Once, when I was in a masters program in St. Louis, I took a seminar on the Latin American novel. The course introduced me to an array of authors and books – including Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who’d won the Nobel Prize for his writings. One Hundred Years of Solitude is perhaps the most well known of books by Garcia Marquez, and it was the first one we read for the class.
When we met to discuss the book, it was clear that a lot of people had been put off by it. I should say that the class was older adults – I was likely the youngest and at the time I was in my mid-30s. The professor was surprised by the reaction. So what was the problem? he asked. The class wasn’t bashful in responding. Totally unrealistic – who ever heard of people on flying carpets (outside the Arabian Nights) or babies born with the tails of pigs? And that seemed to be the general consensus about the novel most connected to the idea of “magic realism.” Magic, yes. Realism, no. What is this weirdness?
Then I said something that startled the professor and the class.
“It sound perfectly believable to me,” I said. “In fact, it sounds a lot like where I grew up.”
Dead silence in the room. “And where was that?” the professor asked.
“New Orleans,” I said. “Born and raised.”
He thought for a moment and then nodded. “That makes sense. New Orleans is the northern rim of the Caribbean culture; Garcia Marquez’s Colombia is on the southern rim.”
People looked at me rather oddly after that. But the fact is that New Orleans likely invented magic realism long before Garcia Marquez was born – or perhaps the whole Caribbean culture invented it. How else can you describe Mardi Gras?
No, we didn’t have flying carpets and babies born with pig tails in New Orleans. But we had a lot of stories like that, stories that were true, if not real. As a child, I heard about Inez the Crazy Woman roaming the streets (“And no one knew why,” my mother lamented, “because she came from such a good family”). I heard a lot about children dying; child mortality was far more common in the 1910s and 1920s than it is today. People rode in “streetcars” and it sounded like magic, and then one day I got to ride in one, too, and it was magic.
Each summer, from when I was 9 to when I was 13, I spent a week with one of my aunts, Aunt Tean (pronounced “teen”) or Aunt Gee (hard “g”), both of whom lived in the Ninth Ward, the lower Ninth Ward for those familiar with the geography of Hurricane Katrina. Aunt Gee had four children, two of whom were on either side of me chronologically. Aunt Tean and her husband were childless; he was retired Navy. Aunt Tean was the family historian; she traced one branch of the family back to the 1350s in southern France. She also had lots of pets – several dogs and cats. She had a name for each and, when they died, she buried them in the backyard and found replacements. My younger brother called her yard the pet cemetery, and perhaps that fig tree there did bark at night. If you listened hard enough, you could hear it. Aunt Gee’s family, on the other hand, told wild stories about something called nutria roaming the levee of the Industrial Canal at night, looking for children to eat. I believed them. Nutria were real; the eating of children wasn't. But the stories were still true.
My mother came from a large New Orleans family. She was one of six – five girls and a boy. The girls all got married and had their own families; the boy waited until he was in the Army and stationed in Germany before he got married. But it seemed like we were always going to weddings. Big weddings. Lots of food and lots of dancing. Lots of stories. And then, later, lots of wakes and funerals, and lots of stories.
When I was 13, I was staying with my Aunt Tean, and my uncle decided I needed to ride with him to see another uncle. It was a Sunday night, and the real purpose of the visit was for my two uncles to drink something called rock-and-rye. The older uncle finally looked at me and said, “This boy needs his own glass.” The younger uncle nodded, and “poured two fingers” of the brownish liquid into a glass. I eyed it with some concern. “You have had a drink before, haven’t you?” the older uncle asked. I nodded. “Dad fixed me a VO and 7-Up last year for Christmas,” I said. “Thank God,” my uncle said. “Even if it is a sissy drink.” The rock-and-rye burned and tasted nasty. I never told my parents. My mother would have been furious; my father would have laughed.
My Aunt Tean, on the other hand, made something called cherry bounce. It was a fermentation of cherries and sugar and whisky that the entire family loved. My father was inspired enough to try making it himself but left it to ferment too long and the bottle exploded on our back porch. My mother was not pleased. I suspected the failure to ferment properly happened because my father was not from New Orleans.
I went to school with people who had last names like mine – recognizable in any American context – but also names like these: Boudreaux, Charbonnet, Melancon, Toups, Bordelon, Bonvillion, Cassienne, Lorio, Barrilleaux, Ribaldo, Vienne, Chenova, Russo and Rousseau, Aucoin – lots of French and Italian names – along with a lot of German names. You didn’t really think about it, and I only notice it now when I visit, but people in New Orleans generally look different, reflecting a French and Italian heritage, with just enough German and Irish to keep things interesting – all of the immigrants who came to the United States in the 1800s and early 1900s. Dark-haired, sometimes of darker complexion, they seem more Mediterranean than American.
But they talk like they’re from Brooklyn. The only Southern accents in New Orleans are those that moved here from some other part of the South. The New Orleans accent sounds a lot like Brooklynese; I’ve noticed pockets of similarity in St. Louis. It’s all over my mother’s family, and, in fact, my mother and my older and younger brothers have versions of it (older had a stronger and younger has a lighter). Me? Well, somehow I missed it, and no one knows why. And I was the oddity in the family. New Orleanians always thought I was from somewhere in the Midwest.
No, we didn’t have flying carpets or babies born with pig tails, but we did have Mardi Gras, exploding cherry bounce and a story about two dogs fighting each other so long that eventually all that was left was their two tails going at it. And it was all totally believable because it was true. It still is.