Bowen Du

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

Image via

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!

All That Jazz...

The music grew strange and fantastic—turbulent, insistent, plaintive and soft with entreaty. The shadows grew deeper. The music filled the room. It floated out upon the night, over the housetops, the crescent of the river, losing itself in the silence of the upper air.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Music has permanently interwoven itself into the fabric of New Orleans. You cannot pass a day without being drawn into the staccato of a trumpet or the tempo of a tap dancer. Street drummers riff the heartbeat of the city; should they ever stop, the entire city would come to a standstill.

Walking past Café Beignet, I heard from inside a guitarist playing the intro to "Dust in the Wind," and I found myself irresistibly drawn to a pause. It's a song I've listened to countless times, but hearing it here in New Orleans resonated with me in a new way. This is a city that has made its peace with transience and constant change and thus has achieved a unique type of immortality. We may all be nothing more than dust in the wind, "just a drop of water in an endless sea," but ephemerality is the one constant of life. Here in New Orleans, the Big Easy, I am learning to accept this impermanence.

Binx, the protagonist of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, seems to grapple with many of the existential questions of our times—Stasi called him an adult version of Holden Caulfield. While this doesn't always make for the most exciting plotline, Binx's soul-searching is interesting in the context of New Orleans. Often he seeks the experiences, however seemingly insignificant, that are separate from the "abyss" of "ordinary occasions," the moments in which he truly feels and knows that he is alive. To that effect, Binx declares, "The highest moment of a malaisian's life can be that moment when he manages to sin like a proper human (Look at us, [...] we're sinning! We're succeeding! We're human after all!)." Binx's malaise, "the pain of loss," the inability "to be in the world," is like a perversion of New Orleans' easygoing nature. Whereas others see relaxation, Binx sees stagnation, poison, and death. As he grapples with the issues of life and humanity, he finds it impossible to feel any form of typical enjoyment. He needs such moments as a car accident to validate his own existence, to prove that he is alive.

The novel traces the progress of Binx's "search" for meaning; ever the Existentialist, his search in a meaningless world is what supplies meaning. Along these philosophically paradoxical lines, once accepted, life’s meaninglessness gives way to pure life without the burden of meaning. When we simply live, we find true enjoyment. This is something that the people of New Orleans seem to understand tacitly.

In many ways, Binx’s search reminds me of bookpacking, though in a flawed form. He describes the first iteration of his search as a "vertical search," the goal of which is to stand "outside the universe and […] to understand it." Binx does this through reading "only 'fundamental' books, that is, books on key subjects." His reading takes place in the solitude of his room; he reads in isolation "as an Anyone living Anywhere"; location is irrelevant to him, and he ventures outside "only for diversion." When his vertical search is complete, he undertakes a "horizontal search" to understand himself, now that he understands the universe (or so he claims). This second phase of his search inverts the first phase: "Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion." By the end of The Moviegoer, however, Binx abandons his search, and he gives up his existence to "malaise" and "desire," desire perhaps for an unattainable affirmation of his own humanity.

As bookpackers, we read and wander with the same goal—to understand the world around us and our place in it. We seek to capture the "genie-soul" of New Orleans, its currents and eddies. Unlike Binx, we read and wander at once, and we never presume to fully understand the universe. For us, to understand society and to understand the self, or the individual, are two sides of the same coin (or covers of the same book, if you will). We, too, want to affirm our own humanity, but we do not separate ourselves from the rest of humanity through physical and mental isolation. Rather, we wish to be one with it.

Stasi posing with a band in Jackson Square

Stasi posing with a band in Jackson Square

Binx’s existential search is reminiscent of Edna, who, in The Awakening, wants to define her own individuality in relation to the men around her. Edna also finds that certain moments can produce feelings of exhilaration and an irrevocable sense of being alive. This often occurs when Mademoiselle Reisz plays the piano. Her music stirs "the very passions themselves […] within [Edna’s] soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body." Music gives Edna the same sensation of freedom that learning how to swim does; both show her the range and depth of human emotion and capability.

New Orleans is rife with such moments. Music is the immutable feature of this city, the quality that pervades every street, every neighborhood. And I find it all captivating. Bursts of song, a melody caught from the other side of Jackson Square, the guitarist whose song entrances me—these are the moments in which I know I am alive. These are the moments in which I know I am able to "be in the world," to connect with those around me.

