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.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Found Words: James Baldwin and the Lost Homes of San Francisco

Last week, in Washington DC, I gave voice to the questions that still confounded me: How did a country go from the civil war and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to the derelict poverty of West Baltimore? How did America move from Jim Crow to the catastrophe of the flooding of New Orleans? Our travels through America opened up so many questions, applicable not only to that society, but to my own.

Last night, unable to sleep in Montreal, I came across a documentary about James Baldwin. In 1963, Baldwin went to San Francisco and began a study tour of the city. He wanted to know about the state of race relations in a so called progressive city. In Baldwin's San Francisco, I found a window into the Baltimore that Charlie Duff tried to help us see, the city that was destroyed, that city that was "recovered" in the 1960s through mass evictions and demolitions and the use of fire breaks to separate the races.

from Take This Hammer, James Baldwin's study tour of San Francisco, 1963

Boy: They trying to tear down our homes, brother.... Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, let me tell you. Now they talking about better jobs, jobs right here. You want me tell you what kind of jobs they gonna give us? They're gonna let us tear down on own homes. That's the job we're getting. And you know what they gonna pay us? Let me tell you want they're going to pay. They're going to pay you $2 an hour... I mean, what does that end up gaining you? That's not gaining you a thing. You won't get anything. They'll help you tear down your own home. It's a job, temporarily. And then what you going to do? Where you going to live? You're not going to live anywhere. They not even in the process of trying to tell you where you're going to live. All they're talking about is tearing down your house.

TV Reporter: How long have you been in San Francisco?

Boy: Well I've been in San Francisco about 18 years. Ever since I was a year or two old.

Baldwin: And you live around here, too.

Girl: Yeah.

TV Reporter: In temporary housing?

Girl: No, city projects. Ain't no temporary housing no more, they're tearing 'em down. Ain't no more. Ain't going to be no place when they get through. We're going to be living out on the streets.

TV Reporter: Does that make you feel bad?

Girl: Yeah, make you feel bad. Won't be no place to go. We'll be living out here on streets in tents.

TV Reporter: And where would you like to go if you could?

Girl: I'd like to stay up here on top of the hill.

TV Reporter: You would? How long you've been living on top of here?

Girl: Ever since I been born.


Man: And then this is part of a redevelopment also.

Baldwin: What do you mean? You say redevelopment meaning what?

Man: Removal of Negroes.

Baldwin: Uh-huh. Yes. That's what I thought you meant.

Man: In other words, a lot of the Negroes who came because the Japanese were pushed out, now are now being pushed out.

Baldwin: In effect, San Francisco is reclaiming this property to build it up, which means Negroes have to go.

Man: That's right.

Baldwin: Where are they going to go?

Man: Well, they're going out to Hunter's Point, and to the Haight-Ashbury area, and also into Ocean View, wherever they can find reasonable rents. South of Market, and all those other places. Wherever they can find cheap rent. In other words, going from one ghetto to the other.

Baldwin: Yes, yes. So, this is the Negro housing project in effect.

Man: Yes.

Baldwin: Uh-huh. I know a lot about housing projects in New York. But I am sure this isn't different at all.

Man: No, houses there have some of the same problems although the buildings, the exterior looks--

Baldwin: Oh, the exterior looks marvelous, that's the whole point. But I know what goes on inside. Correct me if I'm wrong... Better housing in the ghetto is simply not possible. You can build a few better plans but you cannot do anything about the moral and psychological effects of being in the ghetto. This is the point. Everybody living in those housing projects is just as endangered as ever before by all of the things that the ghetto means. By raising a kid in one of those housing projects I would still have, at the front door, or probably right next door in the housing project, all the things I was trying to escape. I mean, even such things as dealing with insurance companies if I want fire insurance, you know, to the fact that, in the playground, my boy or my girl will be exposed to the man who sells narcotics, for example, to a million forces which are inevitably set in motion when a people are despised. You can't pretend that you're not despised if you are. We were saying yesterday that children can't be fooled. But I could be fooled, and be glad about having a whatever it is, a terrace, a garage. But, my kid won't be. It's my kids that are being destroyed by this fantastic democracy.

It isn't only what it's doing to Negro children which is, God knows, bad enough. It's what it does to white children who grow up believing that it is more important to make a profit than it is to be a man. And that's the way that society really operates. I don't care what society says, this is how it operates and these are the goals it sets. And these goals aren't worthy of a man.

Lights Out In Birmingham After The Civil Rights Movement

Of all the places we visited on tour, my mind still dwells most in Birmingham, our next to last stop. But not the Birmingham we saw but its black and white images from the 60s of the Civil Rights movement - the hoses, the dogs, the riots and marching crowds. Flying in from Louisiana, we had been moving in a somewhat clockwise geographical motion. But in Birmingham the clock hands quickly swiveled in anti-clockwise fashion.

Birmingham we were to discover is yet to recover from an infamous past; there is an old clock in the famous 16th Street Baptist Church, after the building was bombed by white supremacists at the height of the Civil Rights movement, which has arrested time. Its hands stand still stopped by the blast that killed 4 young girls, to record the incident for all time. T.R German, a veteran of those confrontations and our guide at the 16th Street Baptist Church, told us that the federal government had requested the community to turn the church into a museum but its administration felt that the church needed to keep the 60s memories alive in succeeding congregations. Keeping the church open to the community, the church felt, was the best way to do this. And indeed, inside its walls on the Monday we visited, like being on the streets of downtown Birmingham, one felt the church did not need an official declaration to become a museum. Such was the strength of that 60s Birmingham in collective memory, and even along the pews that virtual Birmingham overcame all.

