Annaliese Tusken

Manifestos, Meltdowns & More


“Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole is quite honestly, the strangest book I have ever read but also my favorite book from this bookpacking experience. It was such an odd conglomeration of absurdities and profundities that I really did not know what to make of it. What frame of mind was the individual who wrote this? Did he really believe these absolutely insane ideologies that he wrote of?

It follows the life of Ignatius Reilly, a completely absurd, flatulent, narcissist who cannot seem to stop falling down nor hold down any form of employment. He constantly clashes with his overbearing mother and her judgmental friends. He is quite frankly a failure of education system, a thirty-year-old man with a plethora of degrees and education who cannot function in society. His scathing manifesto of humanity and inability to say a word that is not an insult is a complete crack up but it took me a while to get used to it. No wonder Ignatius had a valve problem, all that negativity would clearly cause some acid reflex issues at minimum.

My immediate reaction was more or less irritation but once I got past my expectation for high-brow literature I realized just how special the novel is. It’s a sort of love note to New Orleans through a plotless piece of satire that feels almost like a preface. It is not until the final chapter that the exposition finally begins but that is exactly what makes the book so enjoyable. Readers do not need to get caught up in the complexity of the plot but can come to accept Ignatius and his shenanigans for what they are.

Canned food is a perversion,’ Ignatius said. ‘I suspect that it is ultimately very damaging to the soul.
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

When I got to thinking about it, Toole was clearly satirizing so much of the tensions that exist among humans in the world. I remember Andrew asking the class, “do you think Toole supported Ignatius’ way of life?” and my immediate thought was “no.” You can’t be an Ignatius to write an Ignatius. His entire existence was is meant to spark irritation in the reader. His constant complaints about his valve? Maddening. The fact that everything that could possibly go wrong always went wrong? Exhausting. Yet, I enjoyed so much of it. I found myself laughing and smiling throughout the book. In fact, it almost resonated with me on a personal level. Not because I too have valve issues or have absurd ideologies but because of his education.

You could tell by the way he talked, though, that he had gone to school a long time. That was probably what was wrong with him.
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

Before I left on this trip, my mother texted me “Have a great time, think about grad school while you are out there.”  I hope to pursue graduate school and someday obtain a PhD, but I strongly fear becoming an Ignatius. While exploring the city, I just kept seeing things through Ignatius’ eyes. At every hot dog cart, I let out a small chuckle, while watching a film at the Prytania, I imagined a belligerent Ignatius throwing his popcorn around yelling insults. Despite all that I remembered everyone’s path is their own. There is no timeline that I need to follow in accordance to my life. In addition, I don’t have to relate to every character, in fact, I can hate them and still enjoy the book all the same. All in all, I haven’t reached a conclusion on graduate school but I know I’ll figure it out. Ignatius is my anti-hero and although he didn’t provide me with any sort of clarity with my future goals, he definitely entertained me. New Orleans would not have been half as exciting without Toole’s insights into the city.

Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

On this bookpacking experience, so many of the books we read left me emotionally drained at the pain and suffering that so many of the characters had to go through. While Ignatius was clearly at the mercy of his overbearing mother, it was possible to read this novel without taking that experience on for myself, something which I did with so many of the other books. Perhaps this was because we read “Confederacy of Dunces” before leaving and actually being in the places where these novels occurred made me experience the novels through the characters eyes in a much more visceral way.

I already miss New Orleans and my fellow bookpackers but I am also glad to be home. Wherever I travel I plan to continue to read books to help enhance my experience. There is so much more out there to see and just as much to read and I cannot wait to see what the future has in store. For now, perhaps I will follow Ignatius’ lead and make some cheese dip, although I probably shouldn’t because I am lactose intolerant.

...When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occassional cheese dip.
― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

Comfort in Uncertainty

they got a moon out ther an i can see the leves on the tree but I ant gon see no mo leves after tomorrow ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

If I had the opportunity to find out the exact day, time, and incidence of my death, would I take it?

Would you?

I am certain that my answer would be no. With death there are so many questions: is there an afterlife, is there pain, are we reborn or do our bodies just turn back into the dust from the stars? I don’t know the answers and I likely won’t ever know them until my own death but that does not bother me. Yes, it’s scary, it scares everybody but the thing that scares me most would be knowing how it happens. There is beauty in uncertainty and just thinking of knowing with absolute certainty how I die makes me sick to my stomach. I know that sometimes people commit terrible crimes that are worthy of death but the fact of the matter is, the death penalty unfairly targets people of color.

