Lagniappe: Reading New Orleans, Part 1

As we approach the ten-year anniversary of you-know-what, we offer this two-part Lagniappe update to provide a break from the “K” word. The New Zealand novelist and longtime New Orleans resident Paula Morris, our special guest for this first installment, has written some of our favorite passages about that city. Here, she reflects on New Orleans and its literature:


My introduction to New Orleans was in the mid-’80s, through the short stories of Ellen Gilchrist. I loved their audacity, their sharpness, their humor. They still feel fresh to me.

The Wilsons’ house was on Philip Street, a street so rich it even had its own drugstore. Not some tacky chain drugstore with everything on special all the time, but a cute drugstore made out of a frame bungalow with gingerbread trim. Everything inside cost twice as much as it did in a regular drugstore, and the grown people could order any kind of drugs they needed and a green Mazda pickup would bring them right over. The children had to get their drugs from a fourteen-year-old pusher in Audubon Park named Leroi, but they could get all the ice cream and candy and chewing gum they wanted from the drugstore and charge it to their parents.

—“Rich” by Ellen Gilchrist, from In the Land of Dreamy Dreams

The love/hate relationship with the city I understand more after living there, because New Orleans is charming and infuriating in equal measure — though, of course, all cities inspire love and frustration in their inhabitants.

When I was teaching in one particular classroom at Tulane, we could hear the streetcar going by along St. Charles Avenue. Sometimes we’d stop whatever we were doing and try to describe the sound. This is William Faulkner, in the ’20s, doing the same thing:

The street was empty, but from Royal Street there came the hum of a trolley that rose to a staggering clatter, passed on and away leaving an interval filled with the gracious sound of inflated rubber on asphalt, like a tearing of endless silk.

Mosquitoes by William Faulkner

It’s this kind of small thing that I miss the most about living in New Orleans: the sound of the streetcar in the afternoon or a freight train at night, alien caterpillars that could bleed yellow, a sidewalk erupting with tree roots, the smell of jasmine in the evening when we parked our car around the corner from Taqueria Corona.

This is Truman Capote in the French Quarter:

And on such warm evenings the town is quiet. Only voices: family talk weaving on an ivy-curtained porch; a barefoot woman humming as she rocks a sidewalk chair, lulling to sleep a baby she nurses quite publicly; the complaining foreign tongue of an irritated lady who, sitting on her balcony, plucks a fryer, the loosened feathers floating from her hands, slipping into air, sliding lazily downward.

“New Orleans (1946)” by Truman Capote, from Portraits and Observations

And this is Tennessee Williams, in his notes for scene I of Streetcar.

It is the first dark of an evening early in May. The sky that shows around the dim white building is a peculiarly tender blue, almost a turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay. You can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolences of bananas and coffee.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I love that “warm breath of the brown river” — and “the atmosphere of decay.” Some things don’t change, for better and for worse.

Paula Morris is the author of Queen of BeautyHibiscus Coast, Trendy But Casual and Rangatira, winner of the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award and the Nga Kupu Ora Maori Book Award. She is also the author of the short story collection Forbidden Cities (regional finalist in the 2009 Commonwealth Prize) and four books for young adults, two of which, Ruined and Unbroken, are set in New Orleans. She's also the editor of The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories.

Her wonderful Louisiana story "False River" was shortlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in the UK.