2017_05_27_New Orleans (11).JPG

Just today, we encountered multiple examples of the magical musicality New Orleans. We spent the first part of our day at a second line parade held by the Money Wasters Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The sheer thrill of being surrounded by a throng of dancers and revelers made me lose awareness of myself—I was a part of this larger group moving as one, almost loud enough to drown out the strain of jazz guiding it.

Later on, we attended a performance at Preservation Hall, a venue in the French Quarter that works to preserve traditional jazz. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band graced us with renditions of "Just a Little While to Stay Here," "You Rascal, You," and "When the Saints Go Marching In." Again, we were more than just passive observers; we were drawn into the experience by the band leader, who invited us to participate in the last two songs. Finally, on our way back to the hotel, we saw a violinist, Tanya Huang, playing "Defying Gravity," one of my favorite songs, on Royal Street. As with the guitarist playing "Dust in the Wind," I stayed until she finished, then grabbed a CD before I left.

Binx never mentions music in his existential search. Maybe this is the element that he is missing, the experience that could connect him to his inner being, the way it does with Edna, or to the outer world, as it does with us. What his search lacks is unity—the "vertical" and "horizontal" components are successive rather than aligned, and he separates himself from society, from "the universe."

For me, music is the great unifier. Music illuminates my emotional landscape like moonlight through an attic window. It excites "the very passions" within me, and it helps me recognize those passions in others. Binx believes that he understands others through psychological tropes that he has learned through watching characters in films, but his understanding is hindered by his failure to comprehend himself first. Of course, I cannot claim full self-knowledge, but music helps me glimpse emotional truths in my own being and in others'.

On a final note, here is a piece of instrumental music composed by Danny Elfman for Rob Marshall’s 2002 film adaptation of Chicago (Alfredo and I forced Chris to watch it a few days ago). The timbre of the song matches the easygoing nature of this bookpacking experience, and I hope you enjoy it.


I am duty-bound by the unofficial laws of the internet to annoy you with a post about food (#basic). Bear with me.

Dining is central to any travel experience, and this is especially true of New Orleans, where the smell of seafood clings to your clothes wherever you go. While walking around the French Quarter, I am constantly tempted by the scent of something delicious carried out into the humid streets by a blast of AC. More often than not, I give in.

Creole and Cajun food reign supreme in New Orleans, and though this has been wonderful for my palate, my figure is beginning to suffer. But I'll worry about that later. I've also spent some time exploring other cuisines, and so here are some of my recommendations to future bookpackers.

1. Yum's Restaurant

3059 LA-1
Grand Isle, LA 70358

I have to credit Yum's for my awakening (pun intended) to the world of Louisianan cooking. Here began my love affair with the po' boy. For anyone unfortunate enough to be ignorant of this marvelous food item, a po' boy is a sandwich that contains some type of meat—typically of the seafood variety—and can be dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, or whatever other accoutrements your heart may desire. The cooks at Yum's make a mean catfish po' boy, but their shrimp po' boys are to die for, as Andrew himself will attest to.

At first glance, Yum's may not look like much. You may hardly even notice it while driving through Grand Isle, but you'll be sorry if you miss it. Yum's is the perfect place to come to after a day of reading on the beach and swimming in the Gulf. It is always filled with lively locals and vacationers, and it's not hard to strike up a conversation with another group of customers—someone even invited us to visit his sugarcane farm.

In short, Yum's is a must for any visitor to Grand Isle.

2. Boutte's Bayou Restaurant

5134 Boutte Street
Lafitte, LA 70067

We lunched at Boutte's during our drive up from Grand Isle to New Orleans. Like Yum's, Boutte's may appear deceptively unassuming. Make your way up the creaking steps, though, and you're in for an experience that will make you want to stay forever. Boutte's confirmed my undying love for po' boys. Crabmeat may make for a messy sandwich, but the mess is half the fun. The flavor is the other half.

For those of you who may want to diversify beyond the po' boy realm, Boutte's crawfish pies and seafood gumbo come highly recommended by Alfredo. Though I don't have a picture of it, the baked potato (fully dressed) is also an excellent menu item. So if you're ever in New Orleans, be sure to drive down to Lafitte for some fantastic Creole cooking!

