In an airy, white-walled classroom in the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (Nocca), Anne Gisleson, its director of creative writing, is leafing through an anthology produced by her high-school class. It was a scramble getting it together, she tells me cheerfully.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit Louisiana on August 29 2005, Gisleson’s students – many of whose homes had been destroyed – were relocated to other schools across the country. Meanwhile, the old cotton factories and train depots that house Nocca were taken over by Task Force Raven, a division of the National Guard, who used it as army barracks. For a year, Gisleson says, an officer slept under her desk.
A selective state high school that trains students in literature, music, dance, theatre or visual arts, Nocca is one of the cultural hubs of New Orleans. Its teachers are working artists, and its alumni include the actor Wendell Pierce (from The Wire and the New Orleans-set Treme), musicians Wynton and Branford Marsalis and composer Terence Blanchard. Like many teachers in New Orleans, Gisleson – an energetic 41-year-old Nocca alumna who still looks like a student – responded to the storm with a fresh syllabus. She asked her class to explore the literature about New Orleans and to write about their own experiences of the city. “It’s something that everybody was feeling at the time,” she says, perching on a desk, “a near desperation to get across the worth of the city and to validate it. Faced with its loss, we felt a need to examine the culture that we had.”
Katrina, which left more than 1m in the Gulf region displaced and 70 per cent of homes in New Orleans damaged, required an unprecedented urban recovery project in the US. For this reason, historians have compared it to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which left 85 per cent of the Portuguese capital in ruins. The aftermath of Katrina is reminiscent of the 18th-century earthquake in other ways. After 1755, contemporary philosophers and writers sought to respond to and make sense of the disaster. Rousseau called for mankind to return to a more natural way of living – for people to take care of the small patch of earth over which they had control; as did Voltaire, if more satirically, in Candide.
Similarly, in the past five years, Hurricane Katrina has spawned an array of artistic responses – from home-grown community storytelling programmes to blockbuster films. Meanwhile, so-called “Katrina Literature” has become its own genre – so popular that the “Katrina memoir” has become almost a cliché.
There is a long history of writing about New Orleans, both by residents of the city and outsiders. Generally, says Gisleson, writers have tended to mythologise New Orleans, reinforcing a “gaudy image of the city as quaint, exotic, slowed down, somewhere where people do nothing but drink beer and talk”. And since Katrina, writing about New Orleans has become not merely a literary but a moral issue.
As the novelist Richard Ford recently told Gisleson’s class, writers have a responsibility to respond to the “real” New Orleans. Accuracy is not only a question of journalistic integrity but of cultural importance. Gisleson cites a New Yorker article that stated the city was “economically inessential” (New Orleans is, in fact, the busiest port in the US with 20 per cent of all US exports and 60 per cent of grain exports passing through it). “We are relying on thousands of volunteers, foundations, the government,” Gisleson explains, “so getting an accurate picture of New Orleans is crucial – to show what we are trying to rebuild.”
Gisleson suggests that some of the best work about Katrina has chosen to deal with the storm indirectly, or to show aspects of the city less often written about – not just what she calls the “low-hanging fruit”, such as Mardi Gras, Creole architecture, and gumbo. Two-thirds of New Orleans residents, for instance, live in its sprawling suburbs, the worst affected areas, yet they rarely feature in artworks.
“Zeitoun works,” says Gisleson, “because Dave [Eggers] didn’t make any grand pronouncements about the way the city is – he just told a straightforward, though harrowing story.” Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, who has given workshops at Nocca since 2003, wrote Zeitoun after three years of interviews with Abdulrahman Zeitoun – a painting contractor originally from Syria – and his wife, Kathy, both residents of the uptown suburbs. Since its publication last year, the book, which describes in detail the Zeitouns’ experiences of the storm, has been acclaimed as an “American epic” and a “feat of literary journalism”.
When Katrina hit, Zeitoun decided to stay in the city to look after his house and other properties, while Kathy and their four children stayed with her family in Baton Rouge. Having spent two days rescuing stranded neighbours, he was arrested in one of the houses he owned by the National Guard who accused him of being a looter and a member of al-Qaeda. He was taken to Camp Greyhound, where he was imprisoned. Kathy, after not hearing from her husband for days, feared he had been killed.
Over breakfast in Lil Dizzy’s Café in New Orleans, Eggers explains to me how he hopes that Zeitoun’s story will act as a window on much larger topics that provoke “a deep frustration” – the inability of the Bush government to deal with the natural disaster, and the attitude of Americans towards Muslims since 9/11. But he admits that, writing the book, he felt “hamstrung”. English was for Zeitoun a second language and so the language Eggers used had to be sparse. Eggers said it took nearly three years before Zeitoun told him details about his experiences in Camp Greyhound.
Eggers – in New Orleans to visit the various charities through which he is channelling the proceeds from Zeitoun – likes “practical, tangible stuff” and tends to talk about books as functional objects, like tools. (“We need more books,” he told a New Orleans audience earlier this year. “We need a book about the Danziger bridge [scene of a police shooting of unarmed citizens after the storm], about schools, Lakeview [the site of one of the most significant levee failures], hospitals …” He was delighted to hear how, after reading his book, a couple who discovered they lived near the Zeitouns had recently made efforts to befriend their neighbours. Though he would find the comparison pretentious (“I leave theorising to the graduate students,” he says), it’s not difficult to think of Voltaire’s response to Lisbon: “Now is the time”, he wrote, “to tend to our gardens.”
Kathy says: “This book is our voice. It’s our justice. Not only do we feel it has helped us emotionally, but spiritually as well.”
