In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Friday, April 8, 2011

On the Realness of Places

Now this isn’t a paid advertisement – but I’ve always liked Hugh Ferrer. He is (I guess) one of our chaperones – one of the organizers of this trip through America. And his has always been a genuine pleasantness, never over-performed or disproportionately eager. Strange for an American. And his is an intellect that never patronizes, is always willing to engage and to push. So when he checks us into the hotel, and he asks the man at the desk, quite seriously, if there are places we should avoid – and the man at the desk, quite seriously, tells us we best not go anywhere in that direction (oooh no, you best avoid that area) and Hugh, who also used to live in New Orleans begs us to avoid wandering even a block over on the left, I know this isn’t an attempt to be over-protective or anything. And yet, I know myself. I know that in the morning, that’s exactly where I'll be heading.

The signs on the road that I decide to take seem designed to say, You're making a mistake, Kei. At your age, you should give up this kind of childish rebelliousness. In pairs, the signs tell me DO NOT ENTER, twice. Of course, I enter. One block, two blocks, three blocks in.

And no, nothing dangerous happened. I’m sure it could have. Someone could have snatched my camera or my bag. But it didn’t happen.

And no, nothing transcendent happened either. No one invited me up on the porch to eat some boiled crayfish and to tell me how they were so glad that a nice young man like me had come through, coz people mostly avoided the area.

The place was just a place in its own way. And the people were just people in their own way. And the houses were just houses in their own way.

And no, I didn’t feel as if I was suddenly seeing the REAL New Orleans. I’ve been suspicious of that particular discourse for a while. A friend recently asked me – ‘what is it like writing about Jamaica without having grown up in the real Jamaica?’ I stuttered. I told him I was sorry, but that before his question, I never knew my whole life was made-up. I grew up in a house in Jamaica, went to school and University in Jamaican, had Jamaican friends, still travel on a Jamaican passport, but somehow this was all made up – matrix-style.

Of course I knew what he meant – it’s that old compulsion to elevate the lives of the poor as actual lives. Here is a new beatitude for you: Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit reality. Everyone else is disinherited, even from their own countries.

In truth, every place in this world has so many concurrent realities happening at the same time. Even the touristy bits of New Orleans are their own realities. I spend the rest of the day walking through these bits – the beautiful ramshackle of the French Quarters. And later in the day I am on the set of the HBO post-Katrina series, Treme. How is that for walking in and out of reality?

All the shops in the French Quarter are of course trying to convince you of their realness. They offer real Cajun cuisine and authentic voodoo dolls rather than tourist trinkets. And that reminds me -- I’m probably doomed to a bit of bad luck I’m afraid. In one of these stores I accidentally touch a voodoo altar despite signs that expressively warned me not to. I hadn’t seen them. The woman behind the counter shouts at me, her voice like a whip. Don’t touch that, please! It’s real! It’s real.

-Kei Miller

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