LaToya Watkins recalls an afternoon in 2015 when she found herself struggling with a short story she’d been working on. She’d already decided that a character named Quinten would be based on a “honey-eyed” young stranger she’d noticed at a train station who’d seemed “troubled.” She had also partially fleshed out a portrait of Quinten’s mother, Momma. However, she wasn’t satisfied with the story’s direction. So she donned one of her grandmother’s caftans and a head scarf—attire she imagined Momma would wear—and set off for a Walmart in an upscale Dallas suburb near her house. Her idea was to be her fictional character—to see the world through Momma’s weary eyes.
While she was wearing her Momma “costume” in the checkout line, the cashier dismissively informed her that the food stamp machine was broken. “I absorbed Momma’s indignation and shame,” she says.
Later, Watkins ventured to a water park with her nieces, where she endured stares and murmurs that communicated “you don’t belong.” She began to feel the line between her and Momma blur. When she returned to her desk, it was with a deeper understanding of the woman from whose point of view she was writing.
Holler, Child—born of this creative process—is Watkins’s first story collection, out from Tiny Reparations Books on August 29. In the title story we meet the life-worn, Thunderbird-swilling Momma of 15-year-old Quinten, who, until now, has viewed her son as “the most beautiful boy in the world.” Momma is a damaged woman doing the best she can to literally keep the lights on.
One night her son arrives home, wild-eyed and bearing scratches and welts, and she learns he’s been accused of raping the 13-year-old daughter of the owner of the “junkyard/hog pen” where Quinten works. For Momma, this is a particularly nightmarish scenario. She became pregnant with Quinten after a Sunday school teacher raped her, and she’s kept this secret from him.
Watkins, 46, published her debut novel, Perish (also with Tiny Reparations), last October. The book draws on her own experience as a pregnant teenager and the struggle to come to terms with motherhood. With Holler, Child, she cements her reputation as Texas’s answer to William Faulkner. (She was boldly touted as such by Texas Monthly before Perish published.)
Watkins notes that, while she’s read and admires Faulkner, she doesn’t see a straight line between them. “I think I’m more influenced by how Black Texans and their stories are framed in local and national news media, and how that clashes with their actual histories,” she says via Zoom from her home in Dallas.
None of the 11 exquisitely crafted, emotionally complex stories in Holler, Child are for the faint of heart. Violence, loss, racism, poverty, and death are ever-present. But so are love and redemption.
Texas, where Watkins was born, raised, and taught English at the University of Texas at Dallas, is central to Watkins’s oeuvre. She has traversed the state as an observer and chronicler of its peoples, cultures, and religions. She’s fascinated by its many contradictions. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is omnipresent in her work and informs the intergenerational trauma at the heart of her characters’ struggles.
“Texas is where my ancestors were enslaved and set free and New Jim Crowed and set free. And where my people are buried under my feet. I’m fascinated by how people survive Texas generation after generation, especially while being Black or of color. And how we still manage to love her.”
Watkins’s father died when she was eight, at which point Watkins moved to Dallas with her mother and her two sisters. Watkins’s mother remarried a few years later, and the new couple formed a blended family with five children. Her stepfather was a janitor who took on side jobs. Her mother worked in a warehouse and at a daycare. They lived paycheck to paycheck, though Watkins says her relatives “were always coming to live with us because we were the family that ‘had.’ ”
During Watkins’s senior year of high school, she got pregnant. She wanted to terminate the pregnancy, but on the way to the abortion clinic she had car trouble. When she got home, she confessed all to her mother, who convinced her to have the baby.
Eight months after Watkin’s daughter Kiara was born, Kiara contracted pediatric myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, and died. In her grief, Watkins turned to God, believing that “somehow, he could resurrect my child.”
She and the baby’s father were no longer together, but they reunited and got married, and by age 20, Watkins was pregnant again, fervently believing the child she was then carrying was the one she’d lost. Soon after her son was born, she was pregnant again, with twin girls. But the grief remained, and she realized “they weren’t her—that I’d just been trying to replace her. I had behaved like a child who wants a thing because it’s been taken away.” Her marriage ended, and Watkins became a single mother.
Throughout her life, Watkins had closely listened to the tales her family told. She’d written poetry and journaled. As a newly single mom, she enrolled at University of Texas at Dallas, majoring in literary studies. (At the time, Watkins says, her children weren’t quite school age and she was living in a multigenerational home, so the kids stayed with family when she was attending classes.) After earning her degree, she briefly considered law school, but instead joined the MA program at UT Dallas. Eventually she also earned her PhD there.
Between being undergrad and going to grad school, Watkins worked for an academic publishing company, researching and writing about the journeys established writers went on to write and publish their books. Some of the authors were writers she’d read in college. She thought, “So this is the journey writers go on!” Something clicked, she says, and each evening after work, she began “writing to the sound of my children in the background.”
Much of what worked its way into the stories she composed during that period came from discussions she’d had with her relatives and friends about relationships and what was happening in the world. The results, Watkins felt, weren’t very good, “because I didn’t know anything about being a writer.” But she came to realize that “books didn’t just pop up in people’s minds and appear on the page. Authors had to put actual time, work, and effort into their craft.”
In grad school she workshopped stories, read widely, and received both criticism and encouragement from her writing professor. She also began submitting stories to literary journals. “I got very intimate with rejection,” Watkins says. But a story she’d written, “The Mother,” appeared in a 2014 issue of Ruminate magazine and was awarded the Pushcart Prize. By the time she graduated, she had a literary agent.
“The Mother,” which opens Holler, Child, is emblematic of all the unforgettable stories in Watkins’s collection. It centers on a son whose mother raises him in the belief that he was, like Jesus, immaculately conceived and is therefore the son of God. When he later forms a cult and leads his followers to tragedy, his mother questions her decision to hide her past—she was a prostitute and doesn’t know who his father is—from him. The inspiration for the story, according to Watkins, was the fate of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian cult.
Texas is certainly Watkins’s muse. When she speaks of the state, it’s with all the passion most writers reserve for their favorite characters. Texas’s contradictions are endlessly fascinating to her, as they are to fellow Texans Attica Locke and Bryan Washington. “Many people can live in this place their entire lives and never know that slavery didn’t reach some of the most western parts of the state, but that racism and segregation there was just as thick and lasted longer,” she says. “But for all the horrible Texas is, she’s also home to me. It’s taken me most of my life to see her that way.”
Leigh Haber ran Oprah’s Book Club for the past 10 years. She now owns and operates her own editorial and consulting business.
Corrections: This piece initially misspelled the name of Watkins's daughter, and mistook some details regarding Watkins's connections with UT Dallas.