There’s something so special about time and place, especially in literature. When I pick up a novel and read the way an author vividly describes the location of the book, I can’t help but close my eyes and imagine myself in the shoes of the protagonist. That’s why I fell in love with reading at such a young age- I couldn’t afford to travel the world but checking out a book at my local library or begging my family to buy me a book opened up all the sights of the world in my mind. When I was 12 years old and first in love with all things book related, I use to read at least one novel from each US state and write about the stories I had read. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would travel about 1,950 miles to the very location a novel took place. Yet there I was, on May 11th, 2019, at Grand Isle, Louisiana withstanding the same humidity, walking the same beach, embracing the same water as author Kate Chopin and her literary character, Edna Pontellier, had over 150 years ago.
To say I was awestruck with this experience is an understatement. As I read Chopin’s The Awakening, a novel about an oppressed woman’s discovery of identity and sexuality on Grand Isle, I challenged myself to immerse myself with the sights before me. I wanted to imagine I was, to some extent, like Edna and experience my own awakening- an awakening from a closed mindset. I am someone who has become so accustomed to stressing about aspirations and allowing my mind to constantly be focused on my next actions and what the outcomes of these actions will have on my future. In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier does not do this. The beautiful oasis that is Grand Isle is and has been a vacation spot since converted from cotton plantations post-slavery. On an island vacation, one isn’t supposed to think of work and aspirations, especially on Grand Isle where the first things you might do, like Edna and her friend, Adèle Ratignolle, is “exchange remarks about the heat, the sun, [and] the glare.” Regardless of the heat, I owed it to my young, book loving self to take in every aspect of Grand Isle, as related to The Awakening, and live in the moment.
A Journey To My Eventual Awakening:
Kate Chopin places a great deal of importance on the setting of Grand Isle. A part of what makes this novel so enjoyable is the vivid description Chopin uses in regard to Grand Isle and the emotions Edna feels. As I walked down the sandy path from our cabin to the beach and passed by the chamomile flowers described in the novel, I pictured myself walking alongside Edna or running with the eager Pontellier and Ratignolle children to the shore that awaited. I must admit I don’t frequent the beach much back in Los Angeles, but the allure of the empty beach and being able to read on the same sand was enough to convince me to put on my sandals and set up on the coast.
Just as much as I don’t go to the beach, I especially don’t get in the water anywhere. Like Edna, I can’t swim nor do I attempt to. Edna’s original hesitation in getting in the ocean represents her initial inability to let go, an inability I know all too well. Just like Edna, I sat on the beach on the first day in my bathing suit and watched as others went off and swam in the ocean. In my mind, I kept thinking about my grandmother’s consistent warnings to not get in the water, but sorry Nana- because I let go of my fears, abandoned all warnings and journeyed out into the ocean (in the safest manner possible, Nana.)
The ocean was beautiful. On our last morning on Grand Isle a group of us decided to wake up early in the morning and watch the sunrise. Those of us that were crazy enough ran into the water to watch the sun meet the ocean from within. During this moment: I empathized with the ending of Edna’s story. The silent ocean of Grand Isle evokes a feeling of comfort, regardless of the consequence. Once upon a time, people used to believe the ocean of Grand Isle could cure diseases like paralysis and malaria. It almost makes sense that, for Edna, this same ocean could cure her soul and lead to her greatest awakening. I wouldn’t go as far as say the ocean cured me by any means, but watching the sunrise for the first time and floating in the ocean- also for the first time- gave me a serenity I don’t think words can describe.
The Journey Continues:
The 12-year-old Kayla is internally screaming at this opportunity to bookpack for a month in Louisiana. An open mindset doesn’t just occur in three short days but I’d like to think this adventure through four more novels in two cities of so much tragedy and beauty will allow me to reach my awakening. My love for reading has decreased since college, but I’m hoping to rekindle this passion, throughout this month, one page and mile at a time.