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.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Food, Inc.

Evening, 10th April 2011

Setting: Crazy ‘Bout Crawfish Cajun CafĂ©, Lafayette.

Eaters: Natasa, Vicente, Maddie, Billy, Kei, Khet, Alice

Things we ate in collective total, during the course of one meal:

Crayfish po boy

Sweet potato fries x 3 serves


Seafood gumbo

Deep fried corn

Cajun rice

Massive steak

Mashed potatoes

Chicken breast smothered with French fries

White garlic bread

Bourbon Street rice

Pork sausage

Atchafalaya seafood jumbalaya

Corn and chilli crab shu mu

Fried mushrooms

Fried alligator

Six large crabs

Two potatoes

Boiled corn

Deep fried oreos

Deep fried bread and butter pudding

Every travel blog has to have one of these entries about food, accompanied by photos which we will later attach. Those last two desserts brought us closer to our respective Deities in more ways than one.

Two Houses

The cemetery of New Orleans is what I think of this morning, a Sunday, standing outside Trinity Bible Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. I'm looking for some other place to shelter but all I see are fast food restaurants, a highway, and Trinity Bible's electric signboard ("Find us on Facebook!").

After nearly forty-five minutes, I had left the crisp, air-conditioned church where the Pastor was rowing powerfully through the stories of Moses, Joshua, the chosen people and their first step into the bounty of the promised land. "'I will give you every piece of land you step upon,'" the Pastor had said, intoning the voice of God. "The country you are about to conquer: Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, they're not going to just pack up their homes and go. There's going to be a war." The Pastor's face radiated triumphant sunshine. "God never reneges on a promise. It's not about how good Moses is. It's about the goodness of God. 'I will give you every place where you set your foot.' God promised the land."

Soon after, I had stood up and left. It was clear to me that this House was not mine. Left to my own devices I might pick a fight (once again), and so I chose the wiser path: to stand amongst the shiny cars in the parking lot rather than inside the belly of the Old Testament. As I pushed through the double doors, the Pastor's voice followed me via a sophisticated audio hook-up system: "To navigate properly, you have to keep your eyes on the Word."

While waiting in the parking lot outside, it's New Orleans that looms large in my mind. To protect them from the rising water, the dead in New Orleans are buried above ground; the concrete chambers stand in neat rows like a city of the dead. John Biguenet, who gave us this description, then directed our attention to the living--men and women rebuilding after the levees broke in 2005, and those without the means to come home.

"No American understands what happened here," he said. "They don't comprehend what it is to lose a city." Immediately after the catastrophe, New Orleans was occupied by Humvees, military and mercenaries, including Blackwater. "Everywhere you went," Biguenet says, "someone was holding a gun." Terrified of looters, the powers that be set their sights on American citizens.

On August 29, 2005, the levees of New Orleans were breached in more than 50 locations, a catastrophic disaster caused by design failures "so obvious and fundamental" that the United States Army Corps of Engineers would finally, after months of about-facing, admit some culpability. In Biguenet's play, Rising Water, a man and woman wake to find their bed surrounded by a foot of water. They climb upstairs, and then up to the attic, and finally through a vent--except that one of them, Sugar, can't get all the way through. The play ends with Camille on the roof and Sugar unable to free himself, waiting for help "that does not come". Rising Water has an innocence and ease which makes it all the more harrowing: how easy it is to be left behind. How easy it is to become detritus.

During the service this morning, the Pastor had spoken of how God parted the waters for Moses. "He stops the river upriver... what they're left with is dry land. 'I'm gonna give you the land.' God has not changed. The promises of God have not changed." The Pastor asks us to celebrate to the blessings of God's constancy. "You got to believe those things."

One of my fellow writers asked someone here why this catastrophe befell the residents of New Orleans. "That happens," she said, "to people who put their faith in institutions other than God."

In New Orleans, we had visited St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward. We saw the houses not yet rebuilt six years after the levees broke; we saw abandoned hospitals, boarded up schools, and many, many empty lots. "This place," the otherwise chirpy tour guide had said, as we passed through a collapsed neighborhood, "is not coming back." Some homes still bore the insignia of a spraypainted X on their walls, marking the date military units arrived at the property, the existence or non-existence of toxic water, and the number of dead people and animals. Charlie Duff had entreated us: "If you see something that doesn't make sense, ask why."

