Acclaimed Novelist Ernest J. Gaines Dies At 86

Nov 6, 2019
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This morning, we remember the life of author Ernest Gaines, who died this week.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

He wrote several novels that pay tribute to the resiliency of African Americans in rural Louisiana in the years before the civil rights movement. Louisiana always felt like home to Gaines, even when he left for California as a teenager.

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ERNEST GAINES: Only the body went to California; the soul stayed in Louisiana.

MARTIN: Gaines had to move away when he was just 15 because there wasn't a high school for him to go to in Louisiana. And in California, he could do something that was forbidden for many black people in the South at that time - visit a library.

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GAINES: That's why I started reading and just read and read and read. This was back in '48, '49, and there were hardly any books there by or about blacks in those libraries, though. I read literature of the other writers, the Russian writers and the British writers and the American writers, of course. But when I didn't see me there, it was then that I thought I'd start writing, try to write.

GREENE: And so Gaines wrote about the life and the people he knew in Louisiana. One of his most famous novels is titled "The Autobiography Of Miss Jane Pittman." It follows the story of a woman born into slavery, who lives long enough to see the civil rights era. The book was adapted into a film in 1974.

MARTIN: Many journalists said the character of Miss Jane was based on Gaines' disabled great aunt, the woman who raised him. But in a 2005 NPR interview, Gaines said it was more complicated than that.

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GAINES: Miss Jane is not my aunt; neither is she a composite of people. I just wanted to write a story about a simple little lady who came through slavery and survived another 100 years.

GREENE: Miss Jane, like many characters in Gaines' novels, exemplified the black people in his life who faced racism with dignity and grace.

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GAINES: It's not only about the hard time of African Americans in this country, but the strength that they had in order to survive, and it's in order to make me the person I am today.

GREENE: Ernest J. Gaines died from cardiac arrest in his sleep at his home in Oscar, La., at the age of 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.