Some writers seem meant to call New Orleans home. You know the line: “I’m not a native, but I got here as fast as I could.”
“I began to think of New Orleans as home probably around the time I first saw pictures of it when I was in junior high school, looking through books about jazz in the library,” Piazza said. “It looked like no place I’d ever seen. Then, when I visited for the first time, in 1987, I knew it was home. It just took me a while to move here; I’ve been here for 21 years now.”
That said, this award seems even sweeter.
“It’s an incredibly gratifying thing to feel that, in some kind of way, that the place that you chose or adopted chose you back, and it’s incredibly gratifying to see that the work I’ve done here is of value. I’m deeply honored.”
Piazza is widely known for his award-winning music writing, as well as his tribute to his adopted hometown, “Why New Orleans Matters,” published in 2005, and followed by “City of Refuge,” his 2008 novel about two New Orleans families through Katrina and beyond. Then came a stint of writing for the HBO series “Treme.”
Piazza’s new novel, “A Free State,” will be published this week. A razor sharp tale of a runaway slave with a musical talent, “A Free State” is a philosophical consideration of freedom as well as a profound meditation on race and the American character.
And it all started with a banjo.
“I became interested in that whole field of early American music and what we call blackface minstrelsy because I began playing the banjo about 3 years ago,” Piazza said. “I was friends with a great musician, Mike Seeger, part of the whole folk revival of the ’60s, Pete Seeger’s half-brother. After his death, his wife, Alexia, made some of his instruments available to his friends, and I ended up with an open-backed banjo and I thought I should learn how to play it.
“Banjo really sucked me in — you can’t go very far into the history of the banjo before you come on these facts: It was the instrument brought to America by enslaved people from Africa, and it became the most common instrument played by enslaved people.”
That in turn led to the American minstrel show, which Piazza describes as “extremely interesting and complex musical territory — African-derived, Irish fiddle tunes, jigs, reels what have you … With it came this phenomenon of white performers covering their faces with burnt cork — viciously caricaturing African Americans. And this was a sensation in late 1830s, 1840s and 1850s.”
In “A Free State,” runaway slave Henry Simms heads north from Virginia to Philadelphia. His musical talent catches the attention of James Douglass, and soon he finds himself in an unlikely — and illegal — alliance with a minstrel show.
Dangerous as that may be, he faces an even greater threat from Tull Burton, an evil slave hunter who is on his trail.
“Banjo is a solace to Henry,” Piazza said. “It’s also a way of being seen and differentiating himself in a situation in which everything conspires to erase the identity of the enslaved person.”
This is a novel that invites discussion, provokes debate. Piazza said that the writing experience itself was unlike any other for him. “If you are lucky, writing a novel can shift, or deepen, your ability to live with your own perceptions, cast a different angle of light on them. In the long run, the activity probably should not make you more certain of your answers; it should just make your questions more interesting. I may have gotten lucky, in that sense, with this book. Time will tell.”
Susan Larson is the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.