Student Blogs

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

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!

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.


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


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!



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


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).

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

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.


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.

Garden District

Guided by the pages of our novels, our tour of New Orleans led us to the elegant and stately mansions of the Garden District. Just a quick ride down St. Charles in a streetcar, took us into the heart of the historic district of enormous columns, glistening paint, and elaborate ironwork; each structure completely distinct from the next. In a single block we could find a home in every one of the colors we could imagine, and yet, they all seemed to meld together to create a cohesiveness. In true New Orleans’ fashion, this neighborhood survived to tell the tale of a culture-blending that brought together Victorian, Greek Revival, and Italianate architecture. These antebellum mansions, with their lush, green lawns, sprawling oaks, and gas-lit lamps, decorate New Orleans with its well-preserved charm.

It wasn’t difficult to imagine Walker Percy’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, walking down Jackson Avenue on his way to his aunt’s house for lunch. Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, follows Binx on his existential crisis as he contemplates the ordinary, attempting to finding meaning in the day-to-day rituals of life. Binx was raised in the affluence of the Garden District, but removes himself to live in the middle-class neighborhood of Gentilly. Following his desire for meaning, Binx only returns to the Garden District to appease his genteel, Aunt Emily. He spends many an afternoon traveling through the city on his way to lunch in the Garden District, observing all elements of average New Orleans life in hopes of finding purpose in his own.

As we walked through the Garden District, I could imagine the sort of people Binx describes; the sort of people that build great mansions on deep, vast, plots, to keep themselves separated from their neighbors and the lives of those around them. Percy’s narrator of Binx realizes that life cannot be had this way. And as we walked the streets that Binx would have, the distance that wealth makes, seemed greater than it had before.

We each aimed to take pictures of the stellar architecture, but leaned over high shrubs, pointy iron-fences, and tall brick walls. Each house in the neighborhood was far removed from the sidewalk and each neighboring structure farther from the last. The Garden District had a sense of space that the rest of New Orleans had not entertained. The Tremé, The French Quarter, and the Marigny, were all full of shotgun and row houses, townhouses, and buildings that were smacked up against each other. The rest of New Orleans seemed more of a space where paint colors overlapped, where trees seemed to share land, and where cultures wanted to shake hands. The Garden District seemed to pride itself on a more manicured life.

But even there, in the great beauty of it all, the decay was visible. Each home had its flaws and its own obvious battles with the elements. Even in this utopian ideal, the viciousness of the subtropical climate could not be kept away. Constant rain and mucky soil left the porches of the Garden District just as uneven as those in the Tremé, the beating sun and humid air chipped paint there as much as it did in the French Quarter, and the thick roots of the oak trees tore up as much pavement as they did in the Marigny.

My first idea was the building itself. It looks like a miniature bank with its Corinthian plasters, portico and iron scrolls over the windows… A little bit of old New England with a Creole flavor…
— Walker Percy, the Moviegoer

Unforeseen Lessons

In my K-12 years, I received a sub-par American history education. Through a series of unfortunate events, I graduated high school, without formally studying the Civil War. For this reason, I don’t think I understood the weight of slavery in the United States, particularly the slavery of Africans prior to the Civil War. Now, Louisiana’s history dates long before America’s purchase of the territory in 1803, so its history of slavery dates back to its initial colonization by the French. As the territory passed through French, Spanish, and American regimes, its rise to power was dependent on the sheer manpower of slaves. Born and raised in So-Cal, I used to think that the setting of the antebellum South was just that, a setting. Because I had never visited the Deep South, I never saw a plantation or a slave quarter or anything else related to slavery on a first-hand basis.

My understanding of the South was imaginary. How could I comprehend the lifestyle of a slave when I hadn’t experienced the sweat-nullifying humidity of Louisiana’s air? Or the swampy wasteland the slaves were expected to build plantations on? Or the physical separation that divided slaves from their masters? I couldn’t conjure up the reality of this place by trying to piece together nonfiction research and fictional exposition passages on the region. My whole perception and understanding of slavery and the plantation system changed upon my arrival in New Orleans.

It is clear that the scars of slavery still run deep in Louisiana, and it is impossible to avoid slavery while studying the region. All of the books we’ve been bookpacking with, touch on racial tension to some degree; they reveal a seemingly intrinsic conflict between Whites and Blacks from French colonization onward. For Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, this conflict is portrayed within the context of the plantation system. The main character, Louis, owns an indigo plantation and, in turn, owns slaves. The dynamic between master and slave from Louis’s perspective is undermined by the novel’s focus on vampirism, but it is important to understand the context of life on a plantation. Just like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the setting of Pointe du Lac is important to experience in order to empathize with the background of Louis. Using Interview with the Vampire as our guide, we headed to the Whitney Plantation to garner a deeper understanding of the history of slavery and the plantation system.

