For my first interview in the new year, I am pleased to introduce you to Irene Latham, author of the new release LEAVING GEE'S BEND.
The story's backdrop is non-fiction. Gee's Bend is a little town in the heart of Alabama cut off from the outside world from a river which wraps around it on three sides. You may have heard about the amazing quilts that came out of there during the last century - they've been declared some of the best modern art to ever come out of the US. (I've included two below.) But they come from a complicated history, which is shared through the eyes of Ludelphia Bennett, "Lu."
I loved this story and asked Irene about it....
Q. How did you first learn about the quilts of Gee's Bend?
A. My husband and I were on a plane to New York City poring over New York Magazine, planning our days of sightseeing when I spied the ad for The Quilts of Gee's Bend -- it was the closing day of the exhibit at the Whitney Museum. So we braved the line that wrapped around the block, and what we saw changed my life.
Q. You describe fabric and colors like magic - what was your inspiration?
A. It's hard for me to describe what happened to me when I walked through those rooms -- it was a combination of hearing the women's voices (a DVD of interviews was playing), seeing the bold colors and geometric shapes that defy traditional quilt patterns, and discovering the history of this unique, isolated community. Every quilt tells a story of love, family, survival -- and when you add all that to the fact that I'm the daughter of a seamstress who went to bed many nights to the hum of the sewing machine only to wake the next morning to some amazing creation hanging from the doorframe -- well, there you have it: living, breathing inspiration.
Q. Your book, "Leaving Gee's Bend," overlaps a real event - can you tell us more?
A. Of all the incredible things that happened in Gee's Bend, there were two that really captured my attention. The first was the 1932 raid on Gee's Bend. At the time, Gee's Bend was populated by sharecroppers, and the price of cotton was lower than it had ever been. So the landowner was stockpiling the cotton -- waiting to sell until priced came up. Which left the sharecroppers in debt to the landowner. When the landowner died that year, the widow decided she would go to Gee's Bend and collect on all the debts. She brought mem and wagons into Gee's Bend, and took everything: food, tools, animals -- basically leaving the people to starve. First hand accounts report that the residents survived on berries that winter. And yet, the women made quilts! It's just such a vivid example of how the human spirit can triumph over adversity. Then, in early 1933, the Red Cross came in with a rescue drop -- things like sugar, flour, seed, shoes, socks.
Q. Have you been to Gee's Bend - what was it like today and what were your impressions?
A. I have made quite a few trips to Gee's Bend and Camden, where the Wilcox County Library is located and the town closest to Gee's Bend, thanks to the ferry. (Otherwise, it's forty miles to anyplace.) It's like stepping back in time --quiet, rural, with many red-dirt roads. And the people are so friendly and welcoming.
Q. Where can readers see a good example of them now?
A. The quilts are still are tour. In fact, I will be presenting programs later this month during opening weekend of the exhibit at Flint Institute of Arts, January 22-24. http://www.flintarts.org/geesbend.html#geesbend To see images of the quilts and find out more about upcoming exhibitions, check out Tinwood Alliance. http://www.tinwoodmedia.com/ To find out more about the women and donate to the Gee's Bend Foundation, click here http://www.quiltsofgeesbend.com/.
Q. How will you celebrate the release of your book?
A. I'm really excited that two of the quilters (and a quilt!) will be joining me for the official Book Launch Party, Sunday, January 10, 2 pm at North Shelby Library http://www.northshelbylibrary.org/ (Birmingham, AL). Then, on Saturday, January 16, 2 pm It's a Book Birthday Party! at Hoover Library http://www.hooverlibrary.org/ (Birmingham, AL), where I will present a powerpoint about my research, read some passages, and sign books.
See more good information about LEAVING GEE'S BEND at Sarah C Campbell's blog.