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The best books on New Orleans

recommended by Tom Piazza

Award-winning writer Tom Piazza explains his fascination with New Orleans. He recommends the five books that best represent the history and culture of the city (pre- and post-Katrina).

  • 1

    Gumbo Ya Ya
    by Robert Tallant and Lyle Saxon

  • 2

    Spirit World
    by Michael P Smith

  • 3

    Down in New Orleans
    by Billy Sothern

  • 4

    A Season of Night
    by Ian McNulty

  • 5

    Zeitoun
    by Dave Eggers

Award-winning writer Tom Piazza explains his fascination with New Orleans. He recommends the five books that best represent the history and culture of the city (pre- and post-Katrina).

Tom Piazza

Tom Piazza writes for Treme, the new HBO show from The Wire creator David Simon. He is the author of nine books, including the novel City Of Refuge, which won the 2008 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, and the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters. His other books include the Faulkner Society Award-winning novel My Cold War, the short-story collection Blues and Trouble, which won the James Michener Award for Fiction, and the forthcoming non-fiction collection Devil Sent The Rain. Also well-known as a music writer, Piazza won a 2004 Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.

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Tell me about your first choice, Gumbo Ya-Ya by Robert Tallant and Lyle Saxon.

This is a collection of Louisiana folklore, assembled in the 1930s; to my knowledge it has been in print ever since. The word ‘gumbo’ is of African origin and it means, roughly, ‘mixed together’. The phrase ‘gumbo ya-ya’ is from the Creole and means ‘everyone talking at once’. So the book is a gathering of many voices.

Tallant and Saxon knew New Orleans very well. They travelled around Louisiana in the 1930s, gathering every conceivable kind of folklore about cooking, ghosts, families, the landscape and all the different Mardi Gras traditions, including the Mardi Gras Indians, the men who mask as Skeletons, and the Baby Dolls, women who dress up every year in fanciful childish costumes. It’s a big thing again now but for a while people didn’t mask as Skeletons or Baby Dolls. In the 1990s there began to be a revival of interest in some of those old-time rituals, I’m not sure why. Hurricane Katrina has, I think, only intensified people’s awareness of how unusual and precious these cultural expressions are.

Let’s move on to Spirit World by Michael P Smith.

Smith was a very important figure in New Orleans; he died in 2009. He was a photographer who made a pioneering effort to understand the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians, the spiritualist churches of New Orleans and the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs – in other words, the tap roots of African-American and Creole culture in New Orleans. He referred to these traditions as ‘cultural wetlands’ – places that hadn’t yet been ruined by commercial exploitation.

All these different elements of New Orleans culture have a kind of umbilical relationship, one to another. Smith was from a blue-blood uptown family in New Orleans, so it was in no way automatic that he would have had an interest in these traditions of black New Orleans. He didn’t just photograph the churches, the Mardi Gras Indians and the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, although he did that brilliantly; he also interviewed people and contributed crucial information to our understanding of those traditions.

He sounds a bit like an anthropologist in his own city.

Yes he was; he was a kind of freelance anthropologist. That is a fair description of him.

Your next choice is a more contemporary book which was written post Hurricane Katrina. This is Down in New Orleans by Billy Sothern.

Billy Sothern is a lawyer in New Orleans; he does a lot of work with death penalty cases. He is an extremely bright and observant writer who has made it his business to look at New Orleans through the lens of social justice. Down in New Orleans offers an invaluable perspective, one that might not be available in books that look at things through a strictly cultural lens.

His book is a window into the darker side of how power works on a governmental and civic level in New Orleans, and how policy affects the lives of the less privileged in the city. Sothern gets close to an important truth about New Orleans when he writes: ‘For those of us who live here, even the wealthy and the privileged, it is impossible to ignore race and poverty; regardless of one’s politics or beliefs about the causes of poverty and its link to race, these factors are central in our civic discourse and define daily life in the city.’

There is a lot in the newspapers right now about the police and what they did during Hurricane Katrina – how does Sothern address the role of the police?

Well, the book explores the city’s racial tensions and the disparity of power among white citizens and black citizens. At the same time, though, some of the worst crimes that have been committed by police in New Orleans have been committed by black officers. The city government has been largely black for the last 30 years or so. So it is too simplistic to make it a black/white thing. In New Orleans, as elsewhere, there is every shade of black, brown, and beige.

