Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Importance of Being Ernest Gaines

I have been reading Mozart and Leadbelly, a collection of essays and stories by Ernest J. Gaines, most of which acknowledge the influences on his work. Such influences obviously include both musicians along with Russian authors, southern authors, James Joyce, and the people he grew up with in South Louisiana. Today, after reading again how he found Miss Jane Pittman’s voice, I appreciated even more the path he takes to write his short stories and novels. Even more, I admire his honesty and sincerity in terms of this process, including a long-ago battle with an editor pertaining to cutting Catherine Carmier down. I started to think about my writing process and what has influenced my work. And, I followed my own story right back to Ernest Gaines and a particular graduate school class for which I read Of Love and Dust.

At the time, I was confused because I’d known for certain that I would teach English classes since I was in elementary school. In terms of my education choices, I was right on track to do so. The problem was that I loved Charlotte, Emily and Anne BrontĂ«, so I decided to study nineteenth-century British literature, but I didn’t feel ready to teach Victorian literature in all of its glory. So, there I was, sitting in a southern literature class in a department with an outstanding reputation in southern studies, reading about the “Steamy South” (Yes, folks, that was the name of the course.). The steamy factor made no difference to me. I quickly realized that I had something to say—no, make that something to add to the discussion when we started Of Love and Dust. I knew what Gaines meant when he used “Tite” as an abbreviation of petite, the nickname given to Bonbon and Louise’s daughter. I could pronounce the landowner’s name, which wasn’t so special a talent considering it was Hebert, same as mine. But, that was the point. I knew that place. I recognized those folks.

Yet, Gaines also offered me another perspective of a history I thought I knew so well. Since the plantation owner has an Acadian name and Bonbon, one of Marcus’s antagonists, is Cajun, my Cajun point-of-view had to take a step back. Gaines takes the reader into the sugarcane fields and the labor and racial divisions designated by the white landowners. Gaines’s novel encouraged me to dig deeper to see a more thorough picture of Louisiana life in the late 1940s, one that could better appreciate the diversity and often ugly realities of it. As he writes in the essay, “Mozart and Leadbelly,” “I write for the black youth of the South to let them know that their lives are worth writing about” (31). Then, he continues, “I also write for the white youth of the South to let them know that unless they know their neighbor of over three hundred years, they know only half of their own history” (31).

I found myself contributing more to the class discussion because I finally believed I had something to contribute while simultaneously thirsting for a more evolved understanding of my home. Though I ended up writing my final paper for that course on another Louisiana author, Walker Percy, I came back to Gaines and his representation of Cajuns and African Americans, among others, when writing my dissertation. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, reading Gaines’s story of how he came to write what he did brings me full circle. Gaines writes to give voice to his people. And, because he wrote Of Love and Dust, A Gathering of Old Men, and A Lesson Before Dying—because he shared Miss Jane with all of us—I found my own voice as a student of Louisiana literature. I’ve even had the privilege of hearing the man himself read his own work several times, which further inspired my work. So, thank you, Ernest Gaines. Thank you for sharing such insightful, and thus powerful, memories of Louisiana life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—with all of us.

Gaines, Ernest J. Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Confederacy of Moviegoers

I remember when I saw The Waterboy in the theater with my older sister. We laughed—at the wrong parts. That wasn’t the first time I cringed when watching a film that supposedly portrayed Louisiana. So, when Steven Soderbergh said, “I think it’s cursed,” and “I’m not superstitious, but that project has got bad mojo on it,” while referring to a film version of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (Riedel, New York Post), I wondered if we’d ever see Ignatius on film. Then, I wondered if it was simply impossible to translate most of Louisiana culture to the big screen. After all, attempts to put Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer on film haven’t been all that successful either.

