A Labor of Love


January 2002

Local author Lalita Tademy discusses life, literature, and a lady named Oprah

In 1855, along the Cane River in central Louisiana, a 14-year-old girl named Philomene is told that her twin infant girls have died from yellow fever. Her husband, Clement, has been sold away from her by their owner, Narcisse Fredieu, because Fredieu desires Philomene for himself. On Sunday, her day off, Philomene lays in a closet off the kitchen that smells of bacon grease and mourning. "The weeks had passed with her feeling naked and exposed, tensing for the next blow, subject to the whims of some force intent on grinding her up until there was nothing left. And when it seemed that she had reached bottom, that the greedy hands could pull her no lower, Narcisse Fredieu appeared in her room. This was the face of slavery. To have nothing, and still have something more to lose."

It has been said that the writer of a book should have something to say, something that they need to tell the world. Lalita Tademy did. Philomene is her great great grandmother. Tademy's book, the bestseller Cane River, tells the story of Philomene, her mother Suzette, and her daughter, Emily.

When Tademy left her job as a vice president and general manager at Sun Microsystems six years ago, for reasons, she says, she couldn't really explain to anybody, she never intended to write a book. Genealogy had always been an interest, though, sparked by the stories of her maternal great grandmother Emily. Born a slave at the beginning of the Civil War, Emily died owning her own land and farmhouse along the Cane River. Tademy's mother told stories of Emily's spirit and elegance, of how she sipped homemade wine, pinched a little snuff, danced round and round to the music of a Victrola and crafted a future for her children.

Tademy traveled to Louisiana, sifted through documents in courthouses, libraries and churches and hired a French-speaking genealogist. She had started with the name Emily Fredieu, but there were no other names; they were lost. The breakthrough in her research came with an 1850 bill of sale in the amount of $800 for her great great great great grandmother Elisabeth – a name unknown until then to the Tademy family.

"Good fiction is made of that which is real," wrote Ralph Ellison. Cane River is the story, beginning with Elisabeth, of Tademy's maternal ancestors, but it is fiction. Tademy took the years of research, the certificates of communion and marriage, the deeds, the wills and the bills of sale and wove around them the story of three women in her family. Covering 137 years, Cane River tells a vivid and wrenching tale that takes you into a world that you could not have known about – where free people of color built a church called St. Augustine's and the white plantation owners sit behind them during Mass, where slaves received holy communion beside the plantation owner's children, and where, returning home from a service, whites forced themselves on twelve-year-old slaves. It is astounding reading.

Tademy, who grew up in the Castro Valley, lives today in a leafy, secluded home in Menlo Park. She is tall, reserved at first, and, like Emily, there is an elegance about her. Despite the "terror of the virgin page", as she calls it, she is at work on her next book, the story of her father's side of the family. We joined her recently to talk about Louisiana, freedom, family, and what it was like to have her book chosen as the summer reading selection by Oprah Winfrey.

You have said that, although you didn't intend to write a book, that it was "inevitable". Why?

Genealogy and a fascination with my family and who they were have been with me for years, for decades. I always puttered around with it, but never did anything with it. But the stories were so interesting to me that I always wanted to know more -- who they were and why they made the choices that they did. I wanted to see how far back I could go in tracing our roots, and that's what I did for fun. I never, ever, ever would have guessed that I would have written a book about it. I had never written so much as a short story before. So it's odd that I would say the writing of it was inevitable, but if I look backwards, I really believe that it was, because of the fascination I had for the subject, and then because of my determination to bring out the voices of these particular women in Cane River. And I became really convinced that I was able to do it. I didn't know why I should be able to do it since I didn't have any background in it, but I had such an interest and such a passion, and I really felt that it was up to me to bring these women forward and to tell a story from a point of view that is very seldom heard.

Was there one story that you grew up with that engaged you the most, that made the book inevitable?

There were a couple of stories and they were about Emily, because the other women were not documented. As a matter of fact, of the four women, Elizabeth, Suzette, Philomene and Emily, no one had ever heard of either Elizabeth or Suzette before. I had to put their stories together through documentation, not from family stories. No one, absolutely no one had those names. I hired a genealogist and paid her by the hour for eighteen months, just on the wild chance that she'd be able to find Philomene's mother. It was a huge search, and when she found the plantation where Philomene was born, it also had her mother, and that was the first time I'd seen the name Suzette, and it also had her mother's mother, which was Elizabeth, and so with that I was able to tap into stories that nobody knew. Then, I had to try to breathe life into their personalities on the basis of events that happened. And through that, the fiction was born, and the narrative drive was born, and it crossed over just from a generalized obsession to trying to capture a craft.

