NOLA BOOK AND LITERARY NEWS

from Nathan C. Martin and Friends.
MAKING_NOLA_cover

By Cate Czarnecki

There are lots of things to discover within the glossy pages of Phillip Collier’s newest book, Making New Orleans: Products Past and Present, many of which have already left an indelible impression on New Orleanians. The beautifully crafted oversized book is chock full of photos and advertisements of companies both active and extinct. While the collection is filled with history, Collier is by trade a graphic designer and not full-time historian. The book reflects his innate understanding of visual design and layout, and he leaves a lot of the storytelling to the experts. The book is divided into two major sections: past and present. From there, chapters are arranged based on the product types ranging from Coffee and Chicory to Rockets and Ships. Each chapter begins with an informative essay by a notable expert. Bill Rau, of M.S. Rau antiques, lends his knowledge to that particular area, and other contributors include Arthur Smith (of the Louisiana State Museum), Peter A. Mayer, Errol Laborde and Clancy DuBos.

The New Orleanian was a New Yorker-esque magazine published in the 1930s.

Many of the writers address the ritual-based relationship between New Orleans consumers and local products: the pairing of a po-boy with an ice-cold Barqs root beer; chicory-laced coffee and the daily paper. It’s natural to sentimentalize what you know, but here the affection for the brands of yesterday comes across as truly genuine and rarely saccharine. Products have a way of unconsciously weaving their way into the fabric of your life (to quote the infamous Cotton slogan).  They inform place and memory, themes which are central to Collier’s work. When the Hubig’s pie factory burned down in 2012, Collier was still doing research on the book which would become Making New Orleans. That day, he went out and bought a pie and stuck it in his freezer, knowing that it would play some sort of role in the collection’s future.

Picayune cigarettes, which were manufactured on Magazine Street in the early 1900s, were packed with the same caporal tobacco used in Gauloises cigarettes, widely known as the most delicious cigarettes in the world.              Mmmm…. Gauloises….

Delving into the oddities of the past is one of the pleasures of Making New Orleans. A particular favorite discovery of mine was the American Frog Canning Company in the ‘Dis and Dat’ section, which sought to corner the market on the burgeoning frog industry by selling start-up frog raising kits. “The company claimed to be virtually competition-free and a great market opportunity during the global financial collapse of the Great Depression.” the featured paragraph explains. A enlarged advertisement shows a happy couple effortlessly planting their frog pond, catching frogs, and (a little too passively, in my opinion) packing live frogs into crates to be shipped back for a profit. “Our lessons will give you complete instructions.” the manual ensures. Other sections, like Press and Print, emphasize the mostly by-gone days of daily print. “During its 300-year history, New Orleans has been home to more than two dozen newspapers printed in 10 different languages – 12 were published at the same time…” Peter A. Mayer explains in the introduction, noting that if not for the Advocate, New Orleans would be the largest city in the country without a daily paper. “From 12 to one to none? Unimaginable!”

The American Frog Canning Company offered all one needed to become an amateur frog canner.

In this sense, Making New Orleans is more of a cultural atlas then anything else, a tribute to the deep ties between local consumers and the products that fill up their lives. There are plenty of companies included that we recognize today – Zatarains, Luzianne Tea, Big Shot soft drinks – and many more that time has mostly forgotten. Towards the end of the book, Collier showcases the next generation of New Orleans products, with pages on Nola Brewing Company, KREWE du Optic sunglasses, and Fleurty Girl. It makes you wonder about what a new incarnation of this book will look like in 100 years – which of today’s local brands will still be around, and which will have faded away over time. One gets the impression from the enormous variety of the items catalogued in Making New Orleans, however, that a century from now New Orleans will still be populated with objects that embody a cultural value to the people who live here and beyond. Or maybe we’ll all be back to raising frogs in our backyards.

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Local author Allison Alsup was among the winners of the 2014 O’Henry Prize, which honored her short story “Old Houses” published in issue 38.1 of the New Orleans Review. Alsup’s story will be included in the anthology The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014, to be released in September by Random House.

