Check out her 2019 space opera Escaping Exodus for your next read.
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.