Writing in Post-Katrina New Orleans
On the night of August 28, 2005, I was celebrating my then-boyfriend's birthday according to the tradition established by our group of friends several years earlier: we were drinking ourselves into oblivion at a French Quarter bar. At the time we didn’t own a television, and were in the process of severing our relationship, and so we hadn’t been paying attention to much outside our own home. On that night, however, we were happy and experiencing an alcohol-induced resurrection of our original feelings for each other. Everything was hilarious and grand. We’d heard something about a hurricane, but like many native New Orleanians our age, had come to regard such warnings as false alarms. After all, the year before, we’d wasted seventeen hours stuck on the I-10 to Houston when we evacuated for Ivan and absolutely nothing happened. We weren't eager to go through that again.
I remember that toward the end of the night an elderly man sat next to us and struck up a conversation. I’d had several drinks by that point, and I don't recall what was discussed. The only thing I do remember is that, at some point, I made a good-natured joke at his expense, to which he good-naturedly replied, "Aw, I hope your house gets washed away by the hurricane."
I recall that my response was something along the lines of "Yeah, hurricane. Maybe we'll get a few days off of work." For as long as I'd been alive, hurricanes had been something kids look forward to, like Snow Days in other parts of the country. Usually the schools would close; maybe the family would evacuate to a relative's house in Houston or Atlanta; there was usually minimal damage to one's house and property, and then the whole thing was either forgotten in a matter of days, or fuzzily remembered with a certain fondness as a short break from the drudgery of real-life routine.
Of course, the word "hurricane" has taken on a new meaning for me, and for everyone living in New Orleans. Our parents and grandparents remembered Betsy and we grew up hearing foreboding musings about "The Big One." We knew it was coming, but most of us figured it wouldn't happen in our lifetime. But we were the chosen ones.
Artistic inspiration, creative impulse, and the writing process were the last things on my mind that night. We took a cab home and promptly fell asleep, only to be woken a few hours later by a frantic knocking on the door. When my boyfriend answered it, a friend of ours was standing on our porch. I checked the time; it was 4:45 am. I went back to sleep. It was no small feat, as there was much commotion going on around me. I was repeatedly shaken by several of our friends and told to pack, that we were leaving. I, of course, didn't want to leave; I didn't want to sit in a car for 17 hours again, crammed in the backseat with everyone's pets and laptops. A few minutes later, I was heaved into the backseat of a friend's car, and someone threw a duffel bag on top of me. Little did I know that soon I’d be living out of that duffel bag, and for four weeks, a bag into which my still-drunk and frantic boyfriend had packed a pair of torn jeans, a paint-covered t-shirt, a couple of dresses I never wore, two pairs of underpants, about five mismatched socks, one bra, and no toothbrush.
Over the next month I went through pretty much what everyone else went through: I panicked, I freaked out, I stood in lines for assistance, I was let go from both of my jobs teaching part-time at universities in New Orleans, I got bored, I got depressed, and most of all, I wanted to go home, even though I wasn't sure our rented half of a double shotgun would even be there when I got back. I won't bore you with all the details of my experience, but I will say that it was probably the most significant event in my life. The only thing that even comes close is the death of my father almost exactly a year later.
So what of this event? What sprung from this most significant event of my life? How did the complete transformation of my hometown, my spatial definition of self, influence me artistically? Frankly, at first, it didn't. Art was the farthest thing from my mind for the first few months. After a month slumming around Texas, when I was finally able to get home to New Orleans, I was more concerned with finding resources and trying to establish some sense of normalcy while bathing in bottled water and eating MREs. I was obsessed with keeping ice in the cooler that stored our food. I was searching for my friends and family and trying to find someone to help us get our rotten refrigerator outside onto the curb, where it would stay for months, along with thousands of others, permeating the city with a smell that we were never sure was the smell of dead bodies or just rotten tuna casserole. I was not thinking about photography, or painting, or poetry, or writing at all.
