Stasi

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.

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.

Voice

I don’t know when I’m going to die, Jefferson. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe today. That’s why I try to live as well as I can every day and not hurt people. Especially people who love me, people who have done so much for me, people who have sacrificed for me. I don’t want to hurt those people. I want to help those people as much as I can.
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

We pulled up in our too-big black van to the gates with the large letter G's woven into their ironwork. The sky above us was filled with clouds that sprayed gentle showers over the fields of sugarcane to our left. As we were greeted by his daughter and wife with charming smiles at the door to his house, I felt a rush of excitement.

Meeting Ernest J. Gaines, the author of the most significant book I've read on our bookpacking journey through southern Louisiana, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We were welcomed kindly into his home to talk about his life and his time as an author of great literature, and I saw his eyes sparkle behind his glasses as we asked him questions. He told us about his life in this part of rural New Roads, Louisiana in the 1930's and 40's, where he lived on a plantation as a child and went to school in an old church house when he wasn't working in the fields. He spoke about his move to San Francisco when he was only fifteen years old, and how the soul of the South never ceased calling back to him until he moved back years later. "All of my books are about going back to the old place," he said thoughtfully. 

"I used to write letters for the old people because many of them had not had any education at all," Dr. Gaines said about his first interaction with writing. "I did create letters that time. [The old people] had about two lines, and I had to say something to keep this thing going."

"When I went to California...I had a choice of three places: the movies, the library, and the YMCA." He smiled. "I didn't have the 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 just beat me up, so I thought I ought to go to the library." He laughed.

When Dr. Gaines started reading at the library, his love of books grew at an exponential rate, and consequently his urge to write followed. "I didn't know there were so many books in the world," he said. "There were hardly any books there about my people, my culture...[and] it was then that I tried to write." He smiled. "From reading all the white writers, I learned how to put a book together, how to build a house. But the black musicians, especially the blues musicians, taught me what should go into the house."

With his unique voice standing among so many white writers of and before his time, his book, A Lesson Before Dying, put our exploration of Cajun country into context. The novel outlines the story of a black schoolteacher who is confronted with the task of restoring a young, black convict's human dignity before his execution; while the novel is not autobiographical, the setting and the certain experiences of the schoolteacher reflect Dr. Gaines's hometown and his acquaintance with race relations.

I didn’t know there were so many books in the world.

Visiting Dr. Gaines in his childhood town put into perspective the themes of communal expectation and societal oppression marked by his writing. Listening to the rustle of sugarcane in the wind and wandering through the old court house's jail cells (where Jefferson, the convict, spent his last months in the novel) took me back into that time period, putting me into the shoes of those black men and women who eked a living in a society and economy geared to work against them.

Speaking with Dr. Gaines about his relationship with literature was very telling of the time period he lived in, which wasn't as far back as we think - only around the 1950's. With the help of narratives written by and about the African American experience, historical context and credit may be given to a country that still struggles to climb out of the cruel history of racism.

Good Enough For Me

Blocks of beautiful parkways wind along the river, and historical buildings and monuments shine in the light breaking through the dense cloud cover. Apparently, Baton Rouge weekend night-life is much more entertaining; but considering we went there during the week, I think we saw a total of six people walking around the streets at any one time. 

This aside, the Big Raggedy and its surrounding suburbs were informed by our reading of All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. The story follows the journey of Willie Talos (or Willie Stark in some versions of the book), a self-proclaimed "hick" with a knack for reaching the hearts of the poor whites and who ascended to the highest political position of the state with ambitious and unconventional means. His story mirrors that of the real mayor of Louisiana during the 1930's, Huey Long, who remains a fond landmark in the state's history as the mayor who revitalized the state's infrastructure and whom the people adored. 

As an example of Huey Long's remarkable industry, he built the new State Capitol building in only 14 months; to this day, the building remains one of the largest and most beautiful in all the state, towering over the various downtown buildings with concrete and marble wonder. 

The Louisiana State Capitol Building, c. May 16, 1932

The Louisiana State Capitol Building, c. May 16, 1932

All The King's Men added a personal, human touch to the study of Huey Long's politics during the time of his political reign, a perspective no history textbook could have provided. As a result, I explored the Capitol, Huey Long's monumental grave, and the beautifully manicured gardens and saw them not just as decoration but as a statement of power made by one man in his home state. 

I heard the speech. But I don’t give a damn about that. Hell, make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em think you’re their weak and erring pal, or make ‘em think you’re God-a-Mighty. Or make ‘em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir ‘em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more.
— Robert Penn Warren, All the Kings Men

The practice of stirring up the poor white communities of middle America in the novel is hauntingly familiar, where the political vigor of Willie Stark and Huey Long rivals that of the candidates for the recent United States election. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders stirred up similar constituencies as Huey Long during their campaigns, coming from outside of the political arena and rocking the foundation of American politics. While these are all different men with different political goals in mind, the similarities in how they stir up a crowd during a rally and play on the pathos of the people to get their support is staggering.