There were two stories about Emily that wouldn't release me. There was the story of her dancing -- how she would roll around and she would three-step -- and everyone said she was fun loving and elegant and wonderful. And then there was the story that she dipped snuff. Those two things wouldn't release me. The reverence with which she was held and how she was always described as elegant wouldn't match up with the fact that she was a little buzzed every day on homemade wine and she dipped snuff out there in the backwoods of Louisiana. Friction is what grabs you, not all of the pieces fitting smoothly together. Trying to figure out how all these disparate pieces could possibly fit, that's what engaged me.

So is Emily your favorite?

Actually, Philomena is my favorite, and you're not supposed to have a favorite, but I do. And the reason that Philomene is my favorite is that she had so little to work with. She never learned to read or write for her entire life. She died in 1912, and yet she was the one that took care of all of the family business. It should have been Emily. Emily is the one who knew how to read and write. But it was Philomene that took charge. She was very crafty and very resourceful and very resilient, and she's my favorite because she made things happen, and she changed the trajectory of the lives of the people that came after her.

Was it wrenching for you to write the stories of these women?

Yes, as a matter of fact. I lived on the plantation in my head for the writing of the entire book. For the nine months that it took me to do the first draft, I was there, and I was these women, and I was going through the challenges and the heartbreaks and the unfairness that they went through, and it was wrenching. There were many times when I would just have to pack it up and go and take a walk around the block or get in my car and drive somewhere, calm down, come back, and go at it again. But it was very difficult. I knew, for example, that Suzette would have a child at the age of 14, but I didn't know quite how that was going to happen, and to actually go into those scenes of her being 12 years old and having a visiting Frenchman decide that he was going to take her was really difficult because at that moment I was Suzette.

But as difficult as it was to transport back to that period in time, which was an ugly chapter in America's history, there was so much hope and so much resilience and so much strength and so much dignity that each one of these women managed to martial that that was very uplifting to me. They always got to high ground somehow. It was so inspirational to me. That's what really got me through it -- knowing how much hope there was that was embedded in these tragic stories.

The idea of choice is a theme that runs throughout the book.

This is a book about mothers and daughters and strength and resiliency, but it is also book about choices. These women made choices. They made choices about whether they were just going to give up, they made choices about whether they were going to open themselves up to love again, they made choices about what was going to be important in their lives, and every one of them, every one of them, made a choice that it was their children that were important, and, most importantly, that they would make sacrifices in order to advance opportunities for their children. You can argue whether the choices were the right choices, but in their minds, they were, and they were effective.

But you have to believe that you have a certain amount of freedom in order to make a choice and these women lived in a time and place where they certainly didn't have freedom. Is this something that you have strong feelings about?

What was almost as tough as slavery was freedom -- freedom when you're not prepared, freedom where you have to make decisions about what you're going to do and how you're going to do it. Because these women had decided that they were going to hang on to freedom within themselves, they were able to carry that forward to the time when they were really free and to exercise it to a greater extent than others around them. And, in some cases, I actually thought that they were more free than the white women, because in their minds they knew that they had to take charge. They knew that they weren't going to make a good marriage and be taken care of. They knew they didn't have that luxury, and so I actually believe that they did more with their freedom than many others.

The issue of skin color in the book has been somewhat controversial. Your great grandmother considered light-skinned children more desirable and it was felt they would have more advantages. You describe Emily as being "color-struck".

It's gotten more play and more interest than I expected. But it would have been absolutely impossible to write a truthful book about Louisiana during that period of time —and I do believe that the point of writing is to try to get at truth somehow—and not talk about the color issue, because it was so prevalent. It was very specific and very deeply entrenched in Louisiana. And the reason that I wrote about it is that in the stories my mother would tell me about Emily, it was clear that Emily carried those prejudices forward, and that, to her, lighter was better. She wasn't mean or nasty to anyone, but she liked certain people more. She liked my mother more because she was the lightest child. She had the straightest hair. She had the thinnest nose. So I wrote it as a reflection of reality, and it has actually gotten more play than I would have liked, because it's slightly polarizing and it diverts attention away from the real story, which is about family and choices and strength and resilience.

In the process of writing the book, did, or really researching it, did your feelings about family change?

Well, I have a reverence for family. I believe that family is an amazingly strong and powerful way to connect and I believe in both the strength that you gather from family and the burden of family. It's all in a package. I believed that when I started and I believe it now. My attitudes toward very specific members of my own family did change. Specifically, I wasn't fond of Emily when I started this because of her being color-struck, which I just I didn't understand. Having to "be her", in order to write her, I had far more sympathy, far more empathy and I began to admire her for what she was able to bring to the table, which was an absolute joy in life.

What was the most surprising thing that happened in researching the book?

The most surprising thing was the bill of sale, actually finding the bill of sale. That was the breakthrough document in my research that allowed me to go back an additional fifty years, because once we found the plantation and that bill of sale, then we could go all the way back to Elizabeth's birth in 1799, and understand that she came from Virginia and then to Cane River and then each one of the successive generations was actually born on Louisiana soil.

What was your emotional response, seeing that document?

