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Interview With Lalita Tademy
(May, 2008)

Lalita Tademy is a former vice-president of Sun Microsystems who left the corporate world to immerse herself in tracing her family's history and writing her first book, Cane River. Cane River was selected by Oprah Winfrey as her summer book pick in 2001.

After everything she learned researching and writing Cane River, book two, Lalita thought, would be much less difficult and involve less than three years to create. She was wrong. Maybe if not for the time-intensive process of falling in love and getting married, it would have been, but she will never know. It was nearly six years between the publication of Cane River and Red River's debut. Red River also takes place in Louisiana, and is also a historical novel, based on real events during Reconstruction after the Civil War, a time period and subject matter often summarily skimmed in our history books. The story of Red River begins in 1873, and follows the ramifications of an incident on Easter Sunday of that year on successive generations of two families involved.

When writing Red River, did you feel the need to predominantly feature the men, since Cane River focused mainly on the history of the women in your family?

Featuring the men from The Bottom in Colfax, Louisiana, at the expense of their women or the family unit wasn't a conscious effort on my part in the telling of this particular story. The events in 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana revolved around the actions proactively undertaken by some of the African American men in the community, men trying to protect their hard-won voting rights and voting choices. The men took the lead, but their women were also fighting battles on the homefront at the same time.

Red River of Disaster by Lalita Tademy
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The story opens with Polly's inner monologue. Why is hers the only voice we hear directly? Does she have a special significance to you?

Polly's voice was very strong and very clear to me from the beginning. If not for her presence and support, Sam might have acted differently during several difficult moments in his life. The events of RED RIVER unfold around all of the characters, and Polly, looking back from her vantage point of 100 years of living, is a worthy narrator who can crystallize her thoughts and put the time in perspective. Hopefully this helps to orient and prepare the reader.

The Colfax riot is a harrowing, largely unknown event in American history. When did you first discover it? Was it difficult to write the grisly details so candidly?

I first discovered that there was such a thing as the Colfax Riot because of the monument in front of the courthouse. I first saw that marker in the '60s. At first, the marker baffled me, and then over the years, it made me angry, and it served its purpose well in driving me toward wanting to know more. The grisly details of the massacre were documented in several different accounts found in public and private records; my goal was to lend them an air of immediacy, not clinical precision.

It is miraculous that Israel Smith survived the riot. Were the wounds he suffered fictionalized? Which details of the massacre did you discover in your research?

Israel Smith is a composite character. He blends those things I could find out about him from family stories and researched public records, but he also became a stand-in for several of the true physical abuses I uncovered in testimony reported during the congressional hearings regarding violence in the Red River region conducted by the government in the 1880s. Every physical calamity that befell Israel during the massacre was documented in first-person or eyewitness testimony, and entered into the congressional record.

Many families in Red River have their roots in The Bottom. Does that area still exist? What is there now?

We (the Tademys) still have farmland down in The Bottom in Louisiana, with a few cows and crops, although my 81-year-old Uncle Willie just moved from the small farmhouse there into town, to be nearer to his nephew and niece, into Colfax. Farmers still live in The Bottom, and carry on a slow pace of rural life.

In your research, did you find any living relatives of the Hadnots?

There are white and black Hadnot descendants sprinkled everywhere in the area. As you can see in reading the book, my mother even dated a black Hadnot before marrying my father. I did not, however, weave Hadnot family stories into the narrative, because I wanted the focus to remain a Tademy story.

What became of the two schools that the Tademys started in Louisiana?

The original grade school that Sam Tademy envisioned and Jackson Tademy started was ultimately grown into a high school. Jackson's son Andrew Tademy, called Professor, was instrumental in building and expanding higher education in Colfax. Both of my parents attended that school.

How did you decide when to fictionalize an event or leave it historically accurate? Do you think the process was more difficult considering it was your own family's history?

At each point, a writer has to negotiate the tricky terrain of truth and fiction when writing a fictionalized account of real events. My guideline was to ask myself one question: "Does this rendering convey the feeling of the truth of the time as I have come to know it, even if I have bent the facts for dramatic effect?" That the characters were my ancestors generated additional limitations, mostly in the arena of feeling that I needed to honor who they were and the circumstances of their lives. I am ridiculously fond, and in awe, of several of my characters.

How do you feel about the state of racial relations in present-day Louisiana? How do you think some of the relatives in the book would feel?

We have, of course, come a long way. We can vote, we can hold property, we can be elected. But Louisiana still has quite a way to go to rise above centuries of racial habits. I think Hurricane Katrina exposed a great deal about inequity and the continued sorry state of race and class in both Louisiana and the rest of the country. Blaming the victims for their lack of access to the American dream is still evident. Nonetheless, I believe Sam Tademy would say we have to take responsibility for ourselves and our families and make stepping stones out of stumbling blocks.

The Tademys and the Smiths seem to have been close for a century. Are the two families still in close contact with each other?

The families married into one another almost 100 years ago. Because of physical mobility and increased opportunity for successive generations, we, the cousins, are not as close as we would be if we were living in the same town, experiencing the same practical realities of our lives. I regret this, and take the lion's share of the blame. The excuse that "I'm just too busy" seems weak, but nonetheless, we have drifted away from one another. I do take solace that there are those in the family far better at keeping close than I have been able to do, and that I have met or re-met several of them as I wrote this book.

Posted with permission of the publisher.

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