Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ernest Gaines on "Why I write"

In an interview with Elsa Saeta and Izora Skinner in 1991, Ernest Gaines spoke about his reasons for writing. He said:
When I went to California, I was 15 years old and I ended up at the library reading and reading and reading. And eventually I decided I wanted to write. I wanted to see something about my own people and there were no such books in that library. I'd read books about peasant life no matter who wrote it: Steinbeck writing about the Mexicans in the Salinas Valley, Cather writing about the peasants in Nebraska, Chekhov writing about peasants in Russia, de Maupassant . . . (250-251).
Earlier, in an 1983 interview with Mary Ellen Doyle, Gaines stated that during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, many "Black" writers wrote about the urban, big city life, eschewing the rural. In regards to this, he said, "I'm trying to write about a people I feel are worth writing about, to make the world aware of them, make them aware of themselves" (151).

Both of these quotes appear after Gaines' ascendance as an accomplished writer. Before that, sometime in the 1960s, Gaines expressed the same sentiments in a small, spiral notebook housed in the Ernest J. Gaines Center archives. No date appears in the notebook; however, it appears to be from around the 1960s, when Gaines was writing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. There is information about when to plant and harvest crops, when to cut wood, how to make pot liquor, and what kind of fish are in the river. There's a page on Angola State Prison and on superstitions such as Gris-Gris. The notebook even contains a list of characters and a list of 18 of the most significant things that occurred in Louisiana since 1900.

  1. First War I
  2. Second War II
  3. High Water-1912
  4. Huey long
  5. Roosevelt (President)
  6.  High Water-27
  7. Joe Louis
  8. Jackie Robinson
  9. Desegregation Bill
  10. Depression
  11. Relief
  12. Charity Hospital
  13. Jackson Mental Hos. 
  14. Angola State Prison
  15. First automobile
  16. Electric light
  17. The first byplane (?)
  18. The screen porch to keep away mosquitoes-which caused yellow fever epidemic (1909)
In the middle of the notebook, Gaines has four pages discussing why he wants to write.
1. Write because I must. Because there's something out there that's need to be said. If i don't say it-nobody 'else might not say it either. By this, I mean, who will write about my part of the country? who will  talk about write about the way my people talk, the way they sing, the way they feel about God, the way they work; their superstitions. There are so many things that be said about this particular area. 
(B.) Money is not the objective, though I want to make money with my writing. But I want to get self-satisfaction.  


The notebook can be found in Box 11-Folder 53 of the Gaines Collection. The interviews can be found in John Lowe's Conversations with Ernest Gaines (1995).

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