By WALTER MOSLEY in the Sunday New York Times Book Review | http://nyti.ms/1SXd55U
“I’m not saying that you have to be a reader to save your soul in the modern world. I’m saying it helps. Artists, musicians, naturally empathetic children and people born to the beat of a different drum often embark on more original lives than the Company Store wants for us. They’re naturally more resistant to the forces of big business and big government.”
Natchez, in Natchitoches Parish. Credit James W. Rosenthal/Library of Congress
AUG. 3, 2015 :: I am what you might call a grandchild of Louisiana. My father was born there as were many of his friends and relatives. Most of my neighbors in Los Angeles came from there too — black rural folk who had traveled west through southern Texas on their migration to escape the South’s heavy hail of racial hatred. They came to California for the tattered shelter of mocking freedom that the Golden State had to offer people like them, poor people willing to work hard.
My father and his family brought the Deep South with them — barbecues and gumbos, dirty rice and soul food. They brought their strong accents and multiplicity of tongues, their histories from Africa, France, Native America mingled with generous drams of so-called white blood, European blood.
Louisiana flowed in that blood and across those tongues. Louisiana — a state made famous by Walt Whitman and Tennessee Williams, Ernest Gaines and Arna Bontemps, Kate Chopin and Anne Rice. These writers, from many eras, races and genres, took the voices of the people and distilled them into the passionate, almost desperate, stories that opened readers to a new kind of suffering and exultation.
I could talk about any or all of these writers with respect and admiration. But my relationship to the literature of Louisiana goes deeper, back to my childhood. Almost everyone in Watts came from Louisiana or Texas. They’d gather around kitchen tables, eating raw oysters swimming in Tabasco sauce, telling stories of the old days when death shadowed their every step.
There was the story of Alberta Jackson, bitten by a harbor rat and saved by a backwoods auntie who used the sliced-open body of a special toad to draw the toxins from the wound. There was my cousin Helen, who took my father’s knife intending to kill the man he was getting ready to fight. She swung at the man but stabbed my father by mistake. Hearing the story again, 20 years later, my father laughed and laughed at the memory.
Another cousin, Willie, got a job as a porter on the Panama Limited that traveled between Chicago and New Orleans. When he got his first check, he proudly told his mother he was going to use it to buy a new pair of pants. “She socked me so hard,” he told us one night, “that by the time I came to she had already cashed the check and spent it at the general store on Bywater Street.”
They talked of sugar cane fields and light-skinned cousins who would stay once a year in fancy white hotels without getting caught. They told of lynchings — and retribution too. They talked about Africa, Italy, France and Germany, where their men had been shipped off to fight for freedom.
That war was won, but the conflicts at home, in Louisiana and Texas, continued to rage. Even up North, where black labor was vital, black skin was despised. My father told me that he returned home after the war to find that most of his neighbors had died, whereas most of the black men that shipped off to the largest conflagration in human history had survived. The tragedy of war played second fiddle to the experience of my people, most of whom were born near some bayou.
These people created an orally transmitted literary life out of a soil drenched by the blood of slaves and ex-slaves, Creoles, Cajuns and the French. Louisiana is my literary grandsire, the source of the content and dialect of my early stories. It is no surprise that, even though I was born in Los Angeles and then moved to New York, my first words in fiction were, “On hot sticky days in Southern Louisiana the fire ants swarmed” — or that the first character I created was Easy Rawlins.
Easy was born in early-20th-century New Iberia and knighted by the hard knocks of racism and poverty. His life maps the progress of a man struggling to maintain not only his personal dignity but also the nobility of his people, their inimitable tongues and stories, the fights and failures and victories that left their souls blasted and their bodies scarred.
Louisiana is my ancestor and the great mother, the Mississippi River, bore him slowly, out of sediment and over eons. For most of that time, the river has transported, fed and terrorized its residents. Hurricane Katrina was only the most recent catastrophe to challenge these people.
Recently I went down to New Orleans to accept an honorary Ph.D. from Tulane University. While hanging out around the Warehouse District I was reminded of how deeply my roots run among these people — the music in the accent and the mixtures of races, classes and cultures that appear to flow together as seamlessly as the currents of the Mississippi.
I met a man who told me how the hurricane had forced him to choose between his wife and his mother. He ended up staying in New Orleans during Katrina to protect his mother, who refused to evacuate, while his wife and young daughter made their way to safety. Everyone survived though the marriage faltered. But the man did not lament his loss. He said his teenage daughter comes down every summer to live with him, and she shares her dreams of a future in medicine or in the military. He explained to me how important it was for her to have a life and how brilliant she was, how talented.
