The Spice of Cajun Life

‘This child belongs with us. She’s got Leblanc in her, and Cancienne way back, and before that, Thibodeaux.’
— Tim Gautreaux, "Floyd's Girl"

After experiencing the near deadness of Baton Rouge (it felt like a contemporary ghost town, too lifeless to be a state capital), we traveled to Lafayette, the city that felt the most authentically “Louisianan” of all the cities on our journey--at least, to me it did.

I say this because it did not feel flooded with tourists, but it still had enough people for us to interact with for lengthy periods of time. The more rural, “small town” atmosphere of the city made it feel more welcoming. Our ventures into Cajun music and dancing also integrated us more into the Cajun culture.

Immediately upon arriving in Lafayette, we immersed ourselves in a surrealistic world where our first meal—poboys and catfish galore—was accompanied by dancing to zydeco music. We ate at Randol’s and watched couples dance slowly around the floor, spinning and smiling, while the people around us and sitting along the fringes of the dance floor cheered and spoke to each other in their thick accents. I savored my well-seasoned catfish and watched the spectacle through the glass pane in front of me.

Had I read Tim Gautreaux’s short story, “Floyd’s Girl,” before this experience I likely would not have expected his characterizations of Cajun life and Cajun people to be so accurate. Yet, I read the story the day after arriving and found myself captivated by how well he had outlined his characters, showing us so much of their personalities simply through their actions and dialogue. Although I had only tasted a sample of the Cajun life, I already understood the accuracy of his depictions.

I remember as soon as we had driven into the city, I saw a car with a license plate that read “IAM KJN.” I was a little too excited to see it and I had no idea why. It gave me a great first impression of Lafayette: it signified the pride that the people had in their Cajun culture.

I think of everything Gautreaux covers in his story, he captures this pride best. He pits Floyd, T-Jean, his grandmère, Mrs. Boudreaux, and even little Lizette against the Texas man who attempts to kidnap Lizette. The antagonist’s role as a Texan proves to be vital to the story: it seems as if the act itself, while atrocious, doesn’t anger them as much as the symbolism behind the act, the idea that this man from another state, another culture, this random man is trying to take little Lizette away from the community that raised her. By carrying her off to another land, like a hurricane, he would wipe away her family, her culture, her entire lifestyle, eradicating her sense of belonging and, ultimately, her Cajun pride.

There’s nothing wrong with west Texas, but there’s something wrong with a child living there who doesn’t belong, who will be haunted the rest of her days by memories of the ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers, the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends…
— Tim Gautreaux, "Floyd's Girl"

Gautreaux structures his story by separating it into the different points of views of everyone involved—excluding the Texas man. It works perfectly in conveying the obligation everyone feels they have in helping Floyd get his daughter back: Mrs. Boudreaux letting Floyd use T-man’s car, T-jean’s grandmère’s gift of a St. Christopher statue, Nonc letting him use a plane. Gautreaux certainly hits at a togetherness in the story. The last section in the story even has the heading “Ensemble,” in which everyone works to take Lizette back from the Texas man (not one singular perspective) and announce that he wouldn’t have been able to take the culture out the girl either way.

‘You, if you would’a went off with her, you wouldn’t have got nothing. Some things, you can’t take. All you would get is her little body. In her head every day she’d hear her daddy’s fiddle, she’d feel okra in her mouth. She’d never be where you take her to.’
— Tim Gautreuax, "Floyd's Girl"

The sense of community between everyone in the story also translated into our adventures in Lafayette. These elements came through most powerfully during our trip to Tom’s Fiddle & Bow in Lafayette. I must admit that I felt uneasy beforehand, as it was a like a potluck event with music and I felt weird about bringing food and ourselves to a potluck where we knew no one.

Yet, every person there welcomed us with open arms, asking about us, about the program, about what we wanted to do. They showed us around the shop next-door and invited us to read any work we had for later that night. And, as we sat around and ate, more people walked in and joined the group in their conversations. What surprised me most was that some of these people were newcomers; like us, they had never been there before, but had wanted to join, usually with a buddy who was familiar with the gathering. Yet, they spoke to everyone as if they had known them for years. They blended right into the atmosphere of the shop.

Everyone took out their instruments before long, tuning them, including themselves into the circle of chairs in the middle of the room. And soon after, everyone started playing. There was no lineup of songs, no preparations in between; people just offered up song names and the group would play, either knowing the music by heart or going along with it. It reminded me of the way my tios and tias in Mexico requested songs for the band to play at birthday parties and all danced the same Mexican dance or sang the same Spanish song. There was a clear cultural unity, customs embedded in the blood, and it was beautiful to witness.

It fit so well with the story, which I had finished by the time we visited. The way they spoke to each other at Tom’s Fiddle & Bow even felt similar to the characters in “Floyd’s Girl.” But, it was those themes of togetherness and pride that seemed to shine through the most, in the story and in the fiddle shop. It was perhaps one of the greatest glimpses of the power that literature has in capturing the essence of a place; not just the landscape, the street names, the prevalent food, but the atmosphere, the tone.

I felt like this was confirmed during one of our conversations with one of the fiddle players at Tom’s Fiddle & Bow, Joel (who also had an awesome voice). Chipping into the conversation we were having with some other folks about writers who focus on the bayou and Cajun life, he asked if we had read Tim Gautreaux yet. I said that we had just finished reading a story of his and he responded, saying that he felt Gautreaux was the man who captured Cajun people and Cajun life the best. Although I had already begun to see the similarity beween Gautreaux’s story and the atmosphere of Lafayette, hearing a local confirm the accuracy of his writing made it feel even more enlightening.

While Lafayette didn’t have the flashiness of the French quarter or the carefree relaxation of Grand Isle, it provided some of the most enriching experiences during our trip, some of the best glimpses into the customs and characteristics that distinguish Louisiana from every other part of the United States (and even the world).

Breaking Through

I’m back in Los Angeles now, and as I reflect on my time in Louisiana, I ask: how am I different than I was at the start of the trip?

There are simple answers to this question. I am 21 now (woo!); my face feels a lot cleaner (something about the humidity opening up pores? I’m not entirely sure how that happened); I know what creole/cajun food tastes like; I have experienced the glory of a Cafe Du Monde beignet; I now know the streets of the French Quarter better than my hometown’s; I can read a whole lot faster than the beginning of this trip; and my heart is definitely a few years closer to a heart attack (note to self: daily fried food is a no-go). In a few years, I may look back on my time in New Orleans and remember these things, but I do not think these memories are necessarily “life changing.” Yes, eating a beignet was wonderful! Its pillowy center, encapsulated by a crispy deep-fried crust, topped with a mountain of powdered sugar, was quite an incredible flavor impression, but will it affect the way I see the world? Definitely not.

Andrew sent our group this quote at the beginning of the trip regarding travel:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
— Mark Twain

I love food, so when I travel, I look for the best food that the place has to offer. From the fanciest of restaurants to the ghettoist of street shacks, I want to try everything. I am especially interested in region-specific, cultural foods that will be hard to find in LA. The search for food has led me to uncomfortable places and types of food I would rather not have again, but the marvelous palate explosions of a hit far outweigh the few memories of repulsion. This process of immersive discovery applies to much more than food, and I think this is what Mark Twain is talking about in his quote.

Google translates travel as:

making a journey, typically of some length or abroad.

It would be dangerous and foolish to assume that this “travel,” on its own, will combat species-old powers such as “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Twain must be under the impression that travel is more than arriving at a new location and moving your body through that place just to say you’ve been there, for one could travel through the heart of Los Angeles, down Figueroa St., and be oblivious to the wonderful Korean, Mexican, Chinese, and all other wonderful types of cuisine that LA has to offer.

It has become much easier to miss things. You can travel to a new place and find stuff that makes you feel at home, and it’s easier to gravitate towards things that you are familiar with. I admit to this; whenever I go to a new place, I usually have to find some sort of rice dish because rice reminds me of home (Maybe that’s why I gravitated so closely to rice and beans, a.k.a my favorite creole dish). Twain isn’t talking about going to a place and finding a nook that reminds you of the “little corner” you left behind. Instead, he glorifies travel because it is the very opportunity to escape that tendency and discover a world that is literally out of your own.

Prior to this trip, bookpacking was a new concept for me. In fact, even reading literature felt pretty foreign. (As a student in the Iovine and Young Academy, I spend most of my time with software, discussing design, and trying to create innovative products. Not much time for books.) I was a bit apprehensive of letting the books be my guide. Would the whole thing be some cheesy literature tour? How much could a book really reveal about a place? Would I miss things in Louisiana if the books led us astray? Though I cannot give a definitive answer to these questions, I do know that bookpacking has given me the opportunity to travel as Mark Twain would have. In the same way immersive discovery through food has developed my appreciation for a diverse flavor profile, immersion in literature has developed my appreciation for diversity in history and ideology and literary culture. Bookpacking has led me down roads that have been ideologically uncomfortable, challenging my own prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. The books held nothing back. They were what they were, unchanging pillars that influenced the way I mentally pieced together the puzzle of Louisiana. As we read through each book and experienced the reality of the various cities, I began to see a clearer picture of Louisiana and Cajun/Creole culture; and in turn, I began to see a more complete image of the South and the United States. Literature in New Orleans has brought up new questions and has revealed new material I never heard in a classroom before. I definitely felt away from home, and that was good.

The return home has corresponded with the return of responsibilities. Those stresses I left behind—school projects, job search, planning for next year, and cleaning my room—they’re still here, and they’re still challenging to manage and figure out. Yet, my frame of mind approaching these small puzzles of life is different than before. The world feels a lot bigger now, and my personal decisions feel a lot smaller. And this is not just a physical reality I refer to; the world of literature adds a separate dimension. What I realized is that people have told stories about the routine of life for centuries. There is a parallel struggle of characters and people to make something new of the monotonous nature of their societies. That routine carries on today, and I am faced with this same “problem” that the characters and people of the past faced. Different cultures have tackled this obstacle in various ways. For the Big Easy, the posture is: routine life is stifling and demoralizing, so I’m going to do it my own way.

I hope that I can embrace that mindset for a long time.

Seeing Like Ignatius

The first time I saw a hot dog cart in the French Quarter, I embraced my English nerdiness and exclaimed to everyone, "Oooo Oooo. Confederacy of Dunces! Ignatius! Let's get one!" Though my request was returned with quick disregard, this moment sums up my experience bookpacking with A Confederacy of Dunces. Simple, yet sublime, connections between my reality and the novel's fantasy.

The author, John Kennedy Toole, fills the novel with constant references to real streets and areas of New Orleans, so when I first read the book in Southern California, I couldn't quite envision the world Ignatius, the main character, moved through. The places were insignificant to me, and names such as Canal St. and the Quarter were just empty signifiers. However, this all changed when I arrived in the city and began to see the same streets that Toole refers to in Ignatius's story. As I became more familiar with the structure of New Orleans (the street organization, the public transportation, the culture of different parts of the city), I began to piece together Ignatius's world. Things that seemed insignificant during the first read became immensely meaningful. I saw the hipster/la-di-da culture of the artists on Pirate's Alley, the hustle and bustle on Canal Street, the party life on Bourbon, and the plethora of people in costumes. And as I began to see the Ignatius's world, I began to empathize with his world view. While reading his controversial comments in So Cal, I thought Ignatius was simply a pretentious complainer; it was quite amusing. However, upon experiencing particular parts of New Orleans's culture, I was able to understand and sometimes even sympathize with Ignatius's thoughts. Here are some of the places I connected with Ignatius's account:

 Ignatius and Me.

Ignatius and Me.

Bourbon Street

"I guessed that the residents of the area were still in bed recovering from whatever indecent acts they had been performing the night before. Many no doubt required medical attention: a stitch or two here and there in a torn orifice or a broken genital. I could only imagine how many haggard and depraved eyes were regarding me hungrily from behind the closed shutters" (230).