3. Mother's Restaurant

401 Poydras St
New Orleans, LA 70130

Mother's is the self-proclaimed home of the "World's Best Baked Ham." Unfortunately, none of us ordered baked ham, and so I can't say if Mother's is deserving of that title. What I can and will say, however, is that their jambalaya is nothing short of inspirational. In fact, I've been annoying everyone for days by singing "Jambalaya" to the tune of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (I heard there was a secret dish / that Creoles make, and they use some fish, / but you don't really care for seafood, do you?). The sides are surprisingly tasty—I had no idea that green beans and tomatoes could taste so good.

If you want a place that isn't too fancy but serves amazing Creole food at a good price, then Mother's is a great choice. Try that baked ham or get some seafood, but be ready to burst into song. ♪ Jambalaya, jambalaya, jambalaya ... ♪

4. Ray's on the Ave.

1139 St Bernard Ave
New Orleans, LA 70116

Ray's is a little place up in the Tremé run by some of the nicest people you will ever meet. And these people make some of the nicest food you will ever eat. I'm sure you're sick of hearing about po' boys at this point, but I need to extol the virtues of Ray's alligator sausage (you read correctly) po' boy. Its praises cannot be sung enough. As with any new type of meat, I was hesitant. I'm sure many of us have racked up the courage to try something new, only to be bitterly disappointed in the end. Not so with the alligator. Never smile at a crocodile, but always enjoy a gator po' boy.

5. The Golden Chip

537 Toulouse St
New Orleans, LA 70130

Golden Chips has 4.5/5 stars on Yelp for a reason. Their fries are amazing. Their chicken is amazing. Their sauces are amazing. Incidentally, I highly recommend the Creolaise sauce and the aioli sauce.

If you're wandering around the French Quarter and looking for a place to eat that won't drain your wallet but will fill your stomach, Golden Chips is the place for you. It's only a block or so away from Jackson Square, and I definitely suggest ordering takeout and picnicking. Find a bench, read a book, enjoy the music, eat some chicken. What more can you want from life?

6. Royal Sushi & Bar

1913 Royal St
New Orleans, LA 70116

Up in the Faubourg Marigny, Royal Sushi is a great place to go if you want to take a break from Creole/Cajun food. While there are several great Vietnamese places in the Garden District (the pho at Lilly's Cafe is delicious), New Orleans suffers from a dearth of Japanese venues, and so finding Royal Sushi was serendipitous. For a college student, instant noodles and packaged ramen are staples, but nothing compares to actual ramen from an actual restaurant. I chose a spicy tonkotsu broth with beef and added bok choy and kimchi, but I encourage you to be creative and come up with your own combinations! The handrolls are scrumptious as well, and if you want a good dessert, the red bean ice cream and fried cheesecake won't disappoint!

7. Borgne

601 Loyola Ave
New Orleans, LA 70113

Looking at the menu, the prices at Borgne can seem a little higher than at other restaurants, but once you realize just how much food is on your plate, the prices will begin to make sense. Once you take your first bite, cost will become a forgotten issue.

I'm always hesitant to order sliders because they are often disappointing in portion and taste. Borgne's catfish sliders, however, are an exception; they prove that catfish is the king of all fish. Red beans and rice may sound like a simple dish, but Borgne has mastered this simplicity; this Monday lunch special even comes with a fried pork chop. Borgne also knows how to make bread, shown by their marvelous crawfish ciabatta. The presentation alone is alluring, the taste even more so. As for the pork empanadas, the flavor of the sauce is like a curtain that slowly lifts to reveal the taste of pork. I don't know what sauce they used, but it contains just the right amount of horseradish to clear my sinuses and get my heart racing.

8. Creole Creamery

4924 Prytania Street
New Orleans, LA 70115

In an act of gluttonous foolishness great enough to have been committed by the piggish Ignatius J. Reilly, main character in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, I attempted to complete the Tchoupitoulas Challenge at Creole Creamery. I maintain that I might be able to eat eight scoops of ice cream with eight toppings, but the addition of an entire can of whipped cream (disgusting even in concept) made the task practically impossible for me. Within a few minutes of eating, the sundae turned into a soupy mass of colors.

