Literary New Orleans from 1880 to the Present

Greetings from Literary New Orleans.  This site is part of a spring 2013 seminar taught by Professor Suzanne W. Jones at the University of Richmond on literature and film set in New Orleans, Louisiana. Americans have long been fascinated with New Orleans. Its tropical climate, its racially and ethnically diverse population, its mixing of peoples and cultures, its distinctive architecture, cuisine, and music, and even the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have distinguished it to many as the most “foreign” city in the United States. From its origins, New Orleans has been both praised and denigrated, but almost always, it’s been thought of as America’s “exotic other.” In this course we have discussed how American writers have represented New Orleans in literature and film from the late nineteenth century to the present. We have analyzed how some of the country’s most interesting writers have engaged the city–its geography, culture, and myths–as we compare the representations of New Orleans by natives, such as George Washington Cable and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, to those by newcomers, such as Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams, and by frequent visitors, such as Eudora Welty and Robert Olen Butler. Literary critic Lewis Simpson has argued that early on “the literary imagination isolated the Vieux Carré as the only interesting setting in the city thereby reducing the whole expanding city to one of its small parts,” but recent writers such as Walker Percy, John Gregory Brown, Christine Wiltz, and Brenda Marie Osbey, and filmmakers Spike Lee and J. Leo Chiang, have put other neighborhoods on the map: Gentilly, the lower Garden District, the Garden District, Tremé, the lower Ninth Ward, and New Orleans East. Over the course of the semester, students’ illustrated research essays have been published online and linked to our collaborative interactive map of “Literary New Orleans,” which you can view by clicking on “Collaborative Map” on the menu bar.

We are grateful to many people who have helped us along the way. We could not have started this project without the expertise of Ken Warren in the former Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology and of Scott Nesbit and Nate Ayers in the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. In New Orleans, we would like to thank Professor Barbara Ewell at Loyola University for her suggestions about readings, Professor Thomas Bonner at Xavier University for his suggestions on mapping, and Professor Richard Campanella at Tulane University for his geographical insights. We owe a special thanks to my colleague Professor Nathan Snaza and to novelists John Gregory Brown, Robert Olen Butler, and Chris Wiltz. The streetcar image is courtesy of “NewOrleansOnline.com”

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Christine Wiltz’s Glass House: The Urban Spaces and Racial Enclaves of Contemporary New Orleans

by Suzanne W. Jones

At the end of the twentieth century cities of the Northeast and Midwest had the highest levels of black-white residential segregation and racial isolation in the country; however, when segregation levels are measured at the block level rather than the tract level, segregation is higher in the South (Massey and Denton 223).  In American Apartheid, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton argue that “by the end of the 1970s residential segregation became the forgotten factor in American race relations” (4). They point out that “most Americans vaguely realize that urban America is still a residentially segregated society, but few appreciate the depth of black segregation or the degree to which it is maintained by ongoing institutional arrangement and contemporary individual actions” (1). In the novel Glass House (1994), New Orleans native Christine Wiltz, who is white, makes the effects of black-white residential segregation visible by presenting her New Orleans story through the diverse perspectives of residents who live in housing projects as well as Garden District mansions. Wiltz suggests that all of her readers, like all of her characters, have something to learn about the people on the other side of town.

Glass House contains a figure that Patricia Yaeger has identified as ubiquitous in earlier rural southern fiction, the dead black body, or what she terms “the throwaway body: the quick translation of white-on-black murder into economic terms, the quicker translation of black-on-black murder into nothing” (Yaeger 76). This black throwaway figure still appears in contemporary urban settings, where poor, often unemployed, black people are warehoused out of sight in housing projects or the local jail. Wiltz humanizes such throwaway bodies by giving them names, by narrating their lives, but she does not sentimentalize them. She shows that as Benjamin DeMott argued “a brutalized population will inevitably include some who come to behave like brutes” which “in turn makes it easier for the brutalizers to see themselves as policers, not causers, of brutishness” (118).

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Wiltz found the catalyst for Glass House in a historical incident that strained race relations in New Orleans. In 1980 Gregory Neupert, a white policeman was killed near the Fischer Housing Project in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans on the west bank. Although there were no witnesses to the shooting, the police brutally questioned residents of the housing project and eventually killed four innocent people (James 14-16). In Glass House Wiltz fictionalized similar events but placed them on the east bank in the notoriously violent Magnolia Housing Project nearer the Garden District so that she could better show the effects of residential segregation, income disparity, and crime on both black and white neighborhoods. She changed Magnolia to the Convent Street Housing Project and made Louisiana Avenue Convent Street. In an author’s note Wiltz states that she chose the name as a way to emphasize that the city’s inhabitants live “cloistered” lives.

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In Glass House Wiltz lays out a grid of streets that orients readers to her view of the ill effects of urban segregation as well as her vision of how integration might be nurtured. Wiltz’s fictional Convent Street crosses the real St. Charles Avenue and thus connects the Convent Street Housing Project with the mansions of the Garden District. The wide crossing street, St. Charles Avenue, serves as what the narrator terms a “buffer zone between the very rich and the very poor” (5) or as is so often the case in urban America, between whites and blacks or other minorities. Wiltz employs this intersecting street grid to illustrate the complex ways in which the lives of rich whites and poor blacks are linked, despite their spatial separation. The connection has been obscured, making for a dysfunctional relationship that the characters, both black and white, and perhaps most readers, don’t understand. While some black women from the Convent Projects neighborhood regularly cross St. Charles to support their families by working for low wages in the Garden District mansions, many black women and men are confined to the projects, which only a few white characters ever enter. Most whites who do are unnamed in the novel suggesting they are there for only one purpose – to control and corral black people in their work as police officers, almost never to solve black on black crime.

When residential segregation persists, negative media coverage and stereotyping of poor black people can solidify white notions of black people as drug dealers and welfare queens (Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown 170). Wiltz suggests that such omnipresent negative images combined with a growing number of assaults, burglaries, and vandalism in the Garden District produce a climate of white fear that through a twist of faulty logic becomes a fear of all black men, to say nothing of a grave misunderstanding of the culture of poverty, which has evolved into a lack of sympathy for poor black people. Wiltz represents the fear of the other entering one’s enclave (white police storming the Convent; black men plundering the glass houses of the Garden District) as a psychological contagion, with the result that inhabitants on both sides of the color line are arming themselves.

When one of the white characters, Thea Tamborella, returns to New Orleans, just briefly she thinks, in order to settle her Aunt Althea’s estate after ten years of living in Massachusetts, the taxi driver on the way from the airport recommends that she purchase a gun. At a homecoming dinner party, a high school acquaintance, Lyle Hindermann, places his handgun prominently on the dinner table next to a bowl of yellow flowers and a silver candlestick (53), punctuating his point that Thea needs a gun because as he says, “They’re all armed, so we have to be armed too” (53). Several characters – young and old, black and white – are shot and killed in this novel, but they are all innocent victims. Wiltz suggests that guns bought for self-defense too easily end up in the wrong hands. Thea reminds Lyle that when she was a child, her parents were shot with the very gun they bought for protection. Later in the novel, the gun that Lyle foists on Thea’s friend Bobby is stolen when his house is burgled.

From the distance of their Garden District neighborhood, white characters like the Hindermanns, see themselves as victims and black people in the Convent Project as the enemy. While Wiltz does not shy away from depicting black on white crime, she represents the rich white people, as victims of their own social myopia, not simply as victims of the black people they fear, and in many cases, have grown to hate. Lyle, a banker during the week, is so consumed by his desire to protect his white neighborhood that he ruins his own relationship with his wife and children by spending all of his free time as a reserve policeman.

Before we enter the Hindermanns’ home, one of the glass houses of her title, Wiltz makes sure that her readers first see New Orleans race relations through the eyes of those who live in the projects. She presents the Convent Street Housing Project as both “a dangerous place to live,” filled with “jobless people whose hope of finding work dwindled as the jobs themselves did” (18) when the oil boom went bust, and as a place filled with people trying to live a decent life. According to Massey and Denton in American Apartheid the crux of the problem is that the popular media and some scholars have severed what has been termed “the culture of poverty” from its roots in unemployment, social immobility, and residential segregation (5). In Glass House Wiltz re-grafts those roots. When the price of oil collapsed in the mid 1980s, New Orleans went through very difficult economic times, which older New Orleanians compared to the Great Depression (Lewis 121). Through the eyes of black characters who live in the projects like Janine and Burgess, Sheree and Dexter, readers see both the cycle of unemployment, illiteracy, and unwed childbearing that entraps them, and their often heroic attempts to break free: learn to read, find a job, establish a nuclear family. Wiltz enables readers to experience the motivating factors for the behavior of her poor black characters. But the structural ironies Wiltz uses in plotting Glass House create an overwhelming impression of how difficult it is to break the cycles in which the characters, both black and white, are caught.

