Lalita Tademy Chats with BookBrowse about Her Latest Book, Red River
Red River ends in 1937. I'm very interested to know what
happened to your family since then - I know that you were brought up in
California, what caused your parents to move from Louisiana to California? Do
most of the remainder of your family still live in Louisiana?
Lalita: My parents moved from Louisiana to San Francisco in the early 1940s, where there was a greater range of work opportunities available for a black man. My father, who never enjoyed teaching in Louisiana, came out alone first, worked in odd jobs in the construction trade created by World War II, and then sent for my mother and my two older sisters a few months later after he had a foothold. One by one, his brothers moved their families out to California as well, although none of the sisters relocated out West. Today, there are pockets of Tademys in both Louisiana and California, as well as most other parts of the country.
The family tree in Red River is fascinating, but because it only shows the birth dates of your grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, it's difficult to know which you might have known first hand?
Lalita: My paternal grandfather Nathan Green Tademy died two years before I was born, although I did know my grandmother Lenora. So in truth, I did not know the generation of my male ancestors preceding my father portrayed in Red River personally, but through stories. Most family stories came down through their daughters, especially my Aunt Ellen, who just passed this year at the age of 93.
I feel that your ancestors must be very proud of you. What do your living relatives think of your writing? You've written previously that, prior to the publication of Cane River, your relatives were uncomfortable about you writing about your family's history, believing that family business is private. How have they reacted to Red River?
Lalita: It is too early to gauge the reaction to Red River, since the novel has just been released, but the reaction to Cane River by family members has, thankfully, been pride and an affirmation that the story has been told. My mother, who died last year, was always supportive of me as a daughter, but baffled as to why I felt the need to tell these difficult stories, especially since our lives are so much better today. In the end, once she saw so much positive response to Cane River, from friends, family, and strangers, she encouraged me to continue writing Red River.
Do you think that "Red River" will stir up feelings in Colfax? Are there any movements to take down that appalling sign in outside the court house in Colfax commemorating the "riot"?
Lalita: I am curious as to what feelings Red River will provoke in the small town of Colfax. I don't live there, and haven't visited very often recently, so am not in touch with the current climate or mood of the place. Many of my closest relatives have passed on. I don't believe the town as a whole invests any pride in the sign outside of the courthouse, but I don't know of any movement to remove it. The sign is an official state historical marker.
Did you meet any resistance while researching "Red River"?
Lalita: Because I started doing genealogical research more than 20 years ago, my initial attempts to get information were not greeted warmly, but at the Colfax library and courthouse in recent years, I have readily been given assistance whenever and however I have asked.
Red River, like Cane River, is presented as a novel, but obviously is well grounded in your family history. Are all the key events factual?
Lalita: Red River is steeped in fact, and almost all of the key events actually occurred, but were told from the theoretical (and sometimes creative) point of view of people who were there at the time and able to witness the events unfold. Although I set the story as a family story, several of the specific details did not necessarily happen to my great grandfathers, but were incidents seen or experienced by people who testified in court after having survived the massacre. Documents verify that several McCullens were in the courthouse, and died there.
Your great-great-grandfather Sam Tademy's ancestors had come from Egypt, I assume sometime in the 18th century. Have you ever been able to trace any of your family back to there? Have you made any efforts to trace the French side of your family that you explored in Cane River?
Lalita: As hard as I have tried, I cannot document the exact timing of the first generation of Tademys on American soil. Last month, I went to Egypt, from Alexandria on the Mediterranean all the way down to Lower Nubia, and I tried to trace either the name Tademy or find similar stories to those I had heard about an Egypt-America journey by an African man. Unfortunately, the search was to no avail. My effort to trace the French side of my mother's family was more fruitful. I traveled to the south of France in 2000, just across the border with Spain, and actually found the village where my great grandfather was born before he immigrated to America. At the time of the visit, the mayor of Pezilla de Riviere had the same surname (Billes) as my great grandfather, and I discovered that the Billes clan had dominated the village since the 1500s.
How did working on your second novel differ to your first? Did you feel more confident knowing that you had already written a successful novel, or did it increase the pressure?
Lalita: Writing the second novel turned out to be more difficult than the first for many reasons. I thought I had learned enough about process from writing Cane River that writing Red River would be both easier and faster, but found that to be totally false. Not only did I have to go through all of the same trial and error attempts again, but the voices for Red River were harder to access, probably because they were predominately male. And although I had the foundation of a successful novel behind me, there were major expectations by others of what Red River should be that differed from my own vision. The final product, however, turned out to be what I wanted all along.
What has it been like to spend 10 years exploring your family history in such depth?
Lalita: The search for my ancestors has been a profound one for me, both in terms of recreating who they were as individuals as well as the times in which they lived. I honor and respect them, and after 10 years of living their lives in my head, I have to admit that I am ready to move on.
So, what are you working on now?
Lalita: I have started and rejected several novel storylines, but have yet to get grounded in the story I want to tell next. Never say never, but I am fairly certain that the next project will be contemporary, and the characters will bear no relation to family, living or dead. I'm looking forward, after the PR for Red River wears down, to producing something totally from my imagination.
I understand that you were recently married? Are you still living in the San Francisco Bay Area?
Lalita: My husband and I have been married for over 2 years now, and it still feels fresh and new. Fortunately, we are from the same general geographical area and have settled very comfortably into joint life in the Bay Area.
Copyright BookBrowse.com 2006
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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