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September 25th, 2006

Banned Books Night

Here is the text I wrote for the Banned Books event last night. I thought I might cry while reading it, but I pretended to be Graham Greene (one of my usual tactics when I have to give a speech -- other people I've pretended to be include Neil Gaiman and local radio host Garland Robinette) and tears never threatened; instead I felt very angry the whole time I was reading. I guess it must have been a hit, because people bought me so many drinks afterward that I am too hung over to write anything further about the event. (Check out scottynola's journal for a better recap.)

************

I never in my life thought I'd say this, but: Some things are more important than books. In South Louisiana and on the Gulf Coast last year, books didn't have to be banned by fundamentalism, political correctness, ignorance, or hate. They were reduced by water and oil and sewage to a foul, wordless pulp. Whole walls and rooms and buildings full of books disappeared when the federal levees broke. Who here hasn't met a person who lost a lifetime's book collection? Who hasn't met someone seeking a lost recipe or a letter that will never be read again?

We as a city and a region have been censored. We're cut out of the news and the public consciousness, not by way of any sinister cabal so much as for the fact that we're no longer interesting. Disasters are interesting when CNN can show pictures of old ladies dying in wheelchairs in the heat and looters carting big-screen TVs out of Wal-Mart. They're not so interesting months later, when there's nothing to look at but rotting hulks of houses and people living in FEMA trailers or tents on their slabs because the insurance hasn't paid out yet. We as a city and a region are in danger of being banned by further federal neglect and incompetence, by our own political blundering, by the departure of our talent, and by the indifference of our former countrymen and women. I say former because I am no longer sure whether New Orleans is part of America or whether my government considers me a full citizen worthy of its protection.

If you have lived in New Orleans or visited here, you know the sudden spangle of a trumpet on a spring afternoon, the golden light of a fine restaurant at dusk, the smell of jasmine and sweet olive in the night, the unforgettable voices of our people. If you've never been here, maybe you've read our books or listened to our music. You've always loved the romantic idea of us, but maybe now you think it would be smarter, kinder, certainly cheaper to let us die. We will not die easy. We will not be driven away from the places that are in our blood, because any of us can die any damn minute of any damn day of our lives. If you’re ever lucky enough to belong somewhere, if a place takes you in and you take it into yourself, you don't desert it just because it can kill you. There are things more valuable than life. Please don't let New Orleans be banned. If you live here, stay and give it all you can. If you live elsewhere, please don't let people forget us. Don't let your government forget us. Tell them to put money into wetlands restoration, to give us the levees we were told we already had, to rebuild the homes and businesses destroyed by their lying negligence. Tell them we are as valuable as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or A Confederacy of Dunces or A Streetcar Named Desire. Tell them those three banned and cherished books would never have existed without us. Tell them we will never die easy, and if we do die, we will be the most haunted place in the world.

Talk about us, and if you are here, if you are local or thinking of becoming so, please keep loving New Orleans even when it would be easier to hate it. Wear the fleur-de-lis. Fly the flag of the 504. Survive. Buy local. Do the thing you were put on this earth to do, and do it here. The people still here, or planning to come home, are our only real hope.

Thank you.

***********

In other news, the Saints return to the Superdome tonight to (please, God) beat their arch-rivals, the Atlanta Falcons. This means a lot more to New Orleans than the average football game; it's the resurrection of the Dome, a proud icon of our city for so long, but over the past year an icon of human suffering and sorrow. Sadly, Chris and I will not be attending the game -- we screwed around too long before trying to get seats, until the only ones left cost something like $1400 -- but we will be there in spirit. GEAUX SAINTS!

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