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Wiltz, who began her career writing detective fiction, intricately constructs her plot in interlocking ways to point up the hidden connections between rich whites and poor blacks that residential segregation obscures. For example, when a rash of burglaries occurs in a white-flight neighborhood in neighboring Jefferson Parish, the local white sheriff calls a press conference to announce that “any suspicious-looking black males seen in all-white neighborhoods would be stopped and questioned, especially those driving shabby, disreputable cars” (116). Angered by such blatant racial profiling, Dexter who lives in the Convent Project organizes a parade of black men in old cars, radios blaring and streamers trailing from their antennas. They cruise through Jefferson Parish, with Dexter as their grad marshal, resplendent in buttery soft, blue leather and ensconced in a customized white Cadillac. What white people like Lyle see as unmotivated lawlessness, Wiltz portrays as total frustration with institutionalized racism. Ironically though, the attention Dexter calls to himself, while garnering kudos from the black community, leads weekend deputy Lyle Hindermann to think that Dexter is the drug kingpin in the projects and to ambush his apartment. Having observed several black men enter Dexter’s apartment for only a few minutes at a time, Lyle assumes they are there to buy drugs; he never imagines they are simply congratulating Dexter on organizing the protest parade.

The structural ironies Wiltz uses in plotting Glass House create an overwhelming impression of how difficult it is to break the cycles in which the characters are caught, which hold them in place. For example, Dexter’s girlfriend Sheree’s precaution of having him move in with her for safety actually leads Lyle to kill her when he tracks Dexter to her apartment. In a similar series of ironically related incidents, the cleanup effort that the real drug kingpin Burgess masterminds in the Convent Project results in his death. His minimal but noticeable changes – fresh paint, repairs, a communal garden, and a child-care center – attract the attention of the police, who know that the city has not provided the money for such improvements. Burgess’s well-meaning but unorthodox urban renewal leads to their assumption that drug money is involved, even though Burgess is not selling drugs in the Convent. Police suspicion that he is results in Dexter’s harassment and Burgess’s need to go underground. This outcome, of course, brings a halt to Burgess’s improvements and his presence, making way for a rival gang to terrorize people in the projects and ultimately to kill him.

Because Thea knows Burgess and Dexter and Lyle, she can see the connections in what appear to be unconnected events, leading her to an important realization about the city’s “collective fate”: “For she was quite certain that such a thing did exist, [it was] bigger than any one person’s fate, or even one race’s fate, bigger than them all.” (141). Similarly readers, by following the cause and effect structure of Wiltz’s plot and by seeing the very real links between racial enclaves, are encouraged to discern the underlying causes for urban violence and racial tensions, just as they might look for clues in one of her murder mysteries. Wiltz creates two characters who bridge the distance between these two segregated neighborhoods: Thea, the white woman who grew up in her aunt’s Garden District home after her parents, her Italian immigrants, were murdered, and Burgess, the black drug dealer/renovation expert who grew up in the Convent Street Housing Project. Much to the shock of her white neighbors, Thea hires Burgess and his black crew to renovate the house she has inherited. Wiltz makes their unlikely friendship plausible because they knew each other as children when Burgess’s mother Delzora worked as Thea’s aunt’s housekeeper.

While Wiltz uses Thea to reveal the complex anatomy of white fear, she uses Burgess to reveal the equally complex anatomy of black rage. Readers of Glass House see fear close enough to understand how fear provokes fear and misunderstanding generates more misunderstanding. Most importantly readers see how white people’s misconceptions, if not outright prejudices, are a large part of the problem because they influence, not just personal interactions, but ingrained institutional and social practices. Wiltz shows that the police are prejudiced and the housing authority oblivious to the problems in the projects, problems that Burgess attempts to rectify. But she also shows how social practices exacerbate the problem. Sandy Hindermann tries to convince Thea to fire Burgess and his crew because their work is unknown in their social set, but Thea remains loyal to Burgess, reminding Sandy that “if Burgess and his carpenter never get any work, how will they ever have anything to show?” (99).

Because her decade away in Massachusetts enables Thea to view New Orleans residential segregation from another perspective and because she sees Burgess as more than simply a drug dealer given their history, their business relationship, and their growing friendship, she decides not to terminate her relationship with him after she learns that Burgess has been a drug dealer. Thea’s unexpected welcome when she next sees him, disrupts the pattern of white response Burgess expects and makes him feel comfortable enough to try to explain how he can be both a law breaker and a benevolent community leader. During this conversation, Burgess makes several presumptuous remarks about white people, which anger Thea. He stereotypes her (“someone like you”), and he assumes that she cannot understand “black reality” because she lives in a totally different world – “you white; you safe” (160). Her response is to remind him that although he may feel safe in her house that she does not feel safe there because her boyfriend Bobby was mugged outside and because her parents were murdered in an incident in which drug use may have prompted the violence. Wiltz employs this conversation to shed light on what each does not understand about the other’s reality—whites in the Garden District do not understand why poor blacks might be led to crime and poor blacks do not understand why whites might stereotype them as criminals.

Although Thea’s anger kindles his, Burgess knows that unchecked anger will block his ability to care about making her understand him and will frighten Thea, pushing them further apart. Through their frank exchange, in which they talk through their anger and apologize for misunderstandings, Wiltz models the possibility of productive interracial dialogue. While this scene works to show that understanding is possible, its orchestration is definitely a white perspective on the process: more white anger should be allowed, black anger should be moderated more often, and “old anger” should not be infused into current situations. Given the many venues Wiltz explores in this novel, it is not surprising that she chooses Thea’s house for frank dialogue about unspoken racial tensions. For it holds memories of the burden of southern history that must be understood, and it is the only place where blacks and whites have come together at work, at meals, and at play. Furthermore, both Thea and Burgess want the other to understand and both are open to a different point of view. Sociologists have determined that simple integration is not enough to deconstruct stereotypes and that contact between the races may lead to more prejudice if the contact occurs between unequals who have different goals and very different cultures. Psychologist Y. Amir would no doubt suggest that the chemistry Wiltz creates is exactly right between Burgess and Thea because of their shared history, their growing friendship, their mutual goal of renovating her house, and their willingness to see each other as so much more than the way others might categorize them, as a black drug dealer and a rich white lady.

Readers dwell in the possibility of racial integration in Thea’s home and in her way of doing business. But they leave the novel much as they began it with Delzora still traveling Convent Street, working in the same home, albeit for a more benevolent and unprejudiced white employer, but with her only son dead and his child to grow up like hers did without a father. That Wiltz concludes Glass House with Delzora’s paradoxical musings –“Nothing had changed but everything had changed” (189) – underlines the fact that residential segregation, institutional racism, and the long legacy of prejudice will not be changed by the goodwill of a few good people.

 

Illustrations

1. Actual locations in New Orleans. Map created by Nathaniel Ayers, University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab, May 2012.

2. Locations as fictionalized by Christine Wiltz in Glass House. Map created by Nathaniel Ayers, University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab, May 2012.

3. Census maps are from the Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011.  http://www.nhgis.org.

Works Cited

Amir, Y. “The Role of Intergroup Contact in Change of Prejudice and Ethnic Relations” in Toward the Elimination of Racism, ed. P. A. Katz. New York: Pergamon Press, 1976.

DeMott, Benjamin. The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race. 1995; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

James, Theresa. “A Conversation with Chris Wiltz.” Xavier Review 15.2 (Fall 1995).

Jones, Suzanne W. Race Mixing: Southern Fiction since the Sixties. pp. 269-279. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.  Revised and reprinted with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lewis. Peirce F. New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. Santa Fe, New Mexico:  Center for American Places, 2003.

Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the   Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Steinhorn, Leonard, and Barbara Diggs-Brown. By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of  Integration and the Reality of Race. [1999] New York: Plume, 2000.

Wiltz, Christine. Glass House. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Yaeger, Patricia. Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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Interview with the Vampire and New Orleans in the Context of LIterary Vampires

by Nathan Snaza

Interview with the Vampire (1976) is not the first major American vampire novel, but the two previous novels about vampires are steadfastly within a literary tradition from which Interview breaks in some important ways that forever change the course of literary history. The two previous texts are Richard Mathesson’s I Am Legend (1954), which although it is explicitly about “vampires” is really more of a zombie novel, and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (published in 1975—the year before Interview).

Interview with the Vampire breaks with the tradition of literary vampires in two crucial ways. From the moment vampires travel from folklore to literary texts in Western European languages (roughly the end of the eighteenth century), the question “what is a vampire?” is almost always asked and the narrative viewpoints in the texts are unquestionably human. From Keat’s “Lamia” to Bram Stoker’s Dracula to relatively recent films like The Lost Boys, this question is asked so that the human protagonists can learn how to kill the vampires threatening them. Anne Rice’s story is important because it is the first text in which the vampire speaks directly to the reader/listener and asks “what is a vampire?” about himself. I half-jokingly tell my “Vampires” students that we could think about it as the first vampire autobiography, or the first novel of vampire existential crisis. This makes it much easier to identify with Louis than with Stoker’s Dracula (or any previous literary vampire). 