Technically, it is unclear whether or not Ignatius is specifically referring to Bourbon Street here, but the combination of balconies and flying cans fits the bill pretty well. Throughout the novel, it is described as quite the rager with a high stripper population, but those characteristics didn't stand out to me too much. I was actually unfamiliar with Bourbon St's reputation prior to seeing the place, and I imagined a world similar to the Las Vegas strip. Upon arrival, I soon came to the conclusion that Toole accurately characterized the street as a haven for debauchery. A festoon of dance clubs, bars, and anything else related to liquor, Bourbon is definitely one of those places where inside secrets/stories are created. Upon walking within one block of the street, the scent of trash and overnight puke overtake the senses. T-shirts donning sexual innuendos and Mardi Gras beads with phallic emblems can be found at every convenience store. The graphic content of the street was quite unsettling, and I did not feel comfortable taking pictures of the artifacts for this blog.

I honestly felt a similar disdain and discomfort as Ignatius while walking down the street. Booze and drunkenness do not draw my interest, and from the moment of first scent I wanted nothing to do with the street.

Because New Orleans has so much alcohol and cigarettes and other "vices" readily available, the city must have a large impact on the development of teenagers' opinions regarding these entities. I feel like the lifestyle would lead people down one of two paths: a lover of these things or a hater of these things. Ignatius's disdain towards alcohol must come from a constant exposure and a corresponding repulsion to the intense party scene of places like Bourbon. And after walking down the street a couple of times, I can say that I share Ignatius's opinion of this place.

Pirate's Alley

"He had read in the morning paper that a ladies' art guild was having a hanging of its paintings in Pirate's Alley. Imagining that the paintings would be offensive enough to interest him for a while, he pushed his wagon up onto the flagstones of the alley toward the variety of artwork dangling from the iron pickets of the fence behind the cathedral…[He] viewed the oil paintings and pastels and watercolors strung there. Although the style of each varied in crudity, the subjects of the paintings were relatively similar" (243).

There is an interesting "artsy" culture in New Orleans. Now, I am not referring to the "starving street artists" who look like their livelihood depends on how many paintings they can sell in a day. Instead, I am referring to a group of people who come to the streets, looking very clean cut and hip. They paint and draw and write and play music in the streets, yet their outward appearances give the impression that their livelihood is independent of how much artwork they can sell. This second breed of artists are the people who work at the corner of Pirate's Alley and Royal Street. Just like the women in the novel, artists hang their work on the cathedral's fence, and each artist's work is distinct from the others.

New Orleans is a historically artistic city, filled with wonderful music and literature and art. But these hipster artists and the city seem to be disconnected. Although the ambiance of this part of NOLA is not as bougie as the women's club in Ignatius's story, these hipster artists differ from the demographic of the other street activities. Coming from LA, I thought this part of the Quarter was pretty cool. In fact, some of our teammates even got personal street poems (How bougie/artsy is that??). I thought it was all very fun and very cool that this place had such fine artistic roots. But I can easily see how someone like Ignatius would criticize these people. They must be people like Edna, frustrated by the routine of their upper-middle class lives and are seeking a romantic awakening through art. And for Ignatius, living in the shotguns of Magazine St. As a lower class citizen, it would be quite easy to be disgusted with these "artists" who are disconnected with the reality of city living. Ignatius does not like the bougie, and I empathize with him.


Ignatius represents a wonderful and different perspective on New Orleans culture. A Confederacy of Dunces illustrates this city’s diversity of culture more than any other book we’ve bookpacked with. Even though Ignatius is contentious, he is insightful. He is a free thinker, and the remarks he makes are mostly objectively true. In fact, Ignatius is very observant. Because he is not bound by any sort of New Orleans groupthink, his insights are actually perceptive, and he exposes nuances of the city that may be passively overlooked. By walking through the same streets and parts of town as Ignatius, I can no longer deem his outlandish claims as outlandish. Instead, the novel forces me to really look into what goes on in the city and analyze the routine within its rambunctiousness.

Mythical Louisiana: A Reflection

The body went to California, but the soul stayed here.
— Ernest J. Gaines

We're leaving New Orleans today after what has been an amazing four weeks bookpacking through Louisiana. Needless to say, I’m finding it difficult to leave—the books, the people, and the food have all been wonderful.

Our bookpacking journey began with the goal of developing an understanding of southern Louisiana. By exploring literature and its historical contexts in a local setting, we hoped to develop empathy for a place that most of us were very unfamiliar with. We sought to understand what Binx, in The Moviegoer, calls the “genie-soul” of New Orleans, its nature and spirit. This is how we approached every city and town that we visited. I doubt any of us can honestly say that we’ve come to fully understand this region, but I do think that we’ve all made great strides.

Looking back on our experiences, I’ve come to frame every adventure as an examination of a myth. From the French colonial façades of the French Quarter in New Orleans to the unassuming towns in rural Cajun country, Louisiana is rife with myths. Mythology can be the foundation of an entire society’s culture, a type of pseudo-history that defines and connects people across generations. Greco-Roman mythology is the clichéd but nonetheless true example of mythology’s power to inspire art, literature, and philosophy through the span of centuries. While bookpacking largely involves reading stories in printed form, we also seek out the myths that transcend paper record. More often than not, these myths interact in curious ways with our texts and lead to great insights. In this, my final post, I want to trace some of those insights.

The trip began on the paradisiacal shores of Grand Isle, on which we flipped through the pages of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Chopin utilizes the history of the island and the surrounding area, especially the stories of Jean Lafitte, a pirate during the Napoleonic Wars and later the savior of New Orleans in the War of 1812. Edna spends an evening on the island of Chênière Caminada (uninhabited since an 1893 hurricane) listening to these stories, as told to her by Madame Antoine, a local who has spent years "gathering legends of the Baratarians and the sea." These legends come alive for Edna, and she hears "the whispering voices of dead men and the click of muffled gold."

Pirate tales may seem irrelevant in a story about a woman’s search for personal freedom, but the legends of Grand Isle and Jean Lafitte offer an important contrast to a myth that has long controlled Edna’s life—the myth of the perfect, docile wife. Such a figure appears in the form of Edna's friend, Adèle Ratignolle, a beautiful and dutiful "mother-woman." Chopin describes her as a "bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams." Madame Ratignolle represents the myth of domesticity, a myth that is outdated and restrictive. The pirate legends that captivate Edna provide a way for her to free herself from the domestic myth, and she frames her romance with Robert in the style of "pirate treasure" and the "realms of the semi-celestials." Edna uses such fantasies to construct a myth in which she is empowered and in control, a proverbial pirate sailing the oceans as she pleases.

 Portrait of Marie Laveau in the Voodoo Museum

Portrait of Marie Laveau in the Voodoo Museum

Our move into New Orleans was a step into the Gothic mythos of Louisiana. Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire introduced us to the fantastical world that is almost a parallel dimension in New Orleans; it seeps into our reality through shady swamps and dim alleyways and rusted railings and mossy graveyards. Sometimes the moss needs to be cut away, as we did with the history of voodoo. This religion has been mythicized to a fault through societal superstitions about voodoo dolls and zombies, but our visit to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum brought us to the truth of voodoo’s roots in African religions and practiced in New Orleans by such figures as Marie Laveau, whose alleged tomb we saw in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

Much of the expository action of Interview with the Vampire takes place on a plantation just beyond New Orleans. This section of the novel was a gateway into the antebellum South, an era that has certainly been mythicized into the last stronghold of romantic chivalry and gentility. A trip to the Whitney Plantation quickly dispelled this myth. Our tour brought us face to face with the deplorable reality of slavery in all its cruelty. While the plantation house certainly could have been used as a set for Gone with the Wind, the slave cabins and monuments exposed the undeniable brutality that was imposed on slaves by slave-owners. The trip was a necessary reminder that certain myths, no matter how prevalent or valued, can simply be thin veils to cover glaring truths.

This “fiddle-dee-dee” world of Scarlett O’Hara is just one of the many tropes satirized by John Kennedy Toole in A Confederacy of Dunces. The novel vividly pokes fun at the stereotypes of New Orleans, from the decadence of the French Quarter to the bumbling policeman to the blindly hypocritical intellectual, the last of which comes to life in the figure of Ignatius J. Reilly, the star of Toole’s gallery of caricaturized characters. Toole identifies mythical personalities and wittily lampoons them—in doing so, he acknowledges the truths of these myths while exposing just how ludicrous they are.

 Huey Long's tomb at the Louisiana State Capitol

Huey Long's tomb at the Louisiana State Capitol

Ridiculousness gave way to seriousness in Baton Rouge, where we read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. This leg of our trip demonstrated the dangerous way in which living people can become mythicized in their own lifetimes. Warren’s character of Willie Stark (Willie Talos in our edition) is based off of Huey Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932. Just like his real-life counterpart, Willie uses popular appeal and fiery language to create what is essentially a cult of personality around himself. As a demagogue, Willie’s political tactics are nothing short of underhanded and corrupt. Yet, he maintains the people’s love and support. Today, Huey Long’s impact is still felt in the state—we drove across many a bridge that bore his name. Still, it is important to remember that behind the myth and legend remains a man, flawed and imperfect as all men are.

But I always came back, and I had come back this time. I would find myself drawn back.
— Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men

The part of our bookpacking trip, however, that really put the concept of mythology into perspective for me was our sojourn in Cajun country. It was here that I found a juxtaposition of two myths that demonstrated mythology’s ability to both build and destroy.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the story of Evangeline and Gabriel, two lovers who are separated by the British in the Great Deportation of Acadians during the Seven Years’ War. The pair’s story ends in tragedy—though they are eventually reunited, they perish in each other’s arms. Longfellow’s epic poem, titled Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, birthed the image of the Cajun woman as a strong, longsuffering figure. It’s an image that has pervaded the regional culture ever since; we saw Evangeline’s name written on street signs, monuments, and even a restaurant here in New Orleans.

In St. Martinville, an oak tree has been designated the point of reunion for Emmeline Labiche and Louis Arceneaux, two people who may be the real-life basis for Evangeline and Gabriel. Evangeline’s story is a type of myth that blends history and fiction. In doing so, however, it has created a meaningful reality for Cajuns, who have used this legend to create and maintain a unique and vibrant culture. Evangeline is the backbone of the Cajun identity, which, as one article says, might be defined by its "romantic appeal" and "enduring spirit."

 Image via amazon.com

Image via amazon.com

One of our books was a collection of short stories by Tim Gautreaux. The first story, titled “Same Place, Same Things,” lends its name to the entire collection as well. In that story, Gautreaux follows Harry Lintel, a pump repairman during the Depression, as he encounters different people in a rural town in Louisiana. One of these people is Ada, a woman who at first seems to fit the Evangeline type, a simple but attractive widow in a “thin cotton housedress.” She has spent her life weathering hardships, but her beauty is resolute. Harry finds something about her alluring, maybe her kiss that tastes “of strawberry wine, hot and sweet.”

All of this is inverted in the final moments of the story. Though Gautreaux does give Ada the air of an Evangeline, he subtly weaves an undertone of darkness throughout the narrative. This darkness comes to a boil at the end, which I won’t spoil here, but Ada is shown to be far more complex than a mere trope. Her character may be similar to the Evangeline myth, but Gautreaux layers it with unique and sympathetic motivations, albeit sinister ones.

The Evangeline myth is beautiful to me. It is an integral part of Cajun culture and identity, and it has spawned great works like Gautreaux’s. There is a different myth, though, that has haunted southern Louisiana and even the country at large.


Jefferson is an African-American man who has been sentenced to death for “being at the wrong place at the wrong time.” In court, he is defended on the grounds that he is not “‘a civilized man,’” but a boy and a fool. His lawyer declares that it would be more just to “‘put a hog in the electric chair.’” So begins Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. As the novel continues, Jefferson’s godmother calls on Grant Wiggins, the local schoolteacher, to affirm Jefferson’s humanity. Grant’s initial conversations with Jefferson accomplish little, but the two eventually connect with each other. From then on, Grant helps Jefferson face death not as a subhuman animal, but as a man.

