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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Tulane Ph.D. Candidate Reviews Poetry about Immigrants

Les Lettres de La Nouvelle-Orléans
By Bouchaib Gadir
Paris: L’Harmattan, 2017
ISBN: 978-2-343-110172
Genre: migrant poetry

Reviewed by: Erika Mandarino, Ph.D. Candidate in French Studies at Tulane University

In his Lettres de La Nouvelle-Orléans, Gadir liberates the language of his culture to redefine himself and overturn the stereotypes of the Arab-American. The poet abandons himself in the city of New Orleans, embracing its eccentricities, immortalizing its characters, and relating it to Paris: the city of lights, freedom and love. Along his illuminated path he drops breadcrumbs that allow him to revisit those dark corners of his memory; it is in the ever-present darkness that Gadir finds the Morocco of his childhood. In the poem “My Language and the Enlightenment,” he recalls the language of religion scribed onto the tablets in Koranic school that would threaten to bind him and his sisters in the same destiny, and he compares it to the language of culture that would allow him to buy flowers for the mother of his children, or to appreciate an art exhibit. It is culture that untethers the individual from the burden of religion, and Gadir’s poems are an ode to culture and individuality, where the interplay of light and darkness is the current that carries the reader from one poem to the next.

The first poem in the series titled “Ballet” begins with an invitation to know the dynamic character underneath the cumbersome name “Bouchaib”:

“Call me Bouchaib”
Between bursts of laughter
She signals for me to speak
To another secretary

My given name is Bouchaib
A name that I carry
Like a sin

The reader instantly recalls the great American novelist Herman Melville’s famous opening line of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” But for the secretary—and therefore all of those who represent an official verdict—the rich literary heritage that identifies the individual goes unnoticed, overshadowed by the Muslim name.

In his poems Gadir shucks the connotations of difference from his Arabic name, but instead of discarding the shell, like a true New Orleanian artist he creates from it reclaimed art. “Why don’t you change your name?” asks the ballerina, to which he answers:

Through it I dreamed
Through it I tore myself away
Through it I found happiness

A name can only define you to an extent; it also provides the means to break away and redefine yourself. New Orleans, on the other hand, did not have to carve a piece out of itself to make room for Gadir; it had always had a place for him. The very essence of the city depends upon those wayward artists who dare to indulge in tempestuous, uninhibited expression. Gadir’s portrayal of the city highlights this affinity with New-Orleanian artists. In the poem “A Paintbrush… A Canvas,” the poet evokes the painter Frenchy who captures the musicians of Rebirth Brass Band (depicted on the cover of the collection) in a celebration of synesthesia. Like Frenchy, for whom “The paintbrush brings forth the wound from the darkness,” Gadir’s paintbrush is his pen, at once uncovering and healing the wounds inflicted upon him by the past.

But in applauding the living legends of New Orleans, Gadir does not overlook the onerous—and often fruitless—labor for success in the city. In “The Saxophonist” we empathize with the ambulant, nameless artist whose music tells a different story than that of the famed Louis Armstrong, and in “Life Has Disappointed Him or So It Seems,” we see a young cook excluded from that jovial culture he works so hard to proliferate.

The Lettres de La Nouvelle-Orléans are a reminder of the constant task of defining oneself in a world that tries to do it for you, and recognition that our differences are what unify us. To the struggling saxophonist, to his past and future self, and to his reader Gadir leaves this heartfelt advice:

Play your piece
Rise up in your skies
Be different
Resemblance is in pain
Difference is in playing
Resemblance is in redundancy
Difference is resemblance


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