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Talk to Me: New Orleans as Paradox

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New Orleans manages to leave a mark, good or bad, on its tourists, natives, and those who've decided to take up roots there. Most people who visit have a great time, but many can attest to how the city's unique insular culture, history and traditions can be as frustrating as they are fascinating. As part of the 2011 Pen World Voices Festival of International Literature, five distinguished New Orleans writers — Sarah Broom, Richard Campanella, Nicholas Lemann, Fatima Sheik and Billy Sothern — read selections from their recently published books and essays. Through their writing, each author has made sense of the nuanced complexities that make up this Louisiana port city. Panel moderator and novelist Nathanial Rich called the discussion a manifesto to the city.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, the flurry of positive national media attention has helped create the impression that all is well in the Big Easy. But the city is still fraught with problems. In conversations about New Orlean's stark contradictions, emotions run high and opinions are strong.

The five fiction and nonfiction writers participating in the PEN discussion are either originally from or currently living in New Orleans. Each has devoted his or her work to erasing the city's fairytale image and telling the true story of its past, present and future. At the end of the workshop, the participants issued a statement with suggestions on what PEN could do to improve education in New Orleans.

Bon Mots:

Billy Sothern, a New Orleans anti-death penalty lawyer and author of "Down in New Orleans: Reflections From a Drowned City," on understanding New Orleans: "I think there are many who view NOLA as this exceptional place and some of them are the city’s biggest fans. But I argue that instead of its exceptionalism, the rest of America needs to be concerned with New Orleans because it's highly representative of the problems of the rest of the country ... These kinds of issues are coming to a neighborhood near you — they may already have but they are going to get worse. Instead of a metaphor, I think it's important to not say we have this 'New Orleans problem' with the schools and crime. Instead, we have this 'American problem' that is tragically magnified in the city of New Orleans."

Nicholas Lemann, a New Orleans native, staff writer for The New Yorker (among other magazines), and Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, on race: "The fabled white elite that controls everything in New Orleans are probably the least powerful white elite than you'd find in any big city in the country. Not because someone took their power away, but for various cultural reasons. New Orleans has no locally controlled major economic institutions, so the infamous New Orleans white elite does not have the inclination to do what one would want done in New Orleans. And if they had the inclination, they would not be able to do them."

Sarah Broom, a New Orleans native who wrote "A Yellow House in New Orleans," on local pride: "I think this 'love of place' is really just from people who are stuck in a lots of ways. There were very few opportunities for [career] advancement. It's almost impossible for a highly-educated person to move back to New Orleans and find some sort of intellectual rigor. That is just the truth. Part of it is that Hurricane Katrina forced a lot of people from New Orleans and now they don't want to come back. This population of people who can't come back because they can't afford to are also made up of people who don't actually want to return."

Fatima Shaik, who is the author of four books of fiction set in Louisiana, on writing about New Orleans: "I think writers after Katrina were thrust into the roles of sociologists. People who are from New Orleans are likely to write about it. I think those people who are not from the city and want to write about it should focus on writing across the cultures and writing accurately. People don't have a conversation across cultures. Writers can do that."