Here is my question: how can there ever be a recovery if a place, a country, does not notice that there is anything to recover from?

Back In Gettysburg: ‘They’ and Civil War Memory

It is now awhile since we passed through Gettysburg, an unbelievably neat and tidy giant diorama, with straight lines, wide avenues in parts, cute awnings and clean streets that disturbed my urban chaotic psyche. I invariably looked for some of the crazy energy, that ‘institutional’ madness of the ‘Afro-urban’ modern space, ‘cosmo-natives’ and their ‘life-energy’ and their dismissal of architecture, and the material. Gettysburg refused to indulge me. Between older spruced up buildings that had metal identity plates that said ‘Civil War History’, stood T-shirt and Civil War paraphernalia shops and possibly the biggest commercial game in town, ghost-tour offices. 
Next to this Disney-like apparition lay the memorial Gettysburg battlefield, green sweeping lawns sprinkled with all sorts, shapes and sizes of monuments, uneven dragon’s teeth. Giant grand figures on concrete horses, small and large headstones with memorabilia dotted this grand static vista open to a multitude of possible interpretations and mental re-enactments of America’s ‘Great War’, narratively, and in places, politically perpetually contested since it took place. American memory seems addicted to the epic form, and I felt its pull. Standing before the sweeping physicality of the actual battle-field, I expected hordes of old soldiers to appear before my eyes, horses to start galloping and the noise, heat and dust that re-enacters try and summon every year, that ghosts spotters claim to see every night, to come to life. Later that evening, I entered a tavern with waitresses dressed like 19th Century maids, dead strips of ermine and mink decorated the walls. I wanted the ‘porridge’ on the menu but one of my fellow writers pointed out the fine print – the porridge was really soup, gruel. There was little heat, noise and dust in present-day Gettysburg as some wit described the whole American Civil War - but the present there tries to pull all the stops to re-live whatever can be transacted. At least for the 1 million visitors that go there every year. 

In a place where a ‘nasty, untidy, brutal’ war (in the words of our guide) was fought, everything seemed anaesthesticised. Gettysburg College was also a patchwork of green lawns, brick buildings with high ceilings, and pretty co-eds. Spring though delayed came through in the afternoons. All this did not lighten the shadow of weighty history. Our writer's attended a senior creative non-fiction workshop and encountered the largest possibly indifferent social group in Gettysburg to its grand ‘history’ - college students from elsewhere in America. One female student said the general attitude on campus to the ‘Civil War’ scene in town was that it was ‘cheesy’. As we discussed the challenges of ‘point of view’ in creative non-fiction and fiction, a male student observed that there was such a surfeit of knowledge of the Civil War in present-day Gettysburg that it was both ‘nutty’ and intimidating. And it's whole body of knowledge was held by a fearful and anonymous entity that the student described as ‘they’. ‘They’, he said, knew where every single body from the war is buried. So, all the students came to Gettysburg, imbibed a lot of Civil War information, and went back home to educate family and friends. These comments were mere footnotes to the session, the Civil War divided us; our writer’s group had travelled because of it and the students seemed shut out by its proximity. Even for writing it seemed faraway and forbidding to them. 

When I explained a piece that I had sent before-hand to the students, I later realized that the session was particularly fruitful, an excellent conversational exercise in cross-purposes, a micro-Gettysburg redux. I told the students, somewhat facetiously, that I came from a place where the difference between fiction and non-fiction was that I could be sued for the latter. That, the ‘truths’ of fiction and ‘facts’ of non-fiction could be used inter-changeably to say what I needed to say about where I come from. I realize now that this might have been of little significance to those students. The historical weight of the American Civil War, a huge institution in such proximity, could satiate natural curiosity to an endpoint, blur against one’s own ‘individual’ narrative concerns in non-fiction. And that Gettysburg’s T-shirt shops, ghost tours might close one to the absurd or comic art. Somebody in our group fortuitously reminded us at the end of the Gettysburg visit that being in one place for a day can produce a novel, being there for a week, a short story, and that it becomes impossible to write anything about a place after one has been there for a year. But what happens if the memory of a place or event has always been with you one way or the other through in ongoing never-ending ways, has become many things to many men for many ages. What can one write about it and how does this work with all the others struggling to do the same. That seems the struggle with the memory of the American Civil War.