Category Archives: Acadian

Poetry’s 49th Parallel: Canadian/American Shibboleths

Is this a Canadian poet?

Is this Canadian poetry?

          I photo-shopped the above image of myself because I’ve never taken such a staged picture of myself. And I’ve never really experienced an identity crisis of nationality since immigrating from the United States to Canada. But I have been thinking about nationality lately. When I was living in the United States, I never described myself as an American poet. And these days, a full-fledged citizen of Canada and a resident for almost five years, I don’t generally refer to myself as a Canadian poet. I’ve long harboured a fantasy of belonging to a city-state, and when I was in the United States, I referred to myself as a New Orleans poet, just as now, in Canada, I call myself a Toronto poet.
          I’ve had a love-hate relationship with both the United States and Canada. Canada: health care system rocks, winter sucks. United States: Obama rocks (most of the time); Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, and Total Information Awareness (remember that short-lived megalomanic agency?) suck. In New Orleans, at the height of terrorist paranoia and duct tape frenzy, I was threatened with arrest for taking photographs, on public ground, of well-known monumental sculptures in front of a bank. That sucked.
          But my identity was never very dependent on nationality. Especially since Desert Storm, I haven’t self-identified as American, but I have always defined myself in part as Cajun. For me, the local or marginal identity, determined by patterns of settlement, wins out over the relatively artificial boundaries of nationhood. Even so, although I consider myself Cajun, not only by virtue of my father being Cajun but also because I was steeped in Cajun culture since birth, I was at the same time always looking over the shoulders of the culture, to an extent experiencing it vicariously. In Cajun country, I’m a Cajun and something of an alien. And now I live in Canada as a Canadian citizen.
          Canada’s identity has historically been shaped, in part, by its conscientious differentiation from the cultural behemoth south of the 49th parallel: to generalize, collectivism over individualism, peaceful resolution over escalation and violent enforcement, diplomacy and compromise over chauvinism and autocracy. However, even though I’m more sympathetic to such professed Canadian ideals, I don’t feel a strong desire to differentiate my poetry by nationality. In matters of culture (not so much pop culture, in which a certain amount of American hegemony is guaranteed by television, film, and commercial culture), I’m all for cross-pollination. I’ve been influenced by poets from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Japan, Hungary, Iran, Australia, Portugal, Ancient Greece, Finland . . . and the list goes on.
          Yet the reality is that Canadian government grants do not generally encourage reading venues to invite American poets (though this might be relaxing a little). Customs duties and taxes ensure that one is far less likely to find American poets on the shelves of Canadian bookstores. And vice versa, I hasten to add. Some American poets I knew were hard-pressed to name a single Canadian poet. I plead guilty to having been fairly ignorant, with some exceptions, of Canadian poetry before my move here. And I continue to bridge the knowledge and appreciation gap.
          Another reality is the anthology by nationhood. The anthology of Canadian poetry is a recurring staple in the poetry publishing world and a vexed one because of issues of inclusion and exclusion (a nature of the anthology beast) as these issues collide with issues of ethnicity and political borders. To see how complex the issue can become, read George Elliotte Clarke’s essay “Must All Blackness Be American?: Locating Canada in Borden’s ‘Tightrope Time,’ or Nationalizing Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic.”
          I’ve yet to see the hybrid American-Canadian anthology. Have I truly crossed the border poetically when I’m included in a Canadian anthology? I was recently featured in a Canadian online magazine, ditch, as a Canadian poet. There I was, in the inner circle along with the true-blooded Canadians, born under the loving gaze of Queen Elizabeth. Never having switched countries before, this was a new experience. I felt as though my mask of Canadian-ness might slip off at any moment and I would be revealed as a poser.
          So am I a Canadian poet? I remember the first grant that I got, two years after moving to Canada as a Permanent Resident—a Work-in-Progress grant from the Ontario Arts Council. A couple of my Canadian poet friends expressed surprise that I was officially qualified to apply for such a grant. Obviously, for granting purposes, I was as Canadian as the true children of the True North.
          What about my poetry – is there anything “Canadian” (however that might be defined) about it? A good deal of my poetry stems from my experience in the moment, wherever I happen to be: walking through downtown New Orleans, riding the Métro in Paris, or sitting in my Canadian apartment gazing at Canadian clouds drifting across the northern skies. As soon as I moved up here, my surroundings crept into my poems: ice and snow, especially, but also street scenes and people.
          As my new book, Sonnets, which was written entirely in Canada funded by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, is collected in libraries in Canada and the United States, it’s interesting to note that Canadian libraries use the classification for a Canadian poet, and American libraries use the classification for an American poet. That’s fine by me—I’m happy to be claimed by both countries.
          And what do/should I call myself? Am I a hyphenated Canadian? I’ve read a bit about the dilemma of immigrants regarding whether or not to hyphenate the old and the new countries: Somali-Canadian, for example. And some bemoan perceived racial overtones in the tendency to hyphenating all but native-English-speaking immigrants of European descent. “British-Canadian” and “American-Canadian” are less frequently heard expressions than, say, Pakistani-Canadian. And “American expat” is heard more frequently than “Chinese expat.” I hyphenated myself once recently—American-Canadian—for a bio, just to try it on for size. It felt odd. First, to me the hyphenation implies that one is retaining a connection to the cultural heritage from the country of origin, which doesn’t ring true to me. Maybe Cajun-Canadian would be more accurate. Also, there’s a part of me—the part that made me want to move here—that wanted to be just “Canadian.”
          I don’t think that I can give a straight or easy answer to the question of whether or not am—or feel—Canadian. “Canadian” to an immigrant might not be a fact so much as an assumed identity. Facts: I was born in El Dorado, Arkansas; I’ve lived most of my life in Louisiana; I came to Canada as a Permanent Resident in October 2005; I’ve lived in Toronto for almost five years; I’m now a Canadian citizen as well as an American citizen; my ancestors were Acadians in present-day Nova Scotia, then Acadie (and, interesting sidenote, until a generation or so ago, there were still older Cajun folk in Louisiana who referred—not without a tinge of disdain—to “les Américains” and who retained a distant memory of the Mi’kmaqs).
          I’m ambivalent regarding a sense of national belonging as an American or a Canadian. No doubt part of that lack of nationalistic pride or fervour stems from my friendship with anarchists in New Orleans and France for many years and my interest in anarchist critique, historically, of the nation-state. I’ve never been the patriotic type.
          But I do identify ethnically as a Cajun. And since making my recent “pilgrimages” to Nova Scotia, the land of my French ancestors, I’ve come to feel a sense of closeness to the people living in the remaining Acadian towns and villages of southwestern Nova Scotia, such as West Pubnico and Church Point. Talking with the Acadian descendants in Nova Scotia, I sometimes had the eerie feeling that I had been teleported to rural south-central Louisiana. It wasn’t only the French names and language, it was the gregariousness, the unreserved joking, the welcoming of strangers, the nicknames, the proclivity for satirical mimicry and for storytelling, the close-knit community.
          I suppose I am something of a poser. I pose as a Canadian poet for grants because I can legitimately do so—I have for several years now qualified for grants issued by the governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. And I’m extremely grateful for the privilege to live in a country where the government actually encourages the arts. When I first moved to Canada, I was fascinated by the new currency (loonies and toonies: cool) and by something in very small print on the twenty-dollar bill that still jolts me into an awareness of Canadian difference. I was accustomed to symbols of authority, monotheism, and divine providence on American paper currency. On the Canadian twenty-dollar bill, I saw images of sculptures by Bill Reid, a Canadian artist depicting aspects of the Haida culture of Canada’s northwest coast and, in tiny print, the words of French-Canadian poet Gabrielle Roy: “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?”

