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University: Journey into the home and mind of Ernest Gaines

Megan Wyatt, The Advertiser, September 27, 2014

This is the same land my people have been living on for five generations, right here. Right here in this place.

Just northwest of Baton Rouge near New Roads, there is a small hamlet called Oscar that is located along the False River. On the first day of fall, the air is a bit drier and a bit cooler there, although the sun still beats down on the blue water and sugarcane fields that surround the house.

It is Dianne Gaines who welcomes visitors into the home, but it is her husband people usually ask for.

This is the same land my people have been living on for five generations, right here. Right here in this place.

Ernest Gaines

Ernest Gaines says there was once a time when he wouldn’t welcome visitors at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. That time was dedicated to writing. But these days he spends about five hours per week writing instead of five hours per day.

Ernest and Dianne Gaines designed the house to their specifications and moved in 10 years ago, a day before their wedding anniversary. The house blends the old with the new – cozy nooks with ornate furniture juxtapose with a chef’s kitchen filled with the latest finishes. The sweet scent of a pear crisp in the oven fills the entire home with warmth, and classical music echos throughout the home’s rooms. Books aren’t limited to the library but are found throughout the house, even on the bathroom’s wallpaper design. A gray cat named Sir Thomas and a golden dog named Didi greet visitors warmly. A third pet, a colorful cat named Fifi, hides.

In the backyard is the restored schoolhouse and chapel building from Ernest Gaines’ childhood. Across the street is their camp on the False River where Ernest Gaines does his writing.

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Ernest Gaines and his siblings received their primary education in a plantation church in Oscar, La. The Gaineses later purchased property on the old plantation, built a home, and placed the plantation church on their property.
(Photo: Paul Kieu, The Advertiser)

It’s been 50 years since the publication of his first novel, "Catherine Carmier," which tells the love story between a dark-skinned black man and a light-skinned Creole woman in a Louisiana countryside where blacks, whites, Cajuns and Creoles coexist in a complex way.

Fifty years ago, Ernest Gaines could not have owned a house on this property, where he once worked in the fields as a child born to sharecroppers. Five generations of his family have lived on this land in Pointe Coupée Parish, first as slaves at the River Lake Plantation, then as sharecroppers, and now, Ernest Gaines lives freely on the land of his people as a celebrated writer.

"I used to write for the old people on this plantation, the same place we’re sitting right now," Ernest Gaines said. "This is the same land my people have been living on for five generations, right here. Right here in this place."

Finding Success

"Had I not succeeded, I don’t know, suicide?"

At the age of 81, Ernest Gaines now moves slowly and deliberately, using a walker to steady his steps.

There was a time when he walked several miles each day at Girard Park when he served as writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He began his residency in 1981 and stayed at the university until he retired in 2004. It was during those years that Ernest Gaines wrote and published the critically acclaimed novels "A Gathering of Old Men" and "A Lesson Before Dying."

He has since slowed down.

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Dianne Gaines and Ernest Gaines approach their kitchen table to prepare for lunch at their home in Oscar, La., Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014.
(Photo: Paul Kieu, The Advertiser)

Ernest Gaines has been working on two novellas "just a little bit at a time" for the past four years. One he calls "Daughters of the Creole Lady," and the other he calls "The Man who Whipped Children."

Although now recognized as one of the most influential writers of African-American and Southern literature, it took many years for Ernest Gaines to see success. It took many more for his family, friends and neighbors to understand his need to write.

"They all thought I was nuts because hardly any of them had read a book, a novel. Back in a place like this, you read the Bible," Ernest Gaines said. "Nobody in the country had books. They didn’t know what you were talking about, and even if they did, they had not read black writers."

At the age of 15, Ernest Gaines moved to the San Francisco area, where his mother and stepfather lived, so he could continue schooling. His Pointe Coupée Parish community high school did not allow African-Americans.

The libraries in California captivated Ernest Gaines, but he found no books written by or about blacks. That’s when he began writing a version of what would one day become his first novel, "Catherine Carmier." At only 17 years old, Ernest Gaines sent the manuscript to New York City, but it was rejected.

He burned it.

Ernest Gaines focused on school, served in the Army and enrolled in San Francisco State University, where he began publishing short stories in the university’s literary journal. He earned a spot in Stanford University’s graduate program for creative writing, then settled into a studio apartment in the San Francisco area.

Though he had been writing short stories and working odd jobs, a mentor told Ernest Gaines that publishing a novel was the only way to publish a book of short stories or make money as a writer.

"And the only novel I could think of is what I had tried to write about 10 years earlier," he said. "And of course, I’d burned the draft I sent to New York."

Ernest Gaines started writing a new version of the novel, winning the Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award in San Francisco for submitting a few chapters of the novel.

I just always said I was going to write. Had I not succeeded, I don’t know, suicide?

 

Click here for video http://www.theadvertiser.com/longform/life/people/2014/09/26/home-mind-ernest-gaines/16255713/