For the moment, at least, Alice Randall stands in the quiet eye of a literary storm.
Her new novel--"The Wind Done Gone," "the unauthorized parody" of Margaret Mitchell's sprawling Civil War-era period classic "Gone With the Wind"--was knocked about and left for dead even before it had reached the light of day.
Randall, however, has not only weathered attempts to block her book's publication, but ridden the resulting publicity wave to the bestseller lists.
Not quite trusting that all this will last, she is traveling from city to city, using this pause to speak her piece. She has transformed herself into a force of nature, kicking up her own gusts. On this evening at EsoWon Books at the base of Baldwin Hills, however, she does not begin by reading from the text or lecturing about plot points drawn from it. Instead, she asks the assembly to join her in song, a particularly resonant one: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
Without hesitation, the room swells with 100 startlingly sweet voices that, though they belong to strangers, weave themselves together like those of a tightly bound church choir.
As the last notes float out the open door, Randall, whose round face is framed by a toss of springy curls, flashes a triumphant smile. "My readers. I like to think of them as my 'band of angels,"' Randall tells the crowd, echoing a line from the song. She opens her arms in a gesture of embrace.
A woman midway back whispers to her seatmate: "Oh, she's gonna sell some books tonight."
The singing isn't a gesture intended to bless the place, or exorcise the unpleasantness that has tailed her since spring, when the heirs of "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell--the Mitchell Trusts--attempted to block the publication of her book. The trusts alleged that publishing "The Wind Done Gone" would violate copyright and unfair competition laws. (A preliminary injunction to suspend publication was overturned May 25 in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, and the court's comprehensive opinion is expected shortly.)
Rather, Randall, who is also a songwriter--she co-wrote Trisha Yearwood's No. 1 Country song "s and OOOs (An American Girl)"--uses the song as a teaching tool. It's not enough simply to read texts carefully, she says. Equally important is reading between the lines. "One person's parody," she explains, "is another person's narrative. Parodies are meant to be absurd, and the most absurd thing to emerge from that world, the world of 'Gone With the Wind,' would be an intelligent black woman."
Told in journal form, "The Wind Done Gone" unfolds in the intelligent voice of Cynara, the black slave and half-sister of Scarlett You-Know-Who (known simply, between the covers of Cynara's diary, as "Other.") It is Cynara who has captured the attention and affections of Scarlett's man, known only as "R," and it is Cynara who ultimately understands the power of words enough, says Randall, to "write herself into being." Silence--or being silenced--both Randall and Cynara know, is far worse than a death sentence. It's the equivalent of never being born.
Takes Readers on a Tour
of Character's Life
On this evening, Randall reads some. Explicates more. She takes the audience on a guided tour through Cynara's life on--and eventually off--the plantation. Randall has been heartened by having the chance finally to connect with her readers and talk about the book. To get out of the abstracts of reviews and legalese and find out what memories of "Gone With the Wind" people have carried or buried.
Her ambitions in "The Wind Done Gone" were anything but modest. Her themes--"the misappropriation of the black mother, black intellectual inferiority, black incompetence, particularly among black politicians"--all existed, she says, in Mitchell's beloved (and never out-of-print) book. "I'm trying to murder that stereotype that Margaret Mitchell purported that blacks assert competence where they have none."
If Randall's verbal annotations and footnotes, at face and out of context, feel like overkill, she has her reasons.
There have been finger-wagging reviews: "Merely witnessing Randall's sheer desire to settle the score of every wrong ever inflected upon every African American becomes almost unbearable. And it doesn't make for good literature," wrote Teresa Weaver in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And headlines--this one also from Atlanta--such as "Parody or Theft?"
After a long season of feeling misinterpreted, or miscast, she's become hellbent on being sure that her audiences focus on the meaning of the words that were, briefly, taken away from her.
Dipping into the book for a moment, Randall sets up the scene at what the slaves call "Tata" (a.k.a.: Tara): "Now Tata means 'thank you' and 'you're welcome,' so it's a world of thank you or you're welcome. And tata also means breast. So they are living in Mammy's breast."