A car journey with Eggers and the Zeitouns is proof enough of the book’s impact. As we drive, they sing out local points of interest: “That’s where Zeitoun found the old woman! That’s where he bought the canoe! That’s where he was arrested!” Eggers says hello to Mexican contractors he recognises from a past visit. “It’s all coming on so fast!” he says, excited. It is clear that writing for Eggers is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the work for Zeitoun – research, funding and family meals – has happened off the page.
Lolis Eric Elie, nattily dressed in head-to-toe light blue, is a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a Nocca alumnus. Elie believes that some of the best literary journalism of recent years has come from Katrina – newspapers threw their budgets at it, he says. As if to prove his thesis, two weeks after our meeting, Sheri Fink won a Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times exposé of a post-Katrina hospital.
Elie, 47, is one of the writers on Treme, the HBO series made by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, of The Wire, and one of the most ambitious projects to emerge from Katrina. Simon, a newspaper man like Elie, feels strongly about the moral duties of reporting. With Treme, even though it is a fictional project, he has made use of local expertise and reportage. “They’re good reporters,” says Elie, “they did their homework.” In the writers’ room in the Garden district are piles of newspapers, books, a researcher – and two New Orleans residents: Elie and Tom Piazza, author of Katrina novel City of Refuge.
“If you get it right in New Orleans, there’s a kind of integrity to the whole production,” says Elie. Two previous attempts to translate post-Katrina New Orleans for television – Orleans and K-ville – failed to find a large audience, says Elie, because they tended to exaggerate the city’s quirks rather than simply portraying them.
As with Zeitoun, the closeness of the reporters to what they are writing about has had a positive effect on the community, Elie explains. The series, which features 70 local musicians and employs residents as extras, has based several characters on locals, including chef Susan Spicer and lawyer Mary Howell. Musicians are finally getting gigs now; the whole city is excited. Elie, like Piazza, has a secret hope for the series – that old residents of New Orleans will watch it and see a reason to come home. New Orleans, he reminds me, has only reached 80 per cent of its pre-Katrina population.
Writing for Treme forced Elie to think about the events of Katrina in a new way – not as a resident but as an artist. The fact that the series is fictional, he says, meant it was not a place for polemic or personal motives. Elie says he attempted to introduce a storyline, based on the experiences of his own mother, about an insurance company who denied the claims of an elderly woman. In the end, Simon joked to Elie that “You have to be a producer to use the show for personal vendettas.”
Elie says artworks about Katrina have forced its residents to reconsider one of the oldest American myths – the notion of the “rugged individual, this idea that our forefathers conquered the west with their bare hands and that we were crying because we weren’t men or women enough to handle this misfortune”.
As Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke showed, after Katrina many residents of New Orleans, like those of Lisbon, experienced a loss of faith – whether in religion, the government, or their own ability to deal with the crisis. A recent study conducted at Louisiana State University found that the rate of post-traumatic stress among Katrina survivors is 20 times higher than the national average. Treme, like Zeitoun, features characters overwhelmed by events out of their control. One of the most powerful early scenes shows a carpenter who, having lost his tools, responds to a suspected young thief with shocking violence. Elie thinks there should have been “massive group therapy sessions” across New Orleans, but – in the place of state provision – artists have stepped in.
When I speak to Elie a few weeks later, Treme has started to air and he tells me how residents have been gathering in bars to watch the show together. When I ask Elie whether there is any danger that all these Katrina-related artworks will hold back the progress of New Orleans, he laughs. “The city moves too fast for that,” he says. “James Joyce wrote in Dubliners that to embody something is in some ways to be nostalgic. By the time we digest something enough to write about it, we’re never writing in the present tense.”
‘Our stories told by us’
Daron Crawford was in his final year at high school when he became involved in the Neighborhood Story Project, one of a number of community story-telling groups that have flourished in New Orleans since Katrina, writes Victoria Maw. Crawford heard about the group through its founders Rachel Breunlin and Abram Himelstein, former teachers at John McDonogh Senior High School. Encouraged by them, and working together with Pernell Russell, a student from a rival housing development, Crawford and Russell documented their experiences in Beyond the Bricks, a paperback published this year, from which the following extract is taken:
“We were living in Houston after the storm, my parents called me into their room. They said they had a question to ask me.
Dad: Say, bra, if we were to leave y’all out here during the week while we go work back home, do you think you gonna be able to handle it?
Me: Umm, I guess. Why? Y’all going to work out there?
My daddy was working at a rug cleaning company and my mama was working at McDonald’s in a suburb of New Orleans.
Dad: We really need you to be very responsible and be a big brother.
Mom: I don’t need to be all the way in New Orleans worrying about if y’all at school or if y’all fighting and the police come get y’all because y’all home alone.
Me: OK, I got y’all. I promise.”
Even though I was telling them I could handle it, inside I was a little worried. Worried about how my brother and sister were going to act once they were gone. I didn’t want my mama to know because that was going to make her worried, so I didn’t say anything.
Breunlin and Himelstein set up the project, with its aim, “Our stories told by us”, in 2004 to encourage students and residents how to write about their neighbourhoods and to create books about their communities.
Ronald W Lewis runs the House of Dance & Feathers, a museum and cultural centre in the Lower Ninth Ward, and last year, with Breunlin, produced a book about performance traditions in New Orleans.
In the book’s introduction, Lewis says: “When you see there’s something missing in your community, you want to contribute to make it whole. I thought cultural education was missing in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and I’ve worked to create a museum to help fill that blank.”
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