I could read all about the history of slavery, find memoirs about the plantation lifestyle, calculate death rates of slaves in Southern Louisiana, or analyze photographs taken during the time; but none of these initiatives could prepare me for the ominous burden of walking through the slave quarters of the past. I imagined the work-crippled bodies of Africans, separated from their biological families, packed into these shacks that served as their homes, and it was powerful. I had a bit of a Will Hunting Moment.

Ali, our tour guide, commented on the illiteracy of slaves. He explained that their illiteracy did not mean they were stupid, they simply could not read and write the English language. The entire reason for the slave trade revolving around Africans was that they had desirable skills that appealed to the white slave owners of the time, so in fact, slaves were brought from Africa because they were extremely intelligent and skilled craftsmen. Interview with the Vampire touches on this topic a bit, as Louis explains, “I had several extremely intelligent slaves who might have done his job just as well a long time before, if I had recognized their intelligence and not feared their African appearance and manner” (Part I, Page 27). I think the novel undermines the importance of slaves to the plantation and the development of the grandeur of Southern Louisiana, but as I found out at the Whitney, most plantation owners would think the same thing. Ali did a wonderful job at explaining the systematic breakdown of the slaves that has created a trans-generational rift between White and Black culture in the New Orleans region, and books such as The Moviegoer and A Lesson Before Dying document this conflict into later eras of Louisiana’s history.

For me, learning about slavery and the historical conflicts of this country have been enlightening. I learned a lot about how the past has influenced the way racial relations work in the present. All of this new knowledge was only possible through the process of bookpacking. It was a different experience than bookpacking The Awakening, as that was more of an immersive learning experience, seeing and feeling and smelling the ocean that enthralls Edna. This time, Bookpacking led me to learn more about the contextual history of the Interview with the Vampire and further understand the region that we were traveling through. It showed me bookpacking is more than just taking books to places in order to understand the literature better; instead, bookpacking can implement literature as a guide to better understand the history and culture of a place.

It was confusing, each sound running into the next sound, like the mingling reverberations of bells until I learned to separate the sounds, and then they overlapped, each soft but distinct, increasing but discrete
— Interview with the Vampire, Pt I, Pg 21

Additionally, I wanted to somehow portray the heightened senses of Louis upon his vampiric transformation. I captured some audio at The Whitney, originally attempting to capture the perception of a plantation owner observing his/her property. However, Louis experiences his transformation in a similar setting as The Whitney. I used a combination of audio filters to recreate the aural transition Louis might have experienced upon garnering his new vampiric senses…

Death in New Orleans

From dangerous swamp land turned to crowded streets, New Orleans has survived disease, plague, hurricanes, floods, fires, and its constant battle with natural decay from its subtropical climate. In its near three hundred years, New Orleans has consistently entertained death as a part of its culture. With an extremely difficult terrain and Catholicism guiding the visual, visceral, and creative elements of Southern Gothic traditions, the people of New Orleans constructed great cemeteries with elaborate raised tombs. These cemeteries would become so overcrowded in their time, that they would push the boundaries of their limits, often stretching far beyond their intended walls. Years and years of development and decay have condensed these expansive “cities of the dead” into what they are today; impressive icons of generations lost.


New Orleans’ high water table makes common burial practices impossible. With the soil already heavily saturated with water and New Orleans’ insatiable rain, buried caskets would often rise from the ground. This dilemma was met with New Orleans’ Catholic traditions that gave birth to the intricate tombs, mausoleums, and statues that have made their cemeteries famous. 

Within their years shared in New Orleans, European traditions and African religious practices blended together in the celebration of death. Jazz funerals, often given for members of social clubs or highly-esteemed members of the community, are understood as funerals with a parade processional that include music, dancing, and costumes. These funerals follow the family of the deceased from the funeral home to the cemetery. A band follows behind, along with a "second line," or members of the community who wish to pay their respects and celebrate the deceased.

We visited New Orleans’ most famous cemetery, Saint Louis Cemetery Number One, on a bright, sunny day. The clouds had all moved from the sky, allowing the sun to reflect off of the chipping, white paint of the tombs. We walked around with our tour guide, admiring the crippled bricks, crumbled marble, and rusted iron fences that surrounded each ornate crypt. We admired the legendary tomb of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau. Her tomb, marked with “X’s,” is still visited today by hopefuls who wish to make offerings to the Voodoo Queen for blessings in return. The cemetery is still active, welcoming those family members that have lineages entombed there – and of course, Nicholas Cage, who has built his own pyramid-shaped crypt, believing, he too, deserves some piece of New Orleans’ afterlife. Wouldn't we all like to believe we're that special?