   

Some might shrug and say, “lip service”—especially considering recent budget cuts to the arts in Canada. Nonetheless, that statement as well as the generous granting system (generous especially when compared to comparable government funding in the United States) tends to create an atmosphere in which the arts are valued.
          So as far as the government is concerned, I’m Canadian. And I pose as a Canadian poet for anthologies with the rationale that most of the poetry that I’m writing is born in Canada (does that make my poetic progeny second-generation Canadian?).
          I also pose as an American poet because, after all, my poetic lineage is largely and undeniably American since I wasn’t exposed to much Canadian poetry when I started writing poetry in earnest. And besides, my American/Southern accent is hard to hide. Try as I might to switch to “zed” and to learn the subtleties of interjecting “eh” in conversation, I’m not sure I’ll ever pass the Canadian shibboleth.
          And aware as I am of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) manifestations of anti-Americanism, I trust that most people involved in the arts are enlightened enough not to harbour irrational prejudices against those Americans who have decided, for whatever reason, to leave the United States and embrace Canada. Surely attitudes have changed since the time when a Czech-Canadian painter was denied a grant by the Canada Council of the Arts because, as he was told by the panel, his work wasn’t “Canadian” enough. Following that rejection, he didn’t change his style but if you look closely, he has subtly worked into some of his paintings a maple leaf, as if to say with wry humour, ok, now is my work Canadian enough? Nonetheless, a Canadian press not long ago turned down a manuscript of mine because it was deemed to be “too American.” Is there a lingering bias against Canadian poets born in the United States? Does this reflect cultural protectionism, and if so, is there any place for this in decisions about grants and publications?
          The 49th parallel isn’t meaningless—of course, Canadian poetry has its own heritage, lineages, traditions, schools, tendencies, and so on. I’ve noticed a more prevalent concern with political issues—ecology, feminism, poverty, diversity—in both mainstream and avant verse. And there is an ongoing fascination among many Canadian poets, especially of the experimental persuasion, with conceptual poetry: oulipian gestures seem to thrive here among certain poets and readers. Molly Peacock, in her forward to Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, notes another difference and gives the following advice for Americans reading that anthology:

“Don’t panic if each poem doesn’t start with a bang. While American poets train for the high-diving board, jackknifing into the deep end of the pool, Canadian poets presume that readers will let them wade out until their feet no longer touch bottom. So if you are used to the fast splash of the American poem, a Canadian poem may seem as interminable as a raga is to the listeners of a pop song. In other words, you may feel yourself wondering when these poets will get to their points. In fact, there will probably be several points; Canadian time is time unwinding, not time in a flash.” (xiv)

