I Want Magic: A Conversation with C.W. Cannon
C.W. Cannon is a native New Orleanian who has published a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction about the city. His latest book, I Want Magic, brings together thirty-five essays published by Cannon over the past ten years. In his essays, Cannon utilizes his life experiences and intimate knowledge of his native city to explore the tension between New Orleans’s exceptionalism and Americanism, its identity since Katrina, and its role within the nation and South’s racial consciousness. Read the exclusive interview below to find out more about Cannon and the process behind creating his latest book!
UL Press (ULP): How did you choose which essays to include in I Want Magic?
C.W. Cannon (CWC): That was somewhat of a tough choice, because I only included about half of the pieces I'd published over the past ten years or so. It's interesting that you mention below how politically charged some of the essays are, because I did not include the most political of them. For example, I had one about alleged "socialism" on college campuses, a response to typical right-wing anti-intellectual propaganda. I also had an obituary for a local bookstore here in New Orleans, talking about the demise of print culture, but then acknowledging that perhaps the print has simply moved from page to pixel. I left that one out because it didn't concern New Orleans particularly, and the pieces selected for this collection all centered some way on New Orleans.
ULP: Were there any essays you really wanted to include in this collection but had to cut?
CWC: Yes, they were generally about the very sensitive matter of white people's racial feelings, especially in the South, with an honest look into my own white racial unconscious. One was about the furor over Paula Deen's reported use of the N-word, in which I argued that use of the N-word was not the best measure of the depth of a person's racism. One was about the acquittal of Trayvon Martin murderer George Zimmerman. It was called "White Fear," and it explored the stark fear that many white people have of some kind of Black revenge coming to get them for their ancestors' crimes. I mentioned movies, etc., as well as my own dark racial fears. I think the feeling was that it was too much like "whitesplaining," like a white apologia for racism, though that was not my intent—my intent was simply to describe feelings that I and many white people harbor, usually deep in our unconscious, not to excuse or justify those irrational fears and resentments.
ULP: One of the major themes discussed in I Want Magic is New Orleans exceptionalism. Can you briefly describe what this exceptionalism, or "magic," means to you?
CWC: American Horror Story: Coven is one of my favorite shows. It reminds me of New Orleans' rich mythological inheritance, even though it greatly distorts historical realities. I see this mythic imagination ("magic") as one of our greatest assets, and don't see any value in dismissing our rich lore out of a misguided effort to improve the admittedly troubling perennial problems the city faces by breaking with our distinctive cultural past. Lots of people have written about New Orleans exceptionalist ideology, but generally without factoring in the necessary context of New Orleans Americanism, and in very negative tones. If we understand New Orleans exceptionalism as utopian rather than ontological, as a dream or wish of a more liberated society—one that embraces desire and fantasy life—rather than as a factually false description of a nonexistent "Big Easy," then NOLA exceptionalism has value, as a meaningful counterweight to dominant American capitalist and puritanical ideologies. The NOLA exceptionalist dream valorizes sensual fulfillment, living for art, public habitation of the public space, urban cosmopolitanism, performance for its own sake (for everyone, not just paid professionals) and a distrust of American notions of social mobility as a measure of human worth. All of these are salutary, in my view.
ULP: At times, your essays can be critical of transplants who come to New Orleans with certain expectations about the city. What advice or recommendations do you have for people interested in moving there?
CWC: I think the sense that some of these essays are critical of transplants may come from the anxiety over gentrification, which is to say the rising cost of living in the city. The one tendency of some new transplants that I take issue with is a kind of cultural policing over who gets to claim authentic native status, as a kind of misguided fast-track to their own New Orleanian authenticity. I don't see a problem with the kind of transplants that Richard Campanella famously called "supernatives." A living culture constantly draws people from other places who take up the mantle and idiom of the existing culture and shape it in new ways. The post-Katrina immigration has undoubtedly enriched the city's culture because many transplants make NOLA-specific practices and tropes their own and grow them. That's a great thing. My favorite kinds of transplants are the ones who are here because they love New Orleans, though they sometimes run away angry, bad-mouthing the city they lived in for a year, as soon as they experience age-old New Orleans irritants like crime, flooding, smelly garbage, homeless people, etc. I think the sense that I have an issue with transplants may simply come from my reporting of what other older New Orleanians are saying. My advice to new arrivals is to immerse themselves in the history, myth, and literature of the city, to have kids here, and to send them to the public schools.
ULP: Describe your writing process. Do you write an essay from start to finish or jump back and forth between essays as inspiration strikes?
CWC: I often sit down and try to crank out a total rough draft in one sitting. It usually takes maybe three or four hours. Then I go back and revise, edit, etc. I also like to wait at least a day and return to it, to try to see it with fresh eyes.