With Anne Rice’s vampire novel, Interview with the Vampire, still in our hands, we strolled through the Garden District and into Lafayette Cemetery Number One. The threat of rain hung heavy in the clouds as we walked through sticky, mudded pathways. A place where death had become celebrated, discussed, and respected, New Orleans was the perfect setting for vampires to lurk. We imagined Rice’s young vampire, Claudia, prowling for her victims there as we meandered the thin alleys between the raised tombs. We entertained the thought of Claudia preying on those cemetery dwellers unfortunate enough to be caught in her path. 

And she asked to enter the cemetery of the suburb city of Lafayette and there roam the high marble tombs in search of those desperate men who, having no place else to sleep, spend what little they have on a bottle of wine, and crawl into a rotting vault.
— Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

And All that Jazz

Jazz is something with which I am familiar, having been a part of my high school jazz ensemble. I played the trumpet (which, obviously, makes me part of the coolest section in the band). I knew coming down to New Orleans would be like a jazz nerd Comicon. Needless to say, I was excited. And NOLA has not disappointed. Jazz, in so many ways, is the essence of the city; its heart and soul; the thing that drives its rhythm. Originated in the brothel houses of Storyville, influenced by West African musical traditions, and brought into the mid-20th century by such greats as Louis Armstrong, jazz tells the tale of the African-American experience. I'll talk more about Dr. Gaines in Cajun country, but what I will say now about the time we all shared with the A Lesson Before Dying author in his home was that he emphasized jazz's influence on his writing. At the time he began penning his works, there were essentially no books by black authors about being black in America. There was only jazz. The blues tell of the woe and hardships in life, of loves lost, of people who have done you wrong, of a rainy day when you were expecting sunshine. Most importantly, the blues tell of an oppression as old as the country itself.

In a brief digression, below are pictures taken at the Whitney Plantation on the historic River Road. Unlike most other plantation tours you can go on today, the Whitney tells of plantation life from the perspective of the slaves that worked the fields of sugarcane in the sweltering Louisiana heat, day in and day out. Being shown around by our unbelievable tour guide Ali was an experience I will never forget. And if you want to understand the origins of the blues – you need look no further than places like the Whitney. To listen to the wind blowing through the stalks of sugarcane, to listen to the eaves creaking in the slave quarter houses, is to hear the Christian spirituals and West African traditional songs that would eventually give birth to the art form of jazz.  

But Jazz is joyous too. It pulsates at the city's core and serves as the soundtrack to all the raucous, rowdy goings-on in places like Bourbon Street. Ah, Bourbon Street. My least favorite part of NOLA – but only because, like Times Square in New York City and Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, it's a bit of a tourist trap. But, nonetheless, when one thinks of the New Orleans party scene, one usually thinks of Bourbon. 
Like the old jazz cats that play in front of shops and cafes and the young children who bang on overturned buckets-turned-drums, Bourbon Street is always vibing. People stand out on balconies overlooking the gaiety down below – men and women in work clothes, having just gotten off, hanging out with friends, watching the street performers and eager tourists hop from bar to bar, bistro to bistro. There are all kinds of characters here and I now fully understand Louis's apt description of this city in Interview with the Vampire.

This was New Orleans, a magical and magnificent place to live. In which a vampire, richly dressed and gracefully walking through the pools of light of one gas lamp after another might attract no more notice in the evening than hundreds of other exotic creatures...
— Interview with the Vampire

These are also the very same people Ignatius J. Reilly labels as “gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, Antichrists, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians” in John Kennedy Toole’s comedic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces…and that’s just on page 3.

While I don’t exactly share Ignatius’s harsh opinions about the city of New Orleans, I can still see how a man such as himself would view this vibrant, sensual world as a black pit of corruption.
But if the people of NOLA are all sinners, then sign me up for the next meeting of Club Damned, because these folks sure know how to have a good time. I have loved every minute here, from listening to the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band (front and center in the first row, so the trumpet player could properly blow out my eardrums) to riding the streetcar all the way down St. Charles Ave to the Garden District for some Creole Creamery sundaes. We’ve visited the Backstreet Museum to learn about Mardi Gras and the New Orleans social and pleasure clubs, danced to street performers on Royal, and discovered my new favorite musician, who was performing in Lafayette Square just outside our hotel (his name is Anders Osborne and you need to listen to his song “Sentimental Times” RIGHT. THIS. INSTANT.)