I could say something similar (though probably not as eloquently as Molly) about some American poetry. Nonetheless, broad strokes are useful for conceptualizing cultural difference. And Sina Queyras has some trenchant observations, in her introduction to that anthology, of some of the characteristics and tendencies in Canadian poetry, especially regarding attitudes toward nature. Such anthologies, designed to introduce Americans to Canadian work that deserves to be appreciated, are needed to bridge the gap of ignorance on the part of American readers. That kind of cultural exchange can only be a healthy thing.
          The cultural differences between Canada and the United States are also reflected in daily life, and I can’t write an essay about being an American poet in Canada without commenting on such differences that I immediately became aware of when I set foot in Toronto in February 2004 to get a feel for the city where I wanted to relocate. Observing the advertising in the streets and subways, I noticed that the atmosphere of crass commercialism and materialism to which I was accustomed was a little toned down, and public service billboards were more frequent. The lack of racial tension on the streets was a refreshing change from the charged and often angry atmosphere in New Orleans, a city that still carries the baggage of historical racism. The rude, sexist comments by men in urban American streets were simply non-existent here. Once, as I was emerging from a Toronto subway station, a young man called out to me, smiling, “Looking good tonight!” It was sweetly appreciative; I smiled back.
          And I felt relatively safe in Toronto. I remember walking after dark with another woman to a poetry reading soon after I moved here. She decided to take a short cut through a park. I was terrified. “Are you sure it’s safe?” I asked. She just laughed and kept walking. I followed, looking around warily. I don’t think she realized the extent to which people in New Orleans are regularly mugged and even killed in parks. Tourists wandering into New Orleans’ famous parks and cemeteries are easy targets. “Another tourist shot in Armstrong Park” became an unfortunate cliche. New Orleans remains the murder capital of the United States—an extreme example, perhaps, but all major American cities struggle with similar kinds of problems—poverty, crime, racism, poor education, extreme divisions of wealth and poverty, and the ill-effects of decades of unaffordable or unavailable health care and other social services. Canadian cities struggle with some of these issues as well, but generally speaking, the problems are not as extreme as in the United States.
          I’m thrilled to be living in Canada, and I have come to love Toronto. I live downtown, in the heart of Old Toronto, in a cooperative apartment complex. The building is owned by a non-profit corporation; thus there is no landlord charging exorbitant rent while neglecting repairs. When I first moved here, I felt like Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis, ecstatically tossing her hat into the air (if you’ll pardon the American pop culture reference). After experiencing the demoralization of life in New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina, I was elated to live in a city and a country with a different social ethos.
          As happy as I am to be here, I suppose I will continue to side-step the issue of Canadian-ness by simply saying that I’m a Toronto poet or to be even more neutral that I’m a poet based in Toronto. But I will also say that living in Canada has been extraordinarily good for me, and I wish I’d moved here years ago. I love many aspects of this country like I never loved the United States. I’ve come to admire many Canadian poets whose work I was never exposed to before I moved here. I’m here to stay.
          Am I masking, through my ambivalence, a secret desire to be Canadian, cut and dried, strong and free? No doubt. Part of me likes the idea of being Canadian. But I also know that the issues of nationality, ethnicity, and identity are a lot more complicated, for those born in Canada as well.
          My eyes are blue-green. Some days I see them as blue, other days as green. I can talk about the genetics of the colour, the lineage of ancestors from whom I inherited either colour, the factors that influence the colour that I perceive on a given day (such as the clothes I’m wearing, or my lover describing them as blue). I can talk a lot about those things. But deciding which side of the colour fence I’m on is just not something I’m very passionate about.

1 http://www2.athabascau.ca/cll/writers/english/writers/geclarke/locating_canada.php



Camille Martin

Passion Flowers, Gulf Fritillary Butterflies, and Cultural Exoticism

          A friend of mine, born and raised in Toronto, commented that my growing up Cajun seemed to her exotic, colourful—the unique food, music, and language of the Cajuns, whose population is mostly concentrated in a relatively small area in south-central Louisiana, sets their culture apart from any other in the world.
          True – the Cajun appetite for gumbo, jambalaya, and boiled, spicy crawfish is legendary. Accordian- and fiddle-playing are avidly learned by young people who form the Cajun and Zydeco bands that remain a staple of popular culture in Louisiana. The lyrics of their songs, often still sung in the Cajun patois, speak not only of unrequited love but also of alligators and Mardi Gras. And the spoken language is peppered with Cajunisms like boudez (to pout), veiller (to visit and chat) and couillon (idiotic).
          I responded that some aspects of the culture in which I was born and raised seemed exotic to me as well—not only now, viewing the culture through eyes that have seen many other places in the world and studied the Cajun culture in historical context—but then, too, growing up in the midst of its difference from any other place in the country. Then, I viscerally felt the difference of my culture; I felt it to be something exotic, even though I was living within it.
          As I pondered the idea of cultural uniqueness, an image of passion flowers crowded with Gulf fritillary butterflies surfaced in my mind—the most exotic image that I could think of from my childhood in Lafayette, Louisiana, the hub of Cajun culture. There was something about this image of otherness that reminded me of the way that it felt growing up within a culture that was self-conscious of its exotic status within the more mainstream American culture.

Passion flowers
          When I was a child, my mother lined one side of our carport with chicken wire and planted passion flowers alongside it, allowing the vine to climb. By the zenith of our subtropical summer, the creeping tendrils had formed a wall of green lavished with purple blossoms that seemed impossibly, exquisitely exotic.