During one visit to Jefferson’s jail cell, Grant delivers a profoundly moving passage of dialogue:

“Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson? […] A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth—and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. They would no longer have justification for making us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe.”

[…]

“I want you to chip away at that myth by standing. I want you—yes, you—to call them liars. I want you to show them that you are as much a man—more a man than they can ever be.”

If Evangeline is a myth that uplifts an entire people, then here is a myth that seeks to oppress. It is a myth of both superiority and inferiority, and as Grant says, it is a lie, one of the most destructive ever told. This myth has generated racism, slavery, violence, and war, and even after thousands of years of human history, we have yet to shake it off. One wonders if we ever will.

Destructive as this myth is, we can always find examples of people who defy it. Literature and art continually offer hope, as Gaines’s novel does. His story is set in an African-American sharecropping community based off of Pointe Coupée Parish and New Roads, the area in which he grew up. We had the honor of visiting Dr. Gaines in his own home, built on plantation land that he once worked and now owns. During our interview with him, he expressed his belief that great progress has been made regarding racial equality and civil rights. Even so, he also noted that there is still much to be done. Viewed in its most positive light, a negative myth can be seen as an opportunity for progressive change.

Cajun country illustrated the power of mythology more clearly than any other place we visited. The time we spent in New Roads, Lafayette, Arnaudville, Morganville, and St. Martinville put into focus the effects of cultural legends and social values and the mythologies they create. What I found most impactful was the fact that we were able to study contrasting types of myths at the same time in a localized setting—the ability to make direct comparisons facilitated critical thinking.

Of course, Cajun country is not the only region in the United States that has been mythicized. Every place has its stories and traditions, its urban legends and community beliefs. We need to approach these myths with a critical eye and consider whether they are constructive or destructive. Bookpacking’s greatness lies not in the perception of myths; rather, it lies in the ability to enact change based on those perceptions.


I’ve never stopped loving books, and may the day never come when I do. Bookpacking has renewed that love, and it has also given me a new perspective on reading and literature. This experience has turned my mind toward the myths that define my own identity and culture, the stories and beliefs that have shaped me.

Something else that I’ve realized is that the practice of bookpacking does not necessitate flying two thousand miles across the country—it can be done back home. Southern California, like Louisiana, has a wealth of relevant texts that would perfectly fit the bookpacking vision. Through historical novels like Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona or even the modern crime thrillers of James Ellroy, I can easily explore the history, “genie-spirit,” and mythology of my home region. It’s a good thing, then, that I have two months of summer left to do that!

On a final note, I want to express my gratitude to Andrew for giving me the chance to bookpack through Louisiana. I’ve had unquantifiable fun getting to know my fellow students; we’ve had some amazing times together. And to future bookpackers, I say, happy reading!

Jazzified

‘... The only thing that keeps him from thinking he is not a hog is that radio. Take that radio away, and let’s see what you can do for the soul of a hog.’
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

New Orleans: the birthplace of jazz.

Knowing the title this city held, we could only expect our journey through Southern Louisiana to take us through magical musical territories. However, it has actually been more than I expected. Not only is the jazz, the bluegrass, the Cajun music, the street drumming, and everything else practically ubiquitous here—take a late night stroll through the French Quarter and you’ll hear different genres of music coming at you from all directions—but music has taken a larger role in the trip’s significance for me and in the texts that we’ve read.

Upon arriving in Grand Isle, our main source of music was the sea, which greeted us with beautiful melodies, consistent crashing of waves—upon one another and against rocks. I was happy to read about the allure and the musicality of the sea in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Yet, Chopin surprised me by also making literal music—or a less metaphorical music, I should say—a vital element to Edna’s story.

In the first half of the story, Robert asks Mademoiselle Reisz if she would play the piano for Edna, seemingly knowing Edna’s fondness for her talent. Now, Chopin writes that Edna was “very fond of music” and “musical strains, well rendered, had a way of evoking pictures in her mind.” Yet, Mademoiselle Reisz’s piano playing evoke no pictures for her. Instead, “the passions themselves were aroused within her soul...” She believes it makes her feel this way because it was the first time she was “ready” for the music, ready for the experience.

She saw no pictures of solitude, of hope, of longing, or of despair. But the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body. She trembled, she was choking, and the tears blinded her.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

I thought this was strange since I would expect an unexpected bombardment of beautiful music to affect someone most deeply. However, as we headed into New Orleans, to many venues where we obviously expected great music to be played, Edna’s sensation began to feel more real for me. Although it wasn’t solely piano music that captivated us in New Orleans, it’s difficult to ignore the similarity between the intimacy of her experience and the intimacy I have experienced here, sitting or standing among a crowd of people but knowing that my reaction, my perception of the music is different from everyone else’s. I’m sure that other people feel it deeply, that it arouses rarely tapped emotions, but I wonder if anyone else feels the near-hypnosis, the poetry that sways the body as I do when I listen intently to the sounds which circulate through the air of Preservation Hall. I wonder if people clap to clap or clap when the music moves them to clap; if people sway or even tremble, as Edna did, or if they let the music become a background to the canvas of thoughts in the mind.

As the rest of the audience does in The Awakening, the crowd may yell out their praise for the musician and it may very well signify “a fever of enthusiasm,” but you never really know what’s going on in the minds of everyone else as they listen. It’s an interesting way of learning that, although people may express similar reactions, each response is unique. For Edna, because of the music’s ability to bring her to tears and the fact that it coincides with her developing infatuation with Robert, it almost felt to me as if the music catalyzed and intensified her desires. It simply made her feel more and this may have been a giant stepping stone in allowing her to confront the emotions she held within.

This urged me to see the power that music had on the character in this story, especially in conjunction with the sea and the voice of the water. I’m not sure I could imagine the effect of the music without the landscape as an equal influence on Edna. In this way, the novella served as a great introduction to the conversation between the landscapes, the music, and the people of Southern Louisiana. All elements felt significant to the story and it served as a nice precursor for the voyage to New Orleans and Cajun country, where I felt I gained a stronger sense of this conversation.

Music did play a small role in the lives of the characters in Interview with the Vampire (our next novel): Lestat, one of the vampires at the center of the novel, surprises the protagonist, Louis, and the readers with his reluctance to kill his friend, a musician. He appears to be magnetized by the musician and his “disturbing” music. Something about him and his music seem to keep Lestat from biting into him and draining him.

However, it’s the role that the music plays in the novel A Lesson Before Dying, as well as the musical atmospheres we absorbed ourselves into in New Orleans and Lafayette, that begged me to ponder the relation of music to the area more deeply, especially in regards to the African American experience.

In the novel, Grant Wiggins, the protagonist who has achieved the rare status of serving as an educator for the children in his Cajun community, struggles to connect with Jefferson, a young man convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and called a “hog” during his trial. Grant’s aunt wishes for him to speak to Jefferson, to get him to die with dignity, as “a man” and not as a hog. Grant struggles to reach Jefferson until he has a conversation with him about the things he wants most before death. Listening to his desires, he offers Jefferson the gift of a radio, which completely changes the dynamic between the two and the course of the story.

... I found a way to reach him for the first time. Now, he needs that radio, and he wants it. He wants something of his own before he dies.
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

The radio seems to serve not only as a distraction for Jefferson from the suffocating thoughts trapped in the jail cell with him, but as an object that he can keep for himself, an object that he wanted but never owned. It’s an object of comfort, but at its core, it is something that is his.

The radio’s meaning increased upon our visit to Ernest J. Gaines’ home in New Roads, an invaluable trip in which we got to meet his family, look inside the church that inspired one of the settings for the novel, and sit around his dining table as he responded to our questions.

Morgan had asked him a question about music and its role in the book and he gave a response that still urges me to consider the music of this region in conversation with the cultures and the people that inhabit it. He said that blues, jazz, and other types of music he grew up listening to allowed him to understand African American culture. He mentioned the difficulty of attaining this knowledge from books because of the lack of representation of African American culture in them. Therefore, music took on a huge role in this education. Much like Jefferson, music offered a place for Dr. Gaines to carve out a home for himself. Like Jefferson, music served as a catalyst for his education and became a way of tying him to his community.

With this context, our walks through Bourbon Street—despite the puddles of vomit lying on the curbs—and through city parks feel more significant. While I already sensed the significance of the music to the people bringing it to life, reflecting on the music as a mode of communication between individuals and their communities made the music feel even more substantial, as if it overflowed with the power of its meaning to the musician. Walking through Congo Square, a historic place where slaves used to gather on Sundays to dance and play music under the code noir system, aroused these emotions before we even read about them in A Lesson Before Dying.

We sat down in some benches in the park to read and, as we got up to leave, we encountered a man in a wheelchair holding a trumpet, willing to play for us. His friend attempted to bring out a tip bucket, to which he responded, “No, we don’t need that.” And he proceeded to blow into the trumpet, squeezing out some soulful tunes. The best moment, however, came about a minute later when he stopped playing, opened his mouth and began singing, his voice coarse but evocative, beautiful, calming, containing as much soul as Louis Armstrong, Al Green, Otis Redding, all the singers known for singing with emotion rather than technique. Afterward, everyone I talked to could only mention the beauty of his voice.

It was certainly an incredible moment acknowledging the history of the place and getting treated to a live performance just as we expected to leave. The past and the present meshed so beautifully in those moments.

It also wouldn’t feel right to exclude the significance of music (and dancing) as we trekked into Cajun country, settling in Lafayette. I felt that Lafayette offered us the most authentic taste of Louisiana culture out of every city in our journey. We probably had more one-on-one conversations with the residents of Lafayette and our interactions with them, especially in Randol’s restaurant and Tom’s Fiddle & Bow shop, gave us greater insight into the lives of Louisianans. Granted, it’s difficult to generalize their lifestyles, but they still felt more homey than the tourists of New Orleans.

Several of us danced mindlessly—or mindfully, maybe, since people tend to think too much when they dance to music they’re unfamiliar with—to the folky sounds of Cajun music at Randol’s. It was wonderful looking through the giant panes of glass separating the diners from the dancers, peeking at the dancing couples rocking back and forth or guiding each other in circles around the dance floor. However, the experience meant more when a small group of us took to the dance floor without any idea of what to do, but feeling the grooves of the music and moving our bodies accordingly.

I love dancing. For me, there’s something beautiful about creating your own interpretation of the music and letting it move your body, letting it control the movement of your feet, the shake of the hips, the bounce of the shoulders. Of course, it doesn’t always come so naturally. It took some time and some pre-planning for me and Morgan to get into our groove. Yet, there still exists a magic in familiarizing yourself with the patterns in the music and allowing yourself to feel comfortable with something that initially felt foreign. By the time I danced with Ogechi, I felt like I knew some basic movements that felt comfortable and compatible with the music and it became easier to let the music guide our movements.

A couple days later, at Tom’s Fiddle & Bow, our dancing had been reduced to shoulder shifts and head bobs, but it provided a greater understanding for me in the bond between people, music, and the environment around them. If I ever saw a group of fiddlers jamming out together in California, singing songs about rain and bayous, I’d probably be flabbergasted. However, it felt so natural there. It provided me with the weird sensation of having felt as if I’d experienced it before, while also feeling surreal because of the strangeness of it all.

I remember there were a few moments where I stood on the back porch with the bluegrass musicians, looking out past the screens in front of me and into the brown water and bright green bushes of the bayou, letting the sound of fiddles, ukuleles, and warm harmonic voices supplement the serenity of the landscape. I remember thinking about how these moments were singular to this place, that I could never experience this same combination of elements, these same emotions anywhere else. Everything was working together to give me a taste of a culture that I had never truly known, but that I loved and admired.