Listening to him, and how the music of my family pulsed through his words, I remembered why I had loved the stories of my upbringing — those stories, no matter how brutal, were told by people who loved me, who wanted to share with me their experience. Like that man I met, my family made their way through the tragedies that gave form to the modern world so that I could tell their tales of heroism; tales that languished for centuries in shadows and darkness and enforced silence.
Sunblocked: A Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, 1941. Credit Marion Post Wolcott/Corbis
For me there is little difference between the blazing sun, the nighttime jazz, the human flaws, the bound novels or the oral tales of this heroic land. It all comes together in my heart. The black man whose mother survived and whose child now thrives expressed a loving pride, an endurance and bravery, that has been kept a secret from the rest of America, even from my own people, sometimes.
This is the literature of Louisiana. It has a beating heart and a spring in its step, eyes that watch the world and a real voice that reverberates in the word “home.”
New Orleans, Lake Charles, New Iberia and a hundred other towns and parishes are my home. They hold my history, wait for my return, remember the stories of voodoo and fine cuisine, the Gulf of Mexico and a road that brings us back again and again.
I am frequently asked to name the writers that have most influenced me. It’s a question that the reader hopes will illuminate the common ground between us. But the firmament that connects readers and writers is older than the literate world; it goes all the way back to those stories that your relatives and family friends told when you were a child who saw writing as funny-looking chicken scratches on paper better suited for finger painting, when storytelling still had a voice and timbre, love and warning, a warm touch and lots of laughter.
Everyday life in Louisiana is rife with wonderful storytellers, some of whom have read very little, if at all. Guys hanging out on street corners; old aunties who are the repositories of all the stories of the ancestors — they are all writers of a sort and part of a powerful oral tradition. Homer and some heroic poets were illiterate. Certain forms of poetry came into being because the repetition made the verses easy to remember without having to write them down. This is the germ of literary appreciation: when children are regaled with tales of wonder — how Uncle George survived when he fell down a well in eastern Tennessee; or the strange foods Aunt Loretta encountered in Peru and Paris.
Later, they begin reading on their own — “Treasure Island” and “Little Women,” “Winnie-the-Pooh” (my personal favorite) and “Peter Pan.” Reading becomes internalized, and its power, for some, is so great that the experience rivals and echoes the upheavals of the biology and instincts of adolescence. Some young men and women find all the secrets and dangers that their bodies whisper about between the covers of books. The wrenching passion of love, the fear and heroism of war, and how lonely these hungers and dreads are in children’s often isolated and alienated experience of life.
One by one, these books form a chorus of trusted voices that accompany readers into adulthood. When others succumb to the cacophony of modern life, readers can rely on personalized internal guides that cause them to pause and wonder and question — often at just the right moments. Their reading becomes a virtual map, an internal GPS system that guides them away from the prefabricated and canned production line that so many are shunted toward.
I’m not saying that you have to be a reader to save your soul in the modern world. I’m saying it helps. Artists, musicians, naturally empathetic children and people born to the beat of a different drum often embark on more original lives than the Company Store wants for us. They’re naturally more resistant to the forces of big business and big government.
But readers don’t have to be all that special. They have the guidance of a thousand stories to help them make their way. They are never alone. They are equipped to challenge (or ignore) the expectations laid down by standardized testing, fifth-grade bullies and parents that gaze upon the present-day world with eyes that only see the past. They can envision alternatives to economic and political systems that have no heart, art or true humanity.
Most readers stop here. They gather their ever-widening circle of favorite writers and read and reread their beloved books. But some are compelled to become writers. The stories they were told or read kindle an obsession that cries out to be heard. Like minor gods, they rummage in the mud looking to make characters with whom to explore their dreams, and nightmares.
I read the other day that New Orleans was the best city in the nation for people looking for jobs in creative fields. This didn’t surprise me. It is a city of artists, musicians, storytellers and dancers. Its architecture is like the miles-long fresco of a big party that will never end. Street paintings everywhere celebrate the color and creed of creativity if not creation. Since Katrina, New Orleans feels even more vibrant, even more alive. And this too is a testament to a people who are victorious in their survival; people who are not only the grist for the story but who are telling it, living it, sharing it, a living literature.
- Walter Mosley is the author of more than 50 books, including the Easy Rawlins mystery series, and the recipient of an O. Henry Award, a Grammy and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His most recent novel is “And Sometimes I Wonder About You.”
- A version of this article appears in print on August 9, 2015, on page BR18 of the Sunday Book Review