Recently had a visit from a Spanish journalist now living in Chattanooga, Balen Galindo. I love what she wrote, originally published in 'Diario de Navarra', newspaper of Pamplona (Spain), where she is from. This is the translation into English.
'RETURN TO THE LAND OF CHILDHOOD'
Janie Dempsey Watts is jovial, lively, talkative and full of energy. She is a writer and she loves horses. After living nearly 35 years in Los Angeles (California), not a long time ago she decided to move with her family back to the state of Georgia, the land of her parents and the place where her childhood memories live. The strength of these memories has led her to write her latest novel entitled 'Back to Taylor's crossing’, where racial tensions in the Southern United States join the stories of people passing these places over half a century.
Summer 1959. In a small town in Georgia live Abednego Harris, a Black young farmer, 19 years old, skilled in handling the bulls. He falls for Lola James, 17, when she comes to town to work for another family. The love of the young couple grows in the middle of deep racial tensions and the many characters who orbit his universo (a young sister, a love interest, his boss, and a brutal Klansman seeking revenge).
This is the story of the novel 'Return to Taylor's Crossing' where Janie Dempsey Watts remembers the story of her own childhood. Today Janie invited me to visit her farm. We connected quickly and she tells me about her life in California, and the many differences between that place and this area of the country. She tells me about her memories and how there was a time when she felt that she had to go back to Georgia and write this story: "It was like a process of redemption or justice. Like my personal way to remember what happened in the past and how that affected so many people, marking our lives and even the country's direction. Because sometimes human beings need not forget the tragedies and the sorrow, in order not to repeat the same mistakes of the past.”
We talk about her novel, she shows me the diary where she used to write since childhood, but also we walk together through the lands that belonged to her ancestors and she tells me about her roots and the great influence that her paternal grandmother had on her. We walked through forests, we entered the cemetery where her grandparents and great-grandparents rest, she showed me the traces of the Cherokee Indians on the banks of the river and the mountains, and I met her horses, which connect Janie directly to the land from which she came and with the girl she used to be.
The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke said: "The true homeland for every man is childhood." Probably because it is at that time of our life when a seed germinates over the years and defines us until the end of our days. Janie Dempsey Watts remembers vividly a specific chapter of her childhood that marked forever: "When I was a child, we lived in this area of the state of Georgia. My father was a pharmacist and the pharmacy was in Chattanooga, a few miles from here, but every weekend and every summer we traveled to this place, to the farm of my father's mother (the grandmother Watts). We rode horses and visited the whole family. I remember that grandma had employed a very friendly and helpful African American man, about 19, who worked on the farm and also used to take care of our horses. When I was about five years, one night the Ku Klux Klan came to his cabin. They beat him, set fire to his home, dragged him out and told him not to come back anymore. My family suffered greatly from that event. The crime was investigated but the attackers were not captured. This young man never returned."
This is the origin of the novel 'Return to Taylor's Crossing' : "The novel is written from six points of view. From the perspective of three Black people and three White, and extends for a period of 50 years in time, although its extent is only 284 pages in the book. In the background, the novel is a love story set in the era of civil rights, with scenes set in the current Chattanooga and the mountain, but the trigger for the whole narrative is that real fact that I have never forgotten.”
The novel was published in October 27 of last year, and won first prize in the Novel Category of Writers Guild of Knoxville. The novel also was a finalist in the Fiction Award Frank Yerby, part of the Literary Festival Augusta. (Frank Yerby was a prominent African-American fiction writer), and semi-finalist in the Creative Writing William Faulkner, edition of 2015. The book has also been nominated for the Georgia Author of the Year. Her first novel "Moon Over Taylor's Ridge 'was published in 2012.
Some critics compare Janie Dempsey Watts with Harper Lee, for her ability to structure a human frame, covered in a deep understanding of social and racial problems suffered in the United States between 1950 and 1960. Her great success, probably, is being able to write a story that connects the past with the present, because the novel touches the roots of racial inequality and injustice that plagued a small fictional town in the South, while serving as a reflection on the larger history of this country, an era that still shames Americans today, because of the implications that continues today.
We spend part of the morning feeding the the horses. They are beautiful and wise. "In their calm -Janie tells me- there is something left over time. A residue of all living beings who have passed through here. The horses are like trees and mountains, silent witnesses to the history of this land and they find an energy that makes me feel very good. " It's contagious. I appreciate the opportunity to feed these beautiful animals, pet them, watch them ... Their presence makes me feel good and at peace. As it happens to Janie each day, like a part of a liturgy that connects her even more to this place.
Before leaving, Janie offered me iced tea and fried okra, prepared with the same recipe that her grandmother cooked. In my head are stories of the past. They are the echoes of a hard time that still hurts in these lands. I spent about two hours listening to this great woman. Her memories and her stories are exceptional. I feel that not only her novels reminiscent of the great writers of the South as Harper Lee and William Faulkner, but every minute I have shared with her today was like having the opportunity to journey times and places which could well have been part of 'Killing a Mockingbird 'or' Absalom, Absalom.”.