Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘Homesickness for a place you haven’t left’: A conversation with Stephanie Soileau

We spoke with the Lake Charles-raised author about her debut short story collection, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights.

In her collection of short stories, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights, Stephanie Soileau introduces us to characters who are beholden to the boom and bust cycles of the oil industry; who resent the lack of media coverage after hurricanes; who seek to help their neighbors hide an escaped cow that’s fallen off an Interstate 10 entrance ramp. All set in southwest Louisiana, where Soileau grew up, these stories are intimate, funny, and tragic. In each, Soileau grapples with what it means to maintain a foothold in such a precarious place.

Soileau’s collection was published last summer, just before Hurricanes Laura and Delta battered southwest Louisiana. The storms—which hit during the pandemic—further revealed how fragile life in the region is, environmentally and economically. Rebuilding is slow and many residents are still displaced, as Southerly has reported over the last year. Nearly a year after Laura’s landfall, Southerly’s Gulf Coast Correspondent Carly Berlin spoke with Soileau about wrestling with staying in or leaving Louisiana, sense of home and place, and the significance of bumper stickers.  This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Carly Berlin: I want to start by asking about the title of the collection, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights. That phrase appears on a bumper sticker at the end of “The Ranger Queen of Sulfur,” as the central character in that story is recalling the oil bust years in the ’80s. What’s significant to you about those stickers? How did you land on that phrase as the title for the book?

Stephanie Soileau: I remember those stickers from growing up at that time in Lake Charles. There was sort of a turning point when, for a while, things were sort of tanking in the petrochemical industry. The economy was suffering. A lot of people were leaving. I was, I don’t know, seven or eight, I guess, when this was happening. But I remember seeing those bumper stickers on lots of cars, and the city just felt so empty and sad to me. People were out of work. My uncle was out of work on and off, my mom was out of work on and off during that time. In any case, people were clearly suffering. 

And that bumper sticker —I guess it stood out to me as sort of a sad relationship to have with your homeplace, you know? This presentiment that it was impermanent, somehow. That you’d have to flee it to survive. When I finally struck on that for the title of the collection, it all at once seemed to resonate thematically with each of the stories, which are about this sort of complicated relationship to your homeplace, and the idea that some people can’t stay there and thrive. And also the idea that as environmental factors and economic factors lean into the place, and people leave, there’s a quintessential brain drain there, too, or there was at least when I was growing up there. The place empties out. I think Lake Charles, at least, is different now, or it’s becoming different. 

CB: So many of the stories feature ailing parents who worked on offshore rigs or in petrochemical plants. Where did you draw the inspiration for those characters?

SS: I suppose from ambient observations of the people around me, but also reading about the effects of the petrochemical industry on its workers. At the time I was reading this book about Diamond, Louisiana. Diamond was this little [town]. I think it had been a plantation. Then the land was sold and mostly bought up by African American families. Then they plopped a petrochemical plant right next to it. The fallout was, of course, health problems and, sort of, environmental poison. I was reading that at the time, so that was sort of ambient too. But of course, the plants in Lake Charles have gotten a lot cleaner in the intervening years. It always seemed like, at least for some—it’s a great job, you know, it’s a good steady income. But there are definitely—there were then—health and psychological drawbacks. For some. Not everyone feels that way. I’m not necessarily representative. 

People swim near a chemical plant in Lake Charles, 1972. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

CB: I want to ask about the story “Haguillory,” particularly because I’ve been reporting on the aftermath of the hurricanes last year. That story takes place a year after Hurricane Rita, and the descriptions of blue tarps and FEMA trailers could just as easily be describing the region now. Your main character there is fed up with the media and his wife’s addiction to it. “It was always the same thing: New Orleans this, Katrina that, like those people were the only ones who’d been hit by a storm,” he thinks. It feels like, as the reader there, we’re supposed to be critical of his observation; you’ve set him up as quite conservative and racist. What were you thinking about as you were shaping his character?

SS: I was thinking about conversations that I had with people close to me at that time. Like anyone who grows up in a place where racism is such a force, and often a very loud one, you have a divided sensibility about the people you love. You can recognize their suffering, and their deep humanity and kindness. But at the same time, they can say scathing and do scathing and awful things to others. I remember being saddened by that resentment of the coverage of Black suffering at that time. I watched it from afar, and it was horrible. So I was feeling saddened by the veiled racism of those comments… but also being able to recognize a man like Haguillory’s impulses to kindness and love. [In the story] when he gives the little knife to the boy, he’s being generous—he feels for that boy, and he feels for the boy because the freakin’ cat has been peeing on his bed in a tiny little trailer. He’s not entirely awful. And I think it was about trying to work out that ambivalence I feel about my homeplace and the people in it. 

CB: How have your people fared over the last year in Lake Charles?

SS: Happily, my people came out okay. My grandparents had this old house, I grew up in this house… I felt so devoted to that house and so much of my sense of impending loss came from my connection to this house. My grandparents were Cajun French speakers, and were elderly. I feel like I always knew that things were going to slip away, and the house wouldn’t always be ours, but it was the house that my aunts and uncles were raised in and that I was raised in, and that was the nexus of home. I’m pretty sure it flooded. It’s not owned by us anymore. I’m not sure if it’s going to be salvaged or what. In any case, that’s what fills me with a deep sense of dread, to go back and see what happened to that house.

CB: So many of the characters in the book are wrestling with the precarity of living in Louisiana— with staying or leaving. I’ve had so many conversations with folks in southwest Louisiana over the last year who are also wrestling with that question: people who were either trying to make it back to Lake Charles after being displaced from the hurricanes, or who were tired and out of money and trying to leave for good. It felt very present reading your book. How does that land with you?

SS: It sounds familiar, and it gives me a lot of sorrow. As I think more people will learn as climate change hits communities in a broader way, it’s incredibly hard to live in a place that is always under assault by one natural disaster or another. But at the same time, we’re so tied to place. Lake Charles always feels like my home and Louisiana always feels like my home—it formed me, and it informs everything that I do. I keep going back to it in my writing because I love it. It’s a complicated love, you know, like you feel for your family sometimes. But it’s so much tied up in the physical places and the smells and, like, KD’s Diner on Ryan Street and Prien Lake Road. Even the Walmart, you know, it’s very specific to the place—the milieu around you, the other shoppers around you. So much of our memories are tied up in place, and we stay tied to them by the smells and sensory perceptions that we have in that place. The history of that place is also part of the narrative that we make of ourselves. So what happens when that place is not sustainable as a home? There’s this Australian environmental philosopher named Glenn Albrecht who coined the term “solastalgia.” It’s the sense of homesickness for a place you haven’t left; you see it changing around you, or you have this presentiment of loss about it. That seems especially applicable to south Louisiana, because of coastal erosion, because of intensifying storms.

CB: What’s next for you, writing wise?

SS: I just turned in a draft of a novel that will be out hopefully next summer, but possibly a little later, depending on how the draft went. It’s set in Lafourche Parish, and it’s about the effects of coastal erosion and the loss of home. All these things that I’ve just been talking to you about, but set in a different place that I feel a little bit more emotionally distanced from and so maybe can write about more objectively. Then I’m excited to start working on something new that has nothing to do with Louisiana at all.

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.