Why are two seminal novels about New Orleans so difficult to film? I think the answer is as complicated as the state itself. What Toole and Percy accurately portray are the people of New Orleans, the characters who are more than parade-goers ready to throw some more plastic around their necks before riding a huge party wave down Bourbon Street. Both authors write of a unique place where the ordinary and the mysterious, the hilarious and the tragic, reside together. A web tangled so tightly that most outsiders can’t see the threads that have been knotted together for centuries. We are Cajuns and Creoles, Native Americans and Spanish, Irish and Italian, German and Vietnamese. We are white, black, and every shade in between. And our cultural ways, all that amazing food and music, stems from this in between space. Instead of addressing this wonderful diversity that has led to our fabulous and unique cultural ways, the media reduces so much of our history to repetitious myths. If you ask me, the media too often simplifies a population that refuses to follow simplistic categorization. At least, that’s my best guess.

Not that they all get it wrong. Fabulous shows like Treme and any film by Glen Pitre provide accurate depictions of the place so many of us proudly call home. What these representations get so right, along with Toole and Percy, is that they let the people speak for themselves in a state that often mixes the divine and the mundane and calls the result normal. So, next time you want a true depiction of Louisiana, I suggest you find your way to the state and experience it for yourself. And for a bit of added fun, go to New Orleans and locate Ignatius J. Reilly’s statue standing guard in front of the old D. H. Holmes department store building. Heck, eat a Lucky Dog while walking the Quarter. Along the way, listen to the folks and all their stories, which they will gladly tell in accents as authentic as red beans and rice with sausage on Monday. Listen to the music, the laughter, the tears—all the sounds that mash together to form a place that refuses to be defined and easily understood. Just the way we like it.

For more on failed attempts to film A Confederacy of Dunces and The Moviegoer, try the following links:

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Eating Cajun

Such novels as Tim Gautreaux’s The Next Step in the Dance help me return home, at least in my imagination. In the novel, Paul Thibodeaux (a typical Cajun surname, by the way) ends up in California where he discovers a supposedly Cajun restaurant and decides to try it. Bad mistake, as many of us Louisianians have learned over the years. Don’t get me wrong: many Cajuns have opened restaurants all over the world, and some chefs have taken the time to learn actual Cajun foodways. But, most of what you see labeled as Cajun in restaurants has little to do with those of us from Louisiana.

Anyway, Paul glances over the menu and asks, “What is all this stuff? I thought this was a Cajun place,” to which the waiter replies, “Yes, sir, we have authentic dishes from the bayou state” (80). Paul braves the menu again and chooses the gumbo. A “half hour later his waiter brought a small cauldron of bitter juice so hot with Tabasco that after the third spoonful, Paul broke into a sweat” (81). The waiter proceeds to tell him, “It takes time to develop a true Cajun palate,” and Paul responds, “[I]t sure don’t take much time to ruin one” (81). [The Next Step in the Dance, New York: Picador, 1998.]

There is a fine line between adding hot sauce to a dish to enrich the taste and just plain ruining the dish altogether. In truth, Cajun dishes are not spicy hot and do not call for a cup of Tabasco. Actually, we make dishes with locally available ingredients, and the recipe usually calls for enough of such ingredients to feed a large family. The vast majority include onions, bell peppers, celery, and garlic, which add to the taste. In fact, the mix of ingredients in many Cajun and Creole dishes mimics the mix of cultures in the state itself, with African okra adding something extra to seafood gumbo along with filé (ground sassafras leaves) from Native American cooking traditions.

There is no such official product as Cajun mayonnaise or spices, though Cajuns have created such products to make dishes tastier. Still, products that are spicier seem to be automatically labeled as Cajun now. So, the next time someone tries to feed you Cajun turkey or you see it in the grocery store, you may just want to pass it by. Like me, you can bite your tongue and think about the mix of rice, chicken, and sausage mushed together with tomato sauce that makes yummy jambalaya. Or, try your hand at making crawfish etouffee, which is literally crawfish tails smothered in rich gravy and served over white rice. And if you’re not ambitious enough to attempt the recipes yourself, I highly recommend a visit to Cajun country where I promise you’ll eat well, including gumbo, without burning your tongue!