I can recall moments infused with music from every city we’ve visited in Louisiana and I think it has proven to be one of the most transcendental aspects of this trip. While the moments of cultural education and enchanting entertainment offer some amazing carefree experiences, the music has offered moments which allow the mind to linger, to consider the present moment and to wander into the past, the history of the place and the conversation between the people and this history. The joint act of reading about the power of music for characters like Edna and Jefferson and actually living through the experience of music in the places where these characters resided has proven to be one of the most rewarding experiences for me. It’s one thing to read about the music of a city and its cultural significance, but to breathe in that music and to listen to its conversation with the people, the culture, the history is another reality altogether.


Alfredo's Other Music Picks

Just a few random music selections that I felt either fit the location or that have stuck with me upon hearing it here:

One of the most significant songs for me on this trip after it enchanted me at Preservation Hall. It inspired my poem, "Preservation Hall."

A song about a woman from New Orleans. A beautiful way to hone in on all the details of the life of a native.

A song that meant a lot more after everyone joined in to sing along on the back porch of Tom's Fiddle & Bow.

Leon Bridges just fits the region so well... especially when you reside in a hotel across from the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.

That's All, Folks!

I've found I now have a better sense of the cultural and historical context of New Orleans than I do Los Angeles, where I've lived and gone to school for two years. Bookpacking the Big Easy has inspired me to bookpack the world, starting in my own backyard. I know that the experience doesn't end here; I don't think I'll ever travel and explore the same way again. I'll echo what I said at the outset of this trip: if everyone travelled with a book in their hand – a true book that speaks with the voice of a place and a people – then I think we’d all be much better at the art of understanding. My time in New Orleans, with the other student Bookpackers and Andrew, has only strengthened my belief in this statement.

I think the positive influence this experience has had on my life is encapsulated in that day at the fiddle store with our new musician friends. Thanks to Bookpacking, I got to read an honest and beautiful little story about a people (the Cajun community in “Floyd’s Girl”), and then I was given the opportunity to learn about and from members of this community. So I did. I was given the opportunity to reciprocate the love they gave to me. So I did. And that's pretty awesome. 

Thank you to my Bookpacking family for making this adventure as amazing as it was. Thank you to USC Dornsife and the man, the myth, the legend Andrew Chater for...well...everything?Thank you to the beignets for rocking my world on a daily basis. Lastly, thank you to the gators that didn’t show their faces because it’s #nestingseason. Joke’s on you, I got a picture of your cousins at the Audubon Zoo. Just because they’re captive gators doesn’t mean it’s cheating. That’s what I’m telling myself. Crikey!

Lastly, I'd like to thank the Academy.

Looking Back on my Bookpacking Experience

What I was expecting

After around eight years years of French classes, I have learned a good deal about Louisiana’s French history. We focused on the Arcadians, so my knowledge of Louisiana history is very specific. However, I wanted learn more and refresh that which I have already learned. I had always wanted to visit Louisiana, and though I had never had the chance, my parents told me wonderful things about New Orleans when I was young.

I had never heard of the term “bookpacking” before my advisor suggested this course to me, but I loved the idea. When I was a Senior in high school, I spent my last months partaking in “Senior Project.” For my project, I wrote a book, or part of one anyway; I wasn’t able to finish as we only had six weeks. I fancied coffee shops for writing most of the time, but I also played around with immersion. I loved writing from places similar to those in which the story took place at that moment. It made it so much easier to lose myself in the story. I wondered if reading a book in the place it was set would have a similar effect.

I was most eager to read Interview With The Vampire, due to a love of the supernatural, but I was excited for every book on the list. I was happy to have never had the chance to read most of these novels. This way I could experience them for the first time fully immersed in the settings in which they take place. I was hopeful that this would be a fun and rewarding experience.

 

My experience

 

Grand Isle

The Awakening - Kate Chopin

 

The Awakening served as my introduction to “bookpacking.” Though I had read it before, and therefore did not have the same experience to speak of as the others, it was still remarkable reading the novella in the place it is set.

I had a different idea of Grand Isle, as well as Louisiana in its entirety, before we drove down to the popular vacation destination. I had never given too much thought to what Louisiana looked like before this trip, though I had learned a bit about its French history in high school. I merely knew that it was heavily covered in marshlands and swamps, and that it had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina a little over ten years prior to our visit. These were not things that I took into mind when first reading Chopin’s novel, and imagining the island where it takes place.

I first read the book to analyze it, not to understand the place or the culture. Therefore why I did not pay as close attention to the setting description and cultural norms. While such mentions seem a prominent part of the character development and understanding of the book now, it was not until I was in the place where the novella is set that I grasped just how much a four-dimensional setting can change someones perspective of two-dimensional piece of art.

When we arrived in Grand Isle I saw very minimal businesses, restaurants, and shops. I expected the island to be bigger, both in land mass as well as in grandeur. I believed the houses would be bigger and more commercial than the locally owned ones that we saw as we drove to our rental. I expected there to be people roaming about on the main road, and out in the ocean, relaxing on the hot sand. Yet, we were met with empty roads, a quiet ocean, and a deserted beach.

When my idea of the place was not met, I became excited about reading Chopin again. I wondered how I could have imagined something so different than the place she was describing. As I read on the beach, and in the rocking chairs in front of the window looking out at the shoreline, I began to realize the description was accurate in so many ways, but I needed to see it for myself to understand what Chopin was attempting to capture. From there I was even more eager to read the novella than before. The characters became more real. Even though we are living in a much different time period, I felt like I could have been in the story.

‘How many years have I slept?’ she inquired. ‘The whole island seems changed. A new race of beings must have sprung up, leaving only you and me as past relics. How many ages ago did Madame Antoine and Tonie die? And when did our people from Grand Isle disappear from the earth?’
— The Awakening (Kate Chopin)

Not only did the fact that we were in the setting of the piece help, but our location itself aided in this feeling. Grand Isle has this magical aspect of isolation that I’m sure is why people have gone there to vacation for so long. In our rented house, reading and relaxing, and living our lives, we were so far removed from society that it was almost like we had fallen back in time. Grand Isle was such a great way to begin the course and a perfect start to the "bookpacking" experience. We finished reading the book before heading to New Orleans, but the part of the story which takes place in the famous city excited me to read, learn, and experience more.

 

New Orleans

Interview with the Vampire - Anne Rice

 

I as said before, I was most excited to read this novel. As one of the more recent works we would read, I did not fear a barrier in dialect or custom. I was a bit mistaken. The story begins present day, only to flashback to the late 18th century as Louis tells his story, which then goes on to span a great deal of time and cultures to end in present day where the interview is taking place.

It proved much more difficult to immerse myself in this narrative. There were many reasons for this. The first being the aforementioned time and cultural difference. I found it much simpler to imagine Edna and late 19th century Grand Isle because of the isolation of the island. It was easier to lose myself in The Awakening and imagine the place and characters as they were in that time because I was surrounded by an unpopulated vacation town. There I could see what I wanted and needed without interference, whereas in New Orleans my imagination was hindered by the heavy tourism of the city. It also helped that The Awakening is more rooted in reality than Interview with the Vampire.

It is funny that what I most anticipated about Rice’s famous novel is what impeded my immersion the most. I was excited for the supernatural story that Louisiana is such a perfect setting for. The vampire fiction was both extremely enticing, and at the same time annoying.

I loved reading the book, and I especially liked how Louisiana is an ideal place to set a supernatural fiction, specifically New Orleans, and especially vampire literature. Wandering around the city and seeing the places described in the novel as they are today was extremely gratifying. I do not think that any of the other books we read gave me more reference of important places in New Orleans than Interview with the Vampire. However, while I found it helping in exploring the city, I did not find it was as helpful as the other novels in exploring the culture. That is not to say that it was not helpful in understanding the culture at all.

There was one aspect of Louisiana culture that Anne Rice hit on the button more than any of the other authors: “french-ness.” In a place where being a Creole could be equated to having been of noble birth, this is a very important aspect of the culture. Themes of “french-ness” in this book include: sensuality, sexuality, relaxation, (over)indulgence, lavish lifestyle, and parading wealth. These themes still endure in various amounts, both in Louisiana culture and in French culture, though they were definitely more prominent a few centuries ago.

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One other aspect of Louisiana culture that the other books did not touch upon is the Voodoo religion. Not much is said about Voodoo in Interview with the Vampire, but Louis recognizes that his slaves were the first to notice his change and possibility of his supernatural nature. This would be due to their knowledge of spirits and demons through the religion of Voodoo. While Voodoo is not explicitly detailed in any of the books, we had the opportunity to visit the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. There we learned of the Voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, who’s grave we later visited in St. Louis Cemetery 1.

I did not realize at the time that these slaves would be the first, and possibly the only ones, to ever suspect that Lestat and I were not ordinary creatures. I failed to realize that their experience with the supernatural was far greater than that of white men. In my own inexperience I still thought of them as childlike savages barely domesticated by slavery. I made a bad mistake.
— Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice)

 

The Moviegoer - Walker Percy

I found it difficult to immerse myself in this book due to my lack of enjoyment and the cynical and pessimistic musings of the main character, Binx Bolling. This novel was by far the least favorable of the lot, in my opinion, which is likely why I struggled in using the novel to explore the culture and terrain of New Orleans. However, even though I was not the biggest fan of this novel, I do believe it helped me to understand New Orleans better than I had previously. This appreciation was gained after finishing the novel and seeing those places that Binx had described.

Binx’s Aunt Emily lives in the Garden District, a place which he was determined to distance himself from. This is evident in everything that he does, though his roundabout way of traveling to his Aunt Emily’s in the beginning of the book, is a good example of the lengths he is willing to go to achieve this distance. The differences between Binx and his Aunt’s personalities and priorities parallel the differences in their respective neighborhoods. This connection allowed me to put a story to the places I was visiting, which in turn made the experience that much more enticing and intimate. Through the characters residing in each section of the city, I felt I was able to see the personalities of both of the neighborhoods.

The Garden District is the section of New Orleans where the wealthy reside, specifically those of high class and old money. Binx describes the Garden District as having a “genteel charm.” In one instance where he is traveling on Elysian Fields Avenue towards the Garden District from his home in Gentilly and seeing swimming pools and manicured lawns, he knows that he is getting closer by the increasing wealth displayed in the homes. Though we travelled to the Garden District by way of the St. Charles Streetcar from the business district, I was still able to see for myself the difference of the homes in the Garden District to others seen along the way. I understood the just of it; that one can tell that they have arrived as soon as they have entered the Garden District. Fortunately we had the opportunity to explore over there on numerous occasions. I don't remember seeing any swimming pools, but I can attest that the houses are truly stunning.

For the past four years now I have been living uneventfully in Gentilly, a middle-class suburb of New Orleans. Except for the banana plants in the patios and the curlicues of iron on the Walgreen drugstore one would never guess it was part of New Orleans. Most of the houses are either old-style California bungalows or new-style Daytona cottages. But this is what I like about it.
— The Moviegoer (Walker Percy)

Binx describes Gentilly as a middle-class suburb of New Orleans, and that, save from a few details of the place, one would never know it was a part of New Orleans. He describes life there as being peaceful, and I cannot say from what I have seen that that is not true. I liked seeing this place in which Binx Bolling lived his life. Fiction, I know, but still interesting. It was also interesting to visit Lake Pontchartrain which is mentioned a few times in the book. The northern parts of New Orleans were not really mentioned in the other novels, so it was nice to have this book to reference in that aspect.

 

A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

Because we read A Confederacy of Dunces before arriving in New Orleans, the bookpacking experience varied. Like with The Awakening, I had a different idea of New Orleans than what I ended up experiencing, though unlike The Awakening, I did not have the pleasure of reading the book again in the place it was set.

