“All writers write about the past, and I try to make it come alive, so you can see what happened.” (E.G. 2011)
If you believe in Reincarnation, you could imagine that Ernest Gaines was an African “Griot” in an earlier life.
Described as story-tellers, historians, teachers and even ambassadors, a Griot was the African equivalent of the Minstrel of medieval times who travelled widely, recounting news stories and capturing historical events in an era long before newspapers and television made them redundant. In the oral traditions of Africa, however, Griots maintained sway for much longer than their European counterparts. They can be found even to this day in certain communities, capturing the beliefs, values and folklore of the past, through myths, legends and anecdotes.
In his 2017 interview with Kreol’s Editor Georgina Dhillon, Gaines recalled how his capacity to capture the “here-and now” in ways that resonated for the reader, first came to light. He learned to read and write in a community in which his seniors would not have had sufficient opportunity through education to become literate or numerate:
“I used to read and write letters for other people. They would tell me to make the letter more interesting. That’s when I started creating things. That may have been the origin of my writing. I didn’t enjoy doing it at the time, I just wanted to play.”
Born in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, in 1933, Ernest Gaines grew up on the very same plantation where his ancestors had been slaves, before the institution of slavery in the United States was formally abolished in December 1865, many years after the British, French and Dutch. He and his six siblings were raised by their much- beloved aunt, Augustine Jefferson, who, despite a major disability, crawled about the quarters of former slaves, cooking, cleaning and caring for her nieces and nephews.
“As a small child, I attended school in the church building where we had a teacher who’d come here to teach us for 6 months in the year. That’s why we only had 6 months of school each year. In the early fall, late summer you had to pick cotton and in early spring we had to plant different things. That was my childhood.”
At the age of 15, in 1948, Gaines joined his mother in California. His step father was in the military and his mother worked on a military plantation in the period between World War II and the Korean war. Gaines attended military college and subsequently enlisted in the service. Following his military service, Gaines attended San Francisco State University, after which he won a fellowship to Stanford University in California to study creative writing for one year.
That first book
Gaine’s ‘Catherine Carmier’, was his first book and was written about a Creole girl and her family:
“She falls in love with a Protestant guy and there are problems. ‘Catherine Carmier’ took me forever because I had no idea how to write a novel. I wrote from the first-person point of view, multiple person point of view and the omniscient point of view. When at sixteen I sent it to a New York publisher and they sent it back, I burnt it. I hand wrote everything until I got my mother to rent me a typewriter.”
The impact of Creole life and language on Ernest Gaines
A Creole person in the United States was a descendant of French or Spanish Louisiana settlers before the region became a part of the United States, through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Creole language is a mix and blend of languages including Spanish, French, African and even Native American words. Gaines was exposed to the Creole language and way of life. He reflects in his novels the implications of being Creole and speaks of the impact this had on his own life:
“When I attended a Catholic school in New Roads for three years, there were a lot of Creole teachers and students there. Although I did not consider myself to be Creole, I was looked down on because my complexion was darker than many of them, who were so light in complexion that they could have passed for white.”
In Catherine Carmier Gaines writes: “It was soon learned in the quarters that the Carmiers had little use for dark-skin people. They went by without speaking, and when you spoke to them they hardly nodded their heads…. they hired people their colour” (Pg. 12, Chapter 3, Catherine Carmier)
A consequence of the British making trading in slaves unlawful in 1806, was that the slave trade between America and the Caribbean island colonies increased, as the numbers of enslaved Africans arriving from the continent of Africa reduced. So, slaves who had been born and bred on Caribbean plantations would arrive from Haiti and Martinique, for example, to be sold to Louisiana slave owners. These slaves brought their own creole languages with them. Gaine’s grandparents and others of that era could speak fluent Creole:
“The old folk in my community spoke Creole too but they didn’t want the children to learn it. My people were born on this plantation; my mother, father, uncles, aunties all worked here. I picked cotton on this land. Yet they wanted us to learn English grammar.”