How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God? ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

While reading Ernest J. Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying” I had to get used to that kind of discomfort. It follows the events leading up to Jefferson’s death, a man wrongfully convicted for the murder of a white woman whose defense was not only blatantly racist but also horribly insufficient to be sentenced to death.

Gentlemen of the jury, look at this—this—this boy. I almost said man, but I can’t say man. Oh, sure, he has reached the age of twenty-one, when we, civilized men, consider the male species has reached manhood, but would you call this—this—this a man? No, not I. I would call it a boy and a fool ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, following the defense attorney calling Jefferson a hog and a fool finds herself requesting that schoolteacher Grant Wiggins, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, speak with her godson to ensure that he dies a man. Her outlook always intrigued me, she accepted that he was going to die and though it pained her deeply, chose to fight for what she considered the next best thing.

We should try and reach Jefferson. Why not the soul? No, she wants memories, memories of him standing like a man.
― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

The novel was painful to read. During the final chapters I found myself crying at Gaines’ poignant words. It was very difficult to read about the end of a man’s life and all the conflicting emotions that come with it. Although Miss Emma intends for Wiggins to teach Jefferson a lesson before dying, it is perhaps Wiggins who learned the most. Before his conversations with Jefferson, he was in a place of stagnation. He was a knowledgeable man but only had the knowledge that could be obtained in school. After being forced through external pressures and an internal obligation to get to know a man sentenced to death, Wiggins learned the art of self-reflection and inner strength. Just as Jefferson shed his pained identity as a “hog” forced upon him by his attorney and walked to his death like a man, Jefferson was able to open Wiggins’ eyes and educate him on self-perception and change. Wiggins had acquired a sense of hopelessness before Jefferson came into his life. He did not believe anything he did would ever make a difference and then he saw Jefferson transform, a person in a place of imposed stagnation and realized that hope is necessary and changes are possible.

“You’re a human being, Jefferson,” I said. “I’m an old hog they fattening up to kill.


“good by mr wigin tell them im strong tell them im a man good by mr wigin im gon ax paul if he can bring you this

Sincerely Jefferson” ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

I’ve been avoiding this blog in all honesty. I wasn’t ready to take myself back to the place that “A Lesson Before Dying” took me. Gaines’ words made me feel knots in my stomach, a strange sense of hopelessness that I don’t want to feel again. I’m not ashamed to say I cried while reading this book. Not the dramatic movie tears where one tears slowly falls down your cheek. It was gross all-encompassing sobs and that feeling stayed with me for longer than I care to admit. When we walked through the old jail sails in the suffocating summer heat my mind was with Jefferson. As I wandered and saw the inmates graffiti saying “we are all equal,” my heart hurt. Systemic inequality runs deep in the fabric of the United States and until people recognize that and actively make an effort to change it, the inequality will remain.

I can’t raise the dead. All I can do is try to keep the others from ending up like this—but he’s gone from us. ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Seeing the numbers on the walls was the worst part. The addition that didn’t make sense, the confusion… How long had they been there? Was it their countdown until their release or would they die there? Despite the heat, I had chills. When our tour guide showed us how the cells closed, my heart dropped, all I wanted to do was get out of there and I longed for the feeling of the ocean at the Grand Isle. I felt so trapped in the jail but I knew that at any moment I could get in a car and leave, sadly, the same cannot be said for Jefferson or the other inmates that were forced to live there. The conditions were not only inhumane but they were maddening. The courtyard that the inmates used for their exercises felt just as claustrophobic as the cells themselves. I felt on edge the entire time, that was not a life that any person should have to endure. The fact that inmates were kept there until the late 1980s is just a reminder at how slow the process of progress is. I’m grateful for this bookpacking experience, particularly the places these books and sights have allowed me to go and how they have connected me to my emotions. I hated how “A Lesson Before Dying” made me feel but I’m still grateful for it. Good literature is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, show you different perspectives, and challenge your thought processes and “A Lesson Before Dying” did that and more. I know that I feel things more intensely than other people and a lot of the time I resent it but I know that one day it is going to help me become the writer that I want to be.

