In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

On Blacks & Birds & Bayous

This wasn’t meant to be a postcolonial rant, but I cannot think of yesterday without thinking about the stories that don’t get told enough, the stories of ‘others’. Or to put it in the proper grammar of PoCo theory: the story of The Other. We do the ‘disaster tour’ through the city of New Orleans and our guide’s utterly unwitting racism is as hard to stomach as it is fascinating to listen to. We drive through black neighbourhood after black neighbourhood, and she tuts as we pass the ruined, abandoned houses (why don’t they just tear them down!). When we drive through white neighbourhood after white neighbourhood, her reaction is notably different. Her face is now almost pressed against the window of the bus, and she is cooing: Oh look at the pretty neighbourhood! Oh, this was such a good area. Yes, yes – it was a real upscale area. Look how lovely it is. And look, look at that house over there! Oh thank god they’ve restored it! It’s so big and pretty. It looks almost like a plantation. (Really, you can’t make this shit up.)

Still, I don’t blame her. The world is like this, and has been like this for some time. Often the story of the black man is only that -- the story of the black man. So too the story of the black woman, or of the black community, or of the Pakistani woman, or of the Pakistani community, and so on. The story of the white man, however, is more easily the story of Everyman. A universal story. And most movies too are just movies, until it has a black cast – then it becomes a black movie. And most books are just books, unless, let’s say, it’s about Indian people – then it becomes an Indian novel. But it’s hard to say these things with any freshness, or even with any passion. They’ve been said so many times.

I listen to this tour guide who I imagine is a perfectly nice woman on most days, and who maybe has grandchildren who she bakes warm bread pudding for on Sundays. She doesn’t mean to feel the heartbreak and triumph of one story, and to callously dismiss another. But this is what she does. She tells us despairingly of the predominantly black community: they don’t even have proper signs! I look out the window of the bus, and it’s true. Many of the signs on the streets ‘Children At Play’ ‘Slow’ ‘Bumpy Road Ahead’ have been hand-painted on discarded bits of wood. But I find it strange that she sees no beauty in this – that she doesn’t understand this as a way the community is fighting to come back.

Then she says something (I don’t see it coming) and just like that I crash with despair. I realize that all day I had been hearing another extraordinarily tragic story, and I didn’t even know that I was hearing it because no one was consciously telling it. But all day this other story was raising its hand; all day it was trying to raise its voice; all day it was squawking – listen to this. You haven’t heard this one yet!

You see, she drives through one of the pretty neighbourhoods and tells us, ‘This was supposed to have been a bird sanctuary, but it never became that. You will see that the roads all have the names of birds.’ I am stunned. I look through the window and now I cannot see the white community, or even the black community. I can only see another population that used to live here – a community of birds and a community of bayous. She tells us there used to be over 90 bayous in New Orleans. All except one has been filled in. So hey, let’s talk about places that have faced disaster. Let’s talk about communities that have been wiped out. There are more of them than we acknowledge.

I admit, I often find myself looking for the ‘human’ story that hasn’t been told enough. But maybe sometimes the most profoundly silenced story, the story of the most desperate Other, is the story of nature – this thing that man has so successfully separated himself from that the two are now usually billed as if in a wrestling match: Man VERSUS Nature.

On this tour through the disaster zones of New Orleans, our guide keeps pointing to empty lots, to empty shopping centres, to the empty hospitals, and saying, ‘I don’t think that’s coming back either. It’s hard to tell what’s coming back and what isn’t.’ I know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize, but I wonder if in their own language, birds have been having similar conversations. Maybe for many more years they have been looking down on their homes that have been cut down, on their swamps that have been filled in, and maybe this whole city for them is a disaster zone. Maybe they wonder, despairingly, if the bayous might ever come back.

So here is another difficult question I am asking: when nature hit this city hard, when the hurricane came, and the lake poured over – did the birds cheer? And when they tell us mournfully that on the map Louisiana is changing every day – that the cartographers can barely keep up because two football fields worth of land will have fallen into the Atlantic by the time you’ve finished reading this – what should we feel about it all? Is this not the fierce wet of nature claiming back the 90 bayous that were filled in? Shakespeare writes of humans, ‘If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’ Maybe this is also true of nature.

One last thing: our guide tells us that after the water subsided, sunflowers rose up all around the city. She says this was because the flustered birds had dropped the seeds everywhere. I think maybe the sunflowers are just like those hand-painted signs she had dismissed earlier; maybe the birds were trying to replant their own cities.

We pass another ramshackle house. It is rotting and the vines are creeping in. Our guide tells us, ‘The last thing we need is for the place to get wild, with vermin and all those creatures taking over!’

-Kei Miller

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