If literature's job is to give shape and meaning to the chaos around and within us, then New Orleans writers have their work cut out for them. In those first few days following Hurricane Katrina, in the Red Roof Inns and Motels 6s, living rooms and shelters -- bludgeoned by the same images and phrases over and over -- all seemed to be chaos, fear and uncertainty.
Journalism in the midst of natural disaster is not an ideal medium for subtlety, complexity or even accuracy. Heroic local coverage notwithstanding, the national image of our hometown was overtaken by writers and newsrooms from all over the country. Despite good reporting and commentary by the most talented and well meaning, New Orleanians still endured a sense of helplessness, of being shut out, that our story, our city, didn't belong to us anymore but to hundreds of others telling their version of it. Our suffering was compounded by misconceptions, clichs, mispronunciations and dubious geographical designations. The "Big Easy" moniker gave way to facile, embarrassing irony; the fetid floodwaters referred to (without irony) as "toxic gumbo."
For me, the void began to be filled by local or once-local writers -- including fiction writers and poets, people trained in a different type of observation and assimilation, and ones who knew and understood New Orleans. Feeling fiercely protective and lost, I wanted not only the comfort of familiarity, but also something resembling the truth served up by people who spend their lives looking closely at the human condition and telling us what they see.
Statistics and theories diminish, even sanitize, the human equation. But the writers featured in this issue -- Tom Piazza and John Biguenet -- are accomplished fiction writers who understand the power of the personal, the particular, to convey the universality of tragedy. Writers are often compelled to express the seemingly inexpressible -- in these cases, the disorientation of forced exile, followed by the journey back to a beloved city or destroyed home. By now, many of us know that the emotions involved are so epic and the images so previously unimaginable as to seem unreal even as we experience them, which makes the recording of them that much more important.
"Why live there?" "Why didn't they leave?" "Why rebuild?" As we wandered and waited, these questions reverberated across the country. They needed to be addressed on a national level with heft and legitimacy and eloquence.
One of the first New Orleanians to do this was Anne Rice, with her letter to the editor in The New York Times on Sept. 5. Whatever your opinion of her creative work or her high-profile real estate decisions, her honest yet passionate overview of New Orleans' cultural history and rich diversity was welcome relief, as was her entreaty to the nation for empathy. "And though we may seem the most exotic, the most atmospheric and, at times, the most downtrodden part of America, we are still part of it," she wrote. "We are Americans. We are you."
Part-time New Orleanian, historian and author John Barry (Rising Tide, The Great Influenza) proved an excellent resource for news media -- Newsweek, Meet the Press and NPR, to name a few. With his years of research into the region's great flood of the previous century, Barry was particularly well positioned to set the record straight with his tough, informed delivery -- which he further displayed in an interview with Gambit Weekly ("Tidal Forces," Nov. 15, 2005).
Native sons Nicholas Lemann and Michael Lewis educated the country as to the depth of New Orleanians' connection to their city by weaving together family, social and even literary history as integral back-story to Katrina. Lemann's "Talk of the Town" piece in the Sept. 12 New Yorker issue, titled "In the Ruins," was steeped in a wistful, intimate understanding of the place, its politics, its social dynamics, and its weaknesses. Several weeks later, in The New York Times Magazine essay "Wading Toward Home," Lewis' opening sentence may have produced a pang of recognition in many of us: "There's a fine line between stability and stagnation, and by the time I was born, New Orleans had already crossed it." But after a few days in the surreal social upheaval of the aftermath, his response was oddly heartening: "For the first time in my life, outsiders are pouring into the city to do something other than drink. For the first time in my life, the city is alive with possibilities."
In the same New Yorker issue that featured Lemann's piece, writer Christine Wiltz's understated article, "Home Alone," on riding out the storm Uptown with her husband only to have to leave later, was a well-appreciated antidote to the media histrionics to which we were otherwise being subjected. Hopefully, she showed the country that not everyone who decided to stay was criminal or crazy or impoverished.
Aside from these venerable national publications, there was also that great equalizer of public written expression: the Internet. Given the unreliability of cellular communication, the persistence of landlines in some areas and mistrust of the national media, blogs flourished. From the Superdome to garret apartments in the French Quarter, and of course from those in exile all over the country, bloggers took advantage of the immediacy afforded to them by being their own editor and publisher.
A strange symbiosis emerged between traditional media and bloggers as news websites embraced the blogs. A CNN producer who'd been following local writer Ken Foster's blog became worried about the cessation of entries during the evacuation, and emailed Foster to find out how he was. The exchange produced a postmodern moment in which an unwitting Foster watched his own blog scrolling across the television screen with a Wolf Blitzer voiceover. The Houston Chronicle picked up "In Exile: Blogging for New Orleans," a widely read, steadfast and eloquent account by Abram Himelstein, writer, teacher and one of the founders of the Neighborhood Story Project. In turn, the paper also covered the ongoing story of one of the Project's young authors and Sixth Ward evacuee, 18-year-old Ashley Nelson.
For some, emailing replaced most other communications. In the first few days, most were terse, shell-shocked, are-you-alive messages, but after the creative dams broke, two of the most memorable email essays I received were from local poets Carolyn Hembree and Andy Young. The subject line of Hembree's hysterical account of being flung into a refugee WalMart-dependent existence in Monroe was "Tacky Airbags, ERs, Confederate Flags, Local Paper Mills, Elvis Deer, and Preacher Women." Young's account of her return to the French Quarter, cataloguing in keen detail the sights and smells, was packed with sentences like, "Inside the apartment, there is a buzz, the hum of decay and the living things that spring from it."
But it wasn't just those with the luxury of laptops and electricity who felt the urgency to record. Upon returning to town I was handed over 30 numbered, handwritten sheets of loose leaf written by my next-door neighbor, admittedly not a writer or even a reader, describing his experiences and eventual escape from Bywater. He told me that his childhood friend from Chalmette spent her days in the aftermath rescuing people from a party barge that had floated by her roof and her nights writing in the boat's wrecked cabin by candlelight.
I imagine there are hundreds, if not thousands, more like them. Now, everyone has a story. The simplest social transaction is often stretched and woven through them. In many neighborhoods, even our buildings are scrawled and spray-painted with symbols and terse narratives, who came from where, on what day, and what they found.
(Anne Gisleson is the director of NOCCA/Riverfront's creative-writing program, and is the co-founder of the Bywater-based Press Street, a recently established literary and arts collective that focuses on promoting events and book publishing.)