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Interview: May 25, 2001

May 25, 2001

Lalita Tademy is the new patron saint of passionate and curious sorts. Always interested in her heritage, Tademy quit her job as a top executive at a Fortune 500 company, and threw herself into an "obsessive" two-year journey researching her family lineage. CANE RIVER, an epic debut novel spanning four generations of African-American women, is the product of that journey.

Join's Jamie Engle as she talks with the Tademy about the shocking family truth she uncovered, the misconceptions she had of certain ancestors and more.

TBR: What sparked your interest in researching your family's history?

LT: Among the many stories I had heard about my roots in Louisiana, the stories about my great grandmother Emily especially fascinated me, but puzzled me more and more as I got older. There was such a contradiction between the "elegant lady" that my mother and her brothers described and the image I began to piece together of a snuff-dipping, homemade wine-drinking, fun-seeking dancing diva of a woman from the backwoods of Louisiana. I found myself wanting to know which one of these memories was true, what made her the way she was, and how she was raised. I began to have a growing need to try to figure out who Emily's mother was, and the dynamics of their relationship, and then I was hooked. The beginnings of a two year obsessive search started quite small.

TBR: CANE RIVER presents many complex issues and blends historical fact and family lore into a very readable epic. What was the one thing you knew you had to include in the novel?

LT: The love match between my great grandmother Emily and my great grandfather Joseph, a Frenchman who emigrated to Louisiana from the south of France after the Civil War. Several of the earlier relationships between my female slave ancestors and the fathers of their children were forced, but against great opposition, Emily and Joseph lived openly in Joseph's house and raised their children together. This was very unusual. They couldn't legally marry, but it was clear through letters and court testimony how much Joseph loved their children, including my grandfather, giving them both his last name and land.

TBR: What was the most surprising thing(s) you found in the course of your research?

LT: Certainly the most unexpected finding was the Bill of Sale recording the purchase of three generations of my ancestors in 1850 because the owner of the plantation in Louisiana on which they lived had passed away. They were not sold together, and the family was ripped apart. This was the breakaway document that allowed me to push the family tree back another 50+ years.

TBR: In the Author's Note, you mention a fascination with Emily for years, but that you had trouble reconciling her preoccupation with color and your mother's judgment of Emily being "an elegant lady, like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy." After all the research and writing this novel, how do you see Emily now?

LT: My feelings for my great grandmother have changed. I always "saw" her through a twentieth century eye, and a very judgmental eye at that. Going back to inhabit her character in the writing of the book forced me to see her in the context of the time and place where she was born and raised, with all of the constraints and predisposition's that implies. Skin color bias was a reality in Louisiana, and many times greater opportunity was afforded to those who looked closer to white, in both the black and white community. My great grandmother had many wonderful qualities, including the ability to generate joy in her life and in the lives of others around her, and she is remembered fondly by not only my family, but even in new family stories people have related to me lately as I travel around the country.

TBR: You mention Emily's mother, Philomene, visiting you in dreams, urging you to tell their stories and to understand the different generations and the complexities of their lives. "It defies description in words, this bond I have with Philomene and her ability to reach across four generations to me with such impact." She was a strong presence during the writing of CANE RIVER. Now that the novel is complete, do you feel her presence as strongly?

LT: I feel Philomene in a very different way than during the writing of the book. She and I are more at peace, and her presence is less commanding. During the writing process, I really felt the weight of the possibility of letting her down, of not being able to tell the stories in a way she would approve. Now she is simply a part of me.

TBR: How do the previous generations influence your family now? Has CANE RIVER heightened that influence?

LT: In my travels around the country to promote the book, I've met more extended family members than you can imagine. Sometimes we have to go as far back as the 1700's to make the link, but it makes for interesting conversation. More currently, within my immediate family, we have discussions about traits and attitudes, talking, for example, much more freely about how stubborn we all seem to be, or comparing the differences in our own life strategies.

TBR: In 1995, you quit your job at a Fortune 500 high technology company to pursue your family research full time. At that time, did you know you were going to write a novel about your family?

LT: There was never even the vaguest hint that I would write CANE RIVER, or anything else for that matter. At the time, I felt there was something else I was supposed to do, but I didn't know what it was. I gave myself one year to figure out what pulled me out of a career I had prepared my whole life for, and initially started doing genealogy research because suddenly I had 60 to 80 extra hours a week to fill. Only when powerful stories started to tumble out of the research did I feel the need to capture them in a long-lasting way in a book.

TBR: Do you have plans for future novels?

LT: I am halfway through the first draft of my next novel now. As difficult as the writing process is, I am actually eager to be able to get back "to the cave" and finish writing that one.

TBR: What books do you have on your summer reading list for this year?

LT: These have been out awhile, but I've fallen behind in my reading, so bear with me: BLUE LIGHT by Walter Mosley; IN THE TIME OF BUTTERFLIES by Julia Alvarez; A GESTURE LIFE by Chang-rae Lee; DEATH OF VISHNU by Manil Suri; and ON HER OWN GROUND by A'Lelia Bundles. TBR: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!