Your next choice is Ian McNulty’s A Season of Night.

This is a very flavourful memoir of the first few months after Hurricane Katrina by a local journalist who stayed straight through in a part of the city that flooded, called Mid City. He lived through those days and nights when there was no electricity and no phone service, few stores open, no traffic lights, no street lights… That part of the city, as well as other areas of course, had really been turned into a kind of spooky frontier town.

Ian’s book chronicles the resilience and resourcefulness of the people in the neighbourhood. Ultimately he tells what it was actually like to be in New Orleans at a time when very few other people were there. He talks about the local bar, Finn McCool’s, which is one of the cornerstones of the neighbourhood. It became the gathering place even though there was no power, because people needed some where to go. In it you can read how people rigged up generators, cooked food and rewired a community that had had the equivalent of a massive stroke.

He is also very good at describing the lawlessness that went on. Katrina brought out the best and worst in people. Some were helping their community get back on its feet; others were looting. There was very little police presence at the time, so people were left to themselves. You got the entire range of possible responses to the breakdown of services and community.

Your final choice is Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.

I think Dave’s book is quite remarkable. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a real-life hero – a local businessman who in the aftermath of Katrina paddled from house to house in a canoe, offering help to his neighbours. For his trouble, he was arrested as a suspected terrorist. It is an extraordinary, Kafkaesque tale of how a man, because of his ethnic background, can get caught up in a hellish scenario in which he is held prisoner and nobody knows where he is. His wife didn’t even know what had happened to him.

It is a bitter American tale of mistaken identity in the largest sense, and a pretty sobering commentary on the ways in which we can put masks on people who may look unfamiliar in some way. It is a chilling tale to read; the book speaks to the chaos that followed the breakdown of the levees and the breakdown of the order in New Orleans, but it also speaks to larger issues of mistaken identity.

Finally, five years on from Hurricane Katrina, there have been some great things that have happened, with the New Orleans Saints winning the Super Bowl and

Treme

being filmed in the city, but there are also some terrible things still going on with the BP oil spill down the road and the town not fully re-populated. How do you see New Orleans five years on?

The city always will force you to live with opposite scenarios of great optimism and joy and great pessimism and depression. That is New Orleans. There is something about New Orleans which is recognised around the world as an emblem of spiritual renewal. The essence of our cultural expression is grace and wit in the face of encroaching entropy, and there is a great joy in it. But it is not the joy of mindless revelry that some mistake it for. It is the joy of the assertion of being alive in spite of the full realisation of the finiteness of life. There is a profundity in the expression of joy in New Orleans exactly because we know that it only lasts a little while.

There is a song they often play at New Orleans funerals called ‘Didn’t He Ramble’. The refrain is: ‘He rambled all around/ in and out of the town/ didn’t he ramble? He rambled/ He rambled till the butcher cut him down.’ Everybody in New Orleans knows that the butcher is waiting. It could be natural causes, or a shooting, or the breaking of a levee – it could be anything, anytime – so while you are here you need to address the fact of your own mortality with defiant grace and beauty. That is why it is so potent.

As far as the BP disaster is concerned… of course people in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are more immediately aware and affected by what is going on than people elsewhere. But I think people need to realise that this is a national disaster, and not just a local one. It is, in fact, a national tragedy. In the last five years we have seen three cataclysmic disasters – the failure of the levees, the national economic meltdown, and now this. Somehow we keep refusing to get the message that government agencies and large corporations cannot be expected to police themselves. It just doesn’t work that way. The fact there is so little will to address this is a tragedy for democracy.

I get calls and emails from people elsewhere, saying, in effect, ‘Poor New Orleans – first Katrina and now this.’ And what I say is: ‘This is happening to you, too, whether you realise it or not.’ These disasters implicate everyone, and if we can’t find a coherent way of anticipating and responding to crises, then we are doomed morally and spiritually, not just ecologically and financially.

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Tom Piazza

Tom Piazza writes for Treme, the new HBO show from The Wire creator David Simon. He is the author of nine books, including the novel City Of Refuge, which won the 2008 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, and the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters. His other books include the Faulkner Society Award-winning novel My Cold War, the short-story collection Blues and Trouble, which won the James Michener Award for Fiction, and the forthcoming non-fiction collection Devil Sent The Rain. Also well-known as a music writer, Piazza won a 2004 Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.