don’t kno if you can red this mr wigin my han shakin and i can yer my hart ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Being in the presence of a writer like Ernest J. Gaines’ whose words drove me to tears was exciting and nerve wracking. I admire his ability to create such nuanced characters in such a deceptively simple fashion. They are not all protagonists in the common sense of the word and the message he conveys through each one lingers long after the reader completes the book. Grant Wiggins was somewhat of a hopeless cynic who simply functioned rather than lived. He was a teacher that disliked it greatly and seeing Jefferson’s internal growth while on death row altered his perspective on life. Both these characters were not ideal individuals nor in ideal situations but their impact on each other which instigated internal growth is a testament to the power and vulnerability in human connection. And the fact that I got to meet a writer who created this devastatingly painful and beautiful word continues to shock me. I remember I asked him how he avoid getting caught up in revisions and his answer was “I write and revise until I’m tired and I can’t revise anymore and need to write something else.”

Writer Ernest J. Gaines with the class.

Writer Ernest J. Gaines with the class.

Everyone always says the biggest part of the writing process is revision but being able to see an accomplished writer’s revision process was eye opening. I had never seen a manuscript before. There were so many drafts with so many miniscule changes that make all the difference. When Kayla found the copy where Gaines’ added in “Sincerely, Jefferson” I felt such an immense gratitude that the art of writing exists and a greater understanding of the necessity of revision. The words “Sincerely Jefferson” don’t seem like much but in the context of the novel, they would be the last words that Jefferson would ever write before his death and it makes Jefferson’s diary all the more impactful.

The experience of bookpacking with “A Lesson Before Dying” was challenging because of all the emotions it made me feel but I wouldn’t change it for a second. I got to meet the Ernest J. Gaines, hear his perspective on writing, and see locations that add to the experience. My pain ends when I put the book down and the residual feelings fade away but so many trapped in the prison industrial complex do not get that privilege so I will feel my feelings and be grateful to see the sun rise for another day.

Tell Nannan I walked. And straight he walked… ― Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Beautiful Chaos


People treat noise like it’s a negative word, like it’s the antithesis of music, but I don’t think noise always has to be a bad thing. New Orleans is noisy and that’s okay. It’s full of beautiful and loud noises, musicians busking in the French Quarter, cars honking at pedestrians, trollies passing in the streets. Some of the sounds are comforting and others are far from it but that is part of the city’s charm. There is another unique aspect to noise, it isn’t always an external phenomenon, just like sounds can be noisy, so can thoughts, and that is what I kept in mind while reading Michael Ondaatje’s “Coming Through Slaughter.”

In one word, it was a whirlwind full of chaos, creativity, and pain. It follows the tumultuous life of barber and jazz musician Buddy Bolden, a man whose genius was just as captivating as his personal demons.

He was the best and loudest and most loved jazzman of his time, but never professional in the brain. ― Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

It was not an easy to read. It felt confusing and at times all over the place but that’s what jazz music is. After listening to the jazz band at Preservation Hall, I felt that I could understand the novel that much more. Jazz is essentially a beautiful chaos, sounds that shouldn’t go together but somehow does. This is the style or lack of the novel followed. It mimicked the syncopatic and improvisational essence of jazz.

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot—see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes. ― Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

Seeing Daniel Pritzker’s film “Bolden” further emphasized the chaos that was Bolden’s life. Although, it was incredibly confusing and somewhat graphic, I loved the artistry in the transitions from Bolden’s madness to the flashbacks to his life. The film was essentially plotless but then I thought to myself, does life have a plot? The circle of life, particularly for humans, ebbs and flows by way of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. While Bolden’s life is largely unknown, it is clear that Bolden was a pioneer in the creation of jazz music.

Seeing how ingrained jazz music has become to Louisianans is remarkable. What largely started as experimental improvisation has taken on a life of its own. I don’t think I would have recognized its importance had I not been on this bookpacking experience. The Sunday parade we attended seemed so immersive and full of life. Everyone was dancing and smiling no matter the heat. People joined and fall away as the parade moved on but the joy in the air was palpable. Music is an emotional experience and combined with jazz’s history and the strong community ties, I can absolutely understand the crowd’s response. You can’t help but move your feet or snap your fingers, it energizes you in a way that one can only understand if you can experience it in its true form.

Music is such an important aspect to New Orleans, hearing musicians busking in the streets sharing their art through sound that somehow can convey all the emotions of the human experience. It is just as much a part of New Orleans as it is to the novel. “Coming Through Slaughter” feels torn between two worlds, just like Bolden, and just like New Orleans. In Bolden’s case, the madness prevailed but New Orleans feels different. It is not simply one mind but an amalgamation of many. I don’t know which world will prevail, the historical or the modern, or if they will continue to exist together in harmony but I hope that jazz always means as much to New Orleans as I saw it that on that Sunday parade.


