When does the process of recovery truly begin? Does it happen with the death of the last witness who still remembers it all too well? Traumatic experiences cut deep into one’s memory with a terrifying precision. A decade after it has all been over one could still hear women in Bosnia describing their husbands, sons, relatives were taken away to be killed: This is how they took him away… He looked at me this way... He was wearing a tracksuit just like this one… As we were parting, he told me… I gave him… He turned back, I can still see him so vividly… That hair of his… And how he shuffles a bit as he walks… I told him ‘take your sweater, you’ll catch cold’… He turned at me and smiled… I can still see him so vividly... As long as people who can remember are alive, the recovery is painful and slow. Because that’s how it can only be. Because only a slow recovery that sticks in one’s throat is somewhat bearable and just, in this unjust world. Once the living witnesses are gone, only myths remain. And amnesia that easily adjust to any soil, growing, flourishing, paralyzing the world. Once the witnesses whose stories have never been heard die, the only thing that remains is a blank blackboard ready to be written on with whatever we wish for. When witnesses die, new kids are born. Rich, with rosy cheeks and happy. The kids for whom the world begins with their birth. They have no sins, no obligations, no memories. Flittering like a beautiful flag raised high on its pole, they are a pledge for a better tomorrow. They have not done anything wrong. There is nothing to be held against them… Once the witnesses who saw people being crucified, hung on a tree, set on fire in locked buildings or blown up die, then comes the time for the new, different and better. Once witnesses die, some new kids grow up to believe that the world is one magical place. Some of those kids are born in countries that have become quite civilized in the meantime. As witnesses die, kids grow up happy and free from all responsibility. “That’s our American optimism”, says a nice boy who doesn’t know if his grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He doesn’t know because that story belongs to yesterday, and it’s for them to look far, far ahead. It would be impolite to ask the elders. Because yesterday doesn’t exist, does it? And so we’ll never find out. That’s how we’ll pardon thousands of murderers who remain faceless and nameless. That’s how we’ll never have to attribute responsibility to any of those who have pulled the trigger so many times it left a blister on the finger. That’s how we’ll never find out who was the skilful miner who brought the explosives and set the wires the night a church was blown into the air. Or a mosque. We’ll never find out who shot a bullet at the back of one’s head. Who has day and night cut up sheets to make blindfolds to cover one’s eyes before they get shot. It’s impolite to ask a nice old lady, grandmother or great grandmother, if she has at least once made a cake or sent a bottle of liquor to a Klan meeting. We’ll refrain from asking a grandfather how it felt to hold the torch high in the air. High and proud, upright like the Statue of Liberty. Or when he tightened his gun belt. Or when he put on the sinister hood. The Ushanka. The Fez. We’ll never know what was on his mind as he slashed across somebody’s throat with a knife. Or as he tightened the noose. We’ll sit forever over a family lunch, under nicely framed photos of our ancestors looking optimistically ahead. Far, far ahead…
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.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
In Gettysburg we ask the students what they think about the Civil War. It is asking a lot. They would have to go back 150 years. They would have to care. They answer honestly: they don’t think much of it.
In Birmingham, Alabama we ask the students what they think of Civil Rights. This history is closer and more contentious. A discomfort enters the group of students. I feel uncomfortable too. Maybe they worry that whatever they say will be thought 'politically incorrect'. Maybe a few feel they might offend me. They are careful with their words. But their answer seems to be the same as it was in Gettysburg: they don’t think much of it.
I feel for these students. I understand the shrugs, this I-can’t-be-bothered attitude. They are resisting our limited and limiting imaginations. On this trip, we have come with our own agendas – a way of reading cities through specific lenses. We are 'focused'. But every focus contains its own myopia. The danger is that in looking for one thing, we are less able to see the actual lives that are being lived. Disaster does this – it exotifies a landscape; it becomes the easy way that outsiders read and understand it. The people within that landscape, however, inevitably return to another life, to their own banalities. What occupies their minds are decisions like: to jog or not to jog this morning? Wholewheat bread or multigrain? McDonalds or Kentucky for lunch? And should I download that new Bruno Mars song?
Professor Pam King (no relation to Martin Luther) takes us on a short tour through the city and points to important buildings that the mayor has left to rot. Not just any mayor. A black mayor. You would think, she complains, that a black mayor and a black council would have been better stewards of this history - this history that affects all of America, but them most profoundly. The motel where Martin Luther King stayed is earmarked for a more permanent destruction than the Klan's bomb had done to it. In all likelihood, it will be torn down soon and turned into something else. You see, Birmingham itself seems to shrug off its history, as despondently as its college students do, or the students at Gettysburg. Birmingham itself resists our limiting imagination - the colonizing way of disaster. Why shouldn't it? And perhaps this too is a form of recovery.
Sometime during the tour I caught a late night stand-up comedian rant against the naming of American hurricanes and tornados. For laughs he blamed the 'cute' name Katrina for the disaster that became New Orleans in 2008 because people refused to take all forecasts seriously. The city however has a general long history of ignoring what it considers a different universe, America. It remains unbothered with the scramble into America’s popular post-industrial culture of the other big cities we’ve visited and economy-cultures of new technologies, coffee franchises, giant hospitals and universities. It is a large unending street of seafood, dance and jazz. The experiential outstrips the advertised and the mediated.