The annual O’Henry anthology intends to collect the best short fiction published in literary journals around the world. Alsup will appear in this year’s installment alongside authors such as National Book Award-winner Louise Erdrich. Other stories in the anthology were initially published in places such as the New YorkerHarvard ReviewTin House, and Granta.

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A map of Dublin, drawn by Vladimir Nabokov, based on Ulysses.

New Orleanians will celebrate the (fictional) life and times of James Joyce’s protagonist Leopold Bloom with a communal marathon reading of the famous novel that features Bloom’s antics, Ulysses, at this year’s Bloomsday, sponsored by Crescent City Books, beginning at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 16, at The Irish House (1432 St. Charles Ave.).

Attendees are invited to read (10 min. max) or simply listen to the tale and to partake in the exquisite Irish cuisine prepared for sale by chef Matt Murphy.

This year’s featured celebrity readers include Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Susan Larson, Brian Boyles, Stephen Rea, and Pandora Gastelum.

This event is free, Irish, and open to the public.

campanella bourbon

By Jeri Hilt

Richard Campanella’s newest book, Bourbon Street: A History, provides an impressive historiography of the street, from genesis to its present-day manifestation, and attempts to unpack the role that the “adaptive commodification of culture” has had on its longevity and success. Bourbon Street is described in the book as both a phenomenon and a globally recognized symbol that “single-handedly generates imagery and reputation about an entire metropolis.” Campanella espouses: “For some, that Bourbon Street image is a delectable mélange of historicity and hedonism; for others it’s iniquitous, crass, phony, and offensive.”

While Campanella’s text is layered, Black New Orleans should be highly suspicious of the use of the words “hedonistic” and “culture” in works such as this. The word culture is often a moniker used innocuously for people of color to denote a vagueness of difference. Even when this undefined difference is praised, as is the case in Campanella’s Bourbon Street, it is the impulse to denote a distinction—whatever follows—that makes one wary.

When this denotation of culture—insert here undefined descriptions of people of color—is used in tandem with the term hedonistic, you’ve likely decoded an essential thrust of innate hypocrisies embedded in narratives of American history. These hypocrisies and the denial of their existence do not relate directly to Campanella’s text, though culture and hedonism do appear in precisely this manner.

Throughout the book’s accounts of historical periods—steeped in the literal commodification of a particular form of human existence (enslaved Africans) and the attempted annihilation and dispersal of another form (nations of native peoples)—the “adaptive commodification of culture [emphasis added]” is credited for both Bourbon Street’s infamy and success.

In our interview, Campanella explicates his theories on Bourbon Street’s spatial development, economic resilience, and cultural fascination. He also gives voice to the trends that he feels have informed America’s longstanding cultural fascination with the city of New Orleans.

Room 220: Which disciplinary aspect of the book did you find the most intriguing? I know you’re a geographer, housed in the school of architecture.

Richard Campanella: The spatial aspect. Being a geographer, I’m intrigued about how character gets ascribed to space and place. Going back to the 1920s, one of the transformative inflection points in the change of Bourbon Street from a completely mundane, prototypical downtown New Orleans street—prior to the Civil War—to the very exceptional place that it is today was the advent of a new social innovation called the nightclub.

Nightclubs, as opposed to prior variations—such as the so-called concert saloon of the late 1800s—fostered a sense of exclusivity, that you must be privileged and empowered to be in such an exclusive place. They fostered that sense of exclusivity in part by creating a barrier between the public space of the street and the private space inside, and it was patrolled, if you would, by a doorman who controlled access. So you almost had to be of a certain caste, class, and appearance—and of course these places were strictly segregated—to get in.

Upon going inside, you partook of that sense of exclusivity—so, again, note that spatial barrier between public space and private space. Fast forward forty years later, and that barrier starts to disintegrate. There had been many, many changes on Bourbon Street coming off the 1962 – 1964 vice crackdowns of District Attorney Garrison. Coming out of this, many of these clubs and bars lost their major profit machine, which came out of illicit gambling and “B drinking.” They had to figure out how to make money a new way.