I was expecting much more of Bourbon Street than I saw, though I can’t complain seeing as I only visited during daylight. If there is one thing I especially want to see if I return to New Orleans, it would be Bourbon Street at night. Canal Street turned out to be bustling, and very touristy, so it was easy for me to imagine Ignatius strolling along. We even went to the statue of him in front of what was the D.H Holmes Department store, and what is now the Hyatt French Quarter Hotel. The statue was sculpted with the opening scene of the novel in mind. At this point I could definitely see Ignatius on Canal St. 

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.
— A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)

For the most part what I gained from A Confederacy of Dunces was just a hilarious read, but it was also interesting in regards to the dialect. The speech was something that I was not accustomed to when we arrived. I was expecting deep south accents and great manners, not much more, when I was accepted to the course and thought about Louisiana. Then again I hadn’t had much experience with southern dialects before. I had only been to Florida and Georgia prior to this, and I am not quite sure that Florida would be considered southern by way of culture and speech.

Though I think that Toole exaggerated, as he did with everything in this novel, it was nice to have some heads up at the difference in speech before we arrived. For the most part I met people who had accents, but whose speech otherwise was similar to that which I was used to. There were some people who did speak like Toole’s characters in A Confederacy of Dunces, and it was jarring at first, both in the book and in reality, but over time it became just another Louisiana quirk to me.

 

Baton Rouge

A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest J. Gaines

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One of the best, if not the best, and most rememberable experiences I had on this trip was meeting Ernest J. Gaines himself. The man is a living legend, and to be in his presence, talking about his most famous work, was nothing short of amazing. His wife and daughter showed us around their property including the church that Ernest was schooled in during his childhood, and which they are now restoring. While we gathered around the table to talk to Ernest, Mrs. Gaines brought us lemonade and cookies. Such a kind gesture was much appreciated, especially because they had already been so kind as to indulge our visit. A true measure of Southern hospitality. I found myself so nervous sitting next to Mr. Gaines at the table as we discussed his work. I knew instinctively that this man was wise beyond my years, possibly wiser than I will ever be. Definitely the highlight of this trip.

The most interesting part about bookpacking with A Lesson Before Dying, besides discussing the book with Ernest J. Gaines himself, was visiting the prison and courthouse where Jefferson’s trial and incarceration were set. What was especially fascinating was when the staff at the police station accompanied us to the old prison cells. The retired cells, which are not open to the public, are on the top level of the building. There is a set of stairs that Gaines writes about from Jefferson’s perspective. While we counted and the number was off, the sentiment was there. We ended up taking the creaky. small, old elevator up the one floor to the cells. There the women told us the history and layout of the prison cells, which the use of was discontinued in the 80s if I am remembering correctly. Weaving in and around the different rooms, seeing the bunks, the toilets, the one solitary cell, I felt I had a more real vision of Jefferson.

Talking to Gaines prior to visiting the prison he told us he was inspired by the real story if Willie Francis. After learning this, the story became more rooted in reality, and the effects of reading it hit harder than before.

CaJun country

“Floyd’s Girl - Tim Gautreaux

This short tale based in Cajun country was the epitome of what "bookpacking" should be. I read the story sitting on my bunk in our rented house in Lafayette after visiting Tom’s Fiddle and Bow. The characters in the story seemed so real, like I had just met the lot of them earlier that day. Tim Gautreaux wrote from each character’s perspective, and that made it even more interesting to read. I felt I shared Floyd’s determination to get his daughter back, and that I was rooting him on from the sidelines, willing to help out like his neighbors. Community is well depicted here. Everyone knows the other.

Floyd drank beer and made noise with his friends on weekends, spent his extra money on his daughter, her clothes, her Catholic school, her music lessons. Everyone in the community of Grand Crapaud knew he had good sense and would do a thing as soon as it needed doing. They knew this because he never hit a man when he was down, the grass in his yard stayed cut, he washed his car, and there were no holes in the screens of his house.
— Floyd's Girl (Tim Gautreaux)

Floyd mentions music, which we had spent most of our day preceding my reading this story listening to. Music is an important aspect of culture, as I was constantly reminded during my stay in Louisiana. Religion is a priority. Floyd spends most of his money on his daughter’s clothes, schooling, and cultural education. He also references his ex-wife as a "LeBlanc gone mad," noting that she stays out all night, drinks beer, smokes dope, and has given up French music and rock and rock for country. Though I don't necessarily agree on that last one, I find it interesting that that is how Floyd chose to describe that his ex-wife had "gone bad": a change in music taste.

The description of the setting fit with what I could see out my window each time we ventured out of our rental. But that was just the setting, the real magic of "bookpacking" with this story was the parallels that I could see between the characters and the people I had met previous to reading it.

 Tom's Fiddle & Bow - potluck and jam

Tom's Fiddle & Bow - potluck and jam

 

Final thoughts

Though I believe Anne Rice captured the “french-ness” of New Orleans in all of its grandeur, I also think that most of the books have those cultural French aspects in them, especially those set in New Orleans. Sexuality and leisure play a big part in The Awakening as well as The Moviegoer. Ostentatious behavior and nightlife are prominent in A Confederacy of Dunces. Finally, wealth, and the politics that accompany that wealth, is a big theme in All the King’s Men. The use of French language in Floyd’s Girl. French aspects in these books are not limited to what I have listed, and I could go on, but those are the aspects of the books that most stood out to me.

You may have noticed from my poems about the different music I encountered on our trips and in each text, that music has been a focal point of my experience traveling Louisiana. What I have most noticed in every book is how art culture, not only music, plays an important part in each narrative of at least one character. From Mademoiselle Riesz's piano and Edna's painting, to Binx and his moviegoing, even Jefferson's writing. In some form or another, art has a way of not only telling a story, but allowing a story to progress, and further pushing it forwards, when it is included in a narrative.

 Read the edge of the bottom roof: "I'm not sure but I'm almost positive that all music came from New Orleans"

Read the edge of the bottom roof: "I'm not sure but I'm almost positive that all music came from New Orleans"

I love the idea of ‘bookpacking,” and when it works, it works. It is a hard idea to peg down because you have to have the right book to be able to immerse yourself in the culture. An enjoyable book that is rooted in reality, rich with the culture of the place and in descriptions of the places where it is set. It is hard to remember that you are reading to enhance your view of the place and its culture, not just for the enjoyment of the book.

Especially with this course, I found it difficult to not analyze each novel as I read, like I would in a general English course. I had to remind myself that this was not a typical English course like those I had taken, but a mixture of English, History, Sociology, Journalism, and maybe even a few more. I definitely think that I gained much knowledge of Louisiana culture from our visit and the books we read that I would have otherwise not had I merely been vacationing in New Orleans for the same amount of time. I will definitely continue to employ "bookpacking" during future trips, though likely not on the same scale. I hope by reading my blog you will have been inspired to do the same.

Faulkner Bookstore

The Faulkner Bookstore is a bookstore for septuagenarians. I mean it. The Faulkner Bookstore is like the heavyweight champion of all bookstores. Almost every classical book of literature is heavy, bounded with hard-cover leather, and sheathed with elaborate golden pages. The store is wedged in a back alleyway behind the St. Louis Cathedral. When you first come across the Faulkner bookstore, you can find the lovely pedantic baby blue entrance doors and the modest emblem of the Faulkner logo. The doors looked magical and evoked a calm, inviting gesture leading into a fancy display of Southern Gothic literature, American classics, and my favorite works of contemporary nonfiction.

Inside the bookstore, wooden bookshelves contain large, colorful volumes of contemporary reads and rare books. The first thing I noticed about the selection of books on the shelves was the careful balance between classical literature, works of art, and contemporary fiction/nonfiction for mature readers. Unfortunately, most book prices spann anywhere between $15-$60 per book, which added to the bourgeois atmosphere of the bookstore. Everything in the store was simply so expensive, but incredibly enticing.

Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Reflecting on Walker Percy's novel, The Moviegoer, I do resonate with John "Binx" Bolling's retreat into the world of books and quiet introspection. Although most of my peers disliked The Moviegoer and Bolling's self-absorbed quest to resign into mundane life, I believe this novel carries a very powerful message about the interior of the American psyche and way of life.  Binx's prides himself on being a model citizen from the Southern genteel class. He enjoys watching and re-watching movies, hooking up with girls, pushing boundaries, and contributing very little to society. In doing so, he alienates himself from his friends and family and silently rejects his Aunt Emily's prodding to be more ambitious. In many ways, Binx's lifestyle demonstrates that atomized American way of life that lacks a spiritual foundation, moral fiber, and provincialism that cannot self-reflect in an transcendent manner.

Binx struggles to establish his sense of self and add spiritual definition to his life. He doesn't want simply live up to the standards of his Southern genteel heritage. This is why I think there's a bit of the moviegoer in all of us. Despite Binx's childishness, he redeems himself by burying his head in literature that challenges him to search for meaning outside of what's already familiar to him in daily life. Even though I don't believe literature is the universal solvent for remedying the effects of emptiness, spiritual deadness, or alienation, I do believe there's an immense wisdom to be gained from reading books written by authors who were able to look at society from an outsider's perspective and forage meaning from it. So on, I pressed forward to William Faulkner's book collection and poetry bookshelves in the corner room to extrapolate meaning for myself. Just being around Faulkner's books gave me an unduly sense of stability and rootedness in the present. 

Walker Percy and his friend Shelby Foote, the famous Civil War historian, traveled to Oxford, Mississippi to speak with Faulkner after Percy graduated from college. Percy was stunned by Faulkner's genius to the extent that he said very little during their meetings. Many famous Southern writers such as Percy's friend, Shelby Foote, Robert Kennedy Toole, and Robert Penn Warren were all inspired by Faulkner's Southern gothic style and inclusion of the supernatural. The bookstore possessed some treasured rare editions of Faulkner's works that include: The Town, The Hamlet, Doctor Martino, The Sound and the Fury, These 13, Absalom, Absalom, Intruder in the Dust, and The Mansion.  

The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.
— William Faulkner

I don't know why I love this quote from William Faulkner so much "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." I guess my encounter with this letter from T.S. Eliot provides an eerie reminder of this living past.  It makes me recall a seminar from one of my history professors wherein she brought up the subject of defining history usually debated in graduate school. It's a common inquiry that many historians question- that is, when does history start ? Does history begin a decade, five years, a month, five seconds from the present time? Although I don't have any answers to this question, I decided to test the livable past and write a letter to T.S. Eliot in response to the letter he wrote to one of his colleagues. 

Dear T.S. Eliot, 

I want to meet with you this evening in the middle of Cafe Du Monte for coffee and beignets! I'd love to indulge you the details and exploits of my summer  Bookpacking trip to Louisiana. I've explored the vibrant city of New Orleans, the state capitol of Baton Rouge, beautiful Grand Isle, and the modest city of Lafayette with my classmates from USC. Your poem, "The Waste Land" struck me and resonated with the protagonist Binx's existential crisis and search for identity in our assigned reading of Walker Percy's book, The Moviegoer. So far, I'm enjoying my time in New Orleans and hope to convene with you soon!

From,

Ogechi

Bookpacking in Southern Louisiana

As an English Literature major at the University of Southern California, I have been taught to read beyond the surface and to explore the text, but I have never been so encouraged to bring those analytical skills into the physical world. Bookpacking challenged me to bring the hands-on learning approach to a genre of study that does not venture into the physical world much. Bookpacking became an adventure, bringing out a group of English majors into a contextual space. We broke free of our typical roles – locked away reading – using those books as a map to explore where the physical and the metaphysical of the text meet.

We ventured off constantly, veering directions we hadn't intended to go. We stayed up late wandering New Orleans, riding the streetcar through the Garden District for ice cream or into the French Quarter for midnight beignets at Café du Monde. We sat in cafes and restaurants, discussing our novels and sharing dessert. We sat in the van and drove slowly, begging the alligators to make one sly appearance. We shared the cultural experiences that Southern Louisiana had to offer, including the food, the festivities, and more food. We walked into a restaurant, a few minutes before it was closing, and ordered Chris his first drink to celebrate his 21st birthday. We had quickly become a close-knit group, constantly looking to each other as much as we looked to our books. And although we came from a similar basis in the English department, within our new environment, we were all stimulated to explore new angles.  