New York for the outsider always lives up to its hype, at least as a physical spectacle, a developer’s ego gone deliciously mad with concrete and steel towers with the world’s biggest set of tribal villages stacked below like overlapping dominoes in supplicant worship. New Orleans remains out of the reach of the new urban mega-planner who works in standard neon, strip-mall and freeway. It retains Frenchmen and Bourbon as street names, balconies that are a fingertip touch away across its streets, a street-car that crawls with charm, where the ancient art of walking is still a pleasure within its inner recesses. Row upon row of shotgun houses ignore the lemming call of the American suburb. Boiled crawfish rules over the cheeseburger.
It is a city that lies in thrall to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River-Gods who created it with deposits of land sediments for centuries. Then, the tide turned and it is now being eaten up by the Atlantic, cutely-named hurricanes, the oil and gas industry and Louisiana State negligence if not corruption. If New Orelans remains incomprehensible to America’s macro-economic psyche, oil and gas are still major facts. And maybe the reason that the federal government had the port running three days after Katrina as its citizens swam on its streets and huddled under its Convention Center.
Creator of ‘The Wire’, David Simon, told our group when we visited 'Treme' 's set (otherwise known as Frenchmen's Street) that New Orleans is still somewhat one of the places beyond the reach of American Capital and its crushing of labor and blue-collar traditions. And 'Treme', his poetic post-script after Baltimore, underscores New Orleans as a place that defies plot, where a major city-based show can be pitched on something as abstract as culture and become more concrete than TV’s hospital ERs or police departments. It is artistic refuge from the obvious T.V network hooks helped along by the elements of weather if not fiction. If The Wire is Simon’s Baltimore serial-novel, 'Treme', Writer John Biguenet says, is a fitting poem of a New Orleans and Katrina that has been completely misunderstood by America. For his own work on a city where he has lived for most of his life, Biguenet could only find reciprocity for the city’s new narratives and realities in Murakami’s post-earthquake Kobe, Günter Grass’s post-war Dresden and a Russia after Chernobyl.
If New Orleans refused to leave with the coming of the high water, winds and unrelenting heat, it might have also been in instinctual defiance of the larger idea of American mobility. And so one also feels an existentialism rather than America’s perpetual optimism. Many an American city has been destroyed by Hollywood’s meteors, aliens, giant insects and giant gorillas – New Orleans after Katrina remains an apocalyptic reality of human error through faulty Army Corps engineering. It is also American farce. All of America’s helicopters were in Iraq and unavailable for rescue when one of the largest disasters in urban America took place. New Orleans is no stranger to death. It has ‘died’ before many times – Spanish influenza almost wiped it out in 18th Century. Yellow Fever, cholera, fire and of course floods have taken their stab at it. And all those who passed on, ‘live’ in the present buried above ground in the city’s cemeteries floating above the low water table with the living.
New Orleans resists America’s addiction to rebuilding, its perpetual myth of a ‘New World’. Miss Sparrows, an old slave exchange establishment in New Orleans, is now a coffee shop that the City’s 10 million tourists pass through every year. It retains Spanish and French influences before Jefferson bought it as of the Louisiana Purchase. And thereafter refused to become part of the plantation South even if it began as a slave port. Biguenet described how the Civil War ended its growth even as industrial America came of age in the cities of the American South. Today, New Orleans retains one of the worst education and health systems in America. It is where Bush’s ironic mantra of ‘less government’ really meant 'no government' during Katrina. And where long-held ideas of the ‘individual’ and ‘family’ as key social institutions were put to the sword. Conspiracy theory suggests that its loyalty to the Democratic Party in a then largely Republican world ultimately led to federal indifference.
Charlie Duff, our guide in Baltimore, described New Orleans as a city of one million where two million people lived. But it was also where before Katrina that a happiness index was highest in urban America even as the poverty index remained lower than the national average. Greg Guillard, Cajun writer, among many other things, describes Cajun life philosophy as life as an exercise in ‘fun’ rather than the pursuit of the material. Realities in New Orleans however are now a kind of slow death by a thousand economic cuts. Big Insurance refuses to pay up for Katrina’s destruction and the middle-classes take to drinking and despair. The poor are largely unable to return after Katrina.
In contrast to America's 'open' mythical landscape, New Orleans is surrounded by an increasingly tragic and complex hinterland of swamps, bayous, estuaries, wetland and submerged cypress forests. And they ultimately further create a singularity and transcendence to the city - and all the above become somewhat fitting narratives to the city. Elsewhere they would stupify. New Orleans tests the very idea and definition of recovery in America and to what ends the city after Katrina will strive for. The old New Orleans, Biguenet tells us, has fallen and the city will never be the same. Some might call this is recovery. One can’t help feeling that what happened in New Orleans beyond Katrina might have been a payment of dues for its exceptionality in a larger American psyche. But at the same time that the fall of New Orleans shows them up for what they are. Myths. That New Orleans transcends.