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Exotic romancing, with New Orleans as the heroine

Is New Orleans truly the most exotic locale in the United States, or just the victim of good press?

Panel moderator David Johnson started out the Tennessee Williams Festival panel on "Writing New Orleans: The Most 'Exotic' Place in America" with a famous quote by Williams: “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

Noted geographer and author Richard Campanella was quick to challenge the prevailing notion. Buying into the exoticism involves “privileges for the picturesque,” when the residents of the city do not spend 365 days a year at Carnival or second lines or watching Mardi Gras Indians. He traced the notion of the city’s reputation as the initial collision of newly arrived Americans with the original Creole settlers and the Spanish administration, and writers of that initial period set the stage for those who would follow, putting the exotic tag firmly in place: Grace King, Lafcadio Hearn and Lyle Saxon. “They romanticized it and it was picked up by the city’s industrialized tourist industry.”

Kim Marie Vaz stood up for the city’s exotic reputation.

“We generate our own exoticism because our culture is unique,” the author of a recent work on the Carnival Baby Dolls asserted. Writer Nathaniel Rich suggested the city preserves its exotic aspects because it is “the most self-referential city in American. It doesn’t care what’s going on outside,' ” which he feels is the source of the city’s “wonder and problems.”

New Yorker Thomas Beller, now a Tulane professor, said that when he first moved to New Orleans he was trying to impose his own internal geography onto the city, and came to recognize its troubled side as “the New York I grew up in the 1970s.” He found the city’s character was created in part by a disposition to "holding onto things and investing objects with an emotional value.”

Campanella said much of the current influx of new residents to the city can be traced to its exotic reputation. Beller said the influx of new residents more inclined to progress and preservation “provokes kind of an allergic reaction” among many New Orleanians.

“They really are upset about the erasure that goes along with that. And I’m a bit more inclined to favor the holding onto things. New Orleans is very good for that.”

Asked about the city’s continuing ability to absorb new residents into the existing culture without erasure, Campanella said, “It’s not the end of history. It’s the next chapter.” Vaz said the culture would continue to change and grow. “You have a lot of people who are working 365 days a year to preserve the culture.”

Vaz and Campanella traced much of the city’s exotic reputation to early writers like Heard and King, but also called out Lyle Saxon of the famous "WPA Guide to New Orleans" and Robert Talent, author of several books promoting the city’s exotic legend.

“My work is a reaction of the exoticism of Talent and Saxon,” Vaz said of her work on the Baby Dolls, an old Carnival tradition that grew out of the city’s segregated prostitution district as a marching krewe of black sex workers. “People are surprised that [much of the culture] came out of intense segregation.” Campanella agreed that academic writers are questioning the past focus on the “exoticism and exceptionalism.”

Thomas Beller is the author of two works of fiction, Seduction Theory and The Sleep-Over Artist, and a collection of personal essays How To Be A Man. Richard Campanella is a geographer with the Tulanue University School of Architecture and the author of six critically acclaimed books, includingBienville’s Dilema: A Historical Geography of New Orleans. Nathaniel Rich is the author of two novels, Odds Against Tomorrow and The Mayor’s Tongue. Kim Marie Vaz is an associate dean and professor at Xavier University and author of The BABY DOLLS: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition.

This article was reposted from the author's blog, Odd Words, a content partner of NolaVie.