Would I be a Vampire?


Would I be a Vampire?

The deeper connotation of the Southern gothic literary style in “Interview with a Vampire”


As a tween during the height of the craze behind the Twilight series as well as growing up watching the television series the Vampire Diaries, I have obtained a mild fascination with vampires and their folklore over the years. I was very excited to read Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire.” Its cover boasts that it is “the spellbinding classic that started it all” and I was curious to discover it for myself.

The novel follows the vampire Louis as he retells his life from human to vampire along with those that he has loved, loathed and lost. Throughout his prolonged existence, he grapples with his sense of self and what he must do to survive. The story’s setting traverses several areas of Louisiana including the bayou, swamp, plantation, and city. The trip’s itinerary perfectly encapsulates the Southern gothic style by allowing us travel in and out of the city to perceive the variety of locations in the novel.

It is the second week of bookpacking and we left the Grand Isle and started our trek to New Orleans with a brief visit to the bayou with the “Cajun Pride Swamp tour.” It very much sets the scene for several scenes in the novel. It provides me with the visual images that are so intricately described in the story, though I don’t always recognize it at the time.

In my case, bookpacking allows for a very reflective experience. At the time we see some of the sites, I do not always understand their relevance, but I go into the situation with an open mind. For example, during the swamp tour, I had not yet reached the portion of the novel where Louis and Claudia attempt to kill Lestat and deposit his body in the bayou, but I was able to understand its pertinence and draw on all that I had seen during the tour. I remember the gators gliding through the water, ordinarily hunters rather than prey, but when Lestat occupied their territory, they became his prey so he could survive. I would not have been able to understand Anne Rice’s vivid descriptions had I not been on the tour. Although it is a clear tourist attraction, its scenery enhanced my experience reading “Interview with the Vampire.”

After we depart the swamp and bayou, we travel to the infamous city of New Orleans. It is different than I expected but beautiful nonetheless. The French inspired architecture of the Garden District and French Quarter make me feel as if I am walking through a different time. The opulent style of architecture makes me very aware that they do not make buildings like that anymore, as made evident by the skyscrapers in the distance that can’t be ignored. I try to imagine a time when skyscrapers had not yet existed and drift into Louis’ mindset as a vampire having seen New Orleans’ metamorphosis. The city is such a beautiful place full of history, mysticism and nostalgia. It doesn’t deny its history and I appreciate that. The same can be said of the Whitney Plantation.


The Whitney Planation is a solemn place not because it is lacking in beauty but because if one did not know their history, the beauty would disguise the atrocities committed there. The tour guides at Whitney Plantation do not allow the beauty to serve as a façade. The group follows our guide Ali in silence, absorbing his every word. He makes sure to emphasize that they are not slaves but rather enslaved peoples. “Slave” is a dehumanizing term and all those who suffered its atrocities deserve an identity rather than being reduced to a piece of property. Human beings are not property and saying “enslaved people” recognizes the historical process and institution of enslaving people.

I very much appreciate their choice of language. The United States is a nation built on the blood of minority groups and people of color and if people do not recognize that, it is a choice that is not only historically illiterate but perpetuating ignorance. Our tour guide Ali points out slavery’s connection to the systemic inequality of today as it exists in the prison industrial complex. His references strongly resonate with me because it very much puts the South in perspective for me and brings a deeper meaning to the Southern gothic style.

“Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult.”
― Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

As Andrew stated, the Southern gothic style is full of “opulence and a state of decay,” along with more figurative connotations. As Cameryn mentioned in class today, it symbolizes the disempowerment of the power and prestige of the South. Behind all the emotions and prose in Rice’s writing, there are Louis and Lestat, metaphors for deterioration. While Louis’ ideology modernizes, he recognizes what he is and the evil nature within him, Lestat decays, unable to exist in his former “glory” if he does not have someone to subjugate. The ways of the old South could not succeed without the enslavement of African-Americans and the tropes of Southern Gothicism are a metaphor for the decay and disempowerment of this ideology.

