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Attica Locke: 'I burst into tears. I had stepped inside my own history'

The author describes the experience that inspired her new literary thriller, and brought her face to face with America's shameful past

In the spring of 2004, I was invited to a wedding in Vacherie, Louisiana, about an hour or so outside New Orleans. My husband and I flew to my home state of Texas, hopped in a car and drove six hours through piney woods and deep swamps into the salty Gulf air of Southern Louisiana. We had a few wild nights in New Orleans, drinking bourbon and Hurricanes and eating fried pickles in the French Quarter, slipping in and out of one blues club after another. And then that Saturday, we cleaned ourselves up, slipped into formal wear, and boarded a chartered bus that would take us and the other guests to the wedding ceremony at the Oak Alley Plantation, a scenic drive along the levees of the Mississippi. I had had, up to this point, a vague sense of the venue. I mean, I'd seen the invitation. But you have to understand that in the South people throw the word "plantation" on anything – subdivisions, restaurants, country clubs and clothing stores – and I'm not sure that before I got on that bus I had any idea that we were headed to a plantation. I really didn't think anything of it … until I saw it.

It was astonishing.

A pale, shell-pink, Greco Revival mansion with 20ft columns and black shutters and a wraparound balcony, set at the end of a long alley of aged live oaks and bordered to the north by the Mississippi River, to the east and west by fields of swaying sugar cane. It was one of the most spectacular visions I'd ever laid eyes on, and I immediately felt sick to my stomach, my insides turning over a whole cocktail of conflicting emotions: rage and revulsion over what the antebellum scene represented, but also a deep and unexpected feeling of love and filial longing, at an almost cellular level, as if I were coming face-to-face with a distant relative for the first time.

When I finally set foot on the actual land, around the back side of the plantation, where the slave cabins had once stood, I burst into tears. I had, it seemed, stepped inside my own history … wearing a $500 dress and satin heels. It was a poignant homecoming, one in which I felt like an imposter, a woman who had wandered into the wrong century. I couldn't make sense of where I was, nor did I know what meaning to make of my presence there as a wedding guest. Was it an act of disrespect, bordering on the macabre, this celebration on the bloodied grounds of a plantation? Or was the very fact of my presence there – the fact that, for one night at least, I had been invited into the big house – a sign of tremendous progress? In the 21st century, does the history of slavery still hold the same charge? Or are we somehow past all that?

Oak Alley is a curious place. Sitting on 20-plus acres between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, it is a national landmark, and a crown jewel in the historical tourism market in Louisiana. There are movies filmed there, Civil War re-enactments every Monday, Thursday and Friday, and guided tours led by men and women in antebellum dress. There's a restaurant, a bed-and-breakfast, and a gift shop that sells everything from serious historical texts published by Louisiana State University to kitschy cookbooks and mammy dolls and key chains. The plantation even bottles and sells its own mint syrup. And, of course, the manicured grounds are a very popular spot for weddings and private events.

I somehow made it through the ceremony and wedding reception back in May 2004, slipping away from the festivities every now and then to share a smoke with the bass player in the wedding band, a black man in his fifties who mused about whether he and I would be asked to wash the dishes. It was a joke that never got old and got me through the night. Later, as we boarded the bus at the end of the night, my husband and I paused over a plaque that listed the names of every slave who had lived and cut sugar cane on that very land. Past the catered reception, the tables littered with empty bottles of champagne and leftover cake, we ran our fingers over the names, and I said a silent prayer, a note of thanks and a promise to never forget.

For me, Oak Alley was muse at first sight. I always knew that I would write about the place and its particular brand of historical tourism.

It was 2009 before I made it back there – a full year after the election that put Barack Obama in the White House, a profoundly rich time in America's history, when it seemed we had stepped into the unknown. Not just in terms of politics … but also basic psychology. Obama's presidency has necessarily interrupted a narrative about our country that had been virtually unchanged since its birth; a script about race in America that had been playing on a continuous loop for hundreds of years. And it has presented a unique emotional challenge: to hold, in both hands, the fundamental contradiction of where America has been against the hope of where we're going. It made returning to the plantation all the more surreal, raising deep questions about how we treat our history in the context of tremendous progress.

It was late fall when I returned, during the sugar cane harvest, what folks down there call "the cutting season". It had taken me nearly that long to work up the courage to stay overnight on the plantation grounds, in one of their guest cottages. I'd heard gossip about the plantation being haunted by ex-slaves, souls who walked the grounds past nightfall. I spent my first night on the screened-in porch of my rented cottage, with a bottle of wine and some cheap water crackers I'd found at the Piggly Wiggly up the highway. For hours, I sat and stared out into the foggy darkness, listening to the whoosh of cane leaves swaying in the distance, the wind almost a song, a chorus of voices calling. I wondered what I could tell them, the slaves who were long gone, if there was anything I could say to put their souls at rest, to let them know how far we'd come, that their lives and their labour had not been in vain.

Sometime during that long night sitting on the front porch, the opening scenes of The Cutting Season came to me, twirling around my head like the wind swaying the cane in the fields. I saw the fictitious Belle Vie Plantation, modelled after Oak Alley, with its weddings and guided tours. And inside its white-washed gates, I saw Caren Gray, the plantation's general manager and caretaker. She was standing over the body of a young woman – a field worker whose throat had been slashed, her body dumped unceremoniously by the fence – having no idea how she got there or why; a 21st-century mystery that can only be solved by Caren's willingness to delve into the plantation's past … and her own.

The Cutting Season, By Attica Locke

Profile £14.99

'Later, two cops would ask, more than once, how it was she didn't see her. She could have offered up any number of theories: the dirt and mud on the woman's back ... even her own layman's assessment that the brain can't possibly process what it has no precedent for. But none of the words came. I don't know, she said ...'

Attica Locke will be speaking at Stratford Picture House, London E15 on Thursday 13 September. More details and tickets here