Sometime in 1968, some unremembered bar figured out that instead of trying to get a pedestrian outside to come into the private space, why not open a window and sell the drinks directly to the public space. It was called window hawking at the time, and it eventually gave birth to the “go-cup” and the transfer of Bourbon Street nightly activity from the exclusive indoor space of the clubs to the public space. So that barrier came down, and this birthed the nightly pedestrian parade, and now everyone knows on Bourbon Street—with the exception of a couple of famous places like Galatoire’s and Pat O’Brien’s, where people really do go out of their way to go and stay there—for the most part, the attraction, the spectacle, is in the street. So places retool themselves to eliminate that barrier. That’s what I mean by space and social geographies, and that intrigued me the most in deciphering where this curious artifact came from.

1870s sketch of present-day 300 block of Bourbon Street, looking downriver toward the French Opera House, Courtesy City of New Orleans, Vieux Carré Commission

Rm220: You link the term “structurally based social memory” to the reputation of Bourbon, which is described as hedonistic. What are your thoughts about structurally based social memory?

RC: Basically, if you see it, you remember it. Consider what the American understanding of New Orleans might be today had we demolished the French Quarter a hundred years ago. Americans would probably not think too much about New Orleans. It would probably be something with a storyline mixed between Houston and Mobile: there might be a sense that it was a historic city; we may or may not still have Mardi Gras. I think that, because the French Quarter was preserved, we told historical stories and we remembered the Creole population and the Francophone population. The preservation of the French Quarter later inspired the preservation of Treme, Marigny, and the Lower Garden District. Had we not had that original preservation of structures, we would not have breathed life into collective memory.

Now, the flip side of that is what happens when places are completely demolished. As you know, the South Rampart Street corridor, maybe 5 percent of it is still standing now—visitors to this day are disappointed when they learn that maybe the city is the birthplace of jazz, but you can’t visit the cradle.

Another one is cityscapes of slavery and the slave trade. This was the major slave trading city in the nation for the better part of forty or fifty years, but there are very few structural remnants—the auction blocks where public auctions happened are mostly gone, so you could visit New Orleans today and not see an explicit structural reminder of that.

Rm220: Do you see any parallels between the influx of Anglo-Americans flooding into the city after the Louisiana Purchase and post-Katrina gentrifiers?

RC: Yes, I see historical parallels between the tension of 170 – 200 years ago and today. One has to be careful about drawing parallels, but there are rough equivalents.

Rm220: I saw similarities.

A plaque marking the designation of Bourbon Street during Spanish rule, shortly after which the city’s incorporation into the United States and the resulting influx of Anglo-Americans spawned similar tension between locals and transplants as one finds today. (photo by Richard Campanella)

RC: There are definitely parallels of a resident, native-born population suddenly experiencing an influx of—oftentimes more empowered, better educated, and wealthier—outsiders. The language barrier is gone now, but there are, of course, linguistic differences. In no small amount of time the original group starts to feel threatened and increasingly resistant. So much of the history of 19th-century New Orleans is this one of working out this tension between this 80-year-old, rather provincial, conservative city that is suddenly being enveloped into this much larger expanding nation.

Fast-forward 200 years, and one could see parallels there. This was a city that had not participated in the boom of the rest of the Sun Belt. It had not participated in the industrialization seen in other parts of the country. It was something of a backwater. It had the highest nativity rate in the nation, and then suddenly—or, not quite suddenly, because there was a steady stream of transplants coming down restoring old houses since the 1920s into the 2000s—there’s no question it up-ticked right after the storm.

Then, more significantly, in a larger, second wave in 2008 – 2011—when the rest of the nation went into a recession and when we were still flush with recovery and insurance dollars here—a generation of young educated people “starved for authenticity” thought they found it here. They are coming for very different reasons, make no mistake: The Anglophones who came 180 years ago were here to make money, but today they’re here for a sense of honest-to-goodness cultural fascination. Now that’s beginning to change a little bit because of the tech boom here, the digital media boom, the tax credits for the film industry, but there’s a fair number of these educated outsiders who are arriving here because of those opportunities.