The rich environment of New Orleans and Southern Louisiana, provided an expansive lens of cultures and traditions that welcomed an elaborate diversity into our thoughts. Our books allowed a deeper analysis into the histories and stories of the area, delving deeper into literary classics – cult or otherwise – that found their place in literary honors. 

We felt somber as followed Kate Chopin to Grand Isle, and imagined Edna Pontellier running into the surf. We felt chills as we followed Anne Rice into the cemeteries, imagining Louis and Lestat having another epic argument over righteousness. We laughed loudly as we followed John Kennedy Toole through the French Quarter, and imagined Ignatious stuffing his face at his hotdog cart. We enjoyed our own existential crises as we followed Walker Percy into the Garden District, imagining Binx on an existential walk of his own. We followed quietly behind Robert Penn Warren into the capitol building in Baton Rouge, and imagined Willie Stark causing a scene. We sang along to country songs as we followed Tim Gautreaux into Cajun Country, imagining Floyd's race down the highway to save his little girl. And we quite literally followed Ernest J. Gaines into his home, imaging life for Grant and Jefferson on those sugar plantations. Bookpacking took us on an unforgettable adventure, leading us anywhere, and we followed.


I can’t get no gator-action, I can’t get no gator-action. ‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can’t get no, I can’t get no.
— All of us, singing in the van, to the tune of The Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction

Backstreet New Orleans Cultural Museum

The Backstreet New Orleans Cultural Museum is a hidden gem like no other. It's an unconventional museum located in a neighborhood called Treme, which is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States. This museum is pure magic and contains Native American Mardi Gras costumes and artifices dating back from the 1970s. Plastered on the walls, there are also African-American films from the 1940s, documents from Black societies in New Orleans, photography from old second-lines parardes funded by the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and memorabilia from old jazz funerals.

The museum possessed a complex labryinth of extravagant costumes, headresses, colorful beading that embodied the essence of New Orleans- pastel ornamented streets of grandeur that accentuates French and Native American colonial history. The museum acts as a clearing house and gatekeeper of local African-American history in New Orleans. The costumes, artifices, and work hold intrinsic value and highlights the beautiful artistry of a thriving African-American community. Once the tour started, we were prohibited from taking videos and could only take a limited amount of photography.

The History of Mardi Gras

In the past, I had always assumed Mardi Gras signaled a festive time where people could march on the streets with purple and green beads and get drunk. Mardi Gras actually originates from France and is French for "Fat Tuesday." Mardi Gras is a day where people eat, drink, and essentially pig out before "Ash Wednesday," which was a solemn holy day for fasting and observance of the saints in the Catholic tradition. The tradition was seeded in the late seventeenth century when two French brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, were sent by King Louis XIV to claim the territory of Louisiane and other surrounding Southern territories.

When the brothers arrived in the Mississippi River on Lundi Gras or Fat Monday in French (a tradition wherein a Rex king arrives on boat to the port of New Orleans), they went upstream to the place where New Orleans is today. On March 3, 1699, they honored Mardi Gras and Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras. Eventually, French settlers in the capital of Mobile, the state capital at the time, established the first Mardi Gras celebration in 1701. The popular Krewe society was formed in Mobile in 1711 and the tradition spread over various cities like Biloxi throughout Louisiana.

Beauty as Resistence

The walls of the museum hold vast memorabilia from the indigenous community, Mardi Gras, second-lining costumes and jazz funerals, and elaborate and colorful Indian costumes. Our tour guide explained how each of these costumes were hand-sewn by local artists and families involved in the parades. Each costume costs anywhere between five to ten thousand dollars and take nearly three months to a year to make. The costumes composed of beads, shells, rhinestones, sequins, and feathers. Most artists learn how to make their costumes in their youth. The tradition dictates that adults create small costumes for their children and stop when children turn ten and learn how to sew their own costumes.

The African-American community celebrate Mardi Gras to venerate the Mardi Gras Indians who supported runaway slaves during the 18th and 19th centuries. These Native American communities were a refuge to enslaved Africans escaping slavery on the plantation and helped guide and shield them in the swampy bayous. As a sign of gratitude and favor to the Native Americans, African-Americans celebrate Mardi Gras today by assembling costumes resembling each Indian tribe as a tribute to the allyship between African-Americans and Native Americans in Louisiana. There are many tribes represented today such as Louisiana-White Cloud Hunters, Wild Apache, Flaming Arrows, Wild Men, Queens, and Yellow Pocahontas. Each tribe is responsible for designing and elaborately beading their feathered costumes before the day of Mardi Gras. These costumes also can be worn only once in the year that they are created.

Jazz Funerals

The museum’s collection includes films and videos, photographs, obituary records, and memorabilia from jazz funerals in New Orleans over the last thirty years. Jazz funerals started in the early twentieth century and the processions are held each year to honor musicians and elders of the social aid and pleasure clubs. The funerals cost anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000 and are a way to pay homage to black ancestory.

After each church ceremony, the casket is led to the cemetery by the slow, somber dirges and hymns of a brass band. After the burial, however, to signify that the time for mourning is over, the band picks up the tempo, followers of the procession break into dances, and the second-line parade begins: a celebration to send the loved one’s spirit into the afterlife.

Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs

The Social Aid and Pleasure clubs emerged during segregation when resources were limited to African-American families and communities. Today, they act as benevolent societies that support members and provide funeral insurance, educational assistence, and funds for community development. Some prominent social aid and pleasure clubs include the Baby Dolls and the Skull and Bones society. They usually come out each Sunday for the second line parade, and provide entertainment through social gatherings- parades, picnics, and dances.

These clubs encourage African-American pride for the youth and provide the community opportunities to get involved in charitable works. Learning about the Social Aid and Pleasure clubs reminded me of the Nigerian community back in the Bay Area and the small Nigerian clubs formed to provide an emotional, educational, and social outlet for immigrant families in the Bay Area. I was struck by the resemblence in ordination, chiefdom, and festivity found in the second-lining parades and African-American social clubs that still carry the Mardi Gras tradition today.

Film Collection

The tour guide briefly spoke about her father, the museum founder Sylvester Francis. Francis started filming most of the New Orleans’ African American parading culture in the late 1970s. Since then, he has amassed films and videotapes that document over 500 jazz funerals for historical purposes. This collection also records more than thirty years of New Orleans’ African American Carnival celebrations, Mardi Gras Indian public performances, and the second-line parades of social aid and pleasure clubs.

The Big Easy

 The Big Easy Bookpacking gang!

The Big Easy Bookpacking gang!

There's something special about reading literature in the place where it is set. I look around me and see the "balconies dripping iron lace" in New Orleans' French Quarter as described in The Moviegoer; Pirate's Alley and the cemeteries call to mind the fictional feet that wandered through these places in A Confederacy of Dunces and Interview with the Vampire. I have a deep appreciation for literature and its ability to transport me into another time, place, or culture that may vastly differ from my own. Reading and writing provide a link between worlds that would otherwise be separated. When I pick up a book, the power of the written word gives me a new lens with which to look at my surroundings; with "bookpacking", this power is amplified by my actual surroundings, and suddenly the history of the city feels alive and present.

We've explored the beauty of jazz at Preservation Hall, danced in a Second Line parade, learned about Voodoo and the historical significance of the cemeteries, even visited the 9th ward and its reconstruction after Katrina. Meeting people who live here and listening to their stories has informed our experience as much as our novels have - and don't even get me started on how delicious the food is. New Orleans is a city filled with life and the promise to be who you want to be, regardless of where you came from or where you're going. 

In this age of technological innovation and the struggling middle class, it's difficult to take time off to really cherish and explore a new place, which this trip has provided for us. The spirit of New Orleans is dedicated to fun, but it is also a city where families lounge on their porches in the evening hours and say hello to passerby. We took the time as a group to laugh together at cafés during sudden rainstorm, enjoying delectable beignets and absorbing the environment. The people of New Orleans have their resilient side, too; learning about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on this fun-loving community broke my heart, but the vibrancy of its return to its former state of celebration in the past twelve years proves to me that this unique culture cannot be tempered. 

I've had a wonderful time exploring the artistic side of New Orleans on our travels. I visited the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and viewed paintings of artists from around the South that, to them, represent their distinct regional cultures. The art of James Michalopoulos, in particular, focused on New Orleans and captured the bright spirit of the city through his colorful paintings of houses, cars, and people, listening to the playful street music as part of his artistic process. Attending a jam session with the band The Tumbling Wheels at the museum later that night showed me the intertwining of artistic endeavors in this city, having a significant impact on how the culture thrives. 

Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.
— John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

Artists, I've come to find, include the authors of literature themselves. The beauty of writers is they can capture the culture of a certain time and place with words in an effort to convey its uniqueness to those who may not have the chance to see it for themselves. The importance of writing true to a specific environment - accurately depicting the struggles and triumphs of characters as they interact with the culture they’re subjected to - reflects the diversity of human nature and the possibilities that may come about with travel and critical reading. Walking the same streets as Tennessee Wiliams and Ernest Hemingway and feeling inspired to write as they had was surreal.

My view of New Orleans has gone from bird's eye to first-hand. Unlike any travels I've done before, I feel now that I really know the city in a deeper way than if I had spent a whirlwind week vacation here. The amount of time being here (a month) coupled with bookpacking and learning about the city's history has made this experience incredibly immersive and so much more worthwhile. I'm disappointed to be leaving this city, but now I know that I will be back, as so many other artists of day's past have been inspired by this city's heart and returned to it.

OH THE FOOD

If there is one thing I will forever remember about Louisiana, New Orleans in particular, it's the food. If you haven't been yet, you wouldn't, couldn't, understand. It's not just the beignets, though those magical treat would be enough for me. It's all of it. The beignets, the ice cream, the gumbo, the po'boys, the crawfish, the catfish. I could go on, but I wont, because then you would never make it through this blog. Or you would and you would hate me because then you would need to book a ticket to Louisiana just for the food. I'm still running that risk by posting that, but I'm okay with that choice. Here are some of my favorites from the trip (and I'll tell you where they are in case you buy that ticket).

Roots

A fear crept up through Mrs. Boudreaux’s stomach as she saw the dark-haired Lizette ruined by outlanders, dragged off to the dry plains of Texas she imagined from cowboy movies.
— Tim Gautreaux, Floyd's Girl

"Floyd's Girl" outlines a distinctly Southern problem: the invasion of outsiders disrespecting the contained culture that has blossomed in the South, and how the Southern people respond as a community to preserve their dignity and protect their own. Lizette, the damsel in distress of this tale, is fretted over as an important part of the community who would be ruined if the outsiders took her away. The story unites the people of the countryside to bring their daughter home, to keep her safe in their loving and familiar arms and stand rooted to their homeland, a folk tale repeated countless times as a heroic endeavor championed by Southern life.

The Southern relationship with religion, the land, and themselves intertwines itself into folk songs and family traditions that persist to this day in the rural country we explored. We got a taste of the landscape, swept by summer rains and thrumming with the tap of shoes on wood floors and the whining harmony of fiddles fluting on the air. Seafood restaurants house the whooping calls of dance floor regulars; dancing with the locals felt like time traveling to a land where the only kind of music came from the folks who felt passionate enough to come together and play it.

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We were shown that the Cajun culture persists regardless of generational gaps, for there is a distinct emphasis on the importance of family and living life as one's ancestors had, eating the same food and playing the same music, breathing the same humid air. Upon visiting Tom's Fiddle and Bow (a small music shop in Arnaudville) for a potluck and musical jam session, we were welcomed with the familiarity and kindness of neighbors. With Zydeco - a type of music that originated in Southern Louisiana involving accordion and string instruments - and home-made bean dishes to fill me up, I could close my eyes and feel at home with the rhythm of this easy kind of life. 