Mere days after The Thing (September 2nd, to be exact), others were putting out calls for submissions for anthologies of Katrina-inspired writing. On September 4th, Anne Rice, a onetime resident of New Orleans, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times. Amateur and professional art photographers flocked to the city to photograph the remnants of homes destroyed by the flood. People wrote poems, people put together books of poetry, before it was even safe to drink the water in my neighborhood. One artist reported, mere weeks after the storm, having created seventeen new pieces because she "was so overwhelmed by inspiration that she hadn't been able to sleep." Who were these people, I wondered, and how were they doing it?
What I came to discover was that most of the people who were creating early after the storm were those who had the luxury to create. These were artists who had connections to the city, but were not living there at the time of Katrina and Rita. They seemed to be some kind of artistic trauma thieves. For many of us who were living through the disaster, these outsiders appeared to be co-opting the tragedy of others and exploiting it for their own purposes; in this case, artistic subject matter. One woman had the nerve to post a request on a New Orleans website (mere days after the city started allowing us in again) for a "bottle of New Orleans flood water to work into a sculpture" she was creating. This, the same water that washed away my childhood home, my grandmother's home, my school, my job, the same water that killed people I knew, the same water that would, though indirectly, continue to kill the weak and vulnerable in New Orleans for several months. As a friend of mine, a paramedic, has said, "Katrina was still killing people a year after the flood waters had drained."
For those of us living there, it took much longer to process the event. But we DID begin to create again, and what's most interesting to me is that some of us began to create for the first time, or for the first time in several years. For many of us, myself included, Katrina served to "unblock" us, artistically. My only explanation for this is that Katrina changed the rules entirely. The sensible foundations we had built for ourselves (for me, it was the sensible job teaching Freshman Composition at two local universities) were ripped out from under us and, paradoxically, though our situations seemed hopeless, anything seemed possible. It was common to flip between depression and euphoria six times in one day. Most of us were homeless, fired from our jobs, broke, and forced out of our apartments by skyrocketing rents. I say "most of us," and while I am implying certain solidarity among those of us who returned to New Orleans soon after the storm, I have to clarify that there really wasn't much of an "us" left. Most of our friends and families left and didn't come back. After living in New Orleans all my life, I found myself nearly friendless, without much of a support system. I said before that the rules had changed. It was more like rules had become nonexistent.
Journal entry from 10-12-2005
There are no traffic lights. There are no cops. You can just speed down St. Charles and no one stops you. It's a bad idea, though, because your tires get punctured really easily what with all the nails and crap on the streets. I've already used 3 cans of fix-a-flat. It's doesn't matter really, though, I don't really have anywhere to go. Right now we spend most of our time trying to figure out practicalities. We got our immunizations at the Jewish community center, so if we step on something I guess we're ok. We pick up bags of ice from the Red Cross every day for the cooler. The National Guard is everywhere with guns. At night if you're in the Quarter after curfew you have to stay there till morning. This is like plywood city. I've never seen so many uses for plywood. It’s used as billboards, signs, walls, window shutters, mass communication devices, criminal deterrents, temporary roof tiles, trash heap holder-uppers, and street signs. It's weird, still when you drive down the street there are all these boarded up doors with "I am inside. I have a gun. Enter at your own risk" and "Looters WILL be shot" spray painted on them. Some are kind of sad, like "We're OK. Call us at 555-5555." Some in Lakeview are horrible, like the ones that say "We're coming back." I don't think they just put that up there to tell their neighbors that they'll return; I think they put those signs up because they're scared that if they're not there someone will just bulldoze their whole place. Today I got a picture of one of my professors/coworkers wearing all this biohazard-looking gear outside of what used to be his house.
Journal entry from 10-19-05
I'm doing a whole lot of nothing. The people in my neighborhood have sunk to a new low; they're now putting their rotten refrigerators in their enemies' yards. The smell is so bad you gag when you step out of the house.