Unfeasible challenges aside, Creole Creamery is a great place to stave off the humid heat with a cold treat. Their flavors are fantastic, especially lavender honey. Lavender may be a contentious ice cream flavor, but I am a firm believer in trying new things. If you're a more conventional person, I suggest you order a scoop of mango sorbet. If you can find an open seat (it's always crowded), relax, eat your ice cream, and enjoy the fact that there are still ice cream stores that haven't become hipster traps.

9. Café du Monde

800 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA 70116

A beignet

A beignet

No post about food in New Orleans is complete without mentioning Café du Monde, home of the fabled beignet in all its sugary glory. There is no way to sufficiently describe the joy of eating one of these divine confections, so I won't even try.

10. Meril

424 Girod Street
New Orleans, LA 70130

I've saved Meril, one of Emeril Lagasse's restaurants in New Orleans, for the end. Why? Because Meril is amazing. Though not a Creole or Cajun restaurant, Meril still draws from regional cuisine; the clam linguine and shrimp tacos are great examples of this. In this way, Meril is a true New Orleans restaurant; it combines the old with the new in a process of constant evolution.

But enough philosophizing. I'm here to talk about food. Let me just say that I've never had better pasta. As for the shrimp tacos, sorcery was undoubtedly involved in their making. The different flavors involved—shrimp, lemon, corn flour tortilla, sambal mayo, onion, cilantro—are perfectly mixed with explosive force. Taking the first bite was a transformative experience—I ran the gamut of flavors and emotions. As for the chorizo flatbread, in Alfredo's own words, "the bread is flat but the flavor ain't."

The desserts deserve their own paragraph. Between four people (Christopher, Alfredo, Ogechi, and myself), we ordered six desserts: banana cream pie, a chocolate crepe, salted caramel ice cream, cotton candy, raspberry lemonade sorbet, and pecan pie (both Ogechi and I broke into incredulous laughter when the check came). It's amazing that a classy establishment would serve cotton candy; clearly, Meril isn't afraid to have fun.

The rest of my trip will be dedicated to finding a restaurant good enough to knock Meril off my "favorite" pedestal. It may be a futile endeavor.

Hiding Places

Measure time in passing

Streetcars, their clatter a sign

Of something looming.

The unadorned pillar—barely remembered,

Once revered—and the woman

Who seeks change and a prayer

And tells us, you’re sweet.

Find me tomorrow

On the corner of Royal and Canal,

She says, before you leave. Find me

Through the overgrown branches,

Through the pale green jalousies

Offset by peeling plaster—

These hiding places encase us

In life, the marble tombs

In the afterlife. One stood open,

Its emptiness inviting. Step into

This moss-grown space, damp

With the threat of a storm.

Lift your head from your pages

And watch rain embrace the rooftop

Opposite. Watch as it creates

A mirror for itself.

Past and Future

‘Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult.’
— Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

On the night of May 18, 2017, just south of the Lafayette Hotel where we were staying, a protest took place around a statue of Robert E. Lee, raised high on a white column in the middle of the eponymous Lee Circle. The city had decided to remove this and other similar statues, as they stood as symbols of a romanticized Southern myth, Confederate nostalgia, and white supremacy. Several people had come to decry this decision, saying that the statue was a connection to their history. One man yelled, "Why start small? Take them all! Statue of Liberty next!" The drastic comparison of the Robert E. Lee statue to the Statue of Liberty made me realize just how valued these historical figures are by certain groups. For others who were there, however, the statue was seen as a reminder of slavery, oppression, and racism. Shouting matches turned into shoving matches, and though we were initially afraid that violence would erupt (as Ogechi describes in her wonderful post about the event), native onlookers around us laughed off the yelling as if it were nothing more than a game of insults between children on a playground.

I wondered then about the way we navigate the transition between past and future identities. How do we change ourselves in order to move out of yesterday and into tomorrow? For New Orleans and the South at large, that change is most prominent in race relations, particularly those between white and African-American groups. The past must not be ignored—it must be confronted and accepted in a way that acknowledges and condemns the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, police brutality, and all other forms of racism. Clearly, there are people who want to resist that change. Perhaps that is why history is often cyclical.

Confederate and American flags in Lee Circle on the night of May 18

Confederate and American flags in Lee Circle on the night of May 18

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire follows the story of Louis de Pointe du Lac, as told by Louis himself to an interviewer identified simply as "the boy." Louis is transformed into a vampire by Lestat de Lioncourt. In the first part of the novel, the two live on Louis’s plantation near New Orleans; they eventually move into the city, where Lestat transforms a young girl named Claudia.