This leads to the other crucial break from the tradition: the function played by “the boy” (Christian Slater in the film). Unlike almost all the humans in other vampire stories whose horror of the vampire only increases as they gain knowledge of it, the boy becomes more and more drawn to Louis. The more he hears. There are two main senses in which one could understand the noun “interview”: a conversation to gather news information, and a conversation to ascertain qualifications for a position. Across the novel and the film, the conversation between Louis and the boy slides from the first into the second. 

In Rice’s story, there are three main ways we might consider the importance of New Orleans, one explicit and two more implicit. The first, which the novel narrates directly, is that New Orleans has a racially and culturally heterogeneous population, one that tolerates and even affirms all kinds of eccentricities and seeming excesses (and not just around Mardi Gras). Vampires like Lestat and Louis can therefore live there without standing out (at least not more than anyone else stands out). 

Second, as part of the story’s existential drama, Lestat continually tells Louis that “vampires reproduce through slavery.” As many American Studies critics have demonstrated, this metaphorics of slavery and freedom takes on its particular meaning in the USA in relation to concrete racial slavery. Louis, before becoming a vampire, owns slaves and lives on a plantation. In other words, in order for Lestat’s theory of vampire propagation to take on its full meaning, the narrative had to be set in a slave state. Lestat’s assertion fills Louis with dread because he knows very, very well what slavery is. 

Third, Louis explains directly in the novel that Paris is the “mother” of New Orleans. If you consider that Dracula sets out to take over London, the capital of Empire, at the end of the nineteenth century, it makes sense that vampires would seek their dominion in Paris in the eighteenth. After all, Paris was the petri dish that spawned “human rights,” democratic political theory, high fashion, the restaurant, the encyclopedia, and so on. As critic Nina Auerbach puts it, “Vampires go where power is.” 

On a slightly different note, Interview with the Vampire introduces the idea of two “kinds” of vampires: those who are “all too human” like Louis, Lestat, etc. and mindless killing machines (in the novel they’re called Revenants and they live in Eastern Europe). This distinction, in time, leads to some very interesting developments in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and True Blood. You can think about vampires like the Cullens in Twilight who are “vegetarians” and don’t feed on human blood. Interview is really the first text to meditate extensively on the problem of what we could call “vampire ethics.” 

Work Cited

Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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Tourist Attractions and Relationship Expectations in A Small Hotel

by Bridget Maguire

Robert Olen Butler takes readers on an intimate journey into the French Quarter of New Orleans in his novel, A Small Hotel (2011).  On the day Kelly is supposed to be finalizing her divorce, she goes back to the place she first met her husband Michael.  While grappling with the failure of her marriage, Kelly reminisces about times spent with Michael in New Orleans.  Since Kelly and Michael are both outsiders to New Orleans, it is not surprising that many of their memories feature notable tourist attractions of the French Quarter.  However, the promised experiences of such places appear to reflect and fulfill a deeper satisfaction Kelly hoped would extend into her relationship with Michael.   At the same time, Michael’s memories, often of the same events, help him uncover his past emotional failings towards Kelly and allow him the opportunity to “right his wrongs.”

Kelly reminisces about her marriage while staying in The Olivier House Hotel (Point 1 on map).  Although Michael was first staying in the hotel before he met Kelly, they have continually came back to the same Room 303 ever since they spent their first night together there after meeting during Mardi Gras more than twenty years ago.  Focal points in the French Quarter act as memory triggers throughout Kelly’s flashbacks.  The hotel itself embodies a token promised satisfaction for its guests.  A page titled “Distinctively New Orleans” on the hotel’s website provides the following description, “The scene of many Creole society soirees, banquets and gatherings, this mansion has provided warm and gracious hospitality for over a century and a half.  Steeped in history, architectural details, and character, the Olivier House exudes a warm, casually elegant atmosphere.”  These features evoke a kind of nostalgia for a traditional southern, New Orleans upper-class society.  The attendees of such “society soirees” would most likely be notable, well-to-do married couples of the New Orleans elite.  This ideal image of a couple is what Kelly always hoped her marriage to Michael would reflect.

Both Kelly and Michael vividly remember the morning of Ash Wednesday, the day after their first night spent together.  Although certain conversations and actions are engrained in each of their minds a bit differently, the places they went to are consistent.  Early in the morning, Kelly had gone to Saint Louis Cathedral (Point 3 on map) to receive the ashen sign of the cross on her forehead, a symbol of penance.  Although she claimed not to be particularly Catholic, this church is the oldest cathedral in the United States and a famous landmark of the French Quarter.  The lavish architecture and ornate interior décor reinforce the cathedral as utterly beautiful and sacred.  This sense of perfection embodies Kelly’s feelings about Michael after their first meeting and what she hoped would continue between them in the future.

Later that morning, Kelly and Michael walk through Jackson Square (Point 4 on map), stopping at Saint Louis Cathedral.  They proceed to “sit nursing the New Orleans chicory-root coffee under the open-air pavilion of the Café du Monde” (Butler 64), while eating beignets.  This café (Point 5 on map) is famous for its coffee and beignets and one of the city’s greatest tourist attractions.  That Kelly And Michael choose to go to Café du Monde suggests their desire to experience the best in New Orleans, despite the café’s known crowds and popularity.  While Kelly struggles with eating her beignet, sending clouds of powdered sugar astray, she shares a tender moment with Michael:

He puts the tip of his forefinger into the powdered sugar at the margin of his plate, and he lifts his finger, coated white, and he reaches out, across the table, and he touches Kelly’s forehead, touches the dark cross of ashes, and he traces a white cross of sugar there.  And he says, “In remembrance of life.  And to a thing not ended.” (Butler 66)

His mark on Kelly’s forehead as a sign of life rather than mortality speaks to the vitality he feels in his relationship with her.  This moment of pristine intimacy in Kelly’s mind mirrors the perfection of a guest’s experience drinking coffee and eating a beignet at the Café du Monde.

Later in the novel, Kelly takes a walk through the French Quarter after stopping at a bar for a drink.  She walks around Jackson Square, once again taking in the familiar places and is flooded with the memories accompanying them.  After she climbs the façade of Washington Artillery Park (Point 6 on map), she stands along the waterside esplanade of the Moonwalk (Point 7 on map).  Both places are icons of the French Quarter and New Orleans Mississippi riverfront.  A tourist expects to find sweeping, “postcard-like” views here.  However, Kelly cannot take in much of the scenery due to it being nighttime when she walks here.  Looking at the river through the darkness, “The past runs strongly in her, carrying her feelings about her husband, about her marriage, about her life” (Butler 120).  The scenic, memorable experience one would expect to have walking along the Moonwalk is overshadowed by the night’s darkness and feelings of failure Kelly currently holds.  The memory Kelly has here is of her failed attempt to connect with her father on a day she spent with her family on the banks of a river in Alabama when she was five years old, ultimately shedding some light on her problems with Michael.

The famous landmarks Kelly revisits throughout the novel speak to feelings of satisfaction, happiness, and joy that, in the weeks leading up to her divorce, have appeared to vanish.  From The Olivier House Hotel to the Café du Monde, Kelly and Michael simultaneously share memories of times of perfection during their relationship.  Revisiting these places in the present allows Kelly to remember these times and analyze the expectations she simultaneously had for Michael and their relationship together.  However, her efforts are not in vain, as Michael mentally revisits the same places during his stay at the Oak Alley Plantation with his current girlfriend and ultimately realizes the mistake both he and Kelly would be making to finalize a divorce.  During a time of reflection and attempt to unveil the reasons for the failure of her marriage, Kelly’s memories of the various French Quarter locations include satisfied tourist expectations that translated into her moments of happiness and bliss with Michael.  On the other hand, Michael’s memories of times spent with Kelly in these places allow him to see in what respects he failed her, how much he truly loves her, and inspire him to completely satisfy Kelly’s emotional expectations of him in reviving their marriage to its full potential.

Illustrations

1. Custom Google Map, 2013.

2. Custom Google Map, 2013.

3. Room 301, 2013, TripAdvisor, http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/03/52/fc/95/olivier-house.jpg

4. St. Louis Cathedral/New Orleans, 2010, Flickr, http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3400/4620455155_e5d4cd1992_z.jpg

5. Evening at Café du Monde, Brad Thompson,  http://www.visitsoutherncomfort.com/images/dEvening%20at%20Cafe%20du%20Monde.jpg

Works Cited

Butler, Robert Olen. A Small Hotel. New York: Grove, 2011. Print.

“Distinctively New Orleans.” The Olivier House Hotel. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. <http://olivierhousehotel.com/distinctive.html?sound=1&btnMuteXmc=_level0%2EbtnMuteX01&s=%5Bobject+Object%5D&gt;.

“The Saint Louis Cathedral: New Orleans Louisiana.” The Saint Louis Cathedral: New Orleans Louisiana. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2013. <http://www.stlouiscathedral.org/&gt;.

