“Novels… enable us to understand our existence better than factual books.” ~ Norman Mailer
It has taken me so long to write this post because I’ve been searching for that quote from a podcast I heard in an interview with Norman Mailer on Word for Word. Actually, the quote I remembered talked about novelists, more than politicians, are the greatest factor in solving world peace. I, apparently, made that up because upon listening again, no such quote exists. But this one will do for the post I wanted to write.
When I traveled to New Orléans…alone…a month before Katrina hit, I can’t remember a single conversation that didn’t somehow warn me of the danger I was putting myself in. Even as I crammed between a gaggle of older women on their way to a National Cake Baking Contest. With their cakes guarded on their laps, they each joined in with warnings and stories. Muggings. Rape. Even death. They clucked their tongues and shook their heads that I had been so blind by adventure as to risk traveling in New Orléans alone. Me, a wee little blond girl from a small Midwest Town.
I’m proud to report that I was not robbed, raped, or killed. Nor, for one second, did I feel as if I were in danger walking among the tourists with fanny packs and visors lally-gagging through the historic district. Even when I ventured to Louis Armstrong Park, walking on streets unarmed with tourists and their credit cards, did I feel threatened in any way.
At Cafe Du Monde, I sipped a cuppa Joe and listened to a street musician play his trombone. After several songs, he flitted among the crowd and made friends, announcing their home states. I was the last and he joined me at the table for quite some time. His name was Glen David Andrews. He’s someone I’ll never forget. I ran into him while sitting at an old pub listening to a Jazz band play and talking to a man who gave up a high-profile job to write country music and the bartender who chatted about home improvements. Glen came in with his trombone and joined the band. I was busy listening until I heard him sing my name.
We became fast friends as he invited me along to Frenchman Street. The real New Orléans experience. We shared stories and lives as we traveled from one bar to the other. His passion for life and music captivated me. Then, we’d stop at another bar where he’d join the band for a few songs before moving on.
Sharing my stories back home, friends grew uneasy and quiet when I reached that part of the story, often reprimanding me for wandering off with a stranger in a strange city.
Yet, I live to tell the tale.
It’s easy to punch up numbers, facts, on a screen of robbings, rapes, and murders in New Orleans. But I never would have had that experience. Nor would I be able to remember what a steaming summer rain felt like as I walked with water sloshing in my shoes and my skirt dragging on the ground behind me. It’s a time I remember knowing complete elation. Utter joy. And I learned a lot from listening to Glen talk. About passion and his experience in the world. It subtly changed my perception of the world.
Last time I was home, I met a South African Immigrant. He began talking about typical Watertown gossip. Then, my friends husband asked him if he was a legal citizen. He shook his head and explained that he was a permanent resident. Because citizenship costs too much. I never would have known that plight had I not listened. He went on to explain how he was treated by some of my country men, hassling him in the bars about being in his country. There were a few amusing stories. And then, he turned the conversation again.
“At least I’m not one of those damn Mexicans. At least I know the language.”
I didn’t argue, as I would have when I was younger. I’ve discovered that there was more to be learned by listening.
Later in the conversation, he quoted his mother’s opinion from her last visit. “At least you don’t have a bunch of niggers running around.”
My ears perked and my hand tensed around my bottle of beer. But I still listened.
That’s when he told us about South Africa. About someone he knew was robbed, shot with his own gun by black South Africans. Or the lady threatened with a hot iron to her face. And other terrors.
And I understood. I’m not saying that there is justification, but I understood. Just as I understood the black South Africans who lived under apartheid for so many years, living in slums that we couldn’t begin to imagine in America. I won’t pretend that I know what the answer is.
There is a break between the two. A break filled with hatred and fear. Just as the hatred and fear between Israel and Palestine. On a lesser extremity, Republicans and Democrats. Estranged wives and husbands.
A lack of understanding and willingness to listen.
I liked my imagined Norman Mailer quote implying fiction to be the great bringer of world peace. Part of me still believes it’s true. Because we can gather facts about the other side. We can list details and grievances. But through fiction, we can truly understand. Fiction opens our consciousness of another persons existence. And though we may not agree, we find humanity in their stories. Through fiction, we take the time to listen with our hearts, diminishing the power of fear in our lives.