Before Katrina and Rita, before there was a before and after, New Orleans editor Joshua Clark put out a call to the people of Louisiana to send him their writing for an anthology that would piece together singular moments, both regular and profound, in an attempt to capture both the distinct variations of each area and the ultimate factors that unite all Louisianans. The resultant collection, Louisiana in Words (Pelican Publishing, 2007), reads like a vibrant Chuck Close portrait of our state. At close range each piece of writing is singular, but stand back and a whole emerges from the carefully flourished details. Another strange thing happens if you sit down and read the book cover to cover: The multiple voices begin to sound like one, despite changes from first- to third- person perspectives, despite that the writers are men and women, young and old, country-living folk, city dwellers and Quarter rats. All the different voices merge into one narrator, which the reader imagines must be Louisiana herself.
Now, I know people in, say, northern Louisiana (even as close as Baton Rouge) do not always encourage a comparison to New Orleanians, and often the road goes both ways, but the anthology makes clear that the state, and the South in general, have much history, heritage and culture in common. I could make a list of "topics" touched upon repeatedly in all the towns represented in the collection. A short one would read: religion, family, nature, food, music, race relations, the undeniable presence and force of water, pungent and fragrant scents, old-man trees, kindness, storms, a laid-back attitude, lilting and languid voices, hard work or hardly working, poverty, alcohol, coffee, cockfighting, the issues of the day, the sweltering heat, dive bars, sports fanatics, loyalty, fishing, childhood, crawfish, twilight, dawn and beautiful decay. These words have meaning and associations for all Louisianans.
But these are just words. The real connection among us comes from how we treat each other. The ways in which we love and hate each other. The beautiful and ugly regard we show one another. The choices we make to be mindful of the past and how it affects the present each day. And in fact, the whole premise of Louisiana In Words is that this literary collection of moments is one day, any day, any year in the history of our state.
The book opens with Joshua Clark's introduction at 4:33 a.m. He is staring at a map of Louisiana on his wall. He is tracing the roads from town to town with his eyes, imagining what the people in all of those places are doing at that moment, what their lives are like and who they are. What better way to know people than to ask them to describe in their own words even a fraction of themselves?
The book works because when people are limited to describing one minute of their lives in connection to a place, the details of history and memory are most often visceral. Even tangible moments of pain or struggle and passionate embraces or smiles are laden with intangibles such as humiliation or crippling fear and swelling love and adoring admiration. The visceral is what is left upon reflection, and there is much to look back on in the publicly documented and personal history of Louisiana.
As the book progresses, so does the day. The Narrator, made from many narrators, shows us what it's like to live, work, raise a family, fall in love and die in Shreveport, Covington, Madisonville, Venice, Abbeville, Lafayette, Church Point, New Orleans, Alexandria, St. Francisville and everywhere in between. From dawn to dusk to dawn again, we are taken on a road trip through fields and forests, down rivers and alleys, up trees and creeks, over swamps and grasslands, and back home again. We work in the fields and factories, we swim in lakes and our streets, we drown in liquor and vomit, we give praise to our gods and bury our dead. And all the while, the light is changing -- the radiant, eerie light specific to Louisiana that tells us when to get up and when to go to bed, when to stumble home or seek out the edge of our boundaries or just a river's edge. We are made aware of generations of families and traditions and ways of living that unite us all. At the end of the day, though, we all come here, live here and remain here because it feels like home.
The jarring and subtle moments compiled in Louisiana in Words elegantly juxtaposes the threads and fishing line and sinews that entwine the people of Louisiana. The collection encourages us to wonder about places we've never ventured to not so very far from home.
At the release party and book signing, contributors John Biguenet, Bev Marshall, Rick Barton, Chris Champagne, Lee Meitzen Grue, Chance Harvey, Sarah K. Inman, David Madden and many others will read from their work. The event also features a performance by a Dixieland jazz band and includes complimentary beverages from Abita and New Orleans Rum. Free admission.