However responsive the political leaders may seem on issues concerning the development of infrastructure and revitalization of jobs, the problem of environmental degradation in Louisiana's bayous still takes a backseat. On our way to Baton Rouge, we stopped in a small town in the Atchafalaya Basin and took a boat tour through the swamps nearby. Our tour guide, a Spanish immigrant who had been living and working for the preservation of the basin for nineteen years,  talked to us about the history of logging in the region and how the ecosystems have suffered from human intervention.

A 1,000-year-old cypress, hidden in the swamps from the invasive tools of   loggers   over the past 300 years. 

A 1,000-year-old cypress, hidden in the swamps from the invasive tools of loggers over the past 300 years. 

One of the most striking things he talked about was the longevity of the swamp. He described the swamp as it used to be before Louisiana was settled in 1718; they were hives of primordial mystery, brimming with the cacophonous drone of birds in the massive cypresses that towered over the earth for thousands of years. When it was found that cypresses could endure the subtropical climate, the early settlers began to log the swamps and build their houses from the impenetrable, un-rottable cypress wood. This transformed the swamps' ecosystems forever, with new cypresses growing much thinner and smaller in size and bushes and vines invading the ground so fewer trees could grow.

Today, the environmentalists of the Atchafalaya Basin are working to protect the swamps from future logging ventures, fighting against corporations who want to construct oil pipelines. Their small victories in court over the years have led them to partner with a British company to protect the swamplands with the hopes of finally establishing a state or federal mandate to protect the swamps from future human invasion. Although the journey has been tough and many companies still fight for development, the importance of the Atchafalaya Basin to the ecosystem of Louisiana has not fallen on deaf ears. 

The political climate of Louisiana has proven to be as thick and hot as the air we breathe here. Investigation of the methods behind political innovation and the battles still being fought have informed my experience in the Capitol city, allowing me to peek behind the veil of governmental development and to understand how Louisiana has become the modern state it is today.

Brilliance

Live oaks unfurl their ivy-cloaked branches over the sidewalks and push their roots through the pavement. The oaks' stature and age rival the prowess of the white-columned mansions leering at us behind rusted iron gates on either side of the road. The sky is gray and bulky with rain clouds, but the path is dry as we meander through the Garden District. The wealth is stunning here; many of these houses were built over a hundred years ago (maybe more) when the cotton and sugar industries were the prominent source of moneymaking in New Orleans. As the houses stand today, with fresh coats of paint and new cars in the driveway, it's difficult to imagine who could possibly live in these monstrous buildings now. 

Gilded Progress

in the face of decay

Our tour through the Garden District and Uptown sections of New Orleans gave us a distinct look at the history of its economy over the years. The Garden District was home to many wealthy Americans who came from the north after the Civil War, as well as those previous planters whose wealth resided in the plantations. Further by the river, the houses become more simplistic in design and show the history of the European immigrants who worked the shipyards in that part of town. The disparity of wealth as defined by certain city blocks is a common theme today with modern cities, and it's interesting to see how far back boundary lines may go in historical terms.

We looked at these locations through the eyes of Ignatius Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces and Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer - both significantly cynical and eccentric characters meandering through the wealth around them as outsiders. My perspective of the Garden District and its specific streets shifted to one that could accept that people did, in fact, live here at some point in time, that these houses weren't just amusement park facades or movie sets. 

My perspective was also informed by the more sobering history of slavery. Days earlier, we visited the Whitney Plantation, where an informative tour gave us an inside look into the daily lives of slaves living on sugar plantations hundreds of years ago. Our tour guide, Ali, gave us a candid view of the life of a slave, and by outlining the roles of each person on a plantation - from slave to overseer to plantation owner - he provided a new perspective on the brutalities these slaves faced in everyday life and stressed the importance of learning this history so later generations may not be doomed to repeat it.

The houses in the Garden District are drenched in this cruel history. Many of them were built with money gained from the exploitation of millions of lives condemned to slavery by the color of their skin. Many of the beautiful galleries, brightly-colored verandas, and shining window panes wouldn't have been here if not for the slaves undergoing the brutal process of harvesting, processing, and packaging sugarcane for the plantations nearby. 

I'm sure the residents of these splendid houses today don't condone slavery as previous tenants did. These houses are now owned by celebrities, such as Peyton Manning's family and Sandra Bullock; they are even rented out as sets for movies and TV shows, such as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (movie, 2009) and "American Horror Story: Coven" (TV, 2013-14). The wealth is still outrageous, but time has changed the atmosphere around these historic buildings. However, it is important to remember that behind every mansion lies a history of slavery, and the countless stories that are just beginning to be revealed by tours such as on the Whitney Plantation will continue to inform an unassuming public about the foundations of this city. 

Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Celebrity and wealth aside, New Orleans remains a center for art and for living a life of pleasure regardless of socio-economic status. A number of authors - William Faulkner, John Kennedy Toole, Walker Percy, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, and Ernest Hemingway to name a few - lived in this city and experienced the intoxicating atmosphere of free expression and artistic aestheticism that later contributed to some of their greatest works of literature. Learning about how William Faulkner as a young man used to shoot his BB gun at passers-by in Pirate's Alley off of Jackson Square, and reading Walt Whitman's poem about live oaks that he wrote while he lived here for a time, has been incredibly inspiring and has brought the city to life for me in a whole new way.

Whether you live in a hundred-year-old mansion on Prytania or a one-bedroom apartment outside of town, New Orleans has an incredible energy fueled by its history that makes it one of the most unique, eclectic places to live in.

Passage of Time

She let her mind wander back over her stay at Grand Isle; and she tried to discover wherein this summer had been different from any and every other summer of her life.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

The fine sand was silk between my toes. The hot breeze hummed softly from the Gulf, and the steady murmur of the waves pushed shells and bits of sea life out of the tide. I brushed a few stray particles of sand from between the pages of Kate Chopin's The Awakening as the protagonist Edna described the effect these same waters had over her; the only difference between my experience and hers was that hers happened in a fictional novel set over 100 years ago. This is what "bookpacking" is to me: the blending of fiction with reality where I can delve further into a literary work and glean a greater understanding of the setting it was written in.

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Grand Isle, Louisiana

Three nights at Sol et Terre, our cottage by the sea...

The first stop on our Maymester journey through Louisiana brought us to Grand Isle, an island getaway filled with pastel-colored, stilted summer homes that swayed in the humid breezes. The quiet privacy of a beach in our backyard was the tropical vacation I'd always wanted - with the added benefits of fried chicken and a distinctly blessed lack of tourists. The quiet atmosphere and the isolation from the city allowed our group of eight students to get to know each other better, as well as provide a perfect environment to start diving into the literature of our program. 

One of the things that struck me about Grand Isle right off the bat was the feeling of it being old and new at the same time. The Awakening opens with scenes that would have taken place on Grand Isle 127 years ago, yet they felt as if they could have happened in 2017 for the simple reason that Grand Isle hasn't changed much in appearances since then. Sure, there are power lines and wi-fi and Jo-Bob's Gas and Grill next to the paved road, but the vibrancy of the ocean life and the humid, salty air act as they must have for over a century.

Cheniere Caminada

The passage of time has not been kind, however. The island Chênière Caminada is now covered by the water seen in this photo, the entire landmass taken out by a hurricane in 1893. Chopin, writing The Awakening in 1899, paid homage to it by including it in her narrative, allowing me to see what life was like for the Cajun inhabitants of the island with a more personal lens than a simple history book would have explained otherwise.

On our day trip up to Grand Isle State Park, we got a nice view of Grand Terre, an adjacent island with history of its own. The fort present on the island served as a base for the pirate Jean Lafitte in the 19th century, who provided the city of New Orleans with smuggled European goods during the Embargo Act of the War of 1812; used as a Civil War fort later in the century, the island now stands as a historical monument just on the edge of the skyline for Grand Isle visitors. Gazing on the fort from the distant pier we stood on, I thought about how many other eyes over the years have looked at it from this same vantage point.

We visited the Grand Isle cemetery on our way out of the island, and many of the plastered, above-ground graves had fresh flowers at their bases and were filled with family members bearing the same name. The air was still and quiet, restful for the sleeping souls that lay beneath our delicately treading feet. This, I know, is only the first cemetery we plan to visit on our trip to Southern Louisiana, and it was the age of it that really struck me. The playground beside the headstones was empty at the time of our visit to the cemetery, but it told me how the generations of past, present, and future interacted with each other on a regular basis in this part of the country.

What does the proximity of these historical landmarks mean about the locals’ concept of history?

As a native of Los Angeles, I haven't experienced what it's like growing up in a city that still holds the evidence of history. Los Angeles's history feels transient, fleeting in comparison to the innumerable lifetimes that crossed through this location over the centuries. I thought about how many feet walked the cemetery paths I walked on that day, and how many faces felt the dying heat of the sun setting on the west side of the island. I had only begun to understand the history of the city I called my home, and here I was, faced with a city that had headstones older than my city's founding.

What did Grand Isle show me about how time can pass while keeping an appreciation for the present moment? What do I have yet to experience in New Orleans, where the history is no doubt richer?

While our time on Grand Isle was short, it opened my eyes to the culture I could expect to find in New Orleans: a culture that celebrates the pleasures of life with leisurely abandon, wears its history like a polished family brooch, and inspires a generation to think of the years when the people may change but the landscape will remain.