Published in City Social magazine
By Susan D. Mustafa
His aunt crawled along the floor for all of her life, but he never heard her complain. She would push herself along the porch and down the stairs to her garden where she would work among the vegetables with a short-handled hoe—vegetables she used to feed Ernest Gaines and his eight brothers and three sisters. Neighbors would stand at the garden fence and chat with Augusteen Jefferson while she worked. To cook for the children, she would climb onto a bench. To wash their clothes, she labored over a washboard. And no one seemed to feel any great sadness for Augusteen’s condition—because she didn’t. With twelve children to raise, she couldn’t let the fact that she could not walk detract from her responsibilities.
Much of the strength that can be found in the female characters in an Ernest Gaines novel is a direct result of the strength and determination he saw in the aunt who raised him. “I loved my aunt very, very much,” he said. She made me the person I am today, both as a man and as an artist.”
In the 1940s, there was no public school that black children could attend, and the library in Pointe Coupe Parish where Ernest grew up was off limits to those “of color” as well. Ernest’s mother and stepfather moved to California during the war, later sending for the children, one at a time, to be educated. Ernest was 15 when it was his time to go. He soon found himself in a library reading and reading and reading. Then he decided to try to write.
“I was 17 when I wrote what I thought was a novel, but I was the only one who thought it was a novel,” Ernest said. “I sent it to New York, and of course they sent it back. I burned it in the incinerator in the backyard.”
Ten years later Ernest was at Stanford University at a lecture when the speaker said that it was hard for young writers to become recognized unless they had a novel. “I stopped writing short stories and tried to write a novel. The only novel I could think about was the thing I had written 10 years earlier, so I went back to try to rewrite it. It turned out to be Catherine Carmier, my very first novel.”
Since then, Ernest has written Of Love and Dust, Bloodline, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Long Day in November, In My Father’s House, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying, with these novels earning him a reputation as one of the most respected writers of our time.
Ernest writes about Louisiana, about plantations, about slave life, about the things he knows—the rivers, the bayous, the harshness and the beauty of southern life. “The body went to California. The soul stayed in Louisiana,” he said. “I’ve tried to write about other things—my army experience, a bohemian San Francisco story, a ghost story, but my talent was in Louisiana.”
Before writing each novel, Ernest thoroughly researches his subject—studying history, searching archives, interviewing people. “I go out into the field and to the archives. For The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman much of what Miss Jane would have experienced was not in the archives. I had to talk to a lot of older people. I read a lot of ex-slave narratives, listened to a lot of spiritual music, listened to the blues. For A Lesson Before Dying, I knew absolutely nothing about executions or prisons, but a good friend of mine took me around Lafayette and introduced me to jailers. After the research is finished, then the characters just take over. Like with Miss Jane, I tell my students that I just couldn’t control that little old lady. And Marcus in Of Love and Dust—my rebel did things I never thought he would do.”
In 1981, Ernest was offered the opportunity to return to the state that had such a hold on him, accepting a position as writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he teaches creative writing to a select group of students. “I’m a creative writer. I don’t consider myself preacher or teacher, and I take a Socratic approach to teaching. Mark Twain once said that ‘Your intention should not be to preach or teach, but the end result should do both.’ I have six words of advice and eight words of advice for my students—the six words are read, read, read, write, write, write. The eight words are read, read, read, read, write, write, write, write.”
After numerous Emmy Awards, 17 honorary doctorates, and even the National Humanities Award from former president Bill Clinton, Ernest, at 70, is currently working on another novel, about Louisiana, of course. “But that’s all I’m going to say about it,” he laughed. “Oprah once asked me what do I try to attain in my work, and I told her that I try to create characters with character, to better my own character, and maybe the character of those who might read me—so I continue to write and to create strong characters and hope I can learn something from them.”
“I’ve has so many wonderful moments—meeting my wife, Dianne, the first showing of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman on television, being in Hollywood to see Miss Jane Pittman take nine Emmies, Oprah calling to tell me I had been chosen for her book club—many, many great moments.”
But Ernest has experienced heartache as well. “My lowest point came when my aunt died in 1953, and I didn’t have enough money to come back here for her funeral. Her courage and spirit is in all of the strong women in my books, but I could never write the book she deserves. I could write until I died and still couldn’t finish that book.”