ULP: Some of the essays in I Want Magic are politically charged. Although many of these essays are several years old, our political parties and people seem as sharply divided as ever. Do you see this divisiveness as a continuing trend, or will we heal? What can people do in everyday life to help mend the divide?
CWC: Yes, I realize that there is some political dynamite in some of these essays, though I left the most partisan political opinions I've penned for local media out of the collection. I grew up left-wing, my parents were Civil Rights activists, from the South, in the 1960s, so I inherited a deep sense of outrage over racist, misogynist, homophobic, and economically regressive politicians and policies from a young age, and a personalization of the issues that non-southerners may not feel about the southern political scene. I consciously represent a sector of New Orleans society, and of southern white society, that is off the radar of most Americans' political geography. I think it's imperative to point out that these increasing divisions in our society are being fomented by an increasingly bold right-wing authoritarian movement comparable to the generation that crushed Reconstruction and established Jim Crow over a century ago. We can't be timid and play "both sides" games with the forces that now threaten our democracy. The divide between New Orleans and the rest of the state is now vaster than ever, partly because white racial conservatives fled the city when the great Mayor Moon Landrieu desegregated City Hall in the 1970s. America, especially Louisiana, is becoming more economically unequal and heavily armed by the day; pregnant people no longer have autonomy over their own bodies, and south Louisiana's physical future is being sacrificed for the handful of oligarchs who get rich off of oil. Meanwhile, masses of rural Americans—especially in Louisiana—are misinformed daily by the onslaught of right-wing media. This is where the division is coming from. I feel it at a deep personal level because I have many family members in the rural Gulf South who have been lost to the lies that blanket their media landscape. They were smarter and more humane twenty years ago than they are now—and yes, I've had these arguments with them (until we stopped talking). Right-wing media is what's tearing the country apart. We can't be squeamish about calling this stuff out. I've always admired the classic conservatism of Edmund Burke, David Hume, Adam Smith, and, more recently, William F. Buckley, George Will, David Brooks, and Michael Gerson. Disagreed, perhaps, but admired. That's not the kind of "conservatism" American conservatives mean today when they use that label, especially not in Louisiana.
ULP: As a scholar of liberal arts and professor at Loyola University New Orleans, you may have heard the phrase, "The humanities are dead." What is your reaction to this statement?
CWC: My oldest child is into science, was never a humanities-type thinker and is happily majoring in biochemistry. My second child, on the other hand, is really into philosophy, literature, and the arts. Some people are naturally inclined to explore the kinds of questions entertained in the humanities, regardless of social class or other social indices. Intellectuals are people who are predisposed to the humanities idiom. Intellectuals are conservative, liberal, gay, straight, all colors and all genders. I believe some people are natural philosophers in the very broad sense of that term, meaning they're just into humanities. Other people are natural musicians, natural athletes, natural salespeople, etc. But we now live in a moment, again, when intellectuals are being demonized by a right-wing populist anti-intellectual movement (that doesn't really deserve the name, "conservative," though that's what they call themselves). The Spartans sentenced Socrates to death; the Catholic Church tortured Galileo Galilei until he recanted his theories, and Nazis, Stalinists, McCarthyites, and Maoists have singled out intellectuals for abuse. Yes, today's Republicans carp about what they call "low-value degrees," when the answer is just to make college free or much more affordable so that people can pursue the fields they're naturally inclined to in this great utopian experience called a four-year college—if it were truly available to all, then the political weaponization of the four-year degree would go away. Some people would do it, others would choose apprenticeships or other forms of training for their adult futures. All of these options should be available, but they're not. That's why the divisiveness is so effective, like tossing water to some castaways, wine to others, and nothing to most. Some people are into humanities, others aren't, and others who would be into such fields are steered away by a hostile economic and political environment. The humanities will never be "dead," though, because the conversations enabled by the humanities are conversations (some) people have wanted to have for thousands of years, and continue to be drawn to.
ULP: Any advice for young writers?
CWC: Basically just keep at it, though don't worry if you need to take a break. Try to get stuff into circulation, online or little journals, zines, open mic nights, whatever, and remember that when you're not working on a project or sharing it with the public, you're in "sleep mode." It doesn't mean you're "not a writer" or will never write again, but writing is a practice, in the sense of a craft people do. Some people have a natural proclivity for it, but of course hardly anyone makes a living from it. This was perhaps always true of poets, but it's now true for novelists, essayists, etc., except for a small batch of intrepid professional journalists who are sorely underpaid (like all intellectual laborers) for the services they provide our society. Get comfortable teaching, or some kind of physical labor (a relief from the mental labor of writing), and always have a project underway or planned.
UL Press welcomes a diversity of thoughts and open discussions from its authors. The opinions contained in this interview represent the views and opinions of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of UL Press or the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.