“A Play is born”
Gaines debut as a playwright is a drama all by itself. He wrote his first play at 13 years of age. He recounts that no one from the plantation on which he lived knew about plays. He had to be director and producer, as well as playwright. He invited everyone in the community to be the audience for the opening night and used his little sister as an actress. However, her character required a black person and she was fairer than required, so Gaines put black shoe polish all over her face. On opening night, he had a problem:
Gaines’ mother: “Ernest, is that your little sister Lois under all that stuff?”
Gaines: “Yes, Mama, Lois is going to make her debut as an actress in my play”
Gaines’ mother: “You wash that stuff off Lois’ face right now! I said right now!”
A love for literature about people
“To me, without books, life would be a mistake” (Ernest Gaines)
Gaines stepfather was instrumental in keeping his stepson off the streets, out of trouble, thereby pointing the young Gaines in the direction of his future calling. When he moved to live with his mother and stepfather, who at that time were based in Vallejo, California, he was in his mid-teens and was encouraged to visit the library of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). It is there that he discovered books and where his love for reading, and later writing, was born. He admits to falling in love with the works of the mid-18th century Russian writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. The novel, Fathers and Children, by Ivan Turgenev was one of his favourites. When he was writing Catherine Carmier, it became a bible to him.
Gaines found that the work of white Southern writers of the 1940s and 1950s fell short and did not satisfy his literary appetite. It was Russian writers who filled that void. In his view there were too few books about Black people. Although he admits to reading the few that he came across by and about his people.
“I loved those different characters. I knew I came from that kind of world of different characters and personalities. It was different to how other white southern writers would describe us in their books.” (Ernest Gaines, 2017 interview)
At the same time that Gaines gift for story writing was being nurtured through his Southern experience and studies on the West Coast, Black nationalist writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and W.E.B Du Bois were having literary impact on the East Coast in what had become known as the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike today when technology enables us to access literature from anywhere around the world by tapping a computer key, Gaines appears not to have been greatly influenced or exposed to the full impact of the Harlem Renaissance in which black authors, musicians, artists, poets and playwrights came to the forefront, alongside black political leaders, such as Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
Life-long literary agent
In 1956, at the height of the Beat Era in his junior year at San Francisco State University, Gaines wrote a short story which was published in the college newspaper. His English literature teacher at the time noted the quality of the work and decided to send the story to an agent, who had recently arrived in San Francisco to establish her own agency. The agent liked his story and contacted Gaines to ask whether he would like her to represent him as his agent. She remained Gaines agent for the rest of her life, encouraging him to read the classics, critiquing his work, all of which was first seen by her.
Gaines’ agent would witness the birth of his first novel, Catherine Carmier, which was written following his graduation from San Francisco university. Taking him five years to complete, Gaines left San Francisco and moved back to Louisiana for six months as this was where the story is based. Recalling the writing of this first work, Gaines remembers the beautiful women that he would see when he was a little boy in the town of St. Augustine:
“Writers write about their experience, what they have read, where they have lived” (E.G. 2017)
From books to films
Four of Ernest Gaines’ books have been made into films: The Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, A Lesson before Dying and a short story, The Sky is Grey. He admits to adopting a very pragmatic, practical approach when first asked about making films based on his books. His only consideration was ensuring that he was paid a fair price, tand hat he was not “ripped off”. Having seen many films which did not do justice to the book they were based on – including books by Leo Tolstoy and even the Bible – Gaines adopted a tough stance and informed his agent that if Hollywood wished to turn his books into films they would have to pay him a fair price for the honour.
Knowing full well that the script writers would make changes to his books, Gaines had to countenance a white reporter replacing his character of a black teacher from a Southern University in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Gaines was prepared to accept that, as the film was made for television audiences. The producers felt that they preferred a white actor and white characters to bring out the story of Miss Pittman. His only hope was the people would read his book after first seeing the film.