Rm220: Very much so…

RC: …maybe not very much so. I still feel that they are first and foremost here for the culture and the cultural environment of the cityscape, and are doing the best they can to get a job and make a living here. I’m not entirely convinced that the people moving to New Orleans right now are just here for their jobs and then fall in love with the city. I think it’s the reverse.

Rm220: So you think that most of the people who have recently moved here are because they are culturally fascinated?

RC: They’re self-selected for Orleanophilia, a fascination with this place and the sense that it’s undiscovered—Brooklyn and San Francisco are just crawling with people like this, whereas New Orleans is not. That’s why there’s a boom on, because there’s a sense that it’s this ‘undiscovered Caribbean Bohemia.’

Rm220: Can you really make the argument that New Orleans is virtually undiscovered?

RC: I’m not arguing that. I’m giving voice to the perception that I believe informs this trend. Living here, we’re up close to this, and so the notion that New Orleans might be perceived as undiscovered by other Americans might seem preposterous, but that’s because we’re so close to it.

Rm220: I was intrigued by this line in the book, “New Orleans is the active producer, molder, and exporter of culture.” What do you think the cultural image is in the context of the book?

RC: A large part of the cultural image that gets construed locally and exported is exactly the one that Bourbon Street commodifies and sells. The city presents itself as a place to do things you wouldn’t normally do, and it has a historical reason to do this. It’s not just hedonism in one sense—it’s nocturnal entertainment, it’s escapism, it’s indulgence. The city has produced and exported these mystiques in various advertisement campaigns, and Bourbon Street is the space where it’s commodification got zoned into its existence. So, when we hold our nose over Bourbon Street, we should realize it is very much a product of local, cultural, organic—bubbled up from the bottom—and it invented itself. It’s genuinely local.

 

Photo by Jeri Hilt
Photo by Jeri Hilt

Five New Orleans writers will explore the theme native, homeland, exile through readings and a Q&A from 6 – 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 11,  at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.).

They will provide attendees a concert of voices from women writers of color that unflinchingly captures the coming of age in America’s New South. This event is part of the New Orleans Loving Festival, a multiracial community celebration and film festival that challenges racial discrimination through outreach and education.

This event is free and open to the public.

The authors:

ADDIE CITCHENS is a Mississippi native and New Orleans-based writer of literary fiction. She has been featured in the Oxford American‘s “Best of the South” edition, in Calloloo journal, and others.

 

JERI HILT is a Louisiana native with roots in New Orleans, Avoyelles Parish, and Shreveport. She writes fiction and teaches literacy in the Lower Ninth Ward.

AMBATA KAZI-NANCE is a writer and teacher living in her hometown New Orleans with her husband and son. She writes for Azizah magazine and Grow Mama Grow, a blog for Muslim mothers.

 

J.R. RAMAKRISHNAN‘s journalism has appeared in Style.comHarper’s BazaarChicago Tribune, and Grazia, amongst other publications. Her fiction has appeared in [PANK]. She arrived in New Orleans by way of Brooklyn, London, and Kuala Lumpur, her original hometown. She is director of literary programs for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.

 

KRISTINA ROBINSON is a poet and fiction writer from New Orleans. Her work appears in the BafflerXavier Review, and the nonfictional collection of photographic portraits and essays One Drop, to name a few.

 

Photo by Jeri Hilt

 

Richard Sexton’s Creole World

posted May 17, 2014
In this book, three white dudes tell you what "creole" is. (All images by Richard Sexton from "Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin American Sphere" published by the Historic New Orleans Collection.)
In this book, three white dudes tell you what "creole" is. (All images by Richard Sexton from "Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin American Sphere" published by the Historic New Orleans Collection.)