She wondered if her mother would bring her to Mass or to the stations of the cross during Lent. She knew Texans had some kind of God, but they didn’t take him too seriously, didn’t celebrate him with feast days and days of penance, didn’t even kneel down in their church on Sunday.
— Tim Gautreaux, Floyd's Girl

The distinctness of Southern life is infused in each and every soul born beneath the warmth of the cicada sunshine and every heart that wanders the green fields in search of promise. With this distinct sense of being Southern comes a regionalism that defines the borders of the South among its residents: music, religious celebration, language, food, weather, and cultural traditions. As an outsider myself, I'm jealous of the sense of groundedness, the sense of being rooted into the lush, dark earth of Mississippi silt like the people I've met on my journey through Louisiana. However, I feel that I can appreciate where these people come from, and their warm reception of us - even in our big FBI-like van and with eclectic, foreign personalities - made me feel right at home.

The City, It Breathes

"Jackson Square" - A Prose Poem

Heat kisses my shoulders, sunshine dances on my fingertips as the warm air drips from eaves and iron balconies. Aromas lace the air with the tender touch of temptation, seeking to grace the lips and tongues of patrons pattering outside the storefront windows. 

The blare of brass and sweet-rough tenor voices send their songs skyward amid the click-clack-clattering of camera lenses and teeth-chattering of tourists whose sunglass eyes beg for wonder over the musicians' routine. The Cathedral glows in the light, shaded on one side, striking three o'clock and reminding me of all the times she struck every hour of many a passerby; and her candles burn for those who were lost, and her halls echo with the peace of Heaven and the compassion of saints and sinners who meandered through her doors.

I walk around the corner to the sun-dappled tree-shade and the inspiration of the city paints itself in many colors and imaginations across the black bars of vendors' stalls. A man sits hunched over a typewriter beside his cardboard sign, 'The Dr. Is In', and the sun beats down on his neck and he smiles at me and tells me he loves to write poetry about mothers because it brings tears to his sunny eyes to imagine them living their strong lives.

Wander from the lush garden grove beneath the stallion's hooves to find the riverfront. The Mississippi, with her steam-boats riffing haunting cadences and her waters murky with the mysteries of life and the chemicals of death, she herself takes a slow stroll through the droll of the cars on her bridges and down-and-up, America's first highway. She's seen it all and will still see more, present for the past and future.

Down the worn street and here comes the rain, pound-pound-pound into pools bathed in purple neon. Market Cafe and I sit down and taste the rain as an accent, huddled for shelter from the spray with the jazz keeping time to the drops falling from Heaven. Streaks of white flash across the sky in syncopation with the saxophone, thunder booms in time with the bass. The flavors of the city melt in my mouth, piping hot and fishy, slushy cool and fruity.

Just as soon the rain is gone, the gusty air now working in favor of the passerby and sending fresh waves of positivity, a warm smile after a baptism. The city pulse is certain, strong with the spirit of the dead and the healthy zest of the living, long-lasting through storm and circumstance, stamping its symbol, the fleur-de-lis.

Cajun Country - Lafayette

Beyond the creole traditions, beyond the rush of New Orleans and the hum of Baton Rouge, exists the other side of Louisiana; Cajun Country. Think of miles of cypresses covered in Spanish moss, miles of sugar cane and cotton fields, hearty foods like jambalaya and crawfish, and fiddles playing in harmony, and you’ll find yourself in a town like Lafayette, Louisiana. Our next author, Tim Gautreaux, had brought us there, his short story, “Floyd’s Girl,” our guide to Cajun traditions.

In his novel, Same Place, Same Things, Gautreaux writes stories about the eccentricities of Cajun culture, detailing the importance of family and tradition within Cajun communities. In “Floyd’s Girl,” Gautreaux emphasizes these elements of Cajun culture, following the story of a young girl being taken from her home. As her father attempts to rescue her, the reader is engaged in a dialogue with the girl’s community as they all hurry to save her. The perspective of the short story consistently changes from person to person, telling one short story from a magnitude of perspectives that are all thinking collectively. Gautreaux highlights the importance of community that has become a staple of Cajun culture through this jumping perspective. And ultimately, they all succeed in saving the girl, but only by coming together.

The short story recounts the elements of Cajun life that the girl stands to lose if she is taken away; the food, the music, the culture, the family, and the sense of community that shape their world. And they lament on her “Cajun-ness” that could never be stripped of her. Even if she was taken away, her soul would remain with them. Gautreaux is able to combine all these elements of tradition into one twelve-page story.


And as we drove through the countryside of Southern Louisiana, those elements of Cajun culture stood out to us. Each small town had its own community where everyone knew each other; little places where you found handwritten notes in the store windows that said, “If I’m not in the store, I’m on the porch! Come on back and get me!” We found our favorite little place in Arnaudville, Louisiana.

Tom’s Fiddle & Bow is a colorful, little instrument repair shop in the heart of Arnaudville. Its bright green paint and bright pink doors would draw your eyes if your ears didn’t lead you there first. On the first Sunday of every month, Tom’s Fiddle & Bow hosts a potluck-style jam session, where local musicians and friends come together with their fiddles and bows, of course – and ukuleles, accordions, saxophones, guitars, and more.

We had the pleasure of sitting in one Sunday afternoon, to listen to a plethora of country songs played by incredible musicians. We sang along when we knew the words and tapped our feet when we didn’t. We stood on the back porch and watched the rain pour down as we sang along to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” We stayed there for about three hours and hadn’t realized how much time had really passed, enraptured by the music and friendship that kept us there.


Our reading took us deeper into the Southern Louisiana countryside to Pointe Coupee Parish. With Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, A Lesson Before Dying, in our hands, we walked through Pointe Coupee and reveled in the fictitious world of his protagonist, Grant Wiggins. The novel follows Grant’s transformation as he is assigned the task of helping Jefferson, a wrongfully convicted man, find dignity before execution. Gaines explains the plight of African Americans in the south, examining the ways in which racism functions at an internal level for the black community. Ultimately, Grant learns to overcome his internalized self-hatred to find a sense of self-worth.

We visited the Pointe Coupee Court House with the old Parish Jail that was the basis for Gaines’ novel. The jail was operative until the late 1980’s when the Pointe Coupee Parish Detention Center opened about five miles down the road. The old jail portion of the building is now only used for storage, but is mostly still intact today. We toured the eerie cells, riding up in the old elevator that can be separated by a grate; one side for the detainee, and one for the officer. The cell doors are all open now, filled with boxes of taxes and records.

Down the road from the court house, wedged between fields of sugar cane, we were welcomed into the beautiful home of Ernest J. Gaines, himself. His wife, Dianne, welcomed us into their home, serving us teacakes and scones at their dining room table as we looked on Dr. Gaines with awe. We toured the old church he had moved to his property to restore, and we asked him questions he graciously answered. We had asked him how he had decided to become a writer, and he said, “When I went to California, I had a choice of three places: the movies, the library, and the YMCA. I didn’t have money, so I didn’t go to the movies. And I went to the YMCA and I was foolish enough to get in a boxing ring with a guy who beat me up, so I thought I ought to go to the library.” And there, Dr. Gaines had found his love of literature, but had come to realize that his people’s story had not been told. Gaines set out to write those stories that would bring the African American story, out into literary focus. And he did.


Bookpacking had brought us on a trip throughout Southern Louisiana; to the sea waters of Grand Isle, to the center of Jackson Square, to the the edge of the Capitol Building of Baton Rouge, to the jam session at Tom’s Fiddle & Bow, and to the dinning room table of Ernest J. Gaines. The experience had us so focused, so developed in the cultures that surrounded us, that we had barely even realized how far we had really come.


I stood up and stretched and looked across the highway at the river, so tranquil, its water as blue as the sky. The willows near the edge of the water were just as still, and no breeze stirred the Spanish moss that hung from the cypresses.
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Preservation Hall

PRESERVATION HALL

--

Sitting front row: fear of feeling
too close; staying seated, stiff,
two feet away from the man in the middle,
the man who swipes away any lingering doubt
with the first thumb on the trumpet,
his first toot trailing through the room,
slow flight into everyone’s ears,
minds excited by the burst
breaking the quiet in the room.

The crystal call of the clarinet
and the strong blow of the trombone
permeate the space the most
but the subdued boom of the bass,
the dun dun duns of the drums,
the light ting with each strike of a piano key
all fall into the watercolor wind,
whirling together to create a concoction
for the audience, a taste of New Orleans
as potent as the Cajun crawfish,
the café beignets, the gulf gumbo.

After letting each man spice up his own dish—
the clarinetist cleansing his soul,
offering the most appetizing treat,
squeeze squeeze squeezing that magic
out of the tool in his hand,
melting his heart into mine—
the head chef, the man in the middle
closes those eyes and opens his mouth,
letting his soul, that soul guide him.

If you close your eyes, you can hear
Louis himself, a voice riding along
a bumpy road on its way out the mouth,
a voice thick as a Louisiana swamp,
thick as a sticky syrup, sweet,
smoothing out into the air,
a jazzy sap drizzled, seeping into
the dense honeyed sound of the bass,
the piano, the beat beat beat of the drum,
reminding us that time,
although slowed and savored,
passes by with each gruff growl
pushing its way out from the mouth
of the man in the middle.

Gimme your Big Easy, middle man,
your mind’s map, your days out
on Basin Street benches, warming
the seat beneath you and the bodies
of the few gathered around you,
listening to the spirit, the soul
build up inside, the voice of New Orleans
directing your own, guiding your fingers
as they cast hell out of the trumpet in your hands.

Gimme your story, your history,
the story of your city,
the story of those Basin Street days;
tell me, sing to me about the crooks,
the lawyers, the children, the dogs,
the days of milking out malaise
on Monday mornings, cultures blending
like the blare, the blow, the bounce
billowing into both my ears,
settling in my stomach,
snaking back up to the shoulders,
shaking and swaying the torso,
freeing themselves down to my feet,
which punctuate time with their
tap-tap-tapping.

That gruff gravel voice and that Southern swing
seem to rouse the crowd, as they,
after the man in the middle has let go of Louis
(though his Louisiana soul still looms),
wake from their walk through this wonderland,
compelled, complimenting,
clap-clap-clapping.

I let my own claps fall onto the heap
of applause, indiscernible among the rest,
but I stand entranced,
my greatest gratitude living
in the way my heart engulfs the music,
the way I refuse to let it die, the way I
swallow that soul, let it slide down,
big and easy,
into every part of my being.

The Whitney Plantation Tour

When I told my friends about my summer plans, they couldn't help but express their happiness and jealousy over the fact that I was traveling to New Orleans, one of the most hype cities for young people in America. They told me about the legendary Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, and the festive spirit of the city. So I held high expectations for the Maymester course and knew the city would offer good cuisine, leisure activities, and exposure to Creole/Cajun culture. You could only imagine my anticipation to finally see the city.

The first thing that struck me about the city of New Orleans was the interplay between the past and the present. In contrast to many cities in California, New Orleans contains a vast history that stretches back to the arrival of the French and Spanish in the New World. The beautiful authentic European architecture definitely popped out at me. In fact, entire sections of the city look completely slathered with pastel colors and have street artists and performers at almost every major cross street. The city itself is thoroughly spread out, walkable, open, welcomes tourists, and is a melting pot for diverse peoples in the South. I can understand why half a century ago Tennessee Williams said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” In some ways, the city of New Orleans resembles my home city of San Francisco in that it offers a wider degree of individualism, liberalism, diversity, licentiousness, artistic expression, and civic responsibility that are not widely available in other American mid-sized cities.