While expressing a strong sense of ownership over his books, Gaines admits that everyone of his books has to be different and this is indeed the case. He expresses this using the imagery of a father and his children, saying that every child belongs to the father, but each child is different, one from the other. He notes that Of Love and Dust, which took him only seven months to write. Whereas entirely different from Catherine Carmier. Of Love and Dust is told in the first person and recounts the stories of others in the story. Miss Jane Pittman took him two and a half years to write and that book also is entirely different to the former two.
Throughout his life, as Gaines had a variety of experiences, each of his books would be different as he had changed and evolved as a result of the direction that his life had taken. He considers himself to be still learning to write and whereas he does not rewrite anything, he does hope that the wealth of his experience informs and enriches his books. Sometimes he rereads one of his earlier books and acknowledges that there may have been some good writing in that novel. He recounted this in relation to Catherine Carmier. Yet, for Gaines the centre of his writing universe is Louisiana:
“…. I can only write about this place. I cannot write about New York or the Seychelles, Paris or Martinique or even San Francisco.”
Honoured, decorated: The journey of his life
In 1981, Ernest Gaines accepted the position of Writer-in-Residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (formerly University of Southwestern Louisiana), where he taught creative writing. While the author had expected to spend his life trying to support himself through his writing alone, this opportunity to teach and engage in developing a new generation of writers provided him with a satisfaction which kept him rooted to that spot. On his arrival, he had expected to remain for only a semester. After that semester, the University became Gaines’ base for his future teaching and writing career. The University of Louisiana honoured Gaines in recognition of his contribution to literature and to the University by establishing an international centre for scholarship on the work of Ernest Gaines.
Gaines has received a number of other national honours, as well. Oprah Winfrey, actress, producer and television show host highlighted Gaines’ book A Lesson Before Dying, and in his own words, made it a best seller. He also won the McArthur Genius Award and has been decorated by two presidents: from President William Jefferson Clinton he received the National Humanities Medal and from President Barack Obama, the National Medal of Arts.
A Man of God in soul and spirit “God loves us all whether we are criminals or saints” (Ernest Gaines.)
There is a sense when discovering the man that is Ernest Gaines, that despite no overt mention of it, just beneath the surface, he is a deeply spiritual person:
“We used to go to the church down there and if it was raining the old people would sit there, away from the weather for shelter. And when it’s extremely hot, the Spanish moss hanging from the limbs would make it cool. This was seventy years ago. There would always be someone resting there. When I wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, I had that tree in mind. The old people who sat there must have thought about their lives and probably talked to that. I did the same thing with Miss Jane Pittman. When she wanted to talk to God, she sat there and talked to the tree.”
In recent years, Gaines and his wife arranged and enabled the relocation of the little church which he had once attended as a youth, to his own property in the state. His purpose in moving and restoring this church to the safe-keeping of his own property was to “protect our history”.
He acknowledges that of the books he has written, the one that resonates the most is a short story entitled Christ Walked Down Market Street, this is the only one of his published stories that is set in San Francisco, California and not in Louisiana.
In a 2011 interview, Gaines admitted that he is a very religious person. While believing in God from the standpoint of having faith as much as any man did, his sensibilities and soul told him that there was indeed a Creator of our Earth and the Heavens. Gaines expression of this belief in a Creator evokes a sense that this writer, who has created so many memorable characters through the use of his pen, has a profound appreciation, respect and love for the greatness of the force which created our universe.
In the same sense that he considers faith in God to be a good thing, this creator of the stories of his people also sees himself as their guardian and protector; a shepherd looking out for, caring and protecting the history of his people in Louisiana.
“I’m sure I missed out on many things, but I wouldn’t change what I did experience for anything in the world. There were some tough days and hard days, but had I not had those days I wouldn’t be able to write as I write.“ (Ernest Gaines, 2017)