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If you like Ernest J. Gaines's story, you might also like:
Edward Albee,
Maya Angelou,
Rita Dove,
Shelby Foote,
Carlos Fuentes,
Nadine Gordimer,
James Earl Jones,
B.B. King,
John R. Lewis,
N. Scott Momaday,
Carol Shields,
Wole Soyinka,
Rosa Parks,
Suzan-Lori Parks
and Oprah Winfrey

Ernest Gaines's recommended reading:
Fathers and Sons

Related Links:
Tanya Bickley Enterprises
University of Louisiana
Ernest J. Gaines Award

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Ernest Gaines
 
Ernest Gaines
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Ernest Gaines Interview (page: 2 / 7)

A Lesson Before Dying

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  Ernest Gaines

The childhood you describe was a very difficult and challenging one. Who inspired you to go forward?


Ernest J. Gaines: My great aunt was probably the greatest influence in my life. She was crippled. She never walked in her life. She crawled over the floor all her life. When my mother had to go out into the fields when we were smaller children, and then later go to California, she left us with my aunt, and my aunt could do everything except walk. She cooked the food for us, would bring everything to the stove. We had an old wood-burning stove. She cooked the food for us. She washed our clothes on this old washboard. We had to bring all the stuff there, the water, the soap, the washboard itself. She also disciplined us. So we had to break our own switch to get our punishment if we did something wrong. So we'd go out and break our own switch and come back and take our punishment.


She had to crawl over the floor, but she liked going out into the garden.


We had a little vegetable garden beside the house. From the time of slavery, they always gave the slaves a little place to plant the vegetables. So even when I grew up, there was still a little vegetable garden beside the house or behind the house, wherever, and when it was cool enough in the afternoon, she would crawl over the floor, down the steps, and she'd work in our vegetable garden. She had to put her hand into the earth, and she had a little short-handled hoe. She would work around the different plants in the garden. Beans or okra or tomatoes or whatever we had growing in the garden during that time. We had a pecan tree in our back yard, and during the fall, September, October, and Novembers too, I suppose, she would crawl over the yard and gather pecans in a little sack and bring them back to the house, and crack the pecans and make candy or cookies, whatever.



In all the time that I knew my aunt -- and she raised me until I was 15-and-a-half years old -- I never heard her complain once about anything, never complain once about her condition and the things that she had to do for us. Never once. So I think it was she who has had the greatest influence on me, both as an artist, as well as a man. Many times in my early age, when things were not working right for me in my writing, I wanted to give up, but I could not afford to give up because I remembered her and the things that she had to go through in her lifetime.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


Did you have older brother and sisters?

Ernest Gaines Interview Photo
Ernest J. Gaines: I was the oldest. I'm the oldest of my siblings. There were 12 of us. One died about three or four years ago, but we were not all born in Louisiana. Seven of us were born in Louisiana. Five of us were born in California.

And how many did your aunt take care of?

Ernest J. Gaines: My aunt must have taken care of seven of us, six of us.

What was her crippling disease?

Ernest J. Gaines: I really don't know. No one has ever explained it to me, but whoever I ask, they would tell me that she was born with that affliction.

What about your parents? Did they support your ambitions in literature?

Ernest J. Gaines: No, not in the beginning.


I'm the first person, first male in the history of my family to go beyond high school, and what they wanted me to do was to become a teacher or become a business person or -- I don't know -- but not a writer, because no one knew anything about writers or writing. So I was not encouraged by my mother or my stepfather to be a writer, but that's all I wanted to do from the time I discovered the library and started reading all those books. So about a year after I'd been there in California, I tried to write a novel. Of course, it was a failure. I sent it to New York, and they sent it back, and then I burned it.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


That didn't stop you, that experience?

Ernest J. Gaines: That experience didn't stop me, but I had to study. I was falling back in my grades in school because I was spending so much time trying to write a book. I wanted to impress... anyone. I wanted to impress my aunt, who was still alive in Louisiana, but of course I was unsuccessful in the beginning, and by the time I did start publishing, she had died.

How old were you when you visited a public library for the first time?

Ernest J. Gaines: I was 16 years old when I went to the library.

I gather that just as you weren't allowed in high schools in your hometown, you weren't allowed in the public libraries?


Ernest J. Gaines: I was not allowed in the public library in Louisiana, in the area where I lived. There were public libraries for African Americans in the cities, Baton Rouge and New Orleans or places like that, but they were not very big libraries. They were small, but a few books. But in the little town where I lived, there was no library there at all that I could attend. So my first experience in going to a library was in Vallejo, California, in 1949.


Do you remember the first time you stepped into the library?


Ernest J. Gaines: I used to like to hang around with my buddies in the evening, in the afternoon after school, until my stepfather came in one day from his trip in the Merchant Marine and told me I had to get off the block or else I was going to get myself in trouble, because the town where we lived was a Navy town, and a lot of sailors, a lot of bars, a lot of all kinds of things going on. He said, "You'll get yourself in trouble if you stay there." So I had three choices. I had the movies to go to, or the YMCA, or the library. I didn't have any money for movies, so I couldn't go to the movies. So I went to the YMCA, and I had hung around there, I suppose two or three weeks, until I got in a ring with a guy who knew how to box, and that guy really beat me up. So I went to the library. I was too embarrassed. It was too embarrassing an experience to stay there, because everyone had laughed at me. So I went to the library, and it was then that I really started reading, out of loneliness and out of being too embarrassed to go back to that YMCA.


You make an excellent point. Many people don't realize how books can combat loneliness.

Ernest J. Gaines: Oh yeah. I had missed my folks. I had missed my brothers and my aunt and friends, and I just started reading books. I would always read books about rural life. That's why I had mentioned the peasants and the serfs of mid-19th century Russia. Whenever I'd find a book that had something about rural life in it, I would read it, regardless of who had written it, or what country it came from.

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This page last revised on Mar 26, 2008 20:43 EST
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