"I Heard the Voices.Of My Louisiana People": A Conversation with Ernest Gaines

Article excerpt

MEETING ERNEST GAINES

Alice Walker introduced me to the work of Ernest Gaines in 1971. At that time I was teaching at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, where Alice also lived. Alice had sent Gaines her manuscript of The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and he in turn shared his galleys of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with her. Alice spoke enthusiastically about both Gaines's literary talents and his generosity in helping younger writers like herself.

The following year I began teaching American and Afro-American Studies at Yale University where I used Gaines's newly published Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as a text in my class on "American Literature and the Oral Tradition." To my delight Gaines accepted my invitation to visit Yale, and during a master's tea in Calhoun College he read passages from his new novel and spoke about his craft as a writer. His soft, gentle voice brought his characters to life with special power.

Several years later I visited Gaines at his apartment in San Francisco. It was a memorable experience as he showed me beautiful black-and-white photographs he had taken of scenes from his birthplace in New Roads, Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Great oak trees, country roads, and the homes of family and friends familiar to him from childhood hung lovingly framed in his front hall.

During the interview we sat together in his study where a small photo of William Faulkner hung above his desk. He recalled his childhood in Louisiana and the beloved aunt who had raised him. We also spoke of Southern storytellers and how their voices have shaped his fiction.

Since our interview we visited again during a reading Gaines gave at the University of Mississippi and during a symposium at the Sorbonne on "AfroAmericans in Europe." With each visit I am struck by the gentle voice of this large man who has shaped such beautiful portraits of the black and white characters in his fiction. Both as a writer and as a teacher he has immeasurably enriched our lives, and this interview offers a sense of the vision that inspires his fiction.

-William R. Ferris, Chairman, NEH

LEAVING THE SOUTH: I left the South when I was quite young because I could not get the kind of education my people wanted me to get. But I can still write about it because I left something there, you see. I left a place I could love. I left people there that I loved.

When a lot of black writers and white writers leave the South, they want to totally wipe it out of their minds. They don't want to remember it. Or if they remember it, they remember it as a place that was not a happy place in their lives. When Richard Wright left this country and got involved in something else, the writing that he did about this place just did not come through as truly as when e was here. So, I can write about it still because I left something there. Living in San Francisco is not like living behind an iron curtain. I go back all the time. And there are many Louisianans here in San Francisco. When I was writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, my grandmother was alive and here in San Francisco. She was always cooking Louisiana food all the time, gumbo all the time, jambalaya all the time, shrimp creole all the time.

I have a very strong imagination. I can sit at my desk, see roads, bayous, towns, and houses, and hear voices and dialogs. But I do go back.

THE CAMERA AND THE MIND'S EYE: I always take a camera when I go back to Louisiana. I take both black-andwhite and color photographs.

Most of these pictures were taken ten or twelve years ago. I've been trying to get some good shots.of railroad tracks lately. I've shot several railroad tracks in my part of Louisiana around Baton Rouge, but I haven't gotten the perfect track yet. I've gotten some good roads and lines of houses, and rivers and bayous, but I haven't gotten the tracks that I want. Sometimes I might look at the photographs when I write, but I seldom ever do because I think that my mind's eye sees the area just as well as that photograph does and maybe even better, because the photograph is limited. …

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