By Taylor Murrow

In Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere, photographer Richard Sexton offers a visual essay of his travels in Haiti, Panama, Colombia, Cuba, and New Orleans, while essays penned by scholars Jay D. Edwards and John H. Lawrence offer historical perspectives on the origins of the term “creole” and the ties that bind the word to New Orleans.

Edwards notes how linguistic evolution has taken the word from its origins referring to the locally born children of the French Louisiana colony to a hazy range of proud and negative connotations. Richard Sexton’s definition, for the purposes of this book is, “a hybridized entity connected genetically or culturally to the Old World but created in the New.” His photographic journey began in 1974, when he left on a clichéd adventure for college-aged students: a road trip from his Georgia home throughout Latin America. Along the way, he briefly stopped in New Orleans, where he now has lived for more than twenty years. Today, Sexton is well known for his majestic landscapes and architectural scenes. In Creole World, he continues that tradition with more than two hundred full-color photographs, a selection of which is currently on view at The Historic New Orleans Collection, that capture recurring elements of modern and ancient cultural influences throughout this region.

Bustling street scenes and quiet interiors share an unmistakable vigor and timelessness, sometimes making Bourbon Street feel worldlier than the Garden District. An amalgam of cultures and traditions, New Orleans is different from other cities in the southern United States—this we know—and nearly everything from the breezy attitude of its inhabitants to the structure of homes and neighborhoods bears some European and Caribbean influence. Periods of French and Spanish colonial rule, an influx of nearly 10,000 Haitian refugees at the turn of the nineteenth century, and even a shared subtropical climate all played profound roles in shaping the physicality and social makeup of the city we know today.

Throughout this book, the brightly painted houses, lush and airy courtyards, street vendors on cracked sidewalks, and haunting decayed facades all visually connect New Orleans to the Caribbean and Latin America. The authors acknowledge that Sexton’s intention is not to simply point out commonalities between New Orleans and Latin America, but that is certainly an effect. Ornamented wrought-iron railings that line balconies of Havana look strikingly familiar to anyone who’s strolled through the French Quarter. A dark-skinned Madonna with child painted on the wooden shutters of a Haitian botanical shop mirrors a sculpture on Caffin Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward. A photograph of raised tombs in a cemetery might be mistaken for St. Louis No. 1, but it is actually in Cartagena, Colombia—an entire chapter titled “The Ritual of Burial” shows that New Orleans’ tombs are not unique, and if anything emphasize the city’s global Catholic ties.

Of course, positioned alongside the striking architectural beauty are examples of poverty and economic struggle that also hit close to home. A chapter devoted to Haiti reveals daily life among structures still damaged from the 2010 earthquake. Chapters “The Predicament of Preservation” and “Frayed Elegance” both highlight how colonial and postcolonial opulence has deteriorated into crumbling edifices with chipped paint. The presence of humans is noticeably peripheral, practically nonexistent in these photographs—if they do appear, it is never in a way that presents them as central to the story. Instead, the images allow the buildings to speak of the past and present lives of these places and of the enduring quality of creolization that pervades them.

Prose at home. (AP Photo/Paul Hawthorne)
Prose at home. (AP Photo/Paul Hawthorne)

By Ari Braverman

I was late telephoning Francine Prose. Thrilled by (and not a little nervous about) our impending conversation, I forgot that New York operates one full hour ahead of New Orleans. Thus I returned home from the store to a missed call from a 212 area code. Francine Prose had called—and left a message! I was mortified as I dialed her number. But, even after a crazy spring of interviews and reviews, she sounded genuinely glad to hear from me. As we talked about her new book, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, I was struck time and again by the range of her grace and empathy, characteristics that inform every facet of her work.

The book, inspired by a real-life photograph of Violette Morris—an accomplished French athlete turned Nazi collaborator—is a multilayered portrait of Paris before and during the Occupation. Each of the book’s many narrators has a different perspective on what happened to Lou Villars (Prose’s fictional Morris), how and why she becomes the brutal figure she does. Ultimately, Lovers at the Chameleon Club is an excursion through the middle territory between history and remembrance, good and evil, love and betrayal, and a reminder of the importance of art in history’s dangerous moments.