Image via

Image via

I’m writing about Interview with the Vampire here because it, to me, is a novel about change and identity. Both Louis and Claudia have to face the fact that they are now vampires, immortal beings whose lives can never be as they were before. This is a difficult transition for Louis especially, as he does not believe Lestat’s conviction that they are inevitably bound by their bloodthirsty, murderous vampiric nature. For Louis, being a vampire does not preclude morality and emotion, and he avoids killing human victims in favor of animals. He teaches Claudia to appreciate such values, tells her that "'our eternal life was useless to us if we did not see the beauty around us, the creation of mortals everywhere.'"

Something that caught my attention in the novel was the way in which Anne Rice connects vampirism to slavery. In the most basic sense, she does this by setting Louis and Lestat on a plantation worked by slaves. Lestat often lures slaves into being his meals, and when the two vampires are forced to leave the plantation, they massacre the slaves in a gruesome scene of violence. On a more subtle level, however, Rice uses the vampire’s need for companionship to create a master-slave relationship between Lestat, the transformer, and Louis, the transformed. Both suffer in the "chains" of "loneliness," and they are bound to each other despite their conflicting views on what it means to be a vampire.

Louis is a fascinating character to me because he lives through a historical transition from slavery to emancipation while struggling to free himself from Lestat and his own vampire identity. I was reminded of several themes and moments from the novel by one of the more civilized conversations that I listened to while in Lee Circle (the same one that Ogechi transcribes in her post). A woman named Sonya described her journey throughout the United States as an African-American and the way she deals with the past.

Ignoring the expletives being hurled in the background, Sonya looked at us and said, "I have a difference even with my own African-American people, you understand what I’m saying? So there are times when I’m sitting in the middle." This difference, she explained, comes from having lived in different parts of the country and from having experienced an "eclectic community."

It’s a sobering thought, the idea of being separated from your own people. Louis feels that same separation from Lestat, for whom being a vampire means "'[r]evenge against life itself. […] Vengeance, blind and sterile and contemptible.'" Louis, on the other hand, continues to seek emotional validation. He still feels the "'strong overpowering emotions of detached persons in whom emotion and will are one.'" Even as a vampire, Louis experiences "'a desire for communication.'" He longs to find a connection with the humanity he has left behind, and so he feels a type of love for Babette, the woman who runs the neighboring plantation.

Louis’s capacity for emotion separates him from other vampires; he refuses to give in to what Lestat says is his vampire nature. Sonya, too, stressed the power of emotion. "When it comes to my looking at another race," she said, "I would tell them, 'Read the history, educate yourself. How would you feel? And if you do that, if at some point within, you don’t have a feeling of pain, you don’t have a feeling of compassion for an African-American, then you need to check yourself and say, 'why?''"

"Why?" indeed. Why should Louis be bound by "vampire nature"? Why should anyone be bound by a cruel history of oppression? Why can we not reject our nature, our legacies, in favor of better alternatives?

One of Sonya’s anecdotes stood out to me. "When I left Cali and was in Alabama," she began, "they had all these trinkets and whatever. I picked up a Confederate flag bracelet, and I was wearing it, and I didn’t even know what it was." She smiled at her own naïveté. "I walked into a bar, and I was talking to them, and they were looking at me, and then next thing you know we were just chitchatting it up. I remember them saying, 'How come the rest of them aren’t like you?' I actually had on a Confederate bracelet and didn’t even know that it was a Confederate bracelet. How does that happen?"

Louis travels to Europe with Claudia in search of the origins of vampires. They are severely disappointed when they encounter vampires who are feral, insentient, and animalistic. Louis and Claudia live in ignorance of other vampires, and they are utterly shocked to discover an unexpected part of vampire history. They, like Sonya, live in isolated environments and are accustomed to a certain perspective. Sonya’s world was "West Coast, Northern California, San Francisco." When she came to the South, she encountered a different world. Since then, her newfound awareness has shaped her attitude about life.