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How Hurricane Katrina Changed a Village Called Versailles

By Megan Kroger

After being refugees of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese residents of Versailles, in New Orleans East, already knew a thing or two about government discrimination and the need to endure. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit, those who had experienced forced immigration were old and still did not feel connected to their new home, the United States. The youth on the other hand, had immersed themselves in American culture and were losing touch with their Vietnamese roots, unable to understand the hardships their ancestors had suffered. Because of Hurricane Katrina and the struggles that followed, the youth were able to bring the elders out of their shell. Leo Chiang, a native of Taiwan and graduate in film production from University of Southern California, wanted to depict their struggle and send a message to underrepresented communities (PBS). We see in A Village Called Versailles, a documentary by Chiang, that thanks to the combined determination and perseverance of the elders and the youth, the two age groups were able to close the gap, allowing the native Vietnamese to become comfortable with being American.

When the Vietnamese came to the United States in 1975 as a result of the war, New Orleans was the desired destination for several reasons. The climate of the city resembles that of Vietnam, so there was no weather change they would have to adapt to. One of the major causes for discrimination at home had been their religion, for those who were Catholic. After facing oppression from the Confucius government, settling in a Catholic city was welcoming (Airriess). Their religion is still extremely important to them, as it helped them through the hard times in Vietnam and continued to do so in New Orleans. Most families cultivated gardens as they had in Vietnam, an activity that served as a pastime and even a career for some elderly women. It was all they knew and being able to take that with them to a new place made the gardens even more significant (Airriess). Many of the men took up fishing, a life they knew in Vietnam and work that did not depend on speaking English well. When the second wave of Vietnamese arrived in New Orleans in the 1980s and 1990s, Chiang shows how fishing saved many, as their experience gave them the upper hand over even some locals. Although Chiang shows that some of the local Louisiana fisherman were prejudiced against them, outright discrimination was kept at bay. Most of the elders never learned how to speak English though, instead opening shops within their community and depending on welfare. New Orleans East, where 1970s developers reclaimed swamps, was inexpensive, a benefit of settling in this part of the city (New Orleans Online). The Vietnamese of Versailles had created their own world that worked for them, never needing to reach out to the greater community. They were content within themselves, until Hurricane Katrina changed that.

https://i0.wp.com/www.chicagoreader.com/binary/da30/1273851860-versailles2.jpg At first, the residents’ isolation and disconnection with the city of New Orleans hurt them because New Orleanians knew little of their needs, some not even knowing of their existence. With the help of their past experiences as refugees, Chiang suggests that they were able to rebuild quicker than the rest of the city. Immediately after the hurricane, when everyone involved was just trying to make sense of what had happened, help was hard to come by for the Vietnamese. Translators were scarce, and they had no one to turn to. They were reminded of being refugees again: lost, confused, and alone. Chiang focuses on how the pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church visited his parishioners in temporary shelters out of state, and encouraged them to return to rebuild Versailles. His encouragement fueled their desire to get back to the home it took thirty years to make. Many residents came back to the city not long after the hurricane so they could rebuild and get back to normalcy. Similar to their experience as refugees, they had to use whatever resources they could find to rebuild. Some were even forced to heat food using a metal chair and a small flame held underneath, a scene Chiang chooses to film to show their determination. Using their own means, the village was able to rebuild and the pastor held his first mass since Katrina only six weeks after the disaster, a significant event as the church not only represents their religion but their sense of community. Those who attended the mass who but who had not yet returned were inspired to join the effort of recreating their village. Unfortunately, the reappearance of normalcy was not enough to keep the government at bay.

The elders’ previous experience as refugees helped them through the process of rebuilding but when the city decided to construct a landfill downstream of their village to accommodate post-Katrina destruction, they needed support from the youth. The language barrier between the Vietnamese and the government was only one of the problems that needed addressing. How could the villagers fight a system and a culture they were not familiar with? They needed the younger members of Versailles, who had been educated in America and took part in American ways. Chiang depicts their Americanization by showing them dancing and using American slang, with even a hint of a Southern accent in some of their voices. The youth educated themselves about the landfills, so they could fully understand the problem and be able to fight it most effectively. The youth, most of whom were born in New Orleans, were already distant from their Vietnamese roots. When it came to protesting the landfill though, they were eager and determined. Chiang shows them literally side by side with the elders, as they carried signs and yelled chants, even though they were discriminated against during these protests. They understood what they were fighting for: their home and all they knew.

In the thirty years since arriving in the United States, the Vietnamese had made a home for themselves, however disconnected from the rest of New Orleans. They had created a safety net for their families and future generations. Before the hurricane, the villagers were content, even if there were differences between their past culture and their new American home. Katrina made them reevaluate the isolated world they made. Elders were confident in what they had built, and rebuilt, and comfortable in their surroundings, now proud to say “We are American” (Chiang).  Youth understood the importance of their Vietnamese culture and gained new respect for what their ancestors had been through. Chiang ends the documentary here, achieving his goal of inspiring “underrepresented communities everywhere – groups of people whose collective voices were not often heard – to organize, to take action, and to fight for what they believe in” (PBS). Ninety percent of residents have returned to Versailles after the hurricane (Chiang), compared to the rest of New Orleans, which stands at about seventy-five percent (Plyer). Chiang’s A Village Called Versailles suggests that after every storm is a rainbow, and the bigger the storm the more inspiring and hopeful the aftermath can be.

Illustrations

1. After Hurricane Katrina, 2010, The Bleader, http://www.chicagoreader.com/binary/da30/1273851860-versailles2.jpg

2. Protesting, 2011, Xfinity, http://xfinity.comcast.net/blogs/tv/files/2011/07/Versailles-protest.jpg

3. Map of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, https://maps.google.com/maps?q=Mary+Queen+of+Vietnam+Church,+Dwyer+Boulevard,+New+Orleans,+LA&hl=en&sll=38.880816,-77.102156&sspn=0.149933,0.338173&oq=mary+queen+of+viet&hq=Mary+Queen+of+Vietnam+Church,&hnear=Dwyer+Blvd,+New+Orleans,+Orleans,+Louisiana+70129&t=m&z=16

Works Cited

Airriess, Christopher A. “Creating Vietnamese Landscapes and Place in New Orleans.” Geographical Identities of Ethnic America: Race, Space, and Place. Ed. Kate A. Berry and Martha L. Henderson. Reno: University of Nevada, 2002. 228-50. Print

“The Filmmaker.” Interview. PBS. Independent Lens, 17 May 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/village-called-versailles/filmmaker.html

“From Far East to New Orleans East.” New Orleans Online. New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, n.d. Web. 4 May 2013. http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/multicultural/multiculturalhistory/vietnamese.html

“The Making Of “A Village Called Versailles”” PBS. Independent Lens, 17 May 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/village-called-versailles/makingof.html

Plyer, Allison. “Facts for Features: Hurricane Katrina Recovery.” GNOCDC. Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, 30 Jan. 2013. Web. 3 May 2013. http://www.gnocdc.org/Factsforfeatures/HurricaneKatrinaRecovery/

A Village Called Versailles. Dir. Leo Chiang. New Day Films, 2010. DVD.

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Robert Olen Butler: Writing a Sensual New Orleans

By Gino Grieco

Robert Olen Butler was born in 1945 in Granite City, Illinois.  In the beginning of his college career at Northwestern, Butler felt that his profession would be acting; his father was a professor at St. Louis University and the chair of the theater department.  However, after finding some success acting, he found that he “would rather write than interpret” and as such he transferred to a writing focused major named, ironically, oral interpretation (Sartisky).  After graduating from Northwestern, Butler went on to attain a master’s degree in playwriting from the University of Iowa.Image  After graduation Butler was informed that he would likely be drafted into the Vietnam War, as his academic exemption no longer made him ineligible.  In order to avoid the draft process and decide his own fate, Butler enlisted in the army as a counter-intelligence operative; this position required him to study Vietnamese for a year in order to reach a level of fluency necessary for interpretation.  Butler served in the Vietnam War from 1970-71, during which time he discovered “that playwriting was not [his] medium” (Sartisky).  He felt that playwriting did not allow him to exert control over the sensual experience of his works, as that portion of the product is contributed by the actors.  Thus, he switched mediums to fiction, a medium where he found great success.  In 1993 Butler was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his volume of short stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a series of short stories told from the perspectives of former Vietnamese citizens living in America, mainly in Louisiana.

Robert Olen Butler’s relationship to the city of New Orleans largely parallels Kelly and Michael’s relationship to the city in his novel A Small Hotel (2011).  Butler never lived in New Orleans; however, during his fifteen years teaching at McNeese State University in Louisiana, from 1985-2000, Butler made frequent trips to the city (interview).  It is from this perspective, that of the visitor, that Butler writes the story of a marriage born in New Orleans and nearly ended there.  The Olivier House Hotel in which Kelly stays in the story is based upon the actual Olivier House, which Butler frequented during his visits to the city; Oak Alley is also inspired by its real-world counterpart (interview).  Yet, the New Orleans that Butler creates and represents in A Small Hotel is far from an autobiographical account of his time in the city or the end of one of his four divorces.  Rather, the city serves as an “intellectual and aesthetic muse” for Butler’s sensual style (interview).  His style accentuates “the stuff you forget” about daily life– those little physical touches that seem so unremarkable in everyday life yet shape the way human beings remember and experience the world around them (interview).   Butler’s stylistic sensibilities permeate the novel, yet are most readily viewed during his descriptions of memories and the communication of love.