Room 220 will host Prose to celebrate the launch of her new novel with a Happy Hour Salon from 6 – 9 p.m. on Monday, May 19, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.). Prose will be joined by local author Michael Jeffrey Lee, whose book of short stories, Something in My Eye, she selected for the 2010 Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction.

Room 220: Tell me about your initial reaction to the photograph that started it all, “Lesbian couple at Le Monocle, 1932” by Brassai.

Francine Prose: I’m a huge fan of Brassai’s and I know his work—I have about five of his broadside books, so I’ve known the photograph for a long time. It’s very beautiful. But it was only when I found out in the wall text at a museum show that the woman in the tuxedo had worked for the Gestapo that I became even more interested, because I knew nothing about the people in the photograph. When I did some research, I found out she had led this very complicated life. She had, in fact, been a spy and a professional athlete, and she was assassinated by the French resistance. That’s really where the book started.

That club, which I called the Chameleon Club, really existed. It was called Le Monocle, and there are all these Brassai photos of it. Recently, I was reading a biography about Jane Bowles, and she went there in the 50s. It was still around! That was amazing to me.

“Lesbian couple at Le Monocle, 1932″ by Brassai, featuring Violette Morris (right), the athlete-turned-Nazi-collaborator who inspired Prose’s book

Rm220: What was it about Violette Morris—someone who’s not necessarily a huge historical figure but who does exist in history—that drew you to her?

FP: Partly it was just her story, but there’s also something about the photograph, something about her, that gives off the aura of something disturbing. I can’t describe it any more than that. And the longer you look at it, the more her lover looks to be in some sort of drug haze. At first she just seems to be a pretty girl, but if you look a little closer, there’s more than that going on. There’s a lot about the photo that not only draws you in, but sets you on edge. And I think it’s meant to.

Rm220: There’s something grotesque about it.

FP: I mean, Morris’ ring, her fashion choices. She’s not just your normal cross-dresser. There’s something else going on there.

Rm220: Is this the first piece you’ve written that’s relied so heavily on looking at photographs?

FP: I’ve written a lot about photography. I’ve written a lot of catalogue essays for photography books. I wrote a long piece about Diane Arbus. I’m very interested in photography. I look at it all the time and I write about it quite a lot, but typically nonfiction. The thing about photography, everybody knows, is that it just captures a moment. With writing, you need to expand that moment to do anything with it.

I looked at the Brassai books over and over and over, but I used films, too. There are a lot of film clips on YouTube from that time that you can see that really helped. Images are like portals. They help you imagine your way back into that time. Little kids, when they look at a picture, imagine they can get inside it—at least I can remember imagining that. In a way, writing provides some of that, too. You look at the picture and suddenly you’re in the picture. That’s sort of what this process was like.

Rm220: There are many different narrators in this piece, so the story doesn’t progress along a typical narrative track. Did you find that writing about a photograph lent itself to writing the book as constellation of perspectives, as opposed to a linear structure?

FP: It wasn’t planned. When I realized the book wasn’t going to be nonfiction, I had to find another way to do it. I started with what’s at the beginning of the novel, the photographer writing home to his parents in Hungary—Brassai wrote many letters that were like the ones in my novel. I realized that for obvious reasons he couldn’t tell the whole story, that in fact there was no one who could tell the whole story, because each person only knew a part of it. The minute that happened I realized I needed to use a number of different narrators. The question, then, had to do with how I was going to do their voices. Again, it wasn’t planned, but it wound up that except for Yvonne the nightclub owner, all the narratives come from written documents of a certain kind. There’s the Henry Miller character, the two women who are writing their opposing memoirs. There are a lot of books that have multiple narrators, but I couldn’t think of another novel in which the narrators are all writing something, so I was kind of on my own.