Photo: Norman G. Flaigg

          Passiflora grew luxuriantly in the rich soil and semi-tropical climate of Louisiana. My father explained to me that the vine had originated in South America. True, but researching the plant now tells me that it was also indigenous to North America; some Native American tribes used parts of it to make medicine and tea. Nevertheless, I grew up believing that it was a foreign plant, and to me it certainly had that “exotic” look—wildly different, introduced from somewhere in tropical South America where, my child’s imagination suggested to me, the saturated colours of the clothes that people wore and the rich flavours of the fruits they ate emerged from the very soil under their feet. There, I thought, the passion flower must be something ordinary—still lovely, but possessing a beauty that one would take for granted, an old friend blossoming along roadsides or in pastures, blending into the fabric of life’s more joyful offerings.
          But here, the passion flower appeared to me an exotic other among the weedy dandelions and white “springflowers” that emerged from the St. Augustine grass, and even the colourful but domesticated zinnias that I grew in neat rows in my little garden plot bordered with red bricks. The passion flower was a colonizing vine, impossible to confine, that thrived in its “new” environment. It added an element of exotic difference to the lawn’s more quotidian flora.
          For one thing, the multi-layered flowers were so complex that their structure couldn’t be taken in all at once but had to be visually dissected. The blossom’s base was composed of rather mundane daisy-like petals. But radiating above these petals was a myriad of delicate tendrils, curly at their ends and patterned with concentric rings of colour: these were the tresses of Medusa the Beautiful.
          From the center of this bizarre splendor grew a little tree trunk with umbrella spokes of five spotted branches; at the tip of each branch was attached a little oblong platelet. As if nature weren’t satisfied with all that weird magnificence, the whole was topped with a tiny orb from which sprang three little trumpets. This flower knew exactly how to flaunt its reproductive organs.
          The fruit of the passion flower was also a sensual feast for the eyes, if not my childish palate. Moreover, these odd blooms grew on wild, luxuriant vines whose vigorous life force enabled them to smother whole trees. There seemed an element of menace to this plant, which I regarded as an invasive but welcome species.
          In short, the passion flower looked like an alien from another planet or perhaps one of those otherworldly species that flourished during the Cambrian explosion.

