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.
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.
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
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.