In Louisiana and indeed the entire South, an elegant, if hidden, cultural doppelgänger exists. Yes, the foreground is often a cacophony of political corruption, bad schools, dimwitted fundamentalism and deadly/delicious fried food. But in the shadow of every pickup truck with a gun rack and Confederate flag, there’s something else. It’s been there all along and is still there. I think of it as a real and steadfast spirit of place and people only externally doomed by slavery, economic isolation and Civil War. Impossible to define, Faulkner captured it in a line from Light in August – “…a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.”
Two weeks ago I was an honored guest of that luminosity in the form of the 8th Annual Writer’s and Reader’s Symposium in St. Francisville, LA., despite not being A Southern Writer. I slipped under the wire as A Not-Southern Writer Who Wrote a Book About the South. An Unremembered Grave is written from the
point of view of a New York State history professor suddenly up to her teeth in Louisiana kudzu as well as a decade-old murder and the attentions of a neighbor who actually knew Descartes.
At the speaker’s table with me were, however, real Southerners whose work reflects that luminosity of which Faulkner wrote. You’ll see it in Richard Sexton‘s breathtaking photographs, Moira Crone‘s novels and Ava Leavell Haymon‘s poetry. Ava and I did an all-day writer’s workshop at Butler Greenwood a week after the big symposium, and sat up half the night before, dishing writerly dirt and discussing the sestina. That is, Ava patiently explained what one is. Ye gods, I taught upper-level English for years and had no idea! Shameful. (Learn about sestinas here.)
During the week I visited old friends in Baton Rouge, and was taken to an unusual plantation exhibit, the Whitney Plantation. There are countless “display” plantations in Louisiana, but this one is unique in that it’s focus is on the lives of the slaves rather than the plantation owners. I was mesmerized by the sculptures of slave children, scrupulously reproduced from actual 1800’s lithographs by Akron, Ohio, artist Woodrow Nash. They’re quite lifelike and eerie, forcing me to wonder long after we left – “What happened to them?”
Even stranger, the Whitney includes, on slabs of black marble, some of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall‘s voluminous research that I referenced in An Unremembered Grave! Column after column of engraved first names of slaves, but in keeping with the site’s mission, no recording of place or “owner’s” names, which would have been the slaves’ surnames. Crazy-making for researchers like African Americans tracing their genealogies. But I get the point – the Whitney is not about massa.
Also made my way to LA’s maximum security prison at Angola to visit Ben, a friend of my now nearly-five-years dead friend, Douglas Dennis. The criminal perspective on some things is actually pretty compelling. Only problem is, you wind up in a place like Angola. I think I’ll stick to writing about fictional crimes. Orange is not my color. 😉