As we cross the Mississippi River into downtown New Orleans, the gentle waters of Grand Isle fade into the distance. The streets bustle with tourists snapping pictures, street performers strumming their guitars to the tune of old country songs, painters swirling colors together on their palettes, and poets clicking at their typewriters with stanzas they pull from thin air. Where there is art, there are stories. New Orleans is a place defined by timeless stories shared by generations and generations of artists.
To delve into the rich patchwork of the city, we read Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. A vampire, Louis, recounts his transformation into one and his struggle in coming to terms with his new identity. His journey includes an immortal companion, Lestat, who also happens to be the vampire responsible for his transformation. The novel is set at the heart of New Orleans, which we will call home for the next two weeks.
What makes the city different from others also brimming with artistic talent, though, is that the air is mixed with a tinge of eeriness. Lamp posts flicker when evening falls. Alleys are plentiful, and looking down them at night is like trying to look at an abyss of darkness. Pointed gates enclose houses as if threatening any outsiders who might climb over. Eyeless dolls sit by the windows of antique shops (on the right). Hotel Monteleone, one of the oldest hotels here with a rotating bar, is said to have ghosts roaming around on the 14th floor. Religions like Voodoo embrace spirituality and magic. The turbulent history of slavery here gives the place uneasiness. All these elements combined together, the New Orleans we see today has an obsession with mystery, the same kind that falls over the city portrayed in the novel. I think of the days when the enslaved people working on Louis and Lestat’s plantation would listen through closed doors, hoping to confirm their suspicions that their masters were indeed vampires. I remember the mysterious death of Louis’ brother. Anne Rice doesn't give an explicit answer to what happened. Even after reading the last words of the book, my mind is still boggled by the unresolved mystery of this place.
The hotel is in the business district. We travel to the French Quarter by foot and weave through the streets: St. Charles, Canal, Royale, Toulouse. The skyscrapers around us turn into blocks of two or three-story houses. Balconies run parallel to the streets. The railings are adorned with patterns of lace and small, colorful flowers springing out of baskets that burst with little green creepers. I think of the Spanish townhome that Louis, Lestat, and Claudia live in. The chandeliers in the living room, the exotic carpets, the painted walls of forestry, and the small, hidden garden tucked away in the back with a fountain spilling with water; it’s nothing short of pure elegance.
We visit the Lafayette cemetery. All kinds of people were buried here: Protestants, Catholics, etc. I imagine Claudia, Louis and Lestat’s vampire daughter, feeding on blood. With a body of a 5-year old, she lures in her victims by pleaing for help and asking them take her to doll shops or a café, where she then bites them without any hesitation. According to Lestat, their vampire nature is meant to give them the “ability to see a human life in its entirety… death in all its beauty… with a thrilling satisfaction in being the end of that life…” Being a vampire like Claudia means witnessing the transition from life to death, bridging the gap between the two. Similarly, this cemetery represents the sacred ground between life and death for a melting pot of people. Families who come to pay respect for their ancestors meet rows and rows of raised tombs. I think of the jazz funerals in New Orleans, processions where a brass band playing hymns during a slow march changes over to upbeat harmonies after the burying of the coffin. Traditions like these mourn the passing of loved ones but also celebrate a well-lived life and the departure of a soul into a better world. This place is about life, death, and rebirth. There thus might be a certain beauty in being a vampire, in being part of that transformation.
However, Louis has trouble coming to terms with his identity as a vampire. He thinks he is evil by nature, so he does everything to contain that: feeding on animals and briefly on strangers. He feels deep sorrow knowing that he can abruptly end human life, that he preys on something so valuable. At the heart of the novel is a story about someone who sees himself defined by his flaws. That’s something many of us struggle with at some point or another, burdened by the sheer perfectionism we see all around us. I see now, though, that we are all flawed, that we all struggle, that even if Louis might physically be a vampire, we are still all very human. We shout when frustration overcomes us, we cry when we feel hopeless, and we laugh when we remember the times we took ourselves way too seriously.
When Louis comes back to New Orleans at the end of the novel, he says,
After many years, the city Louis has come back to is one more of sadness and decay than romance and opulence. The home he goes back to visit is dilapidated, suggesting that the city has been stripped of its vitality. Although he still feels the pain of the past, deeply rooted somewhere inside of him, he feels nostalgia since the familiarity of the city is comforting. Thus, despite the worn-out nature of the city, the memories of his life here still preserve a certain internal beauty of the place. Sometimes, I also have moments when I have a longing to go back to a time in my life when I was surrounded by certain people and places. The memories, both good and bad, resonate with me, since those are defining moments in my journey of creating familiarity in a strange, new place. Maybe, I will come back here someday, think of all the memories from this trip, and feel a similar longing to this place, a medley of cultures, people, and stories. A citadel of grace.