Saturday, November 12, 2011

Welcome to Shelbyville

Does crawfish ever belong in a Louisiana gumbo? Sure, I would have said. I wouldn't have thought twice about it, before my visit to Lafayette this past week. But a testy debate took place at the bar I sat at just before the screening of my film at the Acadiana Center for the Arts. "You can be creative, but there are still some rules," the guy sitting next to me says. His friend seems to disagree but also seems a little intimidated, so he lets it go. Identifying himself as a young oil trader living between Lafayette and Houston, he also tells me first hand that well over double the amount of oil being reported during the spill had been pouring into the Gulf daily. "But the environment is incredibly resilient." Back to the oysters.

I'd always wanted to come here but this was a first. I consider myself a foodie and I'm still hoping for the perfect po' boy I've been dreaming about here in New Orleans before heading out to Clarkston Georgia tomorrow. Working backwards, the Southern Circuit tour I'm on began with what my friends would call a typical "Kim" story...arriving in Atlanta with my anal files in hand that mapquested me on to my first stop in Northern Alabama, within an hour I was lost in a desolate Georgian county on a road that took me a little too long to realize wasn't the interstate. It was when I had to find just the right country radio station that I probably missed that. Or could have been the gorgeous foliage I felt blessed to be getting for the third time this Fall. (In my defense, still jetlagged from having returned from Japan last week). I daydream about Japan. Flashing lights in the rear view mirror. Buzzkill. I have the worst cop karma on the planet. Yup - clocked 64 in a 55 zone. The big hat and shades and fears of a bad Harvey Keitel ending. Chalk it off to Southern hospitality, plain pity, or my own sincerity? - I got off with a verbal warning and detailed directions back to the interstate. I was so so grateful for the gracious welcome. Lesson learned - speed limit no joke here.

Auburn Alabama. I've tried to read up on Section 28 of the recent Alabama immigration law requiring schools to look into birth certificates of its students causing hundreds of immigrants to flee the borders overnight, and about the state challenge to the Justice Department...I wondered about university students here and if there was a sense of activism. One group walking in say the film was assigned to them in their sexuality class...interesting? I ask what students are thinking about it all after the screening at the campus art museum. Pretty much awkward silence. One young woman timidly says they've been discussing it in her political science class. Another man stands up and says as an Alabamian he feels shame. More awkward silence. Turns out he was a transplant professor from up North. Afterwards, over coffee, he, a German professor and another guy tell me they just don't talk about these things here.

Back to Lafayette and land of gumbo. I intro'd the film with how pleased I was to finally be in "Cajun country". Insensitive to some I later learn. I take this opportunity to listen and learn...about the places I am visiting and how the film and what it brings up for people is contextualized in each of these places. So in Lafayette LA, here's what I observed and learned. Much as I, as a northerner, have been seduced by fantasies of endless plates of crawfish, steaming gumbo, melodic Cajun jam sessions, and swamp alligators (all of which delivered without disappointment), a polite, yet firm conversation took place following the screening. Mainly between an older African American woman who identified as Creole, and a french-speaking Cajun woman of same generation. The black woman, who appreciated the film, was prompted to ask why the Lafayette football team's name had been changed to the "cajuns" and how it represented, in her mind, a more recent overreaction to past oppression and reclaiming of that cultural history in LA to the extent of negating Creole and African American contributions and even existence in the region's rich history. The Cajun woman went on to say that it is the "outsiders" who in fact come in and accentuate these labels and identities. My own associations with the region validated this I acknowledge. My takeaway from this was that one of the things I loved most about some of the subjects in my film was in fact their lack of PC consciousness. They say what's on their minds and fess up to what they don't know about the other. People need to risk sounding ignorant in order to simply talk about these issues. And that's what happened in Lafayette Wednesday night. A 30+ minute dialogue between locals about race, "cajun" and "creole" identities, and insensitivities they experience in local settings. This segued into a more universal consensus disproving recent immigration laws passed in neighboring Alabama and an explanation by one man about the local crawfish industry that similarly employs foreign newcomers and the fact that no locals still want to do that work, despite heightened unemployment. In the end it all circles back to my beloved topics - food and music and I ask about fusion? That solicited the best lecture ever on the roots of zydeco music from a resident master along with renewed debate over gumbo (oil trader guy from earlier bar has migrated here). Ice broken, I'm escorted over to Wednesday night jam session at the Blue Moon for a whiskey where local fiddlers and accordions serenade and I take a stab at the two step with a wannabe Cajun fiddler from Alaska.