Butler most frequently utilizes sensual feelings in the novel as a catalyst for the many memories and flashbacks which the main characters experience.  In most cases Kelly and Michael do not attempt to invoke memories of their collapsing marriage; however, the physical and mental links which connect them to locations in New Orleans and Oak Alley prevent them from forgetting.  Butler conveys the sensual basis of memory to the reader through his emphasis of involuntary moments of recollection.  During Michael’s first scene in Oak Alley, he is involuntarily drawn into a memory of his wife after Laurie gently touches the tip of his nose, “he needed to make the point: for Laurie’s sake as well as his own, he [couldn’t] let Kelly into this room.  But the tip of his nose [made] him smile a faint, tender, involuntary smile at Laurie… And in this moment of Michael’s letting go to a gentle thing, Kelly [spun] to him” (14).  Michael is deliberately attempting to keep his wife’s memory out of his head and his life; he is trying to focus solely on his new girlfriend.  Yet, he cannot prevent the physical touch of his nose from triggering a latent memory of Kelly touching him in a similar way in “the center of an Oak Alley cottage bedroom, perhaps this very one” (14).  Butler seamlessly blends the physical act of touching with the involuntary smile triggered by years of happy muscle memory, followed abruptly by a full memory.  Through instances of memories such as this, Butler conveys to the reader the emotional and physical basis of memories: memories are not accessed like RAM on a computer at the will of the mind; they are accessed sporadically, imperfectly, and sometimes involuntarily.

The city of New Orleans is, to Butler, a locus of sensual memories and experiences, which makes a perfect place to stage a story driven largely by sensual memories.  In an interview with Nathan Martin, Butler said of the city, “New Orleans is an extraordinary city in that the past is always with us, and so it’s the perfect place to put a book in which memory and the past interact with the present. That’s what New Orleans is all about” (Martin).  The sense of overwhelming history present in the city allows the setting of the story to accentuate its larger worldview: the past is never truly past and human beings cannot control when it comes back.  However, the state of overindulgence and sensual overload present in the city also makes it especially appropriate for the type of history Butler is conveying.  The city allows him to capture the interplay between bodily experience and memory; as Butler explains, “One reason the partying is so hard and the life so intense is that everyone knows that at any time, on any given summer day, the city could vanish” (Berry).  In New Orleans, the residents must contend with the knowledge that at any moment the centuries of history built up in the city could be lost, and as a result New Orleanians live voraciously in the present by embracing the music, food, and parades of the past.  The threat of divorce in A Small Hotel presents a similar loss of history to Michael and Kelly; both have invested years and years of their now dwindling lives in their marriage, yet one signed paper could wipe away that history in an instant.

The city of New Orleans also serves as a counterpoint to the emotional repression expressed by Michael and Kelly throughout the novel.  Through Michael and Kelly’s inherited emotional distance, Butler is able to express the type of emotional starvation that he witnessed in his own parents’ relationship with their parents; both of Butler’s parents lived with one parent who was “unable to express love in any overt way” (interview).  When speaking about the city, Butler notes, “The life of openly expressed feeling is what New Orleans really represents, and that’s the problem here. Michael and Kelly do not speak the same emotional language” (Berry).  Though the city of New Orleans presents a location rife with emotional openness, Kelly and Michael both cannot overcome their inability to communicate their own emotional needs.  Kelly needs an open, verbal expression of love, while Michael shares his father’s opinion that “words spoil it.  They spoil it completely” (110).  Both characters experience love, and they attempt to convey love in their own way; but, neither of them can look beyond themselves and see that their attempts to communicate their emotions are not fully understood.  Though in the New Orleans streets strangers trade beads for sexual favors, this loving, married couple cannot share their most intimate thoughts in a way that is jointly understood.  It is in the absurd juxtaposition of New Orleans’ endless openness with Kelly and Michael’s tragically miscommunicated love that Butler emphasizes the need to communicate genuine emotion while also denigrating the misappropriation of shallow emotions.

Butler utilizes the city of New Orleans in A Small Hotel to invoke several of the popular images of the city and juxtapose those conceptions with Kelly and Michael’s burgeoning, then collapsing, relationship.  In setting the story in this particular city, Butler is able to leverage the interplay of past and present, communicated emotion and hidden emotion, physical experience and memory.  Butler currently teaches at Florida State University, yet his distance from New Orleans has not diminished his appreciation for the unique atmosphere of the city that care forgot.

Illustration

Butler, Robert.  Robert Olen Butler.  Photograph.  Florida State University: Forida.  FSU.edu.  Florida State University.  Web.  5 May 2013.

Works Cited

Butler, Robert Olen. A Small Hotel. New York: Grove, 2011. Print.

Butler, Robert Olen, and Michael Sartisky. “Robert Olen Butler: A Pulitzer Profile.” The Future of Southern Letters. Ed. Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 155-169. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 162. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 May 2013.

Butler, Robert Olen. Telephone interview with author, 30 April 2013.

“Robert Olen Butler.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 May 2013.

“Robert Olen Butler: The Danger of Wanting to Be a Writer.” Interview by Lorraine Berry. Talking Writing. Talking Writing, 6 Feb. 2012. Web. 1 May 2013.

“To Learn the Language of Feeling: An Interview with Robert Olen Butler.” Interview by Nathan C. Martin. Press Street. Press Street, 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 1 May 2013.

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Giving Voice to the Voiceless in When the Levees Broke

By Gino Grieco

Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke is, at first glance, a bleak look at one of the darkest periods of US politics and governmental ambivalence.  When asked by NPR how Katrina affected him Lee answered,

“I was touched. I was sad. I was angry. And at the time I was not in the United States of America, I was in Venice, Italy for the Venice Film Festival. And so I was just holed up in my hotel room switching back and forth between the BBC and CNN. And every day I wondered when is the federal government going to show up…

And very early on, I recognized I was watching a historic moment in American history. And I quickly came to the decision I would like to – if given the chance, I would like to document that. I would like to have a – hopefully the definitive visual document on the fiasco that happened down in New Orleans.” (NPR)

Lee took his confusion and frustration with the non-response to New Orleans’s destruction and used it to document the near complete disregard and abandonment of one of the largest and most storied cities in the US by the US Government during the worst natural disaster to ever strike the city.  The interviewees, both experts and survivors alike, vacillate between seething rage and somber despair at the plight of their city and its flagging prospects of future success.  Yet, beyond the film’s political and informative aims, the film is at its core a testament to the unique people who call New Orleans home and the amazing culture that they have nurtured and preserved in their city.  Lee’s use of uninterrupted interviews, staged scenes, and a very unique credit sequence serve to direct the collective narrative about Hurricane Katrina away from the accounts gathered by news networks and political pundits and instead provide the viewer with the many human faces who weathered the storm.

The first way that Spike Lee focuses his documentary on the survivors of Katrina is by muting his own voice and empowering that of the interviewees.  The documentary is largely composed of interviews with survivors of the hurricane set on both plain backdrops and in front of their ruined homes.  The use of the colored backdrops allows for the survivors to be the main focus of each of the interview segments without any form of visual distraction to draw the viewer’s attention.  This effect is enhanced by Lee’s choice to film many of the interviews in close-up, allowing the viewer to take in not just what these people have to say about the hurricane, but the expressions of human beings who have been suffering and who continue to be suffer.   By staging other interviews outside of the ruins left by the storm, Lee is able to provide the viewer with the visual evidence of human loss and struggle as the interviewees describe it.  It becomes impossible for the viewers to distance themselves from the realities of what the survivors have gone through when people like Judith Morgan and Tanya Harris are interviewed in front of their collapsed homes and bare foundations.  Lee also ensures that the survivors’ stories are largely unmarked by his own voice; while he and his film crew are the presumptive interviewers during the filming process the viewer rarely hears the voice of the interviewers.  This technique allows for the survivors’ stories to feel as though they are unsolicited opinions and viewpoints about their unique experiences, rather than answers to leading questions designed to further a narrative agenda on the part of the filmmakers.

