- Little Road Trips from Hell
New Orleans is a fiction
I said that for the first time in the spring of 2003 at a national convention of newspaper editors and reporters in downtown New Orleans. The panel I was on was answering a question about how hard it is to write about the city. Other panelists had noted, reasonably, that the difficulty had something to do with the city's inimitable "magical quality" or with it being so distinctively yet ineffably "enchanting." And as I listened to the comments of my colleagues, mostly fellow New Orleans writers, all of the descriptions of the city and explanations of her resistance to artistic embellishment crystallized into one simple metaphor, that is, into a lie that approximates the truth.
When it was my turn to chime in on the specific point of trying to write a novel about the city, I said it. "New Orleans is a fiction."
I'm not sure if anyone gasped, but some part of my brain certainly twitched as if they had. Sitting up on that dais at the conference I felt, momentarily, bold and provocative at spontaneously proclaiming my city something as lofty and as frivolous as "a fiction." I went on to say, "Which means that writing a novel about New Orleans is redundant. We're using words like 'magical' and 'charming' and 'enchanting' to describe it, but the truth is New Orleans simply isn't real."
It was exhilarating to discover a new way of thinking about the city, to articulate in a fresh way the exalted existence my neighbors and I so plainly sensed we were living and about which we were so casually arrogant. But, then, our emphatic trumpeting of our cultural superiority was tolerable precisely because we've always been so generous with the culture itself.
On any given Sunday we gave it to innocent bystanders, to anyone who turned the wrong corner onto Dumaine Street behind Armstrong Park or onto Washington Avenue in front of Shakespeare Park. Sometimes we gave it to those who didn't want it or who might have been afraid of it. This admittedly queer culture—in the form of colorfully attired social aid and pleasure club dancers and brass bands and hundreds of parading secondliners—flowed through the streets, flooded them in fact. These waves didn't drown us, though; rather, they drowned our sorrows. Sorrows such as persistent poverty, the violent deaths of loved ones, schools so wretched as to insure the perpetuation of our sorrows. The culture engulfed us, if you will—and anyone standing in its wake. Maybe that kind of force cannot be released so relentlessly without its seeking an external balance.
On some level I think we always sensed a Hurricane Katrina was coming. We knew we'd never get away without paying for the tumultuousness of our culture. All that orgiastic energy wasn't going into a black hole. It was issuing out of one: New Orleans. New [End Page 63] Orleans, whose blackness is legendary. New Orleans, whose sunken soil forms a virtual geographic hole. New Orleans, whose gravitational pull is so extraordinary that many who visit her cannot extricate themselves from her grasp. The city's cultural magnetism, an attraction and an emanation really, might well be proof that energy in fact can be released from a black hole. Whatever the philosophical physics of our destruction by Katrina, I do think we somehow knew that one day we'd have to pay for this thing that churned within us and that poured forth out of our stormy souls . . . on any given Sunday. Perhaps our energy was just out there roiling around, trying to find its way back home. Without the coast of Africa, there are no depressions. Tropical or otherwise. What if the heat of every secondline parade and every jazz funeral—surging waves of energy also impossible without the winds of Africa—helped prime the oceanic upheaval? If the moon can move tides, why can't music and men? It wasn't our sin that doomed us, as some suggest. It was our soul. Culturally speaking, we had always had a hurricane in our...