"Guess what the relationship between New Orleans and San Francisco is?" she asked. None of us knew. "They’re sister cities. The same energy, the freedom." And here is Sonya’s wisdom in all its brilliant glory. Despite the different experiences that she has had in New Orleans and San Francisco, she sees the commonality between the two cities. Louis also finds commonalities between his former human self and his current vampire self. He feels emotions in both forms. He fears the possibility of loneliness as a vampire, which is the same as aching with a need for love. And there is nothing more human than to desire love. There is no vampire nature, only human nature.

‘I love you now with my human nature, if ever I had it,’ I said to her.
— Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

This is the simple truth that Sonya understands and hopes that everyone else will understand: we are all human. That is how we move forward.

The statue of Robert E. Lee being removed on May 19, 2017 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The statue of Robert E. Lee being removed on May 19, 2017 (image via Wikimedia Commons)

New Orleans is the perfect place to learn this lesson. As bookpackers, we seek out the smallest moments that teach us the most, moments that "must be first known and then savored." Every moment is such a moment in this city, this "'magical and magnificent place'" in which all are human. Whatever else changes, our humanity is a constant common ground on which we all build our lives, our futures.

Near the end of his interview, Louis tells the boy, "'But all during these years I had a vague but persistent desire to return to New Orleans. I never forgot New Orleans.'" Neither will I.

Grand Isle

She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Time passes much more slowly here at Grand Isle, an effect likely caused by the fact that the Wi-Fi connection in our lovely beach house is tenuous at best. The microwave takes longer to heat food, my phone charges at a sluggish pace, trawlers leave mild ripples in their wake. Ours is a general atmosphere of relaxedness—but not lethargy—that is perfectly suited to our reading purposes. It is so much easier to become immersed in the world of The Awakening, which is the very world around us, without the pressures of social media (though my Instagram account is due for an update).

In many ways, coming to Grand Isle for the first leg of our bookpacking trip is the perfect start. Reading The Awakening right on the beaches where much of the novel takes place is almost uncanny. This is an excellent way to demonstrate what bookpacking is meant to be. We are able to travel to a region and learn about it through experience and literature, and so we are truly immersed in a journey that is both eye-opening and enjoyable.

What makes bookpacking so profound is the chance to see how literature and reality reflect each other. Behind Kate Chopin’s vivid descriptions of Edna Pontellier’s mental and emotional turmoil, Grand Isle’s easygoing, carefree air can be sensed. In the first few pages or so, Mr. Pontellier “idly” watches a “sunshade that was advancing at a snail’s pace from the beach”—Louisiana’s equivalent of tumbleweed. Also apparent is the importance of religion, specifically Catholicism, to the summer vacationers. One character, described only as “a lady in black,” wanders around constantly “telling her beads,” and others often take a ferry to Chênière Caminada “to hear mass.” Though Edna herself is not Creole, the characteristics of the Creole society which she essentially marries into are still prevalent in the novel.

Something that fascinates me is how Grand Isle still displays a rather strange combination of this “apparent disposition to relax” and a sense of Christian prominence. As for the former, the fact that the island remains a popular holiday destination speaks for itself. The beaches and the “voice of the sea” remain “seductive” and “inviting” to all who can afford to rent a beach house for a few days. The latter is evident in the sign that reads, “Jesus Christ Reigns over Grand Isle,” which greets visitors immediately after first driving onto Grand Isle. The graveyard on the island is also an assemblage of crosses and icons and statues of Mary, which, I suppose, is not exactly atypical.

One small bit of graffiti, if it can be called that, exemplifies these characteristics best. A pillar in Grand Isle State Park’s observation tower bears the following inscription:




The phrase is certainly a cliché, but it is an effective one. Grand Isle is truly a place where one can walk around with no particular destination in mind and take a stroll simply for the pure pleasure of it.

Someone else, however, has made a slight amendment to the original phrase:





The simple addition of five words changes the meaning of the phrase entirely. It now expresses a strong sense of religious fervor. While the idea that all who do not believe are lost is true from a Christian (or generally religious) perspective, the manner in which this sentiment is expressed is somewhat ominous. Lurking just beneath the surface of this statement is a threat of hellfire and damnation, which is arguably not the best way to proselytize.

Halfway between innocuity and something much darker, the inscription reminded me of the Creole society that Edna finds herself in, a somewhat contradictory combination of freedom and rigidity. Bookpacking thus affords me deeper insight into Edna's mind than simply reading at home would. After only a few days on the road, I've already felt bookpacking's power to generate greater understanding of people, place, and novel.