Unlike Baltimore or New Orleans, where those cities’ maps were outlined for us by an urban developer and writer respectively, it was fitting that we saw Birmingham through the eyes of a historian, Pam King. Walking through the Kelly Ingram Park, statues peered at us from beautiful empty lawns. We passed through the American Civil Rights Institute, a modern museum that reenacts speeches, music and old film from the time and beyond in its dark corridors. And back in the bright sunlight it was hard to come back into the present. Maybe, because there were such few people in downtown Birmingham– one could jaywalk in the middle of the street without fear of being run over – one felt little life beyond images of the 60s. 

Before the Civil Rights movement, pig iron ore and an industrial economy had ruled, now the town’s new economy was the University of Alabama. Like many an American University, UAB attracts students from all over the world, is an international center of ideas. In its new diversity, a different universe in a space that has one of the poorest self-images in America, haunted by its images of yester-year’s brutality. The University library turned out to be the busiest place in Birmingham. There were more people crossing the University’s streets than in what was once a huge industrial hub. The next busiest place was Green Acres, a small fried chicken eatery where one could sample some of the best fried chicken in America. A few people, mostly black, hung out on the street. They watched our group with interest. One of them told a writer in our group that he was interested in what we were doing but could not get in touch to follow our work because he did not know how to use e-mail. Some local students at the University had told us that they felt too discomforted by its racial history to address it in their writing and had fallen back on personal memoir. And so those in Birmingham with the ability to challenge outside disapproval beyond black and white wouldn't do it, and those who possibly would with new narratives just can't.     

I’d asked T.R German, our guide at the famous 16th Street Church, how big the present congregation was. Such was my need for a present that I could see and touch. He’d answered in a cryptic parable that somewhat underscored that the multitude of disapproving followers of Birmingham’s history had overcome the City’s present and the contemporary congregation at the 16th Street Baptist Church. There was more life in the old photos and statues there. Like in the City, the lights had gone out in the 1960s. And though the city's new administration is black, even an old motel frequented by black people and owned by the city's only black millionaire back then remains shut after it was bombed.
I now hope that notorious segregationist, Mayor Bill O’Connor, stirs in his grave, possibly in belated recognition that he killed a city that he thought he was fighting for. Gettysburg, which we’d started with on the tour,  prospers from the revisionism of the American Civil War within popular culture with its delicately spun yarns of martyr hood and pride. Birmingham’s past even plagues the larger Alabama in contemporary America consciousness. Our taxi driver, a local, told us that he liked Alabama but Birmingham still discomforted him. He did not offer an explanation. T.R German was lost for words when he went back in time,  saying that relations between whites and blacks-- other than the ‘official’ --were interactive back in the 60s. Crazy, crazy, crazy he said, shaking his head, to think that black women cleaned white homes and children, that races shared desks at work, and in all other spaces other than a constructed segregated public space, races interacted normally. Even years later, he didn’t get it. Even more so because at the height of the bombings, white and black in Birmingham went on with their daily rituals behind the public maelstrom. 

The turn of the screw is that Birmingham was never part of the old plantation slave- economy of the South. Once known as the Magic City, Birmingham was founded on pig iron ore, and its economy took off after the Civil War to become the largest industrial city in the South. Like the North it had a large concentration of 'robber barons' who built its railroads and factories. It did not have the institutionalized segregationism of slavery but evolved a new one based on a rabid industrial capitalism. Part of me wants to feel that this might possibly be precisely the reason the white supremacists were so vehement about segregation of the races – a scenario in which capitalism became so unfeeling and had the guns and men to back it up, to retain its wealth within fewer hands. And that the hate became institutionalized because there was so much in the earth for an exclusive prosperity. That the then-new economy turned the Ku Klux Klan more poisonous than ever, that a semblance of modernity made them go crazy in the hills at the thought of a shared wealth. That it is not a coincidence that the ‘toughest’ town in the 60’s South was the one that was also the most prosperous. That the violence came from America’s economic culture – a capitalism and greed that goes back beyond the recent collapse of Wall Street.

But this economic aspect to all of it is, I suspect, a needy projection, a misdirected rationalism. I clutch at it as cushion to explain the madness that happened forty years ago. Hate need not be rational. Today, the only recovery in Birmingham is the one that keeps the Civil Rights memories alive,  the Christian love in Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian churches that forgives the old hate. But that old booming economy is gone. Unfortunately one feels a connection between that and the city’s relative, uneasy, calm. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Pictorial of an Old Oil Rig

There is, I think, something seductive about rust. It's the way I find myself stopping to look at the spilled stomach of an old car, or the guts of a factory – something about the way metal decays that elevates it into a kind of beauty. So as we walk around the disused oil-rig in Morgan City, much of it seems quite beautiful to me.

Different, Similar, Same

"What makes you miss your native country the most ?  Adisa Basic, my fellow writer, a poet and a journalist from Sarajevo asked me.
‘Almost everything’, I abruptly responded.

It was true. In America, daily routines are arranged systematically, allowing people to have carefree lives. The exhausting tasks that in our country (Burma) take hours to finish can here be completed by just a push to button. Whenever I think about these material developments that make life easier, I cannot help but remember my people who have to struggle in their everyday lives.  With respect to the spiritual growth of the people here, who learn that all people are worthy of respect, I was bothered when thinking about how our people are not allowed to feel empathy very much, because of the very demanding and troublesome daily struggles in poverty.  When crossing the thick layer of snow here, my mind would