One woman's response to Mitchell's classic

Writer: Alice Randall is still baffled by those who don't see `The Wind Done Gone' for what it is - a parody.

September 04, 2001|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ORLANDO - The woman sitting cross-legged in the lobby of an Orlando Hotel waving her arms like a small, busy windmill and debating the merits of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is the Alice Randall who has a degree in English from Harvard University.

It's the same Alice Randall who co-wrote the Trisha Yearwood hit "XXX's and OOO's (An American Girl)" with fellow Nashville songwriter Matraca Berg.

And it's the same Alice Randall who created so much controversy this year when the estate of Margaret Mitchell sued to block publication of a parody Randall wrote called The Wind Done Gone.

"What I couldn't believe, couldn't believe, is that people thought that I was exploiting Margaret Mitchell and her book," Randall says. She shakes her head in disbelief. It's been almost three months to the day since an appeals court lifted the preliminary injunction that had delayed The Wind Done Gone from reaching readers.

"They didn't get it," Randall, 42, says of those who thought her book wasn't a parody and thus not protected by the First Amendment. "I still don't see how. Look, here, right here in this first paragraph where Cynara is talking about the emerald earrings and says, `I hope maybe they be genuine peridots.' Per-i-dots. Pa-ro-dee."

Such clues - some more blatant, many so subtle as to be cryptic - are on every page of Randall's literary rejoinder to Mitchell's popular novel, in which Cynara, an illegitimate mulatto woman, tells her story.

Cynara grew up on the plantation Tata, has a half sister she calls "Other" and is the mistress of Other's husband, R. A canny house slave named Garlic really runs the plantation. Cynara has the same name as the woman addressed in the Ernest Dowson poem printed at the beginning of Randall's novel. It includes the line, "I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind."

You don't have to be an intellectual giant to know who and what Randall is alluding to. But if you want to fully appreciate her novel's carefully constructed layers of meaning, Randall suggests you read it with pencil and paper at hand.

"The most exciting thing that has happened since the book came out is that it has created a new class of close, textual African-American readers," says Randall, who talks in rapid-fire bursts, often repeating words and phrases for emphasis. She is alternately impassioned, reflective and challenging.

"Readers are explicating, exploring, exploding my text," she says. "They know this is not a simple book. It may be easy to read on one level, but it's an intellectual puzzle. Things may appear to be the same, but they are different, different. There, there, right up front, on the very first page - `white frosted tiers.' Tiers, tears. You need to look at the homonyms."

The book took her "a long time" to write. She'd had the idea for years, but other enthusiasms - family, friends, school, work, moving from Washington to Nashville in 1983 to try her hand at writing country music - all came first. What prompted her to finally commit to the project was realizing her daughter Caroline, 14, is roughly the age Randall was when she first read Gone With the Wind.

"I didn't want it to stand on the shelf unanswered," she says. Tears well in her brown eyes as she remembers finding Mitchell's depiction of blacks as "strange, confounding and offensive" when she first read the novel when she was about 12.

Another inspiration was her daughter's 95-year-old paternal great-grandmother, who was born in Georgia. "It was so important to her that I write it, and I didn't want her to die with it being unanswered."

What Randall didn't foresee was that her answers would arouse such controversy, legal and emotional.

"I expected people to debate the ideas, for there to be a cultural exchange," she said. "But I certainly didn't expect to get banned. And I was surprised that there were people who didn't realize that there were many, many other people who did not love Gone With the Wind, who did not hold it dear. But I do think most people understand now my right to write a book-length response to it."

As she has traveled the country this summer, she has been heartened by the support of those like the 70-year-old man from Georgia who referred to the "diabolical racism" of Mitchell's novel.

"Diabolical racism," she repeats, savoring the words. "I think my book has found its audience."

As intense as Randall is about her first novel, she is remarkably relaxed about the reviews it received from critics. "I'd say on the whole they were mixed," she says. The later ones got better. I think some people were rushed, caught up in the legal controversy. But I'm totally a free-speech person."

She is hugging a sofa pillow to her now, punching it for punctuation, ready to keep on talking about so many other things that interest her, from favorite authors such as Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, to country music friends such as Steve Earle. Or maybe the linguistic wordplay in Alice in Wonderland. And how To Kill a Mockingbird is such a "wonderful, important" book.

"I write and I think and I read," she says. Her smile is generous. "I'm a mommy first, a wife second, a friend third, a writer fourth. And all that makes me happy."

Nancy Pate is the book critic for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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