Gulf fritillary butterflies

Photo: Dominick Martino

          Every summer, Gulf fritillary butterflies migrated from the tropics of Florida, over the Gulf of Mexico, to areas along the subtropical stretch of the Gulf coast, including my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana. There, the passion flower provided the butterfly’s favourite nectar and the vine’s leaves the caterpillar’s preferred food. Swarms of these butterflies, drenched in warm equatorial colours, perched on flowers as fantastical as any Royal Ascot hat, surely couldn’t be the visionary brainchild of the local Mother Nature.
          One summer, as the butterfly’s eggs hatched, my mother placed one of the tiny caterpillars in a large jar full of passion flower leaves attached to a length of vine she’d cut. I watched as the caterpillar munched on the leaves, moulted its outer skin a few times times to allow growth, suspended itself from a twig with its own adhesive silk, formed its chrysalis, and appeared to be dormant. I waited anxiously, but at last the outer shell of the chrysalis, which resembled a curled up dried leaf, stirred and cracked, and a coltishly awkward butterfly emerged with crumpled wings. Gradually it stretched out its wings until their full pattern emerged: tawny orange laced with black and splashed with silver dots and streaks.
          Of course, many things seem fresh and exotic to the eyes of a child. But like the passion flower that I believed was introduced from South America, migratory creatures were in a different category. It was one thing to observe, up close, the concentric circles and striking colours of buckeyes and swallowtails, which were endlessly fascinating but very common fluttering around in the pastures behind our house. Those native butterflies were as prolific as the mushrooms that we called the “devil’s powderpuff” and as common a sight as the towering anvil-shaped cloud formations that roamed like sharks across the wide Louisiana sky and dumped rain so furiously that cars stopped under bridges to ride out the deluge. These things were special, but still part of the fabric of life.
          However, the migration of the Gulf fritillary butterflies was something precious and unique—as the summer heated up, we knew they were coming, and we waited, and whoever spotted the first one ran inside excitedly to announce the news. Then, these butterflies stole the spotlight from the more ordinary butterflies. There was something rare about them, though they were far from being an endangered species. And they were utterly gorgeous.
          But if they were so exotic, I thought, why was the word “Gulf” part of their name? The Gulf of Mexico was familiar, ordinary, always there, defining one boundary of Louisiana, providing a fishing ground for my father and a breeding ground for hurricanes. “Fritillary” at least sounded exotic—the tongue, teeth, and lips made unfamiliar movements pronouncing the word that sounded like no other and that conjured an image of delicate, unfamiliar beauty, eagerly anticipated and welcomed. Gulf fritillaries were transitory visitors enriching dailiness with their striking colours and refined appetite for the nectar of foreign flowers.
          The convergence of these two otherworldly beings—the passion flower and the Gulf fritillary—yielded in my mind the essence of exoticism. But in reality the passion flower is native to many areas of North America. I’m not sure whether the species that my mother planted was Louisianian or Brazilian; it would take a botanist to sort out that question. But the genus was no stranger to the subtropics of the Deep South.
          As for the Gulf fritillary butterfly, its migratory arrival and departure made it seem otherly. However, migratory patterns in birds and butterflies take shape over eons, and the Gulf fritillary butterfly had for a long, long time made its temporary home in Louisiana during the summer and traveled in large flocks across the Gulf to winter over in the tropics of south Florida. It was native, all right.
          My perception of exoticism in the passion flower and Gulf fritillary butterfly was just that—an attitude conditioned by notions about native and other. By extension from flowers and insects to people and culture, exoticism is a state of mind about self and other. If I had lived a few decades earlier, the Cajun culture in which I lived would not have seemed so self-consciously tinged with exoticism. Since the early part of the twentieth century, my community of Lafayette, Louisiana, was in transition due in large part to the federal project of assimilation of the French Cajuns into mainstream American society. It was a project distressingly familiar to many ethnic groups in Canada and the United States. If I had lived before that homogenizing process—however one envisions the metamorphosis toward modernized, commercialized, consumerized, suburbanized, American blandness—life, more isolated from the country’s mainstream, might have seemed less self-consciously different.
          But growing up in the sixties and seventies, I knew how different my culture was—the inroads of superhighways, television, and billboards had for decades facilitated the intrusion of mainstream, popular culture into south-central Louisiana. I thought of the Cajun culture as exotic because it had become self-aware as otherly. Since the 1960s, the Cajuns regained a sense of pride in their culture. CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) was formed to protect the vestiges of the Cajun culture and encourage a return to its cultural heritage, including the French language. It was, and is, a noble attempt to revitalize a dying culture. The new-found pride also fostered a sense of protectionism. A friend once half-jokingly said that he would only marry a woman born south of the I-10, an east-west interstate highway below which the majority of Cajuns made their home in Louisiana. But in spite of recent attempts to protect the vestiges of the original culture, full retreat into the past was of course no longer possible.
          We were passion flowers, indigenous but seen as exotic in our own homeland, by ourselves and by others. And the idea of exoticism implies a degree of purity. For a culture to be exotic is to possess a degree of difference that sets it apart. But the fact is that we were never “purely” Cajun—neither purely native nor purely exotic. Our culture may have been predominantly French and Catholic. And as I now understand having visited some of the remaining Acadian villages in Nova Scotia, there is a strong cultural bond between contemporary Acadians and Cajuns that demonstrates that both cultures possess many survivals from their common historical roots in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Acadie. But diaspora brings with it the assimilation and adaptation of cultural elements from many others along the way.
          To take music as one example, Cajun and Zydeco music isn’t something “pure” historically, but a mixture of old Acadian songs influenced by Texas swing, jazz, country, and blues. Although at any given moment in time a culture might seem to be purely “itself,” diachronically speaking it is inevitably mongrel.
          I thought of the Gulf fritillaries as exotic others. But in fact they were native creatures despite their migratory patterns. The Cajuns, who originally migrated from France and later were expelled by the British from Nova Scotia, moved around quite a bit during the two centuries of their immigration and diaspora. South Louisiana, with its giant live oaks dripping with moss and its humid, decaying swamps, must have seemed exotic to the newly-arrived Acadians, compared to the rocky coasts and salty tidal flows of the Bay of Fundy. But in each place that their voyages had taken them, the Acadians became naturalized and absorbed something from the soil on which they made their homes. The Cajuns’ roots were undeniable and their perceived exoticism was only relative compared to the larger culture of les Américains—as the older Cajuns still called them not so long ago—who surrounded them.
          A few years ago, during a visit to friends in Montpellier, France, I was delighted to find the vines of passion flowers laden with fruit, which brought back memories from my childhood. I was a little surprised to find these vines in the South of France. Although I wasn’t sure whether they were native or introduced, they still seemed exotic here, just as they had seemed to me growing up in Louisiana.
          To my child’s mind, it was important to distinguish between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between the autocthonous and the introduced. But rigid and naive distinctions are illusory. I watched caterpillars fattened on the leaves of passion flowers transform into Gulf fritillary butterflies, a beautiful lesson in metamorphosis. That image of their transformation seems to me to aptly describe the natural condition of cultural flux. To paraphrase Hamlet, there’s nothing either purely exotic or native but thinking makes it so.