I’ve discovered that New Orleans is truly the best place to bookpack. Here, more than any other place I’ve visited, that “good eeriness” comes alive. Walking through the French Quarter around Jackson Square, it seems entirely possible you’ll find Ignatius at his hot dog stand, leering at the passers-by. Exploring the Garden District at night, it seems entirely possible Louis and Claudia (of IWTV) could meet you under a lonely street lamp, the Spanish moss above you blowing somberly in the breeze.


Okay, so beignets aren’t technically a meal. More like a sweet snack/dessert. But whatever, okay? They’re powdery and warm and delicious and I ate three for dinner one night, so they’re a meal in my eyes. The best place to get them is Café Du Monde. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The place is world-famous for a reason.

Despite what you may think, this variation of beignet is original to NOLA, not France. In fact, though the city is heavily influenced by French culture, there are a great many aspects of fair New Orleans that might seem “French” but are more like “NOLA French.” Upon closer examination, some of the “French” street names are misspelled, and the local slogan “laissez le bon temps rouler” (which is supposed to mean “let the good times roll”) actually makes no sense in French.

The Removal of the Robert E. Lee Statue

After a long night of restaurant hopping and millennial excursions, my fellow bookpackers and I landed ourselves in the middle of the spectacle that was the Confederate protest against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. The night was ripe with heated political exchanges and the energy emanating from the small Southern crowd around the square made everyone nervous and giddy for movement. We had just arrived two hours before midnight when the statue was scheduled for removal. Despite the fear that a race riot would erupt, the crowd was anticipating the statue's removal because for the first time in 166 years, New Orleans was doing something about its somnubulent Southern past by tearing down a Confederate relic of white supremacy.

As a sojourner to the South and native Californian, I was afraid that the situation would escallate into violence and belligerent racist protestors. Nonetheless, we slowly dawdled our way toward the crowd. I grew more comfortable by the relative composure of the crowd in relation to the few beer guzzling, racist hollering protestors who made a ruckus in the front area near the statue. Inside Lee's circle, we saw various New Orleanian residents, people from other Southern states, newsreporters, and folks from all over the country discussing whether the city should retain the statue in the circle. The Confederate flag was mounted in the front by protestors who came from Mississippi and Alabama. Clearly, these protestors were staunch in their belief that they new what was best for the city of New Orleans by declaring that the city should maintain the statue in order to retain their Confederate image.

The scene was hot with intensive discussions, political banters, and an unsettling sense of progress for the city of New Orleans. Afterall, New Orleans is known for its rich history and regarded as the Southern melting pot wherein whites, blacks, Native Americans, and people of color in general coexist more smoothly compared to other cities in the United States. While the rest of the group explored different parts of the square, I approached these three black women from the Bay Area (my region of California) named Fatima, Selma, and Sonya and two other white women who include Charlotte and Annette from another neighboring Southern state. The women were having a conversation about Southern history. With their consent, they allowed me to interview them and record their earnest perspectives on Southern history and the Lee statue.

Lee Statue Interview

Ogechi: What's your perspective on the demolition of the Lee Statue?

Fatima: I don't believe in destroying history under any circumstances, but I do believe that the statue needs to be taken down.

Selma: So we're sisters and our mom is an archivist. She supports the preservation of history and as she says, "The statue should be put into a museum and put into context so people can understand that this is apart of history and a bad part of history."

Fatima & Selma: But the statue shouldn't be placed up here as a symbol for the Confederacy and white supremacy.

Ogechi: What do you know about the statue's history here in New Orleans?

Sonya: Robert E. Lee was a general who fought to preserve the status quo of the African slave so the South can profit off of slavery. He lost the war and he was a traitor. This is a statue that symbolizes a false sense of superiority for Europeans, which they don't want to know. If whites looked at their history, they would be aghast and they've been taught this false narrative for so long. Robert E. Lee was not a hero.

Ogechi: What will be the impact of the statue's removal on the city?

Fatima: There won't be any impact. Most of the people who are here are from out of state. There won't be any negative ramifications for them.

Charlotte: Personally, I'm from out of state and I came here tonight because it does impact me. I came out here because I wanted to witness and learn more about my history. Now that I'm hearing your perspectives, I want the statue to come down because I don't want this symbol to stand up here for people to see. I wouldn't even want to see this symbol while driving to work.