Lee also makes use of staged scenes to convey the history of the citizens of New Orleans and how those histories have been affected by Katrina.  The two such scenes that stand out are Terence Blanchard’s walk through the streets of New Orleans with his trumpet and the jazz funeral of Katrina.  During the first scene Terence Blanchard, a composer and resident of the Garden District, plays a dirge on his trumpet as he walks through the ruins of the city in a suit that would befit a trumpeter. Image As Blanchard plays a mourning song for the city of New Orleans, the footage and the sound of the song become part of the background as more interviewees express their opinion on the state of the city.  One such opinion is that looking at the city is “like looking at a friend who had been like disfigured.  You know who you’re talking too; you just don’t recognize them.”  In layering the music with the interviews, Lee gives the viewers a sense of the grief that the survivors feel as well as a sense of New Orleans’ genius loci.  This city is inextricably linked to jazz and in this scene the loss of so many homes is conveyed through the music that so many took as an emblem of their home.  The music is merely a background to the devastation and the human suffering the viewer is taking in; the music allows the city’s devastation to be mourned in the language of its residents, through jazz.  Thus, this scene gives the viewer an idea of the nature of the citizens of New Orleans and why they so love their city, while simultaneously mourning its deformation.

The second scripted scene that Lee uses to convey the culture of the city is the mock jazz funeral for Katrina.  This footage is used several times throughout the film, but the version that best articulates the unique sense of loss that New Orleanians feel is the parade that concludes the film.  The central idea of a jazz funeral, as explained during the film, is that a jazz band plays traditional dirges and songs of mourning during the burial ceremony; however, immediately following the burial the family goes on parade following the band as the band plays upbeat and celebratory songs.  In the words of Gralen B. Banks the jazz funeral is meant to say: “yeah I’m sad you’re gone, but damn it sure was nice to know ya.”  Yet, the mock funeral at the end of the film is twisted in a few key ways from the New Orleans tradition.  First, the music is up-tempo the entire time as the pallbearers carry Katrina’s casket rather than slow dirges.  This change shows that for the people of New Orleans there is no joy associated with the storm and they are glad for its passing: the pallbearers even go so far as to dance over the casket.  Furthermore, the casket is not buried or done away with; instead, the casket is left in the street for all to see, which shows that the memory of the storm and its damage are not yet gone.  The mending and recovery have not progressed far enough to leave the damage in the past, which is further evidenced by the setting of the parade: the ruins of the Lower Ninth Ward.  However, while the mock funeral viscerally shows the viewer that New Orleans has not made much physical progress since the storm, it also conveys the way New Orleanians combine a mourning of what they lost with the celebration of the good times they had.  They mourn New Orleans in the way only a New Orleanian can, by throwing a jazz funeral.

The humanization of the hurricane victims is so central to the film that the final credits themselves attempt to literally frame the victims in the viewer’s mind.  Rather than simply rolling traditional credits after the final jazz funeral, Lee elects instead to have every one of his interviewees hold up a picture frame to leave a lasting picture of the people affected by this horrible tragedy.  However, these picture frames actually act to subvert their usual function; rather than framing a still image of some finite moment in the past these picture frames contain a moving, breathing person.  This allows Lee to show that these people are more than simple images in a frame or on a news feed, but instead are unique people that are deserving of the viewer’s empathy. The fact that the picture frames do not actually frame the shot also shows the viewer that there is more going on beyond the frame than what the viewer can see.  This technique calls into question the accuracy of still images and even movies to convey the whole truth of a calamity such a Katrina; there is always some other drama and loss beyond the frame whose story is left untold.  Lee further humanizes the interviewees when the speakers announce their name, profession, or residence.  In doing so each survivor further highlights his/her own unique history.  Furthermore, many of the victims proudly announce their home district in the city as their full description in place of things like profession.  The effect of this hometown pride is to show the viewer how much the citizens of New Orleans value their city and why their homes should be restored; it is because New Orleans had such a sense of place that it could inspire such profound pride in its citizens.

Though some viewers may focus on Lee’s political leanings in When the Levees Broke, especially some of his accusations of the US Government, to do so would be a disservice to the larger narrative of the film.  Lee illustrates throughout the documentary that the people of New Orleans are a unique and valuable people who deserve better.  Lee shows the viewer that the political messages in his film are only made in service of the incredible people who otherwise would not have any forum to express their ideas at all.  Thus, When the Levees Broke functions as both a celebration of the people and culture that New Orleans nurtured as well as a scathing criticism of the people who let it drown, but in the end the viewer is left with images of the survivors attempting to move on, not the politicians falling.  So when one thinks of New Orleans and Katrina, think not of Bush and FEMA, but rather think of Robert Rocque, Michael Knight, and Audrey Mason.

Illustrations

1. Lee, Spike. Spike Lee.  2012. Photograph. Wikimedia Commons.  “Spike Lee.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation. 20 April 2013. Web. 5 May 2013.

2. Blanchard, Terence. “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.”  2006. Photograph.  HBO.com.  HBO.  Web.  5 May 2013.

Works Cited

“Spike Lee Produces a Vision of Katrina.” Interview by Ed Gordon. NPR. NPR, 18 Aug. 2006. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5669697&gt;.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Directed by Spike Lee. Forty Acres and a Mule Film Works, 2005.

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“Us and Them”: Racial Boundaries in Glass House

By Maddy Boylan George

The disparity in wealth, class, and race is shown through Christine Wiltz’s novel Glass House. Set in the late 1980s, the novel reflects the racial tensions present in New Orleans at a time when a weakened economy and unemployment created a wider disparity between the races and an increase in criminal activity. The two main settings in the novel, the Convent Street Project and the old homes in the Garden District, are geographically very close, thus the differences and tensions between the two are heightened. By only being separated by several blocks, underlying currents of ownership and territory are felt. The levels of crime and the proximity of bordering neighbourhoods increased ill feeling in New Orleans to the point where it was no longer safe to be in certain areas. As geographer Peirce Lewis points out, “It is no news that poverty breeds crime, and it did so with terrible effect in New Orleans during the late 1980s and early 90s. For a time, New Orleans was the murder capital of the U.S. . . . . the killings were often associated with disputes over drugs or gang turf. Muggings and robberies were commonplace, and many citizens were terror-stricken, especially affluent whites who lived near the boundaries of black neighborhoods  Across the city. . . .razor-wire appeared atop household walls, and throughout the city heavy padlocked chains were wrapped around the ornate iron gates that barred entrance to private dwellings” (Lewis, 128).

Fischer Projects

The dual setting of the novel reflects the key theme of fear in Glass House; by splitting the novel and the Garden District into specific territories and zones, a feeling of warfare is created. In theory all areas of a city should be public and open to all residents and visitors; however this is not the case in New Orleans. By using a well-known street as a dividing line between the two areas, Wiltz reflects the very real division of land, and the chaos that occurs when individuals try and cross the line. Fear is a recurrent theme throughout the novel and Wiltz explores the belief that fear creates fear. By operating an “us and them” division between the “haves and have-nots”, a suspicion of the other side occurs. Both sides believe that their fear is entirely justified and use their houses as fortresses to hide inside, although as the novel progresses we see that the houses on either side are not safe, regardless of the wealth of the owners. Wiltz states in an interview that, “everything that happens in this book is the consequence of fear. So if the fear didn’t exist, these acts couldn’t happen…the fear is so deep and so palpable that it is going to produce its own consequences and that is the dark side, the reality.” (James, 17)

Hysteria is exacerbated as the novel progresses and sporadic attacks occur on both sides. The characters are worked up into an extreme frenzy of accusation and panic, becoming more dangerous to themselves, and to others. The black residents need protection from the New Orleans Police Department, and the white residents believe that they need protection from the black side. In many ways the white residents are more dangerous than the violent criminals in the Project. Throughout the novel whites are figures of authority, such as Mr Untermeyer, the lawyer, or police officers like Lyle; or they are very wealthy and have a considerable amount of power within their own area. Wiltz examines what happens when wealthy and powerful people are frightened, and feel the need to defend themselves. By arming individuals who do not really need weapons, the white side becomes increasingly dangerous and panicked.

NOPD-Grafitti-big

Lyle Hindermann in particular, “banker by day, crimestopper  by night” (Wiltz, 51) represents the level of extreme fear that results in him becoming violent and obsessed with battling crime. Extremely racist, he embodies everything that is wrong with the New Orleans Police Department; corrupt, angry, and running on an aggressive adrenaline that causes him to become increasingly manic as the novel goes on. His wife Sandy states that Lyle had gone “mad on law and order” (55). Lyle has embarked upon a personal vendetta to keep black crime out of their area, because he experienced a neighbor being attacked, and felt affronted by the audacity of black criminals daring to enter the white neighborhood  rather than keep to their own side. Lyle is able to play at God and has no interest in equality and creating a better New Orleans.

Lyle exacerbates fear in the white neighborhood by introducing guns into a domestic scene. They have no place at a dinner party but he forces them upon his old friend Thea repeatedly and causes her to be terrified in her own home. As soon as she arrives back in New Orleans from Massachusetts she is made to feel unsafe and threatened. As part of the “white side” she is immediately expected to assimilate into the group, her new friends and neighbors assume that she will also want to defend herself. Thea is the only person present at the dinner party who has actually experienced any violence at the hands of black men; despite the murder of her parents she bears no grudges and is unwilling to join Lyle’s crusade. Lyle terrifies Thea and tries to force her to use a gun to protect herself: “I think you may be in some danger,” he said to her. “That’s why I’m here-I’m afraid for you.” And indeed, Thea could see he was afraid, so afraid he was frightening….Lyle was so afraid that his fear was reaching out to her, infecting her” (180).

