Poppy Z. Brite, author of the novels Liquor, Prime, and the forthcoming Soul Kitchen, has been chronicling the life of New Orleans through the experiences of working class gay men, millionaire chefs, and even serial killers, for over two decades. She decided to stay in town with her chef husband and two dozen cats when Katrina threatened the city, but finally left in the hours before the storm.
Now she’s back in a New Orleans suffering from what many see as official neglect and broken promises. Even Carnival has come under attack as wasteful, or as a slap in the face of the dead. The New Republic quoted African-American Zulu krewe member and attorney David Belfield as saying ” But what is there to celebrate when 70 percent of the population is not even living in New Orleans?”
Poppy, whose characters lived in her fictional version of the wrecked Lower Ninth Ward, thinks there is a lot to celebrate.
You’ve been outspoken about the importance of Mardi Gras. Who is criticizing Carnival? I’ve not heard a lot of naysaying within the city (other than our famously backpedaling mayor, who said we should have Carnival, then denied he’d said it, then started spouting off about confectionery and God’s will). Most of the negativity has come from two groups: New Orleanians who haven’t been able to get home yet and are upset that the party is happening without them—for whom I do feel some sympathy,—and outsiders who have no idea what Carnival is about or what it means to us.
Well, what does it mean? We’re doing it because our homes are broken and people have died. Not to take anything away from those who actually lost their lives or homes, but everyone in south Louisiana has died a little, and this is one of our ways of coming back to life.
What’s stood out for you about Carnival this year? So far, this has been a very local Carnival. There’s a national perception that Carnival is a “Girls Gone Wild”-type celebration with coeds baring their breasts, but that really only happens in the upper French Quarter, and if you questioned those girls, you’d find that not a single one is from Louisiana—they’d never act like that at home, but like to make fools of themselves here.
Carnival isn’t about bare breasts? I’m crushed. Carnival is variously a family celebration, a gay celebration, a traditional black celebration. This year we’re seeing those elements more than ever, and less of the dorks. Zulu, the traditional African-American parade, is the only one being allowed to keep part of its traditional route rather than having to use a shortened Uptown route. This year’s tourists seem a little more respectful and interested in our traditions than the usual drunken yahoos. And I think it was an act of amazing bravery for St. Bernard Parish—one of the most devastated areas—to hold a parade. That parade, the Krewe of Nemesis, was my favorite so far.
The racial composition of New Orleans has changed as a result of Katrina. Will NOLA become “a chocolate city” again? I think the “vanilla-ness” of post-K New Orleans has been exaggerated. There are still plenty of black people here, and they are taking an active role in rebuilding the city. I have no patience with whites who claim the “chocolate city” speech was racist. As Chris Rock once said, “White man, you gonna be OK.” There was nothing in that speech to offend white people who weren’t looking to be offended. Anyone who decides not to move back here because of that speech is a weak sister who isn’t tough enough to live here anyway.
The Liquor novels are, of course, behind the time curve. Will Rickey and G-Man face Katrina? I plan to write at least two more Liquor novels: Dead Shrimp Blues, which will end with the storm, and Hurricane Stew, which will deal with its aftermath and the rebuilding of the local restaurant scene. I feel it would be callous and irresponsible not to write about an event that will shape the city for the course of my lifetime and beyond.