Photo: Camille Martin

Photo: Camille Martin—Passion Fruit in Montpellier, France




Camille Martin

All That Glitters on the Spiderweb: Myth, Race, and Denial

          After living for ten years in upstate New York, where I had never quite felt at home, I decided to return to my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, where flowers grew year round, people spoke in the soft, lilting accents of Cajun French, and I could eat crawfish étouffée to my heart’s content. No doubt there was a hefty dollop of romanticized nostalgia in my decision. In any case, I packed up my belongings and drove a big U-Haul south. Three days later, the humidity felt just about the right thickness, and I knew I was home. I took an apartment in Bayou Shadows, a sterile complex probably named by a focus group, and got a job as a secretary in a company that provided tools and labour for offshore oil rigs.
          Over the next few months, I reacquainted myself with the local culture, attending celebrations like the Frog Festival in Rayne, the Cajun Music Festival in Mamou, and of course, Mardi Gras. I also visited Vermilionville, a recreated Cajun village on the banks of Bayou Vermilion showing life in Acadiana from settlement (1760s) to the late nineteenth century. It was recommended to me by my cousin, whose partner had a job demonstrating for the tourists the making of bousillage, a mixture of bayou mud and dried moss that the Cajuns used to plaster their walls. I felt a little sad to see the period costumes, Cajun-style homes and furniture, and farm tools, all authentically recreated and frozen in time.
          When I was growing up, there were still some survivals of this old way, such as the “gar’ soleil” a practical bonnet that my grandmother wore to shade her face from the harsh sub-tropical sun, and the old plow pulled by mules that my grandfather was still using for his cornfields when I was a child. That way of life was gone, though you could still buy Cajun bonnets as a souvenir in the gift shop at Vermilionville. Seeing artifacts from the my culture ossified in a museum, I felt as though a part of my past were now being recaptured, tested for authenticity, and put on display. It was a lesson in impermanence that I was reluctant to learn.
          While I was away in upstate New York, my father had immersed himself in genealogy. He and my mother collected hundreds of photographs and paintings of ancestors, and filled boxes upon boxes of documents photocopied from court records: marriage certificates, wills, contracts. They also collected and framed farm implements such as old cattle brands, correctly assigned to their owners. My father was becoming a kind of living Cajun icon, obsessively collecting the paper trail of his ancestors as a way of holding on to a culture that was swiftly dissipating as assimilation into the “mainstream” took its toll.
          But nostalgia takes its toll on history, and the longing for a lost arcadian past tends to flatten the complex layers of history. What remains is an idealized mythology that takes the form of whatever fantasy nostalgia has invented. Perhaps it’s a vision of happy-go-lucky Cajuns whose unadulterated culture thrived in relative isolation from “les Américains.” Or perhaps it’s a fantasy of the good old antebellum days of oligarchy in the Deep South: wealthy plantations, elegant ballroom manners modeled after European nobility, and ultra-cheap labour. Whatever the fantasy, nostalgia creates a vision of life that used to be simple and pure, uncomplicated by the complexities of cultural hybridity and the inhumanity of slavery. This was another lesson that I was reluctant to learn. After all, I was in search of Cajun authenticity, and I was on the verge of buying into this vision of a lost culture innocent of divisions and contradictions; it was the misty, sunlit, and idealized vision of a lost childhood. Growing up during Jim Crow and witnessing the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement and the first attempts to integrate a society of institutionalized racism left an indelible mark on my psyche. But returning to Cajun country full of wistfulness, on some level I still clung to the belief, despite evidence to the contrary, that racism was not imprinted onto the Cajun social fabric.
          After my move home, I would sometimes drive in the countryside around Lafayette, with no particular destination in mind. I was looking for “authentic” Cajun life in the small towns where life wasn’t self-consciously re-enacted for the benefit of tourists, where life had not become a series of footnotes and framed antique tools. On one of those drives I found myself in St. Martinville, a town where many of the Acadians had first settled after arriving in Louisiana from Acadie, now Nova Scotia, in the 1760s.
          I had been to St. Martinville several times as a child to visit the St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church. To me, it was the quintessential Cajun shrine: an historic eighteenth-century church built by the early Acadian settlers. Next to the church was a statue of a virgin—not Mary, but Evangeline, symbol of the Acadian diaspora.

Evangeline Statue

          Evangeline was a character invented by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his long tragic poem based on the French Acadian expulsion by the British from Nova Scotia in 1755. Families were often split up as they were forced to hurriedly board ships during “Le Grand Dérangement,” and in Longfellow’s poem, during the loading of the Acadians onto the ships, Evangeline becomes separated from her betrothed, Gabriel. According to one version of the legend, on arriving in Louisiana years later, Evangeline discovers that Gabriel has already married another. After becoming mentally unhinged due to the shock, she dies of a broken heart and is buried under an ancient live oak tree in St. Martinville.
          Even though she is an entirely fictional character, the tourism industry perpetuates the myth that she was based a real person (Emmeline Labiche, another fabricated character) and is actually buried under a live oak near St. Martin de Tours Church.

Evangeline Oak

Layers of truth and myth are easily confounded where there is the desire to believe. Of course, there must have been many Evangelines and Gabriels, lovers separated during the expulsion of the Acadians, but none buried under the old oak tree at St. Martin de Tours.
          I sat near the statue of Evangeline, which used to represent to me a fixture of the Cajun imaginary, an icon of the Cajun diaspora. The plaque at the base, translated into English, reads as follows:

* * * * *
Evangeline
Emmeline Labiche
Old Cemetery of St. Martin
In Memory of the Acadians Exiled in 1755
Statue of Evangeline, heroine of the Acadian deportation to Saint Martinsville in Louisiana.
* * * * *

Although there was no mention of a model, I remembered that the statue was in fact a replica of Delores Del Rio, the Mexican-American actress who played the lead role of Evangeline in the 1929 film.

