Place and People/People in Place:A Review of Travels with Mae (2009) and Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City (2015)
Placing these two texts in conversation, one a memoir and the other a photographic and scientific interpretation of an UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site, might not seem like it would yield fecund and useful comparisons, but it does. The ethnographic work of each ties them together, as does the authors’ intentions of re-introducing unusual subjects, one a rural landscape ignored for decades and the other an urban city so well-known in media spotlight and stereotypes, it is also often unrecognized and under-appreciated.
Photographer Ellerbe admits that even growing up in the area (northeastern Louisiana), she thought little of Poverty Point, settled and inhabited from 1700 to 1100 BC and once the largest city on the North American continent; and the frontispiece to Julien’s text almost defensively declares that the author is reclaiming the “wonder” of New Orleans from the “national imaginary [where it is known] as a place of exoticism where objectionable people and unsavory practices can be found.”
That apologetic stance is not Julien’s. In a text broadly framed by two hurricanes, Betsy (1965) and Katrina (2005), the author narrates her childhood and adolescence in the city and her adulthood--one away from, but always still attached to the city. She relates her life in starts and fits, in short vignettes, as if she were thumbing through the pages of near-ruined scrapbooks or walking through a water- or wind-damaged home and allowing the pieces of furniture to provoke memories. Chronology is inconsistent and tenuous. It is imagery and emotion—both strong—that tie this text together. Cohesion is formed through Julien’s insistent exploration of race, class, and gender.
The opening anecdote, “What I Keep in My Freezer, Or You Are What You Eat,” opens with an adult Julien at an academic meeting. It riffs old watermelon and race jokes and rips them right open. Then readers are transported back to Julien’s childhood for “Routines,” a deceptively simple sketch of the family’s weekly schedule in the early fifties. The third piece, “Oatmeal Collage,” echoes the introductory anecdote, and continues the opening examination of race and class vis-à-vis a comparison of methods and manners of preparing and consuming the common breakfast cereal. The fourth vignette, “Streetcar Story,” amplifies that interrogation. It recounts Julien’s early lesson about segregation and going to the back of the bus.
Gender is introduced overtly only in the fifth piece, “A Glimmer of Gender.” Julien’s wonderful mother, Mae, who adroitly handled the distasteful and potentially dangerous bus situation, also handles the young girl’s delicate question of gender difference with aplomb. When asked, she instructs her daughter that determining gender is simple: one can look between their legs to tell babies apart. The child’s response is priceless: “’Is that all?’” It is not long, however, before the conflation of burgeoning sexuality and Catholic guilt begins (17), and Julien traces her journey to maturity honestly and starkly.
Toward the end of her narrative, Julien categorizes the differences of her parents as country (her father) versus city (her mother) and teases out underlying philosophical variances: his is “giving and self-sacrifice”; hers, “urban individualism” ( 59). Despite their dissimilarities, both parents sought and attained a middle-class lifestyle; both also loved and nurtured their child and her talent. Julien’s narrative delineates how a middle-class, professional family molded an intellectual and writer and how the Dillard and Algiers neighborhoods of New Orleans fashioned a Professor of Comparative Literature, a scholar of African American and African Diasporic Studies. Travels with Mae does all this while also showing how one family—and its extended circle of friends and acquaintances—lived/s life fully, even in a city the author herself notes is too often surrounded by and sometimes obsessed with death (46).
The pastiche of memories, paintings (many by Senegalese artist Kalidou Sy), and photographs is never a tell-all, although raw emotion spills from some pages (especially in Julien’s adult encounters with her aging parents in sections like “Losing Mae” and “Christmas ‘66”), and family secrets are excavated on others. Rather, Travels with Mae is a lesson in reading one’s environs and learning to read and share those of others. It is a subtle text, a skillful ethnographic exploration.
Poverty Point, like Travels with Mae, seeks to tether the present to the past and to explore the ways that then became now and the ways that then is still relevant. Like Julien’s, its extrapolations also focus on a culture and society that seems to hold secrets from mainstream, contemporary culture.
The connections between people and place are spelled out in four broad sections: Pre-Poverty Point, The City, Life at Poverty Point, and Post-Poverty Point. What looks like it might be a dry historical treatise and archeological account is almost lyrically rendered. (The epigraph from Lewis Carroll signposts the two authors’ approach: “’What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?’”)
Photographer Ellerbe and archeologist Diana Greenlee engage in conversation to illuminate the past and connect it to the present. Both contributors speak in first person, so the reader feels guided on a personal tour. As Ellerbe notes in the prologue, the text intentionally blends “art and science” to introduce Poverty Point as “a city and culture to be experienced” (3). Ellerbe praises the scientists who fill in the facts that allow her to “build Poverty Point, piece by piece, into the vast and intricate city that it once was and bring its dwellers to life” (6).
These conversations—and pictures—tell three stories: the story of Poverty Point, the largest city in North America during the Late Archaic period (5, 94); the history of explorations/studies of the site in the twentieth century--from its amateur beginnings in 1913 (7); and the record of Jenny Ellerbe and Diana Greenlee’s partnership to publicize and celebrate the beauty and history of the site.
All three stories are entrancing, and the photographs are beautiful. Through this project, Ellerbe determines that her existence is a mere “blink-of-an-eye touchdown on this earth,” but she also concludes that the work—and the site—helped her to “place my tiny dot of existence on the timeline of this rich bayou land and deepen my connection to it” (1). Thus, the collaboration is more than a homage to the past. Its power lies in its ability first to encourage geographic, archeological, and sociological reflection on past societies—their successes and failures, their problems and solutions and innovations, their joys and sorrows—and then to enable readers’ comparison of that past to the present. Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City is a moving tribute to an earlier culture and to the beautiful transience of human life and the lasting beauty of nature.
Eileen Julien, Travels with Mae: Scenes from a New Orleans Girlhood, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.
Ellerbe, Jenny and Diana M. Greenlee, Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City, Baton Rouge, LA 2015.
Reviewed by M. L. Byrd
M. L. Byrd is an associate professor English at Virginia State and editor of NOLA DIASPORA. One of her favorite responsibilities is book reviewing!