A Lesson for Living: For Louisiana Writer Ernest Gaines, Home Is the Place Where You're Torn between the Difficulty of Leaving and the Terror of Staying

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Before Alex Haley's Roots became a mini-series phenomenon, Ernest J. Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman paved the way. In the 1974 TV movie, Cicely Tyson starred as Miss Jane, the 110-year-old African-American woman in Louisiana who recalls her life as a slave, her role in the Civil War, and her views on the civil rights movement. It is safe to say that no other fictional character had as much influence on the American freedom struggle as Miss Jane Pittman. Her story has been read in American literature classes around the world. And Chicago's Derrick Carter, the master mixer of cutting edge house music, leads his newest CD About Now with a spoken word track taken from this Gaines classic.

Since 1956, Ernest Gaines has written eight books of fiction, including In My Father's House, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying. Four of his works have been made into films. His contemporaries count him as one of the great Southern writers. Currently, Gaines is writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

Gaines was interviewed this spring in Columbus, Ohio, by Dale Brown, a professor in the English department and director of the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Brown's most recent book is Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Welters Talk About Their Vision and Work (Eerdmans).--The Editors

Dale Brown: This all started for you on the plantation in Louisiana where you wrote letters for neighbors and old people. And your first performances were in church?

Ernest J. Gaines: I tried to put on a little play. I had to be producer, director, and actor, I even had to pull the curtain. I think I was 13 or 14.

Gaines: That was the day that the people would get up and sing and the meeting would be about three hours. They would sing and tell their plans for heaven. Each person had his own particular song. You could identify people by their songs. If you were not in the church even from a distance you could tell who was testifying. I was baptized as a Baptist, baptized in the same river that I write about, the same river where we'd fish and wash our clothes. We washed our souls in that same river. White folks were baptized there too. We were all baptized there, because we all lived on that same plantation. But my stepfather was Catholic, and I went to little Catholic schools during my last three years in Louisiana.

Brown: Do you feel indebtedness to this religious background?

Gaines: Certainly there is ambivalence, but I would not be the person I am today if I had not had that background. The old people had such strong beliefs and they tried to guide me.

Brown: You have many endearing characters in your stories, usually the older women who live in the stream of faith. The ministers and the professionals, however, are often treated with considerable satire.

Gaines: I was educated in the 1950s in San Francisco, and I was reading books like Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Those books began to make me aware of myself and what was really going on. I began to ask myself about these folks who claim to be Christians. I'm not talking about the old people on the plantation; their faith was real enough. But those folks on television and those who fought against anti-lynching laws made me question the whole business.

Brown: Your books also speak powerfully to the issue of displacement. Each of your books, in one way or another, notes the difficulty of leaving and the terror of staying. So many characters get caught between two worlds.

Gaines: I was finally able to come back to Louisiana when I was 50--18 years after I'd left it. All kinds of things kept pulling me back, all my stories went back there to the plantation, but I couldn't have accepted conditions in the South. …