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


Breaux Bridge, Louisiana -- This blur of American cities. In the last five days, we've gone from the battlefields of Gettysburg to urban Baltimore to the French Quarter to the post-flood landscape of New Orleans to an unused oil rig in Morgan City to Cajun country in Louisiana. But we've been very fortunate to have excellent local guides and resource persons, to put what we're experiencing into some context.

At this point, one of the overarching themes that seems to be emerging out of this tour is change and how individuals and societies choose to respond to it.


In Baltimore, noted preservationist Charles Duff gave us a startling glimpse of the contrasts in the city by way of architecture. First through genteel neighborhoods with rows of elegant tall and narrow houses that evoke London and New York. Streets are clean, facades are painted, foliage is healthy and well-maintained. Then, mere blocks away, the terrifying sight of similar rows of houses, but with windows darkened, boarded up, and broken, roofs and ceilings fallen in, empty lots where houses had once stood. So great was the difference between East and West Baltimore that it was hard to believe that we were seeing not just the same city, but the same urban center.

From Mr. Duff's commentary, it was clear that he wanted nothing more than to restore the city to its former glory, even if it meant bringing in more immigrants to populate these areas abandoned by their former tenants for the suburbs.

On the set of Treme in New Orleans, show creator David Simon expressed similar views, agreeing that larger socioeconomic forces had caused Baltimore to decline. He also expressed a desire to see New Orleans restored to the vibrant cultural center that it was before the tragedy of the levees, saying that it was important to preserve the culture that was so important to the character of New Orleans.

Change is difficult, often painful. I believe human beings are essentially creatures of habit, seeking out the comfort of the same and the routinary as a way of imposing order upon chaos. In his columns for the New York Times, New Orleans native John Biguenet writes poignantly of the wrenching decisions that had to be made in the aftermath of the flood in New Orleans -- should he and his wife return to the familiar life he had built over the years, or start completely anew? He tells of Spanish moors exiled to North Africa who hung the keys to their old homes in Spain on the front doors of their new homes, believing in their hearts that their families would one day return. Mr. Biguenet also told of a New Orleans coffees shop destroyed by the flood, whose loyal patrons (himself included) brought their own coffee and paper to the site and enjoyed their morning routine there until the cafe reopened. The familiar grounds and centers people, provides them with a stable base from which to branch out and develop in new directions, or can lull them into stasis. But progress seems impossible to bring about in a state of flux.

New Orleans

On the "disaster tour" of New Orleans, the tour guide diligently pointed out homes and buildings that had since been rebuilt, and those that had not. The latter were evidenced by structures in decay, or by empty lots, a glaring absence where there had once been presence. The recurring theme of her commentary was "coming back," indicating her desire to see the spaces as they once were.

But do things need to come back, and do they need to come back in exactly the same form as before? A disaster can wipe the slate clean, and the terrible blankness also signifies endless possibility. In mythology, orphans are powerful symbols, the mystery of their origins suggesting they could have come from anywhere -- even royalty or the heavens -- and that, more importantly, they could become anything, unbound as they are by the limitations of any history.

Do Baltimore and New Orleans have to return to their former selves? Or can they be unfettered, allowed to grow in directions more appropriate for the changes wrought by nature, economics, politics, social upheaval, and time?

-- Vicente Garcia Groyon

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

Executing History

When I went to Cambodia for the first time last year, my father was going to go with me to Tuol Sleng, the death prison that used to be an old primary school. In Tuol Sleng faces stare at you from the walls, photographs of prisoners before execution. Not just men, but women with babies, children. Some of the faces have blood noses, others have an eyeball almost beaten out of socket, all are still alive but know they are going to die.

We never went in, never even came close to seeing the prison. Halfway there, and entirely unrelated to our visit, I vomited in my uncle’s car. I was just dehydrated, unaccustomed to the climate. The chauffeur drove us straight back to the air-conditioned comfort of my uncle’s bank, where my auntie sighed and said, “see, you shouldn’t visit such bad places. The bad spirits have gotten to you.” They took me instead to the Royal Palace with its floor of silver tiles, to Angkor Wat with its apsaras flying all over the columns, and to their private beach at Sihanouk hotel. They wanted me to see recovery, not annihilation.

Yet how do I know about what is in Tuol Sleng prison? How can I describe the photographs, the bloodstains on the floor, the hairs stuck to the iron railings of the torture beds? These images are readily available to anyone – even a seven year old – if you entered in the right google terms. What makes the eyeballs of us writers more legitimate? The fact that we are more articulate? What makes historical suffering more ‘real’ than historical ‘joy’? I really liked Kei’s tongue-in-cheek line, “Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit reality.” Why do we get to define reality for the poor and oppressed, to interpret their desire for lives of material comfort?

What if all my genocide-surviving father wants to do is invest in a string of properties back home and confine himself in a leady cul-de-sac suburb, happily believing that the worst thing that could happen to me as a writer is a paper cut, grateful I was brought up in a country where I would have a wealth of words to bend and mould into innocuous nice-sounding sentences?

But let me think about a different kind of writing (one in which I can never do for my lack of life experience); where each word is carefully mustered by a prod to the small of its back, assembled with precision, not artistry; and pushed into the firing line. A tree is simply a tree, though a gun might be something else. The kind of writing that comes from a writer living in the immediate midst of everything we are studying. One of our writers has been in prison, so I suppose secretly I am glad we’re not going to visit Birmingham jail. For some of us, this trip is visceral, for others it’s spiritual and others still, we see places that make your insides feel like they’ve been scooped out with a spoon.

I felt this way in Gettysburg, standing on the battlefields, in a way I had not felt in any other place before on this trip. Almost exactly a year ago, I was standing in another empty field, this time in Cambodia. This field had red dust and yellow sand, not green grass; and it was the field where my father buried the dead starvation bodies under the Khmer Rouge, when the floods came. There were no markers, no bones, just dust. “Human fertiliser,” my father said, “is probably the best in the world, because the following year after we buried the bodies, when the rice grew, it grew twice as high.” Yes, they planted rice on the same field. A human life was compost, and before it was compost it was a slave of the revolution.

I have loved reading the other blog entries of my fellow travellers. This blog was inspired by the last three entries of my friends and fellow writers, ‘Life Goes on or rather’, ‘On the Realness of Places’, and ‘Thoughts from Gettysburg.’ I may post again later from my current location, Lafayette, Louisiana. But these are my morning thoughts, after a full week of travel.