Beneath the grandeur of the city, New Orleans contains a rich and dark history steeped in slavery and French colonialism. Although many people make the argument that New Orleans today blends different socio-economic and racial groups together, New Orleans was formerly known for its heavy involvement in the Atlantic slave trade to the extent that the Southern region of Louisiana was coined the "Gold Coast." The buying and selling of African peoples peaked in 1807 when the international slave trade was banned in the United States. Subsequently, the movement of slaves from the North to the South accelerated due to what historians deem today, "the Second Middle Passage." As a result, the institution of slavery became the main economic engine driving the economy within the South whereas the North began to industrialize its workforce and modes of production instead.

Our trip to the Whitney Plantation exposed the dark and brutal history of slavery and its impact on Louisiana's social, political, and economic development. After our morning seminar, we took individual portraits and then waited for an hour in the plantation's expensive bookstore that sold fashionable African-American literature, books, cds, African clothes, and trinkets. Our wonderful tour guide Ali took us outside and immediately, we went to the church adjacent to the bookstore. I couldn't help but admire Ali for his eloquence and sophistication. Ali ensured that every single person in the group understood the full weight of slavery on the African body, the universality of slavery throughout human history, and the function of slavery in the Southern economy.

With his booming charismatic voice and impromptu style, Ali delivered a powerful presentation on the architecture of slavery and the importance of educating youth especially black youth on their history today. He delineated the brutal and psychological mechanisms put in place to control slaves and the profit motive influencing the Southern genteel class to maintain slavery. Ali also discussed how slavery in the United States was different from any other type of slavery in human history in that for the first time in history, race and religion were used to justify the perpetual enslavement of another group of people. The details concerning the first colonial attempts to enslave Native Americans and Pope Nicholas V's "Dum Diversas" sanction in 1452 that authorized the enslavement of pagan peoples were also very gripping and highlight the complex interplay between major European institutions (the church, the marketplace, European shipping industries, the aristocrasy) in the conception of this new form of slavery in the United States.

The Black Baptist Church

The plantation originally didn't possess a church. The church was eventually acquired from demolished pieces of a black Baptist church miles away from the plantation. During slavery, slaves could enter the church, but were not allowed to preach, read the Bible, and were only told specific scriptures regarding humility, obedience, and the rewards of Heaven in sermons that justified slavery. If a slave was caught reading, they were given 10-20 lashes as punishment. To paraphrase Ali's words, "It was deadlier for a slave to learn how to read and write, than it was for a slave to attempt to run a way." Soonafter, the church was restored and descendents of black slaves today assume ownership of the church.

Wall of Honor

The Wall of Memory commemorates the names of 350+ slaves who lived, labored, and died on the plantation.  Academics from neighboring universities such as the University of New Orleans and LSU received grants to document the names of slaves that were found in the papers discovered in the Big House roughly twenty years ago. The average life expectancy of African slaves was twenty years and the death toll totaled -12 percent or 112 out of 100 people. Slaves were also sexually exploited to breed mixed race children. Since these children were the property of their slave masters, slave masters usually gave their children French names. 
 

The Field of Angels 

The Field of Angels is a memorial dedicated to the 2,200 slave infants who were born in the St. John the Baptist parish between 1823 and 1863. Since infant mortality rates and diseases in motherhood were exceedingly high, most children died before their second birthday. Most children did not receive a proper Catholic burial and were often buried in large earthen holes on the plantation.

 

The Slave Quarters

There existed roughly twenty houses on the plantation and were carved out of cypress trees. Slaves prepared meals, gardened their vegetables, weaved cloth, and slept here. On average, slaves worked roughly 12-18 hours a day and utilized deadly tools to cut down sugarcane and tobacco plants.  In accordance to the French noir codes, children began work in the fields at the age of 10 and elder slaves stripped the leaves of indigo plants because they were poisonous and in old age.  High-skilled slaves such as carpenters and blacksmiths often were the first to buy their freedom and purchase their slave family's freedom. 

 

The Big House

Ambroise Heidel was the founding father of the plantation. In 1721, he emigrated to the United States with his family. He started out as a modest farmer and then bought the original land tract of the plantation in 1752. He became a wealthy land owner of indigo, tobacco, and sugarcane. Eventually Heidel passed the property off to his son Jean Haydel Sr.  who expanded the farm and acquired more acres of land in 1803. Soonafter, Haydel Sr. bequeathed the property to his son Marcellin. After his death, his widow Marie Azelie Haydel bought the plantation and produced more sugarcane, an astounding 407,000 pounds of sugar during one grind season due to advanced technology in agriculture. 

Baton Rouge

Way off ahead of you, at the horizon where the cotton fields are blurred into the light, the slab will glitter and gleam like water, as though the road were flooded. You’ll go whipping toward it, but it will always be ahead of you, that bright, flooded place, like a mirage.
— Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men

Our reading then took us away from New Orleans. Headed straight for Baton Rouge, our bags were packed, the van was filled, and with us we carried Robert Penn Warren’s novel, All the King’s Men. We started out on the highway again, overlooking sights we had seen briefly on our ride into New Orleans from Grand Isle. I was finally beginning to understand how sudden thunderstorms could roll in, and how driving down the highway could feel more like diving in a submarine. A trip down a web of highways that weaved through what seemed like endless rivers and bayous of cypress trees and Spanish moss, seemed short in our journey from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. We had left the Big Easy behind, just for awhile, to follow the Bookpacking path.

As Louisiana’s capitol, Baton Rouge is the state’s second largest city with the next highest population, second only to New Orleans. But as our van pulled up in the center of downtown, we realized the emptiness of the streets. We attributed it to the rain, figuring everyone had taken shelter inside, but as the rain cleared and we wandered the city, the sleepiness of Baton Rouge seemed a great contrast to the vivaciousness of New Orleans. On a walk around the block, down the Mississippi’s river-edge, across the railroad tracks, and through the park, we had only seen a handful of people. The downtown Baton Rouge population seemed to congregate for lunch at Poor Boy Lloyd’s, where I had some pretty fantastic fried pickles.

A small restaurant full of people seemed like the hotspot of Baton Rouge until we ventured to the capitol building. The tallest capitol building in the United States, the Louisiana State Capitol stands 450 feet high with a 27-acre plot of land. With spectacularly manicured gardens, statues, plaques, and fine materials, the State Capitol Park cost five million dollars and was completed in only 14 months, finishing construction in 1932 under the direction of Governor Huey P. Long.


Huey Long entered into politics fighting for the common man, hoping to reduce the power of big business with taxation to serve the state’s schools, roads, and other utilities. He was elected Governor of Louisiana in 1928, under the campaign slogan, “Every man a king.” Huey Long established many reforms that transformed Louisiana’s economic climate, providing jobs to working class members, enhancing education programs, and revitalizing Louisiana infrastructure. His taxation of oil refineries and big business made him an unwelcome member of government for wealthy businessmen, which lead to many failed attempts at impeachment. Huey Long easily found a seat in the U.S. Senate and was set to run in the 1936 Presidential election against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But by 1935, tensions in Long’s government had run high, as his misuse of power had wracked democratic values for far too long. On September 8th, 1935, Huey Long was shot inside the State Capitol building in Baton Rouge and subsequently died two days later from the injuries.


What remains today is Long’s legacy in the State Capitol building and park. We discovered that that was where everyone seemed to be hiding. Inside, everyone was busy, carrying piles of papers, rushing to the elevators that drag you up 24 floors so quickly, you get a little woozy. The observation deck on the 27th floor provided a view of the entirety of Baton Rouge. From up there, the Mississippi River really does seem to go on forever.

The Senate and House Chambers are extravagant with their heavy marble columns and delicately painted ceilings. We watched as House and Senate members moved to pass bills of legislature, and we watched men and women in fancy suits strut comfortably around the elaborate capitol. Though we were in awe of its rarity, the capitol was part of their everyday life. What remains today, as Huey Long’s legacy, is the averageness of this opulence; that people still come to work in this place everyday. Imagine carrying a simple PB&J in a brown paper bag into work. It would just feel very out of place here.

Cajun Country Song

During our stay in Lafayette, LA we attended a potluck and jam session at Tom's Fiddle & Bow. There we were fortunate enough to listen to not only historic deep south songs, but also popular bluegrass country songs. The people there were not only extremely kind, but also very talented, and they brought great food to boot! This potluck jam was a higlight of my time in Cajun country.

 

Fiddle circle gathers 'round

to introduce their bluegrass sound.

The food is good, the people loud,

they play to a Cajun country crowd.

 

We travelled far, we travelled long,

to find a place that we'd belong,

where way out back they sing along,

to a good 'ol Cajun country song.

 

It was getting late, now time to go.

In our goodbye there was much woe.

But in our hearts we'll always know,

the magic of a Cajun country show.

Cajun Country

So cool, so cool, so cool. That is really all I have to say about our two major events in Cajun Country (around Lafayette): meeting Dr. Ernest J. Gaines and spending time with bluegrass musicians at Tom’s Fiddle and Bow Shop.

Just kidding. I have way more to say.

First of all, I am so grateful Dr. Gaines and his family, not only for allowing us into his home in Pointe Coupee, but also for answering our questions and giving us oatmeal cookies. Mrs. Gaines makes a mean oatmeal cookie. And Dr. Gaines was so open and wise when I started asking questions about God and jazz. God and jazz: the pretentious question starter-pack. So thanks for being patient, Dr. Gaines!

A Lesson Before Dying is the first book in a while that made me lock myself in the bathroom after finishing it. I sat on the sink in the Baton Rouge hotel room Olivia and I were sharing and just had a good, long, somber think. My Sink Thinks only happen when something has profoundly affected me. And A Lesson Before Dying did just that. It is an astonishingly poignant novel about a black man, sentenced to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, trying to reclaim his human dignity before he dies (with the help of a very good friend and teacher). Throughout my reading of the story, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems – “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.

We visited the courthouse in Lafayette that Gaines was thinking of while writing the book. We wandered through the cells, which now serve as storage units for the sheriff’s office. But some are still empty, and I was able to walk in, shut the barred door behind me, and try to imagine what Jefferson (our doomed hero) undoubtedly feels sitting in his small, humid cage. And I just kept thinking of those immortal last two lines of “Invictus”: I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

So often, we are all wretched like Grant, Jefferson’s teacher – unable to stand with courage as a human being and unable to genuflect before any god. But I like to believe that, at the end of his life, Jefferson does both somehow. He bridges the gap between human dignity and sublime submission with elegance and courage. “Tell Nannan [his godmother] I walked,” he utters before submitting to death. He is certainly the captain of his soul. Standing in that rusty cell in Lafayette, I could just feel it.

The day after visiting Dr. Gaines, we headed to Tom’s Fiddle and Bow Shop. We had just finished reading Tim Gautreaux’s short story “Floyd’s Girl” about a strong Cajun family, so I was ready to listen to some authentic Cajun and bluegrass music and meet some authentic Cajun people. But, holy guacamole, I did not expect to fall absolutely in love with these people. I spent the majority of the three hours at Tom’s on the back porch that overlooked the calm, brown bayou. Leland, Lori, Janet, and Elmer were playing out there, and singing “Ring of Fire” and “House of the Rising Sun” with them made me so inexplicably happy.

I had never before sat among strangers and realized how completely beautiful they were. Really guys, I was grinning like an idiot the whole time. It’s because people like Leland, Lori, Janet, and Elmer (and Byron, who was in another room, but who told me he loved my glasses – you’re a legend, Byron), people that don’t know a lick about you but open their arms wide and invite you to sing along…they are the reason I know the human race is worth saving. No exaggeration.

Peace, love, Cajun Country.

MEAL OF THE MOMENT: JAMBALAYA

Jambalaya is delicious (like everything else in this state), and it is also the perfect Meal of the Moment, since the event we attended at Tom’s Fiddle and Bow is called “JAMbalaya” and it happens the first Sunday of each month. I don’t know what else to say about the roux-based rice and meat dish, except that I ate it at a restaurant where I taught Stasi how to dance to bluegrass. It was a lot of fun, but twirling around a dancefloor after eating jambalaya was a precarious situation.