Author searches for what's 'helpful and not hurtful'

Every now and then there is an event felt so deeply it makes a person pause and examine his or her life.

Attica Locke, author of the Wilton Reads selection The Cutting Season, had such an experience in 2004 when she was invited to a wedding at the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, La.

The east Texas native and her husband, who were not yet parents, traveled from their home in Los Angeles to New Orleans for a pre-wedding party and then were taken on a private bus to the plantation.

“I didn’t know it was a working sugar cane plantation,” she told the audience Friday evening, Sept. 27, at Wilton Library. Ms. Locke, who is black, told of her discomfort being all dressed up and passing through cane fields and rural poverty.

When the plantation came into sight, with its shell pink exterior and black shutters, tall columns, and a quarter-mile allée of live oaks stretching from the Mississippi River to the mansion’s entryway, it was, she said, “the most magnificent thing I ever saw and I was filled with disgust.

“I was so confused by how stunning I thought it was … I stepped off the bus and I burst into tears.”

She and her husband, who is white, decided the only way they could get through the night was by taking a minute to acknowledge what was there, but what bothered her most was that “there was no acknowledgment of where we were. It was chosen purely as a pretty backdrop.”

The only acknowledgment of the fact such a magnificent place was built on the backs of slaves was a plaque with the name of every slave and how much they cost, she said.

Another difficult moment for her was the summer of 2008 when it was clear Barack Obama would be the Democratic nominee for president. She had become comfortable with the American narrative of race, she said, but now, “what we thought were the limits of our magnificence was not as limited as we thought.”

Subsequently, as Ms. Locke began developing the character of Caren Gray, the black protagonist of The Cutting Season, her research turned up a book of letters written by a plantation mistress to her mother (Mistress of Evergreen Plantation: Rachel O’Connor’s legacy of letters, 1823-1845). She realized — in the 21st Century — she had more in common with the mistress than a slave, explaining she has people of a different color working in her home, taking care of her child. Caren Gray does, too.

Events got Ms. Locke thinking about Oak Alley again, and in 2009 she returned to the plantation, which operates as a bed and breakfast, and she stayed in a cottage on the edge of a cane field.

“There was a storm coming and I could hear the rustle of the cane leaves — they sound like voices,” she said, “and I felt a tremendous compulsion to say thank you to the spirits. Your labor was not in vain.”

In The Cutting Season, Ms. Locke centers her story on a Louisiana plantation called Belle Vie. Caren Gray is the general manager, a divorced mother whose world is turned upside down when a body is found on the property. It turns out to be that of a Hispanic migrant worker from the cane fields next door.

The story is set in both the present and 19th Century, and Ms. Locke uses it to explore attitudes toward race in America, economic divisions, social status, and human relations.

In her own life, she is trying to figure out what to tell her child “about race that’s helpful and not hurtful.

“I’m invested in all of us meeting where we are now … what parts of history do we need to carry forward and what can we not take with us?”

It’s important to remember those who have come before.

“We’re all walking around with people who were here before,” she said. “There’s a higher place where our best selves hang out. When we are our best selves, that’s where God is.”

Act of faith

Ms. Locke began her career as a screenwriter for hire, but after more than a dozen years of writing projects and seeing none of them brought to a screen of any size, she “needed to do something that was an act of faith.”

She went to a bookstore, browsed through many books and decided to give it a try. She gave herself a year.

“Other than motherhood, this was the single most transformative experience in my life,” she said.