Spotlight on: Author, 'Lalita Tademy'
Author: Lalita Tademy
Best-selling author Lalita Tademy is a former vice-president
of Sun Microsystems who left the corporate world to
take stock of her direction and goals in life.
During this time, she began tracing her family's history
using a variety of genealogical resources and
ended up publishing the novel Cane River.
In it, Tademy covers 137 years of her family's
history in fiction format, focusing on four generations
of strong Creole women and the injustices they
fought to create a legacy for their offspring.
The book looks at the evolving relationships between
"blacks" and Whites--particularly the complex bonds
between slave-owners and slaves--and free "blacks"
and slaves in the South through a fresh lens.
Lalita Tademy: Book fills in holes
in writer's genealogical record
--- article was written by Shauna Scott Rhone,
srhone@... of 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
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Because some historical documents had factual errors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.
"She was loved by everyone who
Lalita Tademy's great-grandmother Emily Fredieu (left) and her family.
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...
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.
Reading Group Guides
BLALITA 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.
If you would like to know more about
LALITA TADEMY visit lalitatademy.com.
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 Bookreporter.com's Jamie Engle
as she talks with the Tademy.
What sparked your interest in
researching your family's history?
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 .
... 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.
CANE RIVER presents many complex issues
and blends historical fact and family
lore into a very readable epic ...
What was the most surprising thing(s)
you found in the course of your research?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
How do the previous generations
influence your family now?
Has CANE RIVER heightened that influence?
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.
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?
here 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: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
© Copyright 1996-2006, Bookreporter.com.
Tracing her roots: Lalita Tademy quit the
corporate life to write a novel about her family history
- Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer / Friday, June 1, 2001
""I hope you can put some of these things together
better than I did, you may have heard that my Brother
or I did not finish School or no one taught me one
thing about Typen but that I know I know it, Smile.
My God have blessed me to be here my three scores and ten.""
In 1975, Gurtie Fredieu wrote a two-page letter
recording the family's history for the first time.
The 70-year-old's simple sentences contained
snippets about ancestors who'd been slaves
in the tiny community of Cane River, La.
It offered a peek into the family's riveting past -
the murders, suicides and love - and concluded
with the hope that somebody, someday, could
"put some of these things together better."
That somebody is Lalita Tademy.
And 26 years later, she's made her
cousin Gurtie's wish come true.
Tademy, 52, of Menlo Park, used her cousin's letter,
more than a thousand archival documents -
and her own rich imagination - to write
her first novel, the epic "Cane River"
The book, which made The Chronicle's best-seller list,
traces her mother's side of the family through four
generations of women - Elisabeth, Suzette, Philomene
and Emily - from pre-Civil War plantation life
through the Jim Crow days of the 1930s.
It's a fictional account based on as much fact as
Tademy could find, and it's earned her hundreds of
media interviews and book readings around the country,
including one tonight at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park .
The heartening journey into her family's past began six
years ago during what many deemed a mid-life crisis.
After all, Tademy, who never married and has
no children, had reached the high point in her
corporate career - she was a vice president and
general manager for Sun Microsystems in Palo Alto .
She'd worked toward the position ever since earning bachelor's
degrees in psychology and statistics at the University of
California at Los Angeles in 1970, then a master's in business
administration in 1972. ("I just liked the whole concept
of profits and losses," she said. "There was a clarity.")
Sometimes, in the middle of an important meeting at Sun,
Tademy would think about her great-grandmother Emily - or
Grandma 'Tite (rhymes with sweet) as everyone called her.
Tademy, who grew up in Castro Valley as the youngest of four
children, spent her summers at family reunions in Louisiana .
She never met Emily, but her relatives filled
her head with stories, often comparing the
elegant woman to Jacqueline Kennedy.
"It was always how wonderful she was, how beautiful
she was, how vivacious she was, what a love of life she
had . . . that she had her own farmhouse and invited
people in every Sunday, that "black" and white people
would gather under her roof," Tademy said.