Fatima: The visceral reaction that's caused by the Confederate flag and the statue as a symbol of the Confederacy is bad. I went to high school in the city and I took the streetcar that runs through this square and had to see this monument every day at my underfunded public school. It was just an extension of the oppression people are facing. I think it would be nice to have little black kids in New Orleans today not have to see these symbols.

Sonya: If you grew up in this system and were told each day that black is bad, you can't go to this restaurant, and all you have are all of these reminders of what happened to you, then it causes a lot of post traumatic stress. As a 57 year old person, my peers still have the memory of segregation. Even now as we look at history books, all they tell me about my people is that we were slaves. Now I teach history and I give back with that subject so that kids can grow up with a sense of self and pride knowing the real history.

Ogechi: What would you say to the supporters of the Confederacy who still hold onto the nostalgic dream of the Southern past?

Charlotte: I do wear things with the Confederate flag on it, but it doesn't have anything to do that. I don't care about what color you are and I treat everyone the way I want to be treated. I just wear it because its a part of my Southern heritage.

Sonya: Do you know what you inherited? You inherited a history steeped in rape, murder, and every degredated and oppressive type of crime that can possibly be bestowed upon a person. This isn't to say that there hasn't been slavery in other parts of the world because every culture and country has conducted slavery. What is it inside a person that can treat a human that way?

Charlotte: My family personally never owned slaves or endorsed anything that supported slavery.

Sonya: Yet, you guys are still benefiting from what happened to us. What I would say to the older generation is put yourselves in our shoes.

Charlotte: I do try to understand. I come from a predominately black community so I am a minority in my own right and I'm fine with it. I have enjoyed getting to know the people I've gone to school with the past 18 years.

Sonya: Knowing that I know everything that happened to my ancestors, I know that I shouldn't be where I am because I have a doctorate in sports management. Some people wonder how'd I get here. What's interesting is if you had told me you had the same degree, I would have said well of course you do. There would be no reason to envy any European that has money or had the same level of education. Of course you do. You have not been processed through this system the way African-Americans have. When I see people like Colin Powell or people like myself, the African-American women who is the most educated group of educators in North America. How did that happen with the beginning that we had? Yet, still we have to preserve in order to become what we are.

You can here more of Sonya and Charlotte's conversation in the audio provided below:

 Mayor Landrieu's Address the Following Morning

The next day New Orleans Mayor, Mitch Landrieu gave a historic speech at Gallier Hall on Friday May 19, 2017 on the removal of four Confederate monuments in the city that was ordered in 2015. He delivered a really powerful speech in which he acknowledged New Orleans's role as a melting pot for different nations and cultures in the South and the searing truths that haunt the city's history. The city was at one period of history, America's largest slave market. Despite the liberalized French treatment of African slaves through the Noir code system, New Orleans's slave owners was still complicit in the enslavement, labor exploitation, and rape of African slaves. Furthermore, the city played a central role in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that established the federal "seperate but equal" clause and enacted de jure segregation in America. The mayor went on to assert that the four Confederate statues in the city were never intended to honor New Orleans's history, but rather were originally placed in the city to deify Confederate generals and legitimize the lost Confederate cause.

I'm thankful to have witnessed history in the city of New Orleans this month during the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. Mayor Landrieu's address reflect the immediacy and serious dedication his administration and the city of New Orleans has on this lingering issue. This speech appeared on my facebook feed the following day and was very impactful for my friends who reposted it and the nation, as a whole. Watching the speech, I was struck by the quote he used from a speech George W. Bush gave at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History & Culture in 2016, "A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them." I couldn't help but agree that we have an obligation as a nation that was built on the hard labor of slaves to make acknowledgements and correctives to our history. I'm glad that New Orleans is chosing to confront from its historical amnesia and face the truth about its past. New Orleans is confidently embracing change and moving forward with its history by remembering its past riddled with slavery and white supremacy.

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.

Jasmine Melody

Jazz - the music of New Orleans. It's smooth, it's slippery, it's so unique to the history of this city. Some say that the name comes from the jasmine perfume worn by the women of Storyville, where this music originated. If you are ever in New Orleans, stop by Preservation Hall for a short concert, but get there early because the line gets long quick.


Jasmine Melody

Let it slip –

In one ear, and out

The mouth.

Let it sink –

Into your pores, down

To your feet.

Let it slide –

Through your body like

The liquid courage you drink.


Let the beat

Slither deep in the pit

Of your soul. ‘Till you succumb

to the smooth rhythm, and

Lose yourself in the magic

Of the Big Easy.