Delores Del Rio

Even Hollywood kitsch merges into the legend and takes on an aura of authenticity. Before the statue knelt two elderly Cajun women solemnly praying before the image of the tragic peasant maiden.
          I walked inside the church, which contained the usual sentimentalized Catholic iconography as well as a simulation of piled-up stones surrounding a statue of Mary, a representation of the Grotto of Lourdes. The stones seemed more simulated than I had remembered as a child, but other than that, the church and grounds were pretty much the way I had known them. It was the kind of place I mentally file as a shrine that is still rooted in a living culture but that, once tourism grew into a serious commodity, became embellished with colourful folklore, complete with sacred landmarks and an empty grave. It seems that the more that fictional accoutrements spring up around a myth, the more credible the tale becomes. Even the locals wanted to believe.
          Next to the church was a little museum. I entered the first floor gift shop and chatted with an affable middle-aged woman behind the counter about the interior of the church. She informed me that “It was a octoroon built the Grotto of Lourdes in the west nave. And do you know, he had never been to Lourdes before?”
          Octoroon? It was bizarre to hear that antiquated word. Here we were, a good thirty plus years from the official end of Jim Crow, and this woman was still using, in all earnestness and without historical context, the long-outdated and legalistic term—common in the nineteenth century—for a person who was one-eight African-American. I felt transported to a different era. Or maybe a Flannery O’Connor story about the absurd underbelly of life in the rural Deep South.
          She then pointed me in the direction of the museum exhibit upstairs, which she said I could see for one dollar. She seemed mysterious about the nature of the exhibit, only saying that “It’ll all explain it when you see it.”
          Expecting an historical display about the church or the Cajun settlement in St. Martinville or some nonsense about the grave of Evangeline, I soon realized that I was about to enter one of those surreal zones—“geo-psychic wonders,” as a friend calls them—that you sometimes come across in South Louisiana. Like the little roadside chapel that I found on one of my countryside excursions, with stained glass windows depicting Houma Indians. Or the Saturn Bar in New Orleans, featuring a painting of the ringed planet on the ceiling along with a dangling mummy and a giant taxidermic turtle—for starters.
          I climbed up the stairs to the museum on the second floor. The first clue was jagged strips of green camouflage cloth festooning the beam at the entrance. The mottled green fabric was crudely decorated with glitter in the shape of spider webs. As I crossed the threshold and walked into a single large room, something told me that this was not going to be a display created by the St. Martinville Historic Society. The entire room was bedizened with lurid, sparkling spiderwebs. Around the perimeter stood department store mannequins in stiff poses, dressed in gaudy eighteenth-century-style satin costumes of purple, green, and gold, the traditional colours of Mardi Gras. Plastic spiders perched on sequinned webs adorned the gowns.
          A placard on the wall explained that these costumes were worn at a recent local Mardi Gras ball whose theme was an 1850 double wedding that took place on a nearby sugar plantation, the Oak and Pine Alley. According to this legend, apparently well-ensconced in the town’s lore, Charles Durand, the wealthy plantation owner and father of two young women engaged to be married, decided to throw the most lavish and memorable wedding anyone had ever seen. He imported spiders from China and set them loose among the live oak trees. On the day of the wedding, he had slaves spray gold and silver dust from bellows onto the spiderwebs, wet from dew, creating a glittering canopy for the ceremony.
          The mannequins’ Mardi Gras ball gowns, a tribute to this wedding steeped in fantasy, seemed a bizarre conflation of Spider Woman, bordello madame, and Bo Peep debutante. At the far end of the room, a mantelpiece decorated in red felt with candelabras at either side served as an altar, complete with a male mannequin dressed in the colourful robes and sashes of a priest, ready to ward off errant spiders with his magic sceptre. In the middle of the room sat a dollhouse model of the plantation house and its oak grove, a kind of fuzz strung between the trees to depict the spiderwebs.
          The unabashed campiness of the “museum exhibit” was hypnotic. Surrounding me were the symbolic fetishes of the legendary wedding—a cheesy fertility shrine in which images of spiders bring good fortune and Cajun rugrats to newlyweds. I lingered among the arachnophile mementos, imagining a future mutated version of the story: locals praying to spider spirits to grant favours, and dangling plastic spiders from their rear-view mirrors. Bridegrooms in Spiderman costumes at ritualistic weddings ravishing Miss Muffet brides. Evangeline would of course join the hagiography of the new syncretistic Catholicism. The sequel to her hallowed tale would tell of spiders interceding on her behalf to roll back the tragic diaspora and deliver her faithful lover Gabriel, whom she’d marry under the oak tree that now marks her tomb amidst showers of gold and silver glitter purchased from the local craft store.
          After my reverie had played itself out, I thought about the woman downstairs, remembering her “octoroon” comment, and suddenly the invisible subtext of the exhibit came into focus. Previous experience told me that this latter-day celebration of plantations in the Deep South, whose owners had amassed huge fortunes from the labour of slaves, was nothing unusual. The at-best unthinking extolling of this dream wedding wasn’t only the result of seeing Gone with the Wind too many times or visiting plantations in which the tour guides attempted to rationalize slavery, minimize the suffering of the slaves, and glorify the expensive mahogany furniture and chandeliers in the roped-off rooms of the mansion.
          Years earlier, I had toured the so-called San Francisco Plantation near New Orleans, open to the public for a fee. Women in large hooped skirts, evoking the stereotype of the Southern belle, served as tour guides. As the guide for my group showed us the kitchen, an outbuilding about a hundred feet from the mansion, she explained that a slave carried the prepared food from that structure along a stone path to the dining room. Especially when the slave was carrying a pie, she said, the master would require the slave to whistle so that he could be assured that the slave wasn’t eating the pie. I heard tittering among the all-white group of tourists. This was a geo-psychic wonder steeped in myth and mired in denial.
          The racist backdrop of commemorations of plantation life such as the spider-wedding fades into invisibility, much like bringing up the suffering of the blacks during the plantation tours was taboo: it would have spoiled the fantasy. I looked back at the display of mannequins and diorama and felt both attracted to its absurdity and repelled by its sanitized history. This was home alright.



Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca

Parallel Universes Redux – St. Joseph’s Altar in New Orleans, a Hybrid Feast

(photo: Camille Martin)

(photo: Camille Martin)


(photo: Camille Martin)

(photo: Camille Martin)


Another time warp in my Louisiana series: a St. Joseph’s Altar created in 2003 on the front porch of a house in Carrollton, the New Orleans neighbourhood where I used to live. The tradition of creating and decorating altars devoted to St. Joseph every year on March 19 was brought to New Orleans by Sicilians and adopted by some African-American devotees of the popular saint in the Catholic pantheon.