When Thea entertains the idea of having a burglar alarm put in, she feels ashamed and embarrassed by her African American friend’s response. “Laughed at by Burgess and his girlfriend for putting in a burglar alarm to keep them out, because it was them, all of them, the alarm was supposed to keep out; it was, after all, them against us.” (Wiltz, 102) Thea is reluctant to get an alarm system as she feels this will not help to make her feel safe: “She could imagine herself lying awake at night waiting for the alarm to go off, in bed cringing against the anticipated blast of noise….Bobby solved her dilemma. He arrived at the house and surprised her with a dog.” (Wiltz, 107) The security system of a guard dog allows Thea to feel safer, yet it also presents a less aggressive view to the outside world. Rather than resorting to expensive security systems and barbed wire, Thea is able to compromise. She is still able to feel safe in her own home, but without resorting to violence as a means of protection.

Lyle’s actions become increasingly manic as the novel continues, and he becomes determined to find out who the “Bishop of Convent Street” is. In his paranoid state he helps to arm some of his friends and neighbors, by teaching them how to shoot, and ensuring that they all buy burglar alarms. At the dinner party to celebrate Thea’s return, her neighbors introduce her to the common practice of owning a gun. “Thea looked at Mona…her eyes automatically riveting to Mona’s hands, a largo opal circled by diamonds on the right hand, a huge emerald-cut diamond flanked by sapphire ring guards on the left… Imagine those uptown ladies shooting to kill, their legs spread wide as far as their fashionable clothes would allow, in a policeman’s crouch as taught by Lyle, their jewel-bedecked hands clutching their guns.” (Wiltz, 52) The juxtaposition of such luxury contrasted with weapons makes the white side seem even more ridiculous.  Guns are a very real form of protection in the Projects; in the Garden District they are seen as another fashionable accessory that everyone must own. The real, dangerous implications of owning a weapon seem less significant when the threat is reduced, as it is in the Garden District, where the level of crime and poverty in non-existent in comparison with the Projects. Lyle is effectively creating a miniature army that is trained and willing to use firearms. Fortunately the white neighborhood does not resort to violence in the climax of the novel, although the fact that they are ready and willing to use guns increases the tension between the two races.

GARDEN DISTRICT 2

At the end of the novel Lyle’s murder of the innocent Sherree as he pursues her boyfriend Dexter causes the population of the Project to insist on change and protection from the police.  He has absolutely no respect for the Project residents. He appears unaffected by the chaos that has resulted from his murder of Sherree; he refers to the “civil rights violations crap” (181) at the town hall, a direct result of corrupt police officers. Every time that the police are mentioned in the novel they are either violent or fraudulent, and in the worst case they are a volunteer like Lyle, who is able to murder a pregnant woman and get away with it. In Glass House, guns represent an old city with old problems and no clear way of resolving them. Weapons personify fear; they allow fear to become a very real and physical threat. By encouraging weapons within the homes of the white side, the residents are actively making their own situation worse and more explosive. Wiltz uses Thea as an indication that physical violence can be prevented by remaining open-minded and allowing opposing sides to develop relationships. Her friendship with Burgess, in particular, is testimony to the novel’s underlying message of racial integration.

Illustrations

1. The Fischer Projects, New Orleans. The housing project used by Christine Wiltz as a basis for the fictionalised Convent Street Project.

2. The message “N.O.P.D beat me down” appeared across New Orleans as part of a protest against Law Enforcement corruption.

3. An example of a mansion in the Garden District, the physical representation of wealth in the novel.

Works Cited

James, Theresa. “A Conversation with Christine Wiltz.” Xavier Review 15.2 (fall 1995): 13-24

Lewis, Pierce F. New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Center for American Places, 2003.

Wiltz, Christine. Glass House. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

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Mardi Gras and Masks: How Relationships Begin and End in Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel

By Jack Lawler

Set against the backdrop of New Orleans, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel deals with the relationship between the two protagonists, Michael and Kelly, and explores how issues such as emotional withholding and miscommunication lead to the disintegration of their marriage. Butler constantly moves between past and present, as Michael and Kelly sift through memories, trying to make sense of how it all went wrong. Each of them repeatedly returns to the memory of their first meeting, at Mardi Gras some 20 years earlier, where they fell in love. Butler uses this cultural icon, Mardi Gras, and applies it in a psychological way in order to illuminate Michael and Kelly’s relationship and illustrate how their mutual reticence initially drew them to each other. Butler then uses costumes, which both literally and metaphorically cloak one’s true self, to represent the concealment of thoughts and emotions that stems from this reticence and ultimately destroys their marriage.

bourbonMichael and Kelly’s mutual desire to be alone during Mardi Gras, known for its huge parties and massive crowds, leads to their original, chance encounter and illustrates their natural inclinations towards solitude. Kelly explains how at Mardi Gras she is drawn, not to the drinking or partying that the event is known for, but to the sense of invisibility she feels in the throngs of the crowds. She “wonders if this is one of the allures of Mardi Gras, to feel this way: unseen, unseeable, unknowable in the midst of the tumult of many others. And the more intense the crowd, the more comfortably bound inside herself she feels”. (20) This behavior illustrates Kelly’s tendency to withdraw from others, to retreat to her inner world of thoughts and emotions. Her desire to disappear, to remain unknown at the biggest party of the year, is also seen in Michael. When he comes across her being harassed by three drunks, he himself is alone, just like her. He is dressed simply, “wearing a Tulane Law sweatshirt” (16), and is not noticeably intoxicated or involved in the party scene. This initial impression of Michael and Kelly that Butler gives us establishes the characters as loners of sorts, and is repeated throughout the novel, as we see Michael “just wanting to be left alone” (88) at Laurie’s dinner party, and Kelly spending more time at the bar than with other people at cocktail parties (152). These tendencies not only illustrate their compatibility, but also serve as a plot device to allow their worlds to collide: had either of them been in a group of people, they never would have met.

Michael and Kelly’s desire for solitude leads to their attempts to remain unknowable, a theme that Butler explores through the use of costumes. Costumes serve to mask someone, to allow them to act like someone they are not, a parallel with the general theme of the novel: the concealment of one’s true self.  Yet, what the costume represents is different in each instance. Michael and his young girlfriend Laurie attend a party at Oak Alley plantation, where they dress up as old plantation owner, with Michael in an “antebellum tuxedo” (47), and Laurie in a “hoop skirted gown” (48). Their outfits suggest the old school romanticism and stoicism that is emblematic of the personality Michael strives to cultivate, the default “mask” that he puts on for the world. Yet these costumes are, for both of them, uncomfortable, and Michael spends the entire time with a “niggling unease” (46). Despite the ideal that the costumes represent, which Michael strives to attain, he remains unnatural, much like his relationship with Laurie. He should be perfectly happy with her, a “beautiful young woman who seems quite comfortable with him,” (183) yet he can’t shake the feeling that something is off. No matter how hard he tries, the costume simply does not fit.

In the same way that Michael’s costume is unnatural, Kelly struggles to be comfortable in her Catwoman costume at Mardi Gras and the image of sexuality that it portrays.  Her costume consists of  “black stiletto boots and black leggings and a black mock-turtle tee and black cat ears” (16). This costume sexualizes Kelly and attracts attention from men, attention she rejects several times before Michael steps in and saves her. The costume projects confident sexuality, even promiscuity, an image that Kelly is not really comfortable with. We realize this when she discusses the women who flashed the crowd of men, saying “she never quite identified with the two young women” (25), ultimately running away to escape the same fate as them. The costume is a front that she puts up to avoid vulnerability, one that only comes down when she is alone with Michael, and “her black mask is gone so she can cry and her painted cat whiskers are streaked down her cheeks from tears.” (16)Parlor

With her costume destroyed and her mask literally gone from her face, Kelly drops her guards and allows herself to be weak in front of Michael, a vulnerability that is reflected life in New Orleans in general. From this vulnerability comes their first sexual encounter, and the two quickly fall in love. It is no accident that New Orleans is the site of this vulnerability: according to Butler himself, “the life of openly expressed feeling is what New Orleans really represents (…) a city that is very conscious of its own vulnerability. One reason the partying is so hard and the life so intense is that everyone knows that at any time, on any given summer day, the city could vanish” (Berry 1). Kelly and Michael continually return to room 303 at the Olivier House, in hopes of recapturing the magic of that first Mardi Gras. However, they are never able to do so, as Michael and Kelly are unable to find the same vulnerability, to remove their “masks” and reveal their true feelings: Michael cannot tell Kelly that he loves her and Kelly is too proud to tell Michael her emotional needs, because, as she tells her sister, “if you have to ask, it doesn’t count” (99). Ultimately, the silence that once drew them together now drives them apart. Butler suggests that only once we throw off our masks, both literally and metaphorically, and expose our true selves, can we find the emotional satisfaction that we desire.