Writing that way made the process a great deal easier. The “biographer” of Lou, for example, isn’t the greatest writer in the world. She has these lapses into writing quite badly. So far, I’ve been really fortunate—the novel has gotten a lot of really wonderful, intelligent reviews. But the few that have been not so intelligent don’t seem to notice that I wrote those sections that way on purpose. It’s not that I didn’t know that Natalie, Lou’s biographer in the novel, was given to hyperbole and purple writing. I meant to do that! I meant it to be a bogus biography written by a neurotic who can’t seem to stop talking about herself.

Rm220: Writing memoir-as-history seems to be very popular right now. What do you think about that? Your book trades on some of those tropes but is very clearly a work of fiction.

FP: Many of those books are works of fiction and don’t declare themselves works of fiction. There have always been books like that. The book I drew on a lot was this awful French “biography” of Violette Morris that was written, I think, in the 70s. The biographer didn’t bother telling you what was true and what was invented. I was thinking about all the biographies that tell you what the character was thinking when the biographer could have had no way of knowing. But more than that, there’s so much bad writing in these books. I was very conscious of that, too. I didn’t want to do too much of it because it’s off-putting, but I wanted it to be clear that I was introducing an element of parody.

Rm220: Your characters make a lot of social commentary, particularly about Paris’ climate of economic depression and fear of immigration. Was that an intentional correlation to our current cultural climate?

FP: Yes. While researching the book, I read all these books about Paris between the wars. I found this paragraph listing all these problems: fear of immigration, heavy taxation, fear that you can’t raise your kids to lead a better life that you did, economic problems, and so on. I read it to my friend over the phone and she asked, “Is that about the present moment?” I said, “No. Actually, it’s about the 30s in Paris.” Which is very scary to me, because similar things could have been written about Germany in the 20s and 30s. I thought a lot about the rise of fascism, what leads people to be vulnerable to totalitarianism. It’s a novel, not a historical book, but all those things were in my mind as I was writing. There’s no moment in history that’s not a dangerous moment.

Rm220: As I was reading the book, I had a strange feeling that was like, “God, I hope this novel isn’t prophetic!” And then I had to dial myself back because this is a book about things that have already happened!

FP: I had the same feeling myself. Absolutely.

Rm220: How did you deal with writing about queer identities in a text that’s contemporary but also set in the 1930s?

FP: The one thing I really don’t want to be misunderstood—although there have been some slight indications that it’s not clear enough—is that Lou’s cross-dressing and gender identity are not causative factors in her becoming a fascist. She was denied the ability to be the person she actually wanted to be. The only things she wants, which are to be loved and to be an athlete, are taken away from her. Then she goes someplace where, after being treated horribly, she’s treated like a star. Regardless of one’s sexual orientation, that’s very seductive. Resentment makes people vulnerable to totalitarianism. The Germans, for example, were told they had been stabbed in the back.

Rm220: Has there been any criticism of making the “villain” of the book a homosexual person?

FP: No, but I’m sort of nervous about it. My German editor said, oddly, that he wasn’t concerned about the reaction of the German readership to the book but that he was concerned about the reaction of the gay community in Germany to the book. I said, “Really?!” The thing is, as we all know, sexual preference and one’s moral nature are not connected. Within the gay community, the straight community, this community, that community, the range of saintly to demonic is the same. Just because you’re one way or another doesn’t give you a leg up on morality, one way or the other.

Also, the book has been described as talking about a period of decadence, but I don’t myself particularly see cross-dressing as decadent. I was confused about what that means. I just see Lou as a figure who was born at the wrong time.

Rm220: Speaking of the timeframe, I wanted to know about your decision to end the book in the 2000s, particularly with a video still of that hand from Carrie.

FP: People like Lou or like Hitler—you think they’re safely under the ground and then they just pop up again. We can’t rid ourselves of that. Somehow it seems to be part of the species. Just when you think it’s over, it turns out not to be over. I wanted to bring it into the present because, unfortunately, it exists in the present. Carrie, if you look at her story, is just a normal girl—except that she has some telekinetic powers—who’s tormented until she becomes a mass murderer. It’s a story that just keeps happening.

Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis

Local writer Maurice Carlos Ruffin recently won two national story prizes, earning him prestige and acclaim (and a nice chunk of change).

Ruffin’s story “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You” was selected by novelist Rachel Kushner for the 2014 Iowa Review Award. It will be published in the winter issue of the Iowa Review in December. (Incidentally, Kushner, the author most recently of The Flamethrowers, is a friend of Room 220, though we promise there was no collusion; read the Room 220 interview with Kushner here.)

At the same time, Ruffin’s story “The Anchor Song” won the 2014 So To Speak contest, selected by Charles Blackstone, who’s a novelist and the managing editor of Bookslut. That story will appear in the fall 2014 issue of So To Speak.

Ruffin’s work has appeared previously in Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, the Apalachee Review, Regarding Arts & Letters, Ellipsis, South Carolina Review, and other places. He is a graduate of the University of New Orleans MFA program and an attorney.

 

Antonia Crane

Author and frequent New Orleans visitor Antonia Crane will present her new memoir, Spent, as part of a fun-filled Mother’s Day burlesque event starting at 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 11, at the All Ways Lounge (2240 St. Claude Ave.).

Spent is an account of Crane’s escape from small-town life into the world of stripping, in which she quits drugs (yet gets drugged), does enema shows, and unionizes the strip club, among many other things. Moby called her writing “like Marguerite Duras on meth.”

Crane, who read at an event hosted by Room 220 in 2011, is currently a teacher and performer in Los Angeles. She is a columnist for The Rumpus, a contributing editor for The Weeklings, senior editor and founder of The Citron Review, and winner of The Moth storytelling competition. Her writing can be found in The Heroin Chronicles, Soft Skull Press’ Johns, Marks, Tricks & Chickenhawks: Professionals & Their Clients Writing about Each Other, Salon, PANK, Black Clock, The Believer, The Los Angeles Review and lots of other places.

Watch a book trailer for Spent:

Room 220 Presents: A Happy Hour Salon with Francine Prose and Michael Jeffrey Lee

EVENT: Monday May 19, 6:00pm - 9:00pm
@ Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.)
Prose - Lee

Room 220 is pleased to host the highly prolific and widely celebrated Francine Prose for a Happy Hour Salon on the occasion of the publication of her new novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. Prose will be joined by local author Michael Jeffrey Lee, whose collection of short stories, Something in My Eye, was selected by Prose as the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction in 2010. The event will take place from 6 – 9 p.m. on Monday, May 19, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.).

Prose is the author of more than two dozen books of fiction and nonfiction. She is the past president of the PEN American Center, a recipient of the Guggenheim Award, and has been finalist for the National Book Award. A number of her books have been adapted for the screen and the stage.

In Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Prose treats readers to a tale of queer love and Nazi intrigue following the gradual descent of a cross-dressing racecar driver into evil, told from a kaleidoscope of perspectives, including fictional stand-ins for Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso, Suzy Solidor, and Brassai, the real-life Hungarian photographer who took the photograph “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” which, in Prose’s novel, is renamed “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.”

In his glowing review of Lovers at the At the Chameleon Club, Edmund White extols Prose’s knack for rendering an unsavory protagonist. Likewise, in her introduction to Michael Jeffrey Lee’s Something in My Eye, Prose praises Lee for much the same: “I was drawn to Lee’s line-up of loners and drifters, imperiled children and haunted psychos neither because I want to hang out with these bad boys, nor because I plan to cross the street when I see them coming, but because the invitation to inhabit their minds, to see the world through their eyes, and to watch their often unsettling stories play out in space and time enables Lee to do all sorts of extremely interesting things with consciousness and language.” Lee teaches at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and Tulane University. Recently, his work has appeared in the anthology XO Orpheus as well as Gigantic and The Collagist.

Stay tuned for the Room 220 interview with Francine Prose, conducted by Ari Braverman. In the meantime, read the Room 220 interview with Michael Jeffrey Lee.