Japanese professor travels to Lafayette to meet Gaines
August 25, 2003
LAFAYETTE — Hitoshi Namekata dreamed of meeting author Ernest J. Gaines, even if it meant traveling halfway around the world.
A professor at Tokyo Metropolitan College in Tokyo, Namekata has taught American literature, American culture and African-American literature for 24 years.
Gaines is an award-winning author and the writer-in-residence at UL Lafayette.
Namekata said he discovered Gaines’ fiction after reading Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” The first novel by Gaines he read was “A Gathering of Old Men.” Namekata said the major difference in the way the two authors examine America’s racial problems lies in how each approaches the subject.
He said that while Wright attacked racial problems head on, he found that Gaines’ approach was indirect.
“But I think he writes very well,” Namekata said. “I like his novels very much.”
Namekata doesn’t read the Japanese translations of Gaines’ work, but rather the original English versions. He has written papers about three of Gaines’ novels — “A Gathering of Old Men,” “Of Love and Dust” and “A Lesson Before Dying.”
“I want to write about Mr. Gaines’ depiction of white people in the next paper, because he writes not the stereotype of people, but real people,” he said.
In January, Namekata began planning his trip to Louisiana.
“I think that Mr. Gaines is one of the greatest authors of our time,” he said. “I always wanted to go to Louisiana and see the world of the works of Mr. Gaines. At last, my dream came true.”
This was Namekata’s first visit to Lafayette and Louisiana. He said that he finds Lafayette to be “very superb — not big, but a great city. I like Lafayette.”
After meeting Gaines at his home in Lafayette on Thursday, Namekata said, “He’s very nice and polite. He speaks to me very kindly, and I appreciate it very much.”
Gaines said that, although he has met a few scholars from abroad who have studied his work, “I didn’t know that anyone in Japan was this interested.”
From Lafayette, the two men traveled to Oscar, the small community that serves as the setting of Gaines’ fiction. Oscar lies to the west of False River and just south of New Roads in Pointe Coupee Parish.
Gaines gave Namekata a tour of the former sharecroppers’ quarters and the old plantation’s cemetery, where the black sharecroppers and their descendants are buried. It’s also where Gaines and his wife, Dianne, intend to be buried.
Mount Zion Baptist Church, where as a young boy Gaines went to school and church, was also part of the tour. Gaines recently moved the church from its original location along the main road of the quarters to the back yard of the new house he and his wife are building.
The two men later sat in the shade of the front porch of the house and visited with one another. The occasional breeze that blew off False River and from the sugar cane fields provided some relief from the brutal afternoon sun. The two men discussed Gaines’ fiction and the differences between his work and the film adaptations of them. Namekata said he was disappointed with the film adaptation of “A Gathering of Old Men,” that the movie did not do justice to Gaines’ novel.
At the end of the day, the two men sat in rocking chairs on the back porch of Gaines’ trailer along False River. As they drank ice-cold beer, Gaines showed Namekata how to peel a stalk of sugar cane and to how to chew on the sugary sweet innards of the plant. Gaines said that as a child, there were many nights when a stalk of sugar cane was dessert.
After visiting with Gaines all day, Namekata said Oscar “was much bigger” than he ever imagined it to be.
Today, Namekata traveled to Baton Rouge for three days and then onto New Orleans.
From there, he is set catch a plane back to Tokyo, where he will later tell his students how he lived his dream.