“The world changes, we do not, therein lies the irony that kills us.”
― Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

So, would I like to be a vampire? Most likely not, an endless existence watching those I love die does not seem like something I would enjoy, but it was a pleasure to live through Louis and understand the metamorphosis of New Orleans. Until next time…


Serenity in the Sea Foam

“The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” -“The Awakening” by Kate Chopin

My life has always been filled with literature, it transported me across oceans and airways, through continents and conflicts but most importantly, it has taken me through time. I have not always had the means to travel, so reading is how I travel the world, yet, I had never heard of the concept of bookpacking.

It was first introduced to me at an information session at the University of Southern California. “Bookpacking the Big Easy” they called it, a concept coined by Andrew Chater, that provides students with the opportunity to use books to enhance their travel and literary experience by using the novels as “portals through which to explore regional history and culture.” The concept seemed odd but exciting.

I had always thought of books as films that your mind creates based off the words of an author, but this style of reading fused with traveled seemed almost too good to be true. After all, so much time has passed since some of these books have been written, hadn’t their settings changed as well?


The answer is yes, but that does not invalidate the experience of bookpacking. It was at the Grand Isle where I was able to truly grasp that concept. While, it is no longer the Isle that Edna looked upon, there is one pivotal feature that remained the same—the ocean. It was in the ocean that I was able to be alone with my thoughts and reflect upon Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.”

“The Awakening” follows a woman named Edna through her journey of self-discovery along with the pain and pleasure that comes with it. She feels trapped by her societal obligations coupled with, in my interpretation, her struggle with depression. Reading the novel on the Grand Isle where it is set affected me more than I was expecting. I am not entirely sure why, perhaps it is because I am a very empathetic person, or because sitting on the beach that inspired Kate Chopin to write the novel in the first place made me feel as if I were Edna myself. As of now, I am not sure if it is one reason or a combination of reasons but perhaps farther along into this bookpacking journey I will understand more. All I know is, “The Awakening” and all its beautiful prose, exhausted me emotionally.

I loved every minute of it, I couldn’t stop reading. Its subject matter was so painful, but that is what made it so beautiful to me. The fact that Chopin wrote so openly of inner turmoil, especially in her time when anything other than a perfect wife was considered taboo. It hurt me that Edna felt so alone, her emotional highs were such fun but her emotional lows left me feeling sick to my stomach. Her pain and the way she saw the world resonated with me. As her mental health began its descent, it made me realize how grateful I was to be in the Grand Isle.

She let her mind wander back over her stay at Grand Isle; and she tried to discover wherein this summer had been different from any and every other summer of her life. She could only realize that she herself-her present self-was in some way different than the other self. -“The Awakening”

The Isle is peaceful and serene; it is a place of joy and relaxation and for Edna it was an escape. When it was time for her character to return to the city, it was clear to me she felt trapped in more ways than one. She was trapped with a husband whom she didn’t really love, societal obligations enforced upon women through the patriarchy, and by her own mind but when she was on the Isle, she didn’t feel trapped, in fact, she even learned how to swim.


It was swimming where I felt most connected to Edna. The ocean made me feel alive; it was cool and refreshing. In fact, one of my favorite experiences on the Isle was getting up before sunrise with some of my classmates and taking a sunrise swim, even though Chopin never had Edna do such a thing, it felt like an Edna thing to do.

The morning I finished the book, I realized I needed to decompress so I relaxed on the beach and then went for a swim. I thought of Edna’s emotional highs when the weather affected her more deeply, when the sun gently kissed her skin and enveloped her in warmth and the contrast of the cool ocean water on her skin. It was at this time where I first noticed sea foam. I had never given it much thought, only the fact that after the waves hit the sand, it appeared. As I swam through the waves, I noticed how much it tickled. It felt like little bubbles gently popping. I made me giggle, it helped me relax. It made me grateful to be alive during a time where mental health is not a taboo subject anymore, where psychology and treatments exist, where I am not alone, where I don’t have to feel as Edna felt. The sea foam brought me serenity.

Just as Kate Chopin’s character Edna understood the beauty of the Grand Isle, I too could now understand it. I think being at the location where a portion of the novel occurs exacerbated my emotions while reading. Bookpacking is such an immersive experience, I no longer have to rely on my imagination in its entirety because I have walked the shores she walked, and I now know some of what she saw.

For me, Edna’s perspective was a contrast to my own. In her time depression was a word that did not exist whereas in my time, not only are subjects like mental health being properly researched but they are also being de-stigmatized. Chopin was decades ahead of her time and I am grateful to have been offered a glimpse into her world because the novel truly came alive.