Non-meat food offerings embellish the altars and are usually given to the poor at the end of the celebration. Bread offerings are often baked into shapes of carpenters’ tools such as ladders or saws, but this altar keeps it simple and efficient with a loaf of Sunbeam bread. The beads of moisture condensed inside the plastic bag are a typical phenomenon in subtropical New Orleans, which can be warm and muggy even in mid-March.

During the day, people knelt at the altar and prayed. In the second picture, the woman might appear to be reverently bowing her head, but she was actually dismantling the altar at the end of the day: many of the food offerings have been removed, but the rows of candles remain.

The adoption of Sicilian traditions by African Americans in New Orleans is not an unusual type of cultural phenomenon: the blurring of cultural and religious boundaries is the rule rather than the exception in southern Louisiana, which has historically attracted settlers from all over the world looking for opportunities in spite of the prevalence of diseases and natural disasters, and forcibly brought people from Africa as slaves. For many, survival meant mutual aid within their ethnic communities and interdependence among their diverse neighbours.

Louisiana’s “cultural gumbo” is not a cliché for nothing. Louisiana, especially along the Mississippi Delta, was—and is—a mixture of Spanish, French, African-American, Irish, Italian, Native American, Croatian, Cajun, Creole, German, Czech, Hungarian, British, Isleño (from the Canary Islands), Filipino, Mexican, Cuban, Guatemalan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, and more.

As a result of intermingling among ethnic and national groups in Louisiana, Germans along the Côte des Allemands, for example, became more French, translating their names from Zweig to Labranche, and from Troxler to Trosclair. Many of the original Louisiana Germans came from the Alsace region, which partly accounts for the ease with which they shared customs with Louisiana’s French. Some Louisiana Germans have become so distanced over time from their origins that they believe their ancestry to be Cajun or French Creole.

African-Americans intermingled and intermarried with French Creoles, Cajuns, Italians, and Native Americans, among others, and survivals of these blends among blacks can be seen in the French Creole language, St. Joseph’s Day altars, Zydeco music, and the customs of the Mardi Gras Indians.

It would be hard to find a group not influenced by black African and Caribbean culture in Louisiana. And the whole world, late in the twentieth century, tried to become Cajun by eating crawfish and dancing to Beausoleil.

Some groups in Louisiana seem to have had more permeable boundaries than others. Croatians, many of whom developed the oyster industry, created relatively close-knit communities with a tendency to preserve their own cultural heritage and not to mingle their customs with those of other groups.

And generally speaking, in the early settlement of North America, French colonists were more likely than British to intermingle their customs and blood with other groups. When I was researching Acadian culture in Nova Scotia, I discovered the extent to which the Acadians and the Mi’kmaqs, for example, had developed a close and interdependent relationship. One manifestation of the friendship between the two groups was of course their not-infrequent intermarriage. Another striking example of the degree to which both groups let down their boundaries was the syncretistic nature of a spring celebration that evolved: the return of the geese came to be celebrated in a hybrid feast blending Easter rituals with the Mi’kmaq Festival of Dreams and Riddles. I can imagine the consternation of the priests.

From the beginning of their settlement in Louisiana, the Cajuns continued to synthesize the customs that they brought from Acadia with the customs they found in their adopted land. A study of Cajun music, for example, shows influences from hillbilly music, blues, and Texas swing. If the Cajuns were viewed by the rest of the United States as unique and isolated, it was only by comparison with that amorphous category called the “mainstream.”

Throughout much of the first half of the twentieth century, the United States government instituted a policy of assimilation of the Cajuns in Louisiana, and until the late 1960s, many aspects of their culture were finally succumbing to decades of this unenlightened approach. Without a boost from the schools, the French language in Louisiana would probably soon have died out, for mine was the first generation of Cajuns, generally speaking, whose first language wasn’t French and who were increasingly unable to speak in the mother tongue of their parents and grandparents. With the advent of CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana), a more enlightened view of Cajun culture and heritage has permeated the curricula of primary and secondary schools of Acadiana, where Francophone teachers from France and Quebec have been hired to teach children the language of their parents.

Ironically, the movement for the preservation of the Cajun heritage threatened to turn a living culture into ossified museum artifacts. Cajun historical villages such as Vermillionville and Acadian Village recreated for visitors “typical” life in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Cajun communities, and people flocked to south Louisiana to experience “authentic” Cajun culture. Some forms of historical reflection, however informed or uninformed or misinformed, however laden with stereotypes or invested in historical accuracy, can contribute to the dying of a culture if there is an impetus to petrify it into some notion of its past–especially a past purified of other influences–instead of allowing it to grow, breath, change, and, most importantly, transform and renew itself from contact with other cultures.

One of the consequences of the policy of assimilation was an overall feeling of inferiority on the part of the Cajun people, a conviction that their culture was backwards and their French language less correct that that of their distant Parisian cousins. But pride is not without its pitfalls—pride in some notion of Cajun-ness, of a Cajun purity that never was and never will be. From the moment that the Acadians set foot on the shores of what is now Nova Scotia, they were influenced by the Mi’kmaqs and by the British, with whom they traded and fought. From the time that they settled along the bayous and swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana, they gathered still more influences in their vocabulary, food, customs, stories. Like any migrating group, they brought with and they borrowed from. Purity is an attitude that bears no resemblance to the infinitely re-folded layers of human culture.


Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca