Panel on New Orleans book, “Unfathomable City”

Friday panel at Tennessee Williams Festival:
Rebecca Snedecker
Garnette Cadogan
Shirley Thompson
Joshua Jelly-Shapiro

RS: it’s true that all 50 writers/researchers had their own experience about working on the book. Can the panelists describe their own experience?

ST: had little idea of what the final book would be. ..pleasantly surprised when it arrived in the mail…
The book invites readers to follow on their own path.
New Orleans has consciously used its place itself as a way to entice others to it, especially after the Civil War. This book chips away at that tourist narrative…

GC: shape of his essay was meant to resemble the shape of the city…

ST: tried to capture the paradox of diametrically opposed ideas. Sugar as a topic is a delightful treat and a commodity.

JJS: what’s interesting is that maps are stories-even narratives-and stories really contain maps. Combining the two is natural.

GC: an essay is a personal voice, a snapshot and is never really finished. Wanted the essay to contain the same sort of reactions (“write it as it felt”) as there is to the subject matter (bounce): joyful and disdainful at the same time, infectious feeling but also to contain the ambivalence that also exists.
(Tried to not use the word infectious, but ended up with it in there anyway.)
An intensely local subject but international at the same time, just like the city itself.
RS: it was important to remember that visuals and text shouldn’t be redundant, just like in cinema.
GC: there are 2 kinds of writers: those who hand in their work and those who have it pulled from their grasp. This project reduced the anxiety of attempting to contain the multitude-ness of the subject since the maps had their own story. It’s like the person who only listens to reggae music doesn’t know reggae music.
And I remembered New Orleans was here before me and will be here after me.
RS: what’s interesting is that the history of bounce music in New Orleans is partly the history of the projects (aka project music) and therefore is really about pre-K New Orleans. the map is one of those that does not physically exist any longer.
ST: Some maps have collapsed history, sugar for example is both the history and the contemporary story of sugar.
ST: I am usually skeptical of mapping. It’s really an act of conquest. Also because they impose a new set of claims on a place and attempt to define every site. Resistance itself is often about not being mapped, about resisting being named in a colonial way.
I bought (editor) Solnit’s SF map book Infinite City and saw that it showed creative resistance and had deep respect and humility for its subjects.
JJS: I also liked how the footprint of the city varies a good deal in the maps and essays.

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Unfathomable City

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans AtlasUnfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wrote an earlier review of this book ( I keep busy) and have now decided to update it since receiving the actual published book as I used the advanced reader copy for the previous review and now after reading more of it in a different location than the last time and viewing all of the maps that weren’t in the ARC and let me share that I did all of that new stuff all on All Saints Day, no less. Told you: multitudes.

I decided to do it without the cranky insertion of MY New Orleans up front that was in the previous review and to simply state that it’s a well designed, well-edited and at times beautifully written and illustrated homage to our mysterious city.
This book gives credit where credit is due. To the city’s geography, to its outlandish robber barons of bananas and oil, to the nameless and named that have brought us and bring us music, food, and public displays and joy and sorrow and pain and punishment. It neatly shows a number of juxtapositions that may be uncomfortable for some to view and others that are certainly unfathomable, but it does show them. There. credit given.
Now, back to me:
If you look through my reviews, you can spot a certain fondness for maps. I love them and love poring over them before, during or in spite of actually traveling to the place depicted.
If you read my reviews, you will no doubt spot a serious fondness for essayists. I admire what seems to me to be honest human bravery in extending a point or a purpose to a new end. Taking a walk with an author is how I visualize an essay, and yes there are times that I turn back before getting to the end, but I still appreciate the offer. So maps and essays seem like two sides of one coin and when put together well can alter or color each other’s point and purpose.

So that this is a book of illusory and real maps combined with odd and delightful essays, edited by two sensitive writers is enough for me to tell you.

Let me let the writers and artists tell you themselves in essays and maps such as:

Civil rights and Lemon Ice

Hot and Steamy: Selling Seafood and Selling Sex

Ebb and Flow: Migrations of the Houma, Erosions of the Coast

Juju and Cuckoo: Taking Care of Crazy

Stationary Revelations: Sites of Contemplation and Delight

The first essays introducing this book are alone worth poring over and sharing; how often is that true? That should tell you about the care and thought put into this entire work and offer the best reason to plunk down your money, open it and thumb through while having a Pimm’s or a coffee in front of you, tucked away in a shady corner of our shared city. Enjoy it all.

View all my reviews