Journal entry from 11-24-05
I'm dying to do something productive. I feel so free and yet so pressured. What now? It's so strange to know that I've worked so hard to accomplish so much, yet all of a sudden I have a simultaneous abundance and total absence of opportunities. I have no job, and since the universities are closed, I won't be able to get back on track with my career for probably a year, but now I can finally do the things I've always wanted to do. I have time to write again, now that I've finished the M.A. and I don't have to spend all my time grading student papers. I have so many ideas. I want to paint again and maybe even learn to play an instrument. Maybe I'll take up the accordion. I want to learn Spanish and French and Swahili and American Sign Language. I feel like I'm in a weird state of lethargic mania. Oh yeah, and today we drove by the four-story high hill of rubble out by the lake. It stretches for blocks. Also the refrigerator war continues.
It was an incredibly surreal environment. One thing I noticed among those of us who returned to New Orleans and proceeded to attempt to carry on without any real structure or stability, is that, at our worst, we were sniveling hopeless alcoholic weenies, and at our best, we seized the chance to recreate ourselves and our lives. In my experience, and from what I've observed of those around me, this recreation meant a return to creativity.
After a few months there was something of an artistic explosion in the city. Some of it was borne out of necessity. Most of the street and traffic signs had been blown away in the storm, and so people began to not only improvise with materials found in the rubble, but they infused creativity into the process. There were beautifully painted plywood squares that named each street, aesthetically pleasing stop signs painted in red and gold with swirling, flowing letters, murals and messages painted on the sides of flooded-out crack houses. Mundane, utilitarian necessities were transformed into art.
And the atmosphere was intoxicating. There were poetry readings almost every night, there were impromptu concerts in the parking lots of closed-down gas stations. There were writing groups, painting groups, people putting on plays at the park among downed oak trees. As for me, I found myself writing more than I had in years. At first, I was writing about my experience, but I couldn’t really call that writing, as it was mostly journal entries recording the day-to-day happenings that soon seemed so normal that they weren't even worth recording anymore. So I started writing short stories again, stories about anything but the current state of the city. I had an intense need for artistic self-expression, and I craved the artificial structure I could create within my writing. I could write a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then it was complete. I could paint a picture, even just a still life, and it was complete. I started photographing portraits of my neighbors. The decrepit city was a backdrop, but I refused to make it the central focus of my work.
I realize that others were doing the exact opposite, and I don't begrudge them of that. We all deal with trauma in our own ways, and many seemed to deal with the intense sense of loss by making it the focus of their work. There was a huge explosion of Katrina-related poetry and prose, mostly autobiographical. The downside to this is that those of us who were creating were expected to create Katrina-related work. "Have you written your Katrina memoir yet?" people asked. "So-and-so just finished a book of Katrina poetry." "Oh, you're a photographer? Do you have any prints of the 9th Ward?" Evidently, Katrina was en vogue.
In January of 2006 I decided that I was ready to start an MFA program in fiction writing. I had always planned to pursue an MFA at some point in the future, but the interruption of my original plan to teach for a few years before doing so prompted me to forge ahead. I applied to Louisiana State University's MFA program because I was still not ready to leave New Orleans, and LSU is only an hour's commute away. My father, who had been ill for quite a while, passed away the week I began the program. It was a difficult time, and became even more difficult when I found that many of my fellow grad students were writing about Katrina. None of them were actually from the area and none had lived there at the time. I was encouraged, even assigned to write about it as well. It was at times torturous, and I resented being forced to mine my experience for material when I was still dealing with the emotional, financial, and even physical aftermath, especially when I was encouraged to insert clichéd, hackneyed signifiers of stereotypical New Orleans. I resisted. The fact is, I was nowhere near ready. In fact, I'm still not completely ready. Last semester I wrote an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest set in New Orleans one hundred years in the future. That's the closest I've been able to get to writing about Katrina.
In the past two and a half years, I've met several writers who have come to the city to write. I admit that it is an incredibly inspiring city, both before and after The Thing happened. I can see the attraction. What I object to is the claim that these writers are here to "give a voice" to the tragedy. My response is this: we don't need you to give us a voice, thanks. Ours work just fine; in fact, we can sing it better than anyone, because we wrote the words. Just give us a minute to warm up.