Illustrations

1. A crowded Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras. (2012) Image Courtesy of “That Girl” Blog. http://adoseofla.blogspot.com/2012/02/happy-mardi-gras-new-orleans-tradition.html

2. The parlor to room 216 of the Olivier House (2013) Image Courtesy of Olivier House Hotel.

Works Cited

Butler, Robert Olen. A Small Hotel. New York: Grove Press, 2011. Print.

Berry, Lorainne. “Interview with Robert Olen Butler: The Danger of Wanting to be A Writer”. Talking Writing. (2012) http://talkingwriting.com/robert-olen-butler-the-danger-of-wanting-to-be-a-writer/

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Chris Wiltz: Forever Tied to New Orleans

By Weston Harty

Christine (Chris) Wiltz was born in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, on January 3, 1948, to Adolphe Michael and Merle Wiltz. Her family moved to a house on General Pershing Street in the middle class Broadmoor section of New Orleans, just in time for Wiltz to start elementary school. At the time, Broadmoor was predominantly Jewish, which meant that Wiltz from a young age was introduced to a variety of religions, since her father was Catholic and her mother was Protestant (Wiltz). As a youth, then, Wiltz was unknowingly experiencing the kind of cultural diversity that New Orleans always offered its residents, a diversity which she came to love and appreciate as she grew older, especially after spending time in San Francisco and Los Angeles. As Wiltz grew up, her mother entertained her by reading mystery novels, like Sherlock Holmes, and narrating stories of her own creation. These tales from Wiltz’s mother led her to start writing from an early age. Though it would be easy to point to her mother’s narratives as the inspiration for Wiltz’s ultimate decision to become an author, it was only part of the equation. Wiltz also identifies her high school English teacher as another key source of motivation when he made her editor of the high school newspaper. Here she gained experience in the writing process through the oversight of her own and her peers’ work (Wiltz). Before reaching college, Wiltz gained a love of writing and knowledge of the publication process.

After high school, Wiltz studied at four different institutions over a four-year period: the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Loyola University in New Orleans, University of New Orleans, and ultimately San Francisco State College, where she graduated with a BA in English. Wiltz stated in an interview “I started writing at such a young age that when she went to college, I didn’t think writing was something I could take a course in,” and as a consequence, she spent a great deal of her time as an undergraduate reading and digesting the works of others and spent her time outside of class “drawing pictures in the books I read and writing poetry” (Justice). After graduating, Wiltz held various jobs including working as a secretary. Wiltz cites reading Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, a famous novel of detective fiction, at the age of 25 as the moment she realized that she wanted to write detective fiction set in New Orleans (Justice). The appeal of writing crime fiction, for Wiltz, stems from her feeling that “crime novels are good vehicles for showing society at its most raw and truthful” and “the sense of justice that comes with the genre, even if it is not always a happy ending” (Wiltz). These ideas certainly show through in Glass House as the novel is grimly realistic, though it does impart a chance of a happy ending.

Her first three novels were works of detective fiction, The Killing Circle, A Diamond Before you Die, and The Emerald Lizard, which center on the detective Neal Rafferty solving mysteries in New Orleans. These works were followed by a departure from Neal Rafferty, with Glass House, the nonfiction work The Last Madam, and her new novel Shoot the Money. While her first three novels are pure detective fiction, all of her works contain elements of crime, and, more importantly, all of the novels are set in New Orleans. Wiltz sets all of her works in New Orleans because it is the area she knows the best. With the exception of two years, she has lived all of her life in New Orleans, and as a consequence, has become intimately familiar with the diverse cultural, racial, and geographical issues and settings that can be employed in her works and make for a unique location. But her two years in Los Angeles and San Francisco allowed her to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the dichotomy of the city as well: namely, that New Orleans is a very conservative Catholic city, yet is well known for being “The City that Care Forgot.” She pointed to the existence of streets like Piety and Desire, and the fact that they are located right next to each other as a way to exemplify the duality that the city embodies (Wiltz). Wiltz utilizes the wide range of people and places found in New Orleans to create character-rich worlds grounded in the reality of New Orleans.

In Glass House, Wiltz also sees the racial tension in New Orleans as distinct from other American cities. Since the city’s founding, race relations in New Orleans have always been different than in the rest of the United States. Slaves were given Sunday off, for instance, and the city had the largest population of free persons of color in the entire country. Before and after the American Civil War, there was a mixture of the African American and white populations that was not seen in any other American city, let alone in the South. While this racial mixing might have eased racial tensions, New Orleans was, after all, spared some of the race riots seen in other major American cities, there is nevertheless tension between the races that has surfaced rather dramatically in post-Katrina New Orleans.

800px-Uptown7June06MagnoliaBluetarpsTo help construct the setting of Glass House, Wiltz employed some creative liberties and adapted racially charged events that happened within the city of New Orleans and to her. In 1980, a police officer was shot near the Fischer Projects in the Algiers neighborhood of the city, setting off a wave of police brutality toward African Americans in the neighborhood and near riot conditions. Wiltz chose to relocate the event from Algiers to the fictitious Covenant Projects, representing one of the housing projects which flank the Garden District, in order to bring the event closer to the wealthy Garden District and further highlight the duality of the city in Glass House. The existence of the housing projects sandwiching the real Garden District provides anyone living in New Orleans a first-hand account of the contrast the city provides, and moving the Fischer Projects shooting to this location allowed Wiltz to make the two sides of the city more available to readers (Wiltz). Wiltz is also quick to point out that Glass House is not a retelling of the Algiers shooting, but about fear: “the black people were terrified of anything in a blue uniform and were protesting police brutality. White people were terrified that the blacks were going to riot and demanded police protection. Fear was running rampant,” and that she was looking “at the underside of reality, [wanting] to see just how dark it really is” (James 16). Using the Algiers Fischer shooting as her starting point, she imagined what could have happened if an event like that took place closer to the wealthier, whiter Garden District.

Wiltz also shared three personal anecdotes from her own life which are reminiscent of and essential to the action of the novel. First, Broadmoor was a victim of “white flight” which hit many cities across the United States throughout the mid-twentieth century. The middle class neighborhood her family moved into began to deteriorate as many of the families moved out of that part of the city and were replaced by lower class families, many African American. This changing demographic drove property values down and only encouraged the continued departure of middle class families. While Wiltz’s family remained longer than others in Broadmoor, they too eventually left as the conditions of the neighborhood declined (Wiltz). Wiltz’s experience reflects Thea’s father’s reluctance to move his store to another part of the city as the neighborhood declined. The second event happened at a much earlier age and is more directly connected to Glass House. When Wiltz was a young girl, she developed a close friendship with the daughter of her neighbor’s African American maid. The daughter often came over to play with Wiltz when her mother was working for the neighbors. For reasons unbeknownst to Wiltz at the time, the daughter stopped coming out to play and Wiltz lost a very dear friend. Much like Thea and Burgess’s childhood relationship, prejudices based on race ingrained within the older generation drove two friends apart, awakening Wiltz to the existence of race at a young age (Wiltz). Wiltz also brought up the parallel between both her and Thea returning to New Orleans after spending significant time away. For Wiltz, the two years she spent away from New Orleans allowed her to return to the city having gained at least a sense of an outsider’s perspective. In an interview Wiltz explained: “During those two years away, my understanding of the city grew in leaps and bounds- sometimes you need distance to see clearly. That’s why I had Thea come back after ten years, because her sight would be changed” (James, 13). Wiltz went on to say, “[Thea] is the one who’s got both the insider’s and the outsider’s point of view” suggesting that Thea’s “reactions might not be typical” for a lifetime New Orleans resident (James, 14). This altered perspective of the city allowed both Thea and Wiltz to fully see the character of New Orleans and gain a greater appreciation for its uniqueness and problems.

Chris Wiltz channels her deep affection and admiration for New Orleans into her works, adapting the diverse settings the city offers into all of her writings. The contradictions of New Orleans as a place match the nature of mystery and detective fiction, where the protagonist must wade through clues and evidence in order to find the answer behind a crime. In Glass House, Wiltz combines the confused racial backdrop of the city with her taste for crime fiction and own experiences, creating a riveting cautionary tale about racial fear. For Chris Wiltz, New Orleans represents both home and a bottomless source of inspiration for her writing.

Illustrations

1) Randy Moses, http://www.festigals.org/christine-wiltz/

2) Colorful House in the Garden District, 2008, Sue Cline, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jewel_Tones_Garden_District_NOLA.jpg

3) New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: C.J. Peete Development (Magnolia Projects), 2006, Infrogmation of New Orleans, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uptown7June06MagnoliaBluetarps.jpg

4) Custom Google Map, April 2013

Works Cited

James, Theresa. “A Conversation with Chris Wiltz.” Xavier Review 15.2 (1995): 13-24

Justice, Faith L. “From Mysteries to Non-fiction Thrillers: An Interview with Christine Wiltz.” 2008. n.p. (4/5/2013)

Wiltz, Christine. Telephone conversation with the author, 7 April 2013

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