Crawfish Etouffee 
[from Louisiana Legacy, a book of recipes collected and first published by the Thibodaux Service League in 1982]

½ cup butter                                              Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped green onions                     1 teaspoon cornstarch (optional)
¼ cup chopped parsley                             Lemon slices (optional
2 pounds crawfish tails
1 cup crawfish fat, or 1 cup butter

Melt butter in large skillet and saute green onions until tender, about 10-15 mins. Add parsley, crawfish tails, crawfish fat or butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat 15-20 mins. If you want a thicker gravy, dissolved cornstarch in a small amount of water and add to sauce. Serve over steamed rice. Garnish with lemon slices, if desired.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Writers Voice: REVELATION

Dear Fabulous Agents and Writing Coaches:

A cross between Ally Condie’s Matched and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, REVELATION (73,000 words) is a YA historical novel with crossover potential about breaking through expectations to find one’s own place in the tangled racial web of 1825 New Orleans.

All seventeen-year-old Angelique Saint-Clair wants is the freedom to choose her own fate. But to secure a comfortable life for herself as a free woman of color, she has been taught that she must follow in her mother’s footsteps and sign a contract with a wealthy Creole gentleman . . . not as his wife, but as his mistress. Her mother has trained her well for her first quadroon ball, dances given for the purpose of introducing quadroons to such men. At the ball, Angelique snags the attention of Monsieur LeBlanc. Handsome and kind, he has everything to offer. Unfortunately, Angelique’s heart already belongs to another, her impoverished piano instructor who happens to be LeBlanc’s half-brother.

Determined to secure her daughter’s future, Marguerite Saint-Clair encourages negotiations with LeBlanc, forcing Angelique to choose between comfort and love. Angelique assumes such a choice will be easy until yellow fever strikes the city. When Angelique decides to sacrifice her desires to save her mother’s life, she discovers she is too late because LeBlanc has already left the city. Soon after, her mother dies, but Angelique refuses to give up when she discovers the key to empowering herself: her father’s name on her baptismal record. Armed with this information, she carves a life for herself and the aspirations of her heart.

Originally from Louisiana, I return home through my writing, which includes Becoming Cajun, Becoming American: The Acadian in American Literature from Longfellow to James Lee Burke (LSU Press, 2009) and an article on post-Katrina New Orleans detective fiction published in Clues: A Journal of Detection. In terms of fiction, I am an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I also attended the 2013 Rutgers Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Plus Conference, the 2014 Yale Writers’ Conference, and the December 2014 Big Sur Writing Workshop.

The first 250 words of the manuscript are pasted below. Thank you for your time and consideration of this simultaneous submission.

Maria Hebert-Leiter

REVELATION, First 250 Words:

Masks cover only so much. I twirl the silk-wrapped stick and watch the attached mask circle above my hand like a bird. Flawless dove feathers rise from the right corner. I brush my fingertips along the edge. It tickles, and I smile. I used to adore dressing up, pretending I could be whatever my imagination desired. I raise the mask over my face. It has been years since I believed I could have anything if only I imagined it.

Still, I cannot stop the music that rises in my head or the image that forms in harmony with it. Me sitting at a beautiful piano as I press down my left hand and play the chords that open the second movement of Schubert’s Fantasie, the Adagio. Somber notes only I can hear pull me from the tedious present until my fingers clench. The stick propping up the mask cracks in two.

“Angelique,” Maman says, my name sliding like silk in her perfect French marred only by a hint of disappointment. She accepts the broken pieces. Her lips pinch then ease as she turns back to the seamstress and waves her hand up and down the dress. “It looks exquisite.”

Maman requires no mask. She has perfected the art of pretending we are better off than we really are.

Thick raindrops plunk on the banquette. I hear more than see them beyond the front window of our cottage on Dumaine. The wooden walkways have soaked up so much water lately that they have warped in the perpetual heat.