Annette Sisco column for Feb. 21, 2013

‘Big Read’ brings author Gaines to Xavier

Born in 1933, author Ernest Gaines grew up on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, where African-American sharecroppers still lived in much the same way as their enslaved forebears.

In his novel “A Lesson Before Dying,” Gaines taps into his early memories for a tale of a condemned man whose own lawyer dismissed him as no more “human” than a hog and the teacher who reaches out to him.

This small novel, taught in schools and translated into many languages, earned Gaines a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a National Book Critics’ Circle Award.

Now, it’s the chosen book for a citywide New Orleans book club called “The Big Read,” a project of the New Orleans Public Library and Xavier University intended to encourage people to read and discuss great literature.

To kick off “The Big Read,” Gaines will be on stage at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Xavier Ballroom in the University Center, 1 Drexel Drive, with Fox 8’s Nancy Parker, who will interview him. The event is free and open to the public.

Jay Todd, an assistant professor of English at Xavier University, headed up the process of applying for the Big Read grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and helped choose “A Lesson Before Dying” as the local book.

“We were interested in Gaines’ book because it has so many connections to Xavier,” Todd said. “It has this emphasis on social responsibility, which is at the core of Xavier’s mission. We liked it even more because it’s not only set in southern Louisiana, but it’s by an author who was born and raised in southern Louisiana.”

Todd has 1,000 copies of the book to give away, starting Saturday at Xavier.

Copies will be available at public libraries around town, where groups will meet to discuss the book, Todd said. There will also be screenings of a film based on the book at Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.

A schedule can be found at http://bigreadnola.com.

Finally, to bring to life the conditions described in the book, Xavier is partnering with young people at Sophie B. Wright and Xavier Prep for an oral history project.

“Local high school students will be interviewing seniors at the Gert Town community center about what life was like in the mid-20th century, focusing on the issues of segregation and the Jim Crow laws,” Todd said.

Todd looks forward to giving away some books and hearing what people have to say.

“The main force behind the Big Read is to appeal to and reach out to people who aren’t regular readers,” Todd said. “We’ll give away as many as we are able to give away.

“We want people to get the book, and we want people to read the book.”

Annette Sisco is Community editor. She can be reached at asisco@theadvocate.com.