9 Books that Capture the Unique Spirit of New Orleans
While summer is coming to an end, almost any time of year is a good time to get out of town and go somewhere new. Interviewer and reviewer Emily Webber has compiled a list of what to pack if your travels bring you to New Orleans.
I’ve only visited New Orleans a couple of times, but when I left, I had the urge to keep the spirit of Louisiana close. It reminds me of Florida, where I’ve spent my entire life—a place I love and one so intertwined with who I am. New Orleans and Florida are both places that have a blazing nightlight, gaudy tourist traps, and diverse natural landscapes. They are places of outsiders and immigrants. There’s a dark side too, both from the wrath that mother nature can deliver in the form of monster storms and the many people hanging on by a thread, trying desperately to survive another day.
I chose this “playlist” of books because they capture a specific energy with New Orleans at the center. It's all here: the landscape run wild, eccentric characters, secrets, hauntings, and tall tales. But more than that, these books map out how we survive in a place that can be both a paradise and a hell. These books show us the human heart, in our grand gestures and our small moments, both how we bring about destruction but also how we save each other and rebuild.
How Long ‘til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin
Read the three New Orleans stories in N.K. Jemisin’s short story collection and you’ll feel like you are wandering the haunted streets of the city. “The Effluent Engine,” “Cuisine de Memoires,” and “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” offer fantastical, alternative versions of New Orleans where dragons roam after Hurricane Katrina, a mysterious restaurant cooks up culinary treats from the past, and a woman finds love in a steampunk version of the city. All of these stories are delicious fun and speak to the places we call home, memory, and love.
Wide Awake in the Pelican State: Stories by Contemporary Louisiana Writers edited by Ann Brewster Dobie
Wide Awake in the Pelican State is a great way to become familiar with the eclectic voices of Louisiana storytellers. You’ll get a diverse lineup of stories—some funny, some heartbreaking, some strange. This anthology contains many of my favorites like John Biguenet, John Dufresne, Tim Gautreaux, Kelly Cherry, and Dinty Moore.
The Lower Quarter by Elise Blackwell
You’ll find yourself compelled to keep turning the pages in this literary mystery by Elise Blackwell. The Lower Quarter is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, in the immediate aftermath of the storm when locals are trying to gather themselves together again. New Orleans is truly the shining gem of this novel and Blackwell’s familiarity with the city shows on every page.
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
It’s hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina was 14 years ago and now New Orleans is in the news again with severe flooding. It is awful to watch people suffer from a distance and to know even as one story fades from the news, it will eventually happen again. Five Days at Memorial recounts the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina at Memorial Medical Center. It’s an important look at what happens when basic needs cannot be met and of the questions of ethics in a crisis situation.
Shadows and Cypress: Southern Ghost Stories by Alan Brown
I picked up a copy of Shadows and Cypress from the beautiful Faulkner House Books in New Orleans. This collection gathers together ghost tales from 12 Southern States. The Louisiana section of this book is only 10 pages long and can be read in under an hour. I love Brown’s focus on preserving stories from the rich oral storytelling history of the South. Fair warning that these stories are not retellings or enhanced in any way—the focus is on preserving the stories as they are told by locals. You’ll feel like you are having a conversation with a New Orleans native. Learn about the Octoroon Girl, the Fifolet, and the Ruga-Rue in Louisiana folklore and the way in which stories get passed down orally through generations to help explain loss and the unknown.
The New Testament by Jericho Brown
Jericho Brown’s second poetry collection, The New Testament, tackles family, violence, love, resilience, and the complexities of living as a gay, black man in the South. Brown’s work is challenging and you’ll want to read his poems more than once and let the musical, lyrical quality of his words soak into your soul. You’ll also want to check out Brown reading his work online. He’s charismatic and hearing him read his poetry adds yet another layer of depth to his words.
Pretend I am Someone You Like by Shome Dasgupta
Shome Dasgupta’s Pretend I am Someone You Like takes the reader on a wild ride into the world of a dysfunctional Louisiana family lead by the unreliable narrator, Mutty. In the opening pages, Mutty’s cousin Barn is on the roof with a jar of jelly beans, a tube of glue, and a bowl of feathers. He’s gluing the feathers to his body because he believes he can fly. From this scene on, I was hooked on Dasgupta’s descriptions and world. Pretend I am Someone You Like is a unique reading experience that will leave you unmoored as you piece together fragments of this story. Dasgupta delivers a poetic and strange book with characters and an ending that will haunt you long after you’re done reading, told in a style all its own—innovative and bold.
The Not Yet by Moira Crone
I first came across Moira Crone’s work in Image journal, and you can read her short story “Pecos Bill” online. Crone’s prose in this short story is direct and simple, and she’s not afraid to show the reader the dark parts of our hearts. Crone’s novel, The Not Yet, depicts a half-submerged future New Orleans that’s been battered by monster hurricanes. While this is a work of speculative fiction, it springs from very real concerns such as the disappearing Louisiana coastline and the widening division between rich and poor. This book isn’t perfect, and it can be disorientated at times, but it's worth the effort.
Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown
The 25th-anniversary edition of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery came out earlier this year from the University of South Carolina Press as part of the publisher’s Southern Revival series. Brown tackles the big topics of family, faith, and identity and does it through the engrossing story of the Eagan family, Irish Catholics of mixed race. This story is quieter than some set in New Orleans, and the writing is lyrical and melancholy. New Orleans plays a central role and Brown is a guide who deeply knows and loves his hometown.
Emily Webber (@emilyannwebber) was born and raised in South Florida where she lives with her husband and son. Her writing has appeared in The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, Brevity, and Fourth & Sycamore. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.