Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Lalita Tademy

Book fills in holes in writer's genealogical record

By Shauna Scott Rhone,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Lalita Tademy was living a life most would envy. A rising vice-president at Sun Microsystems, she had reached a level of achievement that made her family proud.

        But something was missing.

        Family stories of her great-grandmother Emily Fredieu crept into Ms. Tademy's mind at the oddest times. During strategy meetings and budget reviews, memory snippets of Emily's life distracted her. She remembered names from a brief family history her uncle had given her. Ms. Tademy became fascinated with Emily, Emily's mother, Philomene, and other ancestors whose stories she had heard.

        Then in 1995, Ms. Tademy (pronounced Tad-a-mee) made a decision that surprised everyone. She walked away from a life of upward mobility at Sun and began a four-year trek across 137 years in search of her ancestors.

        “I knew there was something I had to do,” she says. “Deep down, I had done what I wanted to do and continued to do, but it wasn't satisfying. I was really left with a vague sense of doing "the next thing,' so I just quit. I didn't take a one-year sabbatical. I left so I could figure out what that "next thing' was.”

Fill in the blanks

        Ms. Tademy's best-selling book Cane River (Warner Books; $13.95) became the marker of her journey. The book is a fictionalized account of four generations of African-American women who lived in central Louisiana. All were born into slavery. Because some historical documents had factual errors and all of the central characters were deceased, the author was challenged to fill in the blanks.

        She had been tinkering with genealogy off and on for 20 years, collecting pieces of information about her family. Although she hadn't considered writing a book, Ms. Tademy found herself discovering volumes about Emily, her great-grandmother.

Lalita Tademy's great-grandmother Emily Fredieu (left) and her family.
        “She was loved by everyone who talked about her,” Ms. Tademy says. “They said she was very elegant and died after the Depression with $1,300 dollars stuffed in her bed at a time when no one had money. She was fun-loving, and I heard a lot of stories about her dancing and that she owned horses.

        “I was intrigued with the tension between what I was hearing and what I was finding out about her. What didn't make sense were the stories told of this dignified, elegant person, and then I found out that this was a woman who dipped snuff. That difference made me want to know her. I had no idea if she was descended from free men or slaves.”

        Ms. Tademy decided that to understand Emily, she needed to know more about Emily's mother, Philomene. By now, searching for her family had become an obsession. She crisscrossed the country from California to Louisiana gathering documents and research. She hired a genealogist who was fluent in old French, because many of the documents were not written in English.

        Eighteen months later, the genealogist presented Ms. Tademy with a bill of sale, dated Feb. 2, 1850, of a property transfer. The document lists the sale of Ms. Tademy's great-great-great-great grandparents Elizabeth and Gerasime, their daughters Suzette and Palmire, Suzette's son Gerant and daughter (and Emily's mother) Philomene.The bill also lists the slaveholders who purchased them, dispersing the family to four different plantations.

        The simple act of touching such a coveted document sent Ms. Tademy on a roller coaster of emotions.

        “Just to hold it,” Ms. Tademy says, was a wildly emotional experience. In the space of 24 hours, I think I experienced every kind of emotion. The first 15 minutes, I went from elation to anger. This paper was full with names, my ancestors. There was a bonus generation that was totally unexpected. It was painful to see they were sold, listed with price tags, whether or not they were "guaranteed.' Then there was an unsettling bewilderment that the ones who bought them were also relations of mine.”

        For example, the bill of sale showed Gerant was purchased by his birth father, Eugene Daurat. By the time his sister Philomene turned 20, she had delivered the first of eight children by Narcisse Fredieu, the slaveholder who purchased her grandmother Elizabeth 11 years before.

        Ms. Tademy was particularly impressed by Philomene's tenacity and her devotion to family at a time when families could be dismissively torn asunder.

        “One of the biggest shocks was finding in the census that after civil war, (Philomene) had gathered all her (seven surviving) children to live together as a family. Even with little documentation, many slaves went on a search for miles on just the barest information.”

        It took nine months to complete the first draft of Cane River, another two years to rewrite. Getting a publisher to accept her manuscript was more agonizing. It was rejected 13 times before she showed the draft to her creative writing professor at the University of California at Berkeley who, in turn, took it to an agent. The bidding buzz started, several publishers nibbled, and Warner Books snagged the deal. Cane River hit bookshelves last year , became a best-seller and an Oprah pick and is being released as a paperback this month.

        “This is a book about relationships,” Ms. Tademy says, “about family members. About moving on regardless of obstacles and carrying people with you. It's about choices. People today assume slaves had no choices, but they did. And the choices they made influenced not only their lives, but those who live today.”

        Ms. Tademy hopes readers take away several thoughts from the story of her family.

        “Cane River has a couple of layers. The first layer is that I want it to be an interesting read. I wanted to shed light on a part of American history that is important to acknowledge and address. There is also a fundamental understanding that people can be victimized without becoming victims. Using life strategies, maintaining a belief in family and using it to advance that family is what it's all about.”

        Three days after Ms. Tademy finished the final rewrite of Cane River, she started researching her next book: the story of her father's side of the family.


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