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The Gift of a Storyteller

Dec 8, 2005

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This Christmas I would like to give people a displaced New Orleanian, good for stories until New Year's. Walt Whitman claimed that his book was a living person, so how much more of a book is a real live person? A person is many books' worth, especially if the person is from New Orleans, a storytelling city where everyone knows a lot of stories because a lot of stories happened to them personally, and to their parents and grandparents before that. A New Orleanian is also not above telling a tall tale now and then to break an awkward silence, and so a New Orleanian contains both nonfiction and fiction, and within those, history and mysteries. A person from New Orleans is as full of literature of all genres as he or she can hold, and if not periodically asked to storytell, liable to burst. A New Orleanian is as full of stories as an independent bookstore in a smart, medium-sized city. And just as independent bookstores vary greatly from one another, New Orleanians can sometime seem extremely different in tone, flavor or rhythm, but they do have narrative plenitude in common.

There is no Barnes & Noble for displaced persons — DPs — who can be given for Xmas for storytelling purposes, but you can find your very own DPs on the Internet or in still-operating refugee centers. I had five New Orleanians in my home after Hurricane Katrina and I wrote six books just remembering what they said. We also ate really well. I just met a New Orleanian who works at Barnes & Noble in Little Rock. She's lost her house. Her husband has no job yet, and she is clerking at B&N selling mostly, she told me, books about New Orleans. They are staying in a FEMA paid-for motel and they don't know anybody very well, but the motel lobby has become a kind of New Orleans cafe where stories are traded nonstop. My personal storytellers are gone now. Some of them have gone back to New Orleans, a city experiencing one of its numerous critical historical moments that become instant story material. I'm glad that they were able to discharge some of the old stories in my house, because now they have room in their memories for new events. Of course, all stories that happened to one are connected to another, so it's not a matter of forgetting old stories to make room for new ones, but more of an effort to link the old stories to the new, which makes novels out of people, if not downright romans-fleuves.

It seems to me that you can give a New Orleanian to someone you love for Christmas and that this gift will edify, delight and thrill as much as the old translation of War and Peace. (The new one has all the French translated out of it!) But then I'm an optimist. There are contractual obligations, of course, but here is how I plan to make such a gift: I'm going to UPS J. (and his family, two sisters, two grandmothers, and four people between four and ten years of age) to the designated beneficiary's house the week before Christmas. They will be masked instead of wrapped. After dinner, the families will sit around the fire and the guests will tell stories. (Mostly J., really, because he's the best; very flashy, economical, funny, and unpredictable.) When enough stories are told for one evening (tolerance varies; some people can stay up all night listening, others nod off if there is no violent action after five minutes), the best way too shut J. up is to anesthetize him with cake and whiskey.

Yup. I know. There is a flaw in this. Maybe it's the whiskey. Certainly it should not be used for such an intolerant purpose. And you can put down a book and pick it up later, but you can't do that to a person. OK, maybe it's a flawed idea, giving people to strangers. You can only give storytellers to people who like stories. Taciturn types shouldn't host New Orleanians. They'll be driven insane. Still, it would be a lovely thing this Christmas 2005 if story-lovers would host storytellers. Call me romantic. There is a shelf of books about New Orleans, written by New Orleans writers, or written in New Orleans, beginning with The Mysteries of New Orleans by Baron von Reizenstein (1852). This book would make a lovely Christmas gift because it was written a long time ago and such stories no living person can tell. For the rest, ask the humans over. There are masses of humans who just need to stay warm and calm and tell stories. It's a good deal, take it from me.

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About the Author

Romanian-born poet and essayist Andrei Codrescu is a commentator for All Things Considered. His new book, New Orleans, Mon Amour: 20 Years of Writing from the City, will be published by Algonquin Books in December. Hear Andrei on NPR:

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