It was really discombobulating. It was very disconcerting, because I kept having inappropriate and uncontrolled responses. When I first received it, I was just thrilled, because I had the names, the proof. I'd been looking for eighteen months, and here it was, in black and white -- I knew that Philomene had been sold when she was nine years old, with her mother, Suzette, and they had gone to one place, and her mother Elisabeth had been sold someplace else entirely, and her brother had been sold to a different place, and her cousins were sold someplace else, and her father was sold to a different… Well, and then that was depressing. It was horrifying. So I went from total elation and affirmation and validation within the space of a nanosecond, to total dejection and depression. How could people do this? How could they do this to one another? How could they do this to a family? My sympathies were always with the women, the slave women, but I also had to come to grips with the concept that on that bill of sale were my other ancestors - the white men who purchased them. It took a few days for it all to sink in, for me to start to be able to get enough distance to do something with the data.

You've said that many of the Fredieu descendants have shown up at your book signings.

Just huge numbers -- you have no idea. And they're really fascinated. They feel that this is a part of their history. And they're not trying to deny it, which is really different than it would have been twenty, fifteen, even ten years ago, in that they want to be considered part of the family and they're excited about all of this.

Why do you think even ten years ago the reaction would have been different?

Edward Ball has written a book called Slaves in the Family. He's the descendent of slave owners, and he went back to find his ancestors and also the slaves that they owned. And he made a statement that in the South, one of the things you never, ever, ever do, as a white person, is claim ownership or affiliation with a black family. It just isn't done. That is an attitude that was prevalent for a very long time. When I started doing my research and I would go back to Louisiana and I would go into the public courthouses or some place where I needed to get information, they wouldn't bring it out to me. "Geez, that must have been misfiled." If they would talk to me at all. Anybody else that came in after I did -- they were waited on first. It was appalling and I was raised in California so I didn't "know my place." But that started to change also. Now I go back and everyone wants to be helpful and there's no resentment and it's just a different environment. It's a real change.

Is it a change because of the success of the book?

No, it's not. It's a change because of the times.

Can you talk a little bit about the sale of the book. It's not like you wrote the first draft and you ran into Gillian Manus at Draeger's and she bought it and you became famous. You worked very hard on the book.

I didn't try to write this book for wide acceptance. I didn't shop it first to see if it was a concept that was commercial or acceptable. I wrote the book, and I didn't try to sell the book until I had finished writing the first draft. It was more important to me that I finish it the way that I wanted to finish it. The selling of the book actually was a Cinderella story. Building up to the selling of the book, pre-Gillian, was horrific. I went through thirteen agents before I found one that was willing to even give me anything encouraging, in terms of feedback. They were busy or they didn't handle historical or they just thought that the subject matter was too difficult and that it wasn't commercial.

My famous story is the agent who rejected me because, she said, "Slavery's been done". That was a low point. It was okay if somebody said to me, "You know, you're not a very good writer," because I'll just keep working on that, and I'll get better. Or if they said, "This isn't compelling." I know it's compelling, I knew the stories were powerful, powerful stories. If I wasn't telling them in a way that made people want to read them, that's a whole different thing, and I can work on that. But for someone to say, "Slavery's been done, " which in effect negates the entire concept… Well, it took weeks. I had a twenty-four hour pout rule. Every time I got rejected, I gave myself twenty-four hours to just pout and feel sorry for myself and then I needed to get back to work, and to make it stronger.

After the "Slavery's been done" comment, the twenty-four hours came and went, and I just couldn't make myself go back to writing. And then a week passed, and then two. It just kept running in my mind, "Slavery's been done, slavery's been done." This means that it doesn't matter how well it's written, but that it's a concept nobody is going to be interested in. And I woke up one morning and I said, "Wait a minute! Love has been done." (Laughs.) Get a grip!! It's how it's done, it's what you convey, it's what freshness you bring to it, and so I got back on the horse. I kept writing and eventually I went and took a course at U.C. Berkeley Extension, and the instructor there read it, said this is really wonderful, introduced me to her agent, Gillian Manus, who immediately read the manuscript, loved it, and said, "I want to represent you". Once that happened, then it became a Cinderella story.

What were you doing when you found out that Oprah had selected Cane Riverfor her Book Club?

Washing clothes. Seriously, I was on the twenty-some city book tour, and my suitcase was open on the bed, because I was catching the red-eye out to New York that evening, and I was packing. And the phone rang, which is sort of an annoyance when you're trying to get stuff done, and I hear, "This is Oprah." Allllllll rightttt! (Laughs.)

Your next book is about your father's side of the family. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

That's as much as I need to say. But I feel fortunate… You know, I haven't known that I wanted to be a writer since I was five years old. I never even thought about this until 1997, and that was just in the service of this burning story that became Cane River. And I feel really fortunate because I have another burning story, and not everybody gets that. Not everybody gets two, so I'm very pleased that I have so much passion for a second time around.