Despite Hurricane Irma‘s wrath (30 hours without power and a roughed up garden) it seems nothing can stand in the way of ticking off my 17th state: Louisiana. Yes, I am on my way to my second Southern Independent Booksellers Association annual shindig, this time in New Orleans.
For literature lovers, SIBA’s three day event is like sitting at all-you-can-eat sushi conveyor belt of books.
I am grateful to join my friends Mr and Mrs A – veteran SIBA volunteers – on their eight hour drive to the ‘Big Easy’. Crocheting, tic-tacs, and pancakes from Burger King (3 for 89c) break up the monotony. I know we have broken the back of our four-states odyssey when we climb the elevated causeway across the now-familiar swamps of Mississippi – Mr J and I drove part of this route two Christmases ago.
I am delighted to see familiar faces from last year’s SIBA team: Jim and Justine; Chuck; Steve-and-Frank (or is it Frank-and-Steve?); Barb, Carolyn, Chris, and the rest of the Anderson dynasty…
I am also delighted to be back in the author’s pre-signing room. Here, I help unload boxes of ARCs (advance reading copies) and/or first editions, all to be signed by their authors, re-packed, and transported to events around the hotel where they are handed out to independent booksellers from all over the South. Our days are long but there is bottomless coffee and a challenging array of spicy cajun-style kettle chips keep us going.
As guest speaker Rick Bragg muses off the cuff at a very early Sunday morning breakfast, Southern authors “leave words sticking in your head like fish hooks.” (Rick has such a way with words, and only swears perhaps once or twice…) I have the pleasure of meeting established writers as diverse as Wiley Cash, Radney Foster, Robert Beatty and Judy Schachner, plus debut authors Simeon Marsalis and Quvenzhané Wallis (14).
Mr Bragg also states that New Orleans is the kind of city where, “you wake up on your back… under a pool table… with your shirt smelling suspiciously of ‘Midnight In Paris'”. With my work ethic, I barely get to leave the hotel. My experience of NOLA is reflected in my conservative choice of souvenir magnet: yes, I stood on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal, but didn’t have time to venture in. As the truism goes, if you remember New Orleans, you really weren’t there..
So, I return from New Orleans with an uncommon clarity of recollection – but with an armful of signed books made more precious by memories of their authors.
Mr Bragg also leaves an impression on my whole family after being inadvertently sucked into my regular Sunday morning conference call to family. When I tell him I am calling my parents in England, Mr Bragg says he will be travelling there soon and can encroach on their hospitality? His says his needs are simple: “that cheese… that stilton cheese they sell in a pot in Harrods.” Your guest room is ready, sir.
Finally, I cannot wrap up my account to SIBA without mentioning Curt Isles. We find ourselves seated next to each other at one of the busy dinners – and discovered we have a rare life experience in common: South Sudan. Curt was there on mission work in 2013 – a decade after my fact-finding trip with the Irish charity Concern.
Curt has recalled his three years in South Sudan in a memoire called Trampled Grass. He tells me his book title draws a parallel between waring bull elephants and the devastating struggle for power in South Sudan. We were both asked not to be forgotten by the people we met – and Curt urges me to dig out my journal and interviews and share my stories too.
When I suggest that our meeting was a coincidence Curt’s eyes twinkle, “For a Christian, coincidence is a cuss word.”
So, Curt, here is one of my interviews; it is with a Dinka lady from Yirol, aptly named America:
“Earlier we were having a big problem getting water. People had to walk two hours going and coming back – so a trip of five hours. Sometimes not even five hours, because you’d find a queue where you went for water and you would have to wait. Sometimes you would have to sleep there, or come back in the morning…
You have to leave your children in the house – in a high-up room (traditional Tukul hut is built on stilts). And if there is no one taking care of them they sometimes fall and break a leg or an arm – because there is no big person around. This has happened while mothers collected water from far areas.
But now there is a big difference because the water is close to our house and we’ll be able to collect water very near. We’ll be able to do other jobs which we were not able to do before. We will be able to improve our lives by cultivating more land and other household tasks which were hindered by water-collection only. Now it is better and we’ll improve our lives.
Water is the source of everything – since we have water now we have life.“
PLEASE NOTE If you wish to use my blog in any form you must contact me for permission. Thank you.