Thursday, February 28, 2013

Gaines reigns in New Orleans literature

Last Saturday, I went to Xavier University to hear Ernest J. Gaines speak. Gaines, 80, wrote "A Lesson for Dying" in 1993, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. He's written eight novels in addition to short stories and essays.

Gaines grew up in a sharecropper family on a Louisiana plantation and was one of 12 children raised by an aunt who was crippled and had to crawl on the floor.

At 15, he moved to Northern California where he studied literature at San Francisco State University and later won a fellowship at Stanford.

I had never been on the Xavier campus, which is one of two traditionally African-American colleges in New Orleans, but finally found the lecture on the third floor of the student union. There were no signs, but many people got there anyway.

Gaines does not suffer fools gladly and proved to be a more challenging interviewee for the Fox reporter than she expected. He was unwilling to give her the predictable responses.

One person asked why his characters spoke different? Because they are all different people, he said.

An English professor tried to insist he had been inspired to title the novel after a famous British poem. He refused to back down and seemed not to know or care about her poem. Presumably, she had made a definitive statement to her class about its origin.

He explained to the would-be writers in the crowd why he had decided to make the teacher born in Louisiana instead of California, why the convict kept a journal and how he had learned of the roving electric chair that created such a powerful image.

Gaines seemed to prefer the children's questions which were less self-aggrandizing than the adults.

He has little time to write now that he's become famous because everyone wants to talk to him.

His novel is New Orleans' "Big Read" so there will be discussions in schools and libraries all month as well as screenings of the film at Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.

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