But the real Emily didn't match the simple,
perfect picture her family painted
Tademy, who'd always had an interest in genealogy,
wanted to know more about Emily's past.
She knew Emily's mother's name was Philomene, but didn't
know anything about her or the women who came before.
After three years at Sun, Tademy yearned for a change.
The job came with prestige and stock options.
But it also came with 80-hour workweeks with no
time for friends or any of the other things she loved.
And so, she quit.
And (gasp) she had no idea what to do next.
To her family and co-workers, who'd watched her work her
way up for years, her decision seemed, well, a little nutty.
"It isn't as if there were a lot of women, let alone
African American women vice presidents," Tademy said.
"There was a lot of bewilderment.
And then 18 months later, when I said I was going to write
a book, that's when people's eyes rolled back in their heads."
Her colleagues sometimes looked at her incredulously,
surprised that someone so dedicated to advancing
on the fast track would leave corporate life behind.
But they also had a tinge of jealousy, according
to John Kannegaard, a vice president at Sun
Laboratories, which is a division of Sun Microsystems.
"She was ferocious," he said.
"You know what these jobs are like - you get up
in the morning and go to bed thinking about it.
The next thing I know, she's decided
to quit and go do, you know, whatever.
"There's a certain amount of envy, getting off the playing
field, away from the everyday pushes and pulls, the
meetings every 30 minutes, having two people on hold
and somebody paging you and two people outside your door.
You think, maybe that would be a good thing to do."
Her mother, Willie Tademy, 79, of Oakland, didn't
see anything good about her daughter's choice.
She was simply dismayed.
"I thought it was a bad decision, because whenever
you've got a job, you don't leave it unless you
have another job in the wings," she said.
"When she said she left, I sort of blew up.
'What are you going to do now?
Where are you going?'
Tademy didn't have the answer, but she did
have some money in the bank and the gut
feeling that leaving was the right thing to do.
Gone were the frantic days packed with meetings.
The 150 e-mail messages filling her in-box every morning.
The unconscious glances at her calendar every 15
minutes to see what she was supposed to do next.
But instead of lounging in the sun on long,
glamorous afternoons, she found herself holed
up every day in the National Archives and
Records Administration's building in San Bruno.
She finally had time to pursue her "hobby"
and `find out the truth about her family'.
"I'd get up and say,
'OK, gorgeous day out.
Should I go to the beach?
Should I drive to the mountains?'
But I'd go to the archives and look at microfilm,
looking for any clues about my ancestors,"
"It got very obsessive, just finding one more
piece of data, one more something that
would open up the door for one more.
It was like being a detective."
When she maxed out her resources in
San Bruno, she knew where to turn next:
--------- Cane River itself.
She took six trips there over the next few
years, usually staying three or four days.
She visited colleges, public libraries,
courthouses and the local genealogy society.
She delved into mounds of letters,
newspapers, deeds, wills and land claims.
She talked to anybody she could to learn more about the
19-mile stretch of land along the river in central Louisiana
and its complicated society of Creole French planters,
slaves and gens de couleur libres, free people of color,
who were often richer than their White neighbors
and sometimes owned slaves themselves.
Tademy also spent a lot of her time just walking,
admiring the land and trying to understand its moods,
which she described as "haunting and beautiful. "
"It's a really unique part of the country that pokes at a lot
of stereotypes that I had going in about slavery," she said.
"My perceptions when I started were:
There was so much gray in
Cane River that I had to step back."
A lot of that ambiguity came from the Mixing
of Whites and Blacks on the plantations.
Many of Tademy's ancestors had very light skin
and some moved away from Cane River in
an attempt "to pass" as white, she said.
Many of her ancestors were the children of "black"
slave women and White men - some the product
of relationships and others the product of rape.
She learned about Emily's mother Philomene, who stopped
speaking after her true love, a "black" slave, was sold away
to another plantation because of a White man's envy.
Though forever devastated, Philomene later came
out of her shell with a renewed determination
and vigor for the sake of her children.
She learned about Philomene's mother, Suzette,
who was raped by a White man, and Suzette's
mother, Elisabeth, the matriarch of the brood.
On one trip to Cane River, Tademy hired a
genealogist who helped her find the most crucial
piece of research: the bill of sale for her
great-great-great- great-grandmother, Elisabeth.
It proved conclusively that her ancestors were
slaves, rather than Free People-of-Color (fpoc).
The genealogist waded through thousands of private,
historical documents collected by the DeBlieux
family, which lived in the Cane River area.
The private collection, which wasn't indexed or ordered
in any logical fashion, was kept at a New Orleans library.
"In the space of about an hour, I covered
every possible emotion," Tademy said.
"At first, it was just a huge piece of the puzzle
I'd been looking for for a year-and-a-half.
And then I had to think about what I was
holding and that was people selling people.
Then it was,
'How could this be?' "
The bill, written in 1850, had 30 slaves' names
and ages listed down the left side and their
buyers and prices listed down the right.
The bill, reprinted with many other
documents in the book, lists
"Slave, Elisabeth, Negress age 48,
not guaranteed, to Narcisse Fredieu, $800."
After the owner of their plantation died, his widow
sold Elisabeth, her husband, their four children and
four grandchildren to seven different plantations.
"The family had been ripped apart," Tademy said.
"Brothers and sisters, husbands and
wives, mothers and daughters.
That was just so difficult to digest.
And realizing these are my ancestors
too, it was just enormous."
Tademy wasn't able to trace her family back any
further, and has no idea `where in Africa' they came
from or `when they arrived' in the United States.
In 1997, she settled back down in her spacious,
airy Menlo Park home, decorated with African
and African American artwork, and began writing.
She took writing courses at Stanford and
the University of California at Berkeley.
She spent nine months working on the first draft,
writing it all long-hand because she found
typing on the computer stifled her creativity.
("It was that blinking cursor," she said with a laugh.)
"In my head, I lived on the plantation, and then I lived
through the Civil War, and then I lived in Reconstruction
and then I lived in the Jim Crow South, " she said.
"It was always very personal, and I think that's
something that's an added complexity.
I was these women, but on the flip side, they were me.
I really felt them as ancestors, not
just characters I made up."
Tademy found it painful to write about the murders
and rapes of her own family members, but
included the harsh scenes to keep her story factual.
She also struggled with the fact that some of
her genes came from the rapists themselves.
Her great-great-grandfather Narcisse Fredieu is one of the
most vicious characters in the book, but Tademy began
to see him as a flawed product of the brutal system of
slavery, rather than an evil, one-dimensional villain.
He bought Elisabeth and later [developed an
obsession] with her granddaughter, Philomene.
He was responsible for ensuring Philomene's true
love, Clement, was sold to a faraway plantation.
The two lovers, and parents of two girls who died
of yellow fever, never saw each other again.
Fredieu fathered Emily and her seven siblings.
"I went in thinking every slave holder was a demon -
cruel, insensitive - and the slaves were victims
that you're supposed to feel sorry for," she said.
"That robs both sides.
The further I pushed, the
more complicated things got.
I started to see slavery as an evil institution
that held everybody in its grip."
When Tademy completed her draft,
she realized the hard work had just begun.
She sent her manuscript to 13 agents
and was rejected each time.
One said her characters weren't compelling.
Other reasons were even harder to hear.
"One said slavery had been done," she said.
"That was very discouraging,
it stopped me in my tracks for a while.
But then it occurred to me that love had been done.
It's all about how you do it."
Finally, she found an agent, who in turn found a publisher.
Tademy's spent the past several weeks touring England,
Canada and the United States doing book signings.
She's stopped in big cities and small, from New
York and Chicago to little towns in Louisiana,
Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee.
She's read mostly at independent
bookstores - and one beauty salon.
Unfortunately, she didn't have time for a
pedicure before rushing off to her next reading.
She's been interviewed by TV host
Bryant Gumbel and on CNN.
Though an appearance on Oprah seems
like a natural fit, it hasn't happened yet.
"You don't call Oprah," she said. "Oprah calls you."
In addition to some adoring fans, Tademy has
met legions of distant relatives on her book tour.
At almost every stop, she'd had people approach her and
tell her how their family trees connect, sometimes with
branches intertwining as far back as the 1700s.
"People will say, 'I'm in your family,
let me tell you how,' " Tademy said.
"They'll find literally one line in the book, like,
'That doctor you wrote about as being the first
on the scene of a murder brought me into this world.'
Or,'I went to your great-grandma's farm in
Louisiana and she stopped a nosebleed.' "
Tademy's been pleasantly surprised at the book's
appeal to blacks and whites, men and women.
Men have tended to like the book's rich history
and women have tended to appreciate the
complex relationships, she said.
"If folks pick it up and read it and they're just
really drawn into a part of history that they
weren't very familiar with, and they want to
turn the pages, I'm really satisfied," she said.
"Above that, I think it's a story of the strength of family,
of resilience, of making the best of what you have."
As for her next career move, Tademy is unsure.
She hasn't ruled out returning to corporate life, but
for now, she's happily working on her second book.
It tells the story of her father's side
of the family in Colfax, Louisiana.
This time, it'll follow the men's stories.
"An author's life is very solitary and
that part is sometimes difficult," she said.
"I think about how stimulating it was to have
so many smart people around (at Sun
Microsystems), but I enjoy this."
Those smart people now think Tademy is the wise
one. Kannegaard admitted he was initially nervous
to read "Cane River" because he didn't know
what he'd say to Tademy if he didn't like it.
But he loved it, his daughter loved it and
now their copy is circling among family friends.
"I don't think she'll go back to high tech," he said.
"I think that she's found what she was put on Earth for.
We're all sending e-mail around, we're all so proud.
"We used to be the high-tech muck-a-mucks
. . . Now we're the people who know Lalita."
He said he may attend one of her readings
and knows just what he'll say when he sees her:
"I'm going to remind her of the time that she
was a lowly vice-president and general manager
of one of the top technology firms around."
Tademy's family, too, couldn't be prouder.
Though some have struggled to read about
their own painful past, they're glad they
have it beautifully packaged forever.
Her sister, Joan Lothery, lives in Philadelphia
and loved getting phone calls from T
ademy with updates on her research.
"We have storytellers, but we didn't
have any real writers," Lothery said.
"This made it very nice that some of the stories
that were passed on could be memorialized in print.
I think I like that best of all."
After Tademy's mother got over the initial shock
of watching Tademy quit her prestigious job, she
enjoyed seeing her daughter devote herself to
the reading and writing she'd loved as a girl.
Tademy was called "The Little Genius" growing
up, with her head always buried in a book.
"She was the best - and not because
she was mine," her mother said.
"Oftentimes, I would have her in the car, and I knew that
she was bookish, so someway I had to get her out of that.
I would see a building or something
and say, 'Look at that, Lalita!'
And then she would look up, see what it was,
not say a word, then look back down at the book."
And what would the women of Cane River think
of their story reaching the best-seller list?
"I'm not sure about Emily, she was private," Tademy said.
"I think Suzette would be a bit perplexed, and I think
Elisabeth would just be very proud. Philomene,
I have this sense she wanted the story told.
I think she'd be pleased."
Though Tademy has no family of her own - and said
she couldn't have dedicated herself so whole-heartedly
to the book if she did - perhaps "Cane River"
is the greatest legacy she could leave.
"I wanted to give these women a voice," she said.
"It was also important to me that I tell their stories,
not apologetically, but just what really happened.
It's down, it's down now.
And long after I'm gone, it'll still be there."
Oh, and as for Cousin Gurtie, she died
several years before she could see her
two-page letter spun into a best-selling novel.
Tademy met her once on a trip to Louisiana
with her father and was struck by Gurtie's
chatty, sometimes wandering family stories.
Tademy assumed she exaggerated for
effect, but now she knows she didn't.
"I wish I'd gotten to know her," Tademy said.
"I think she had lots of stories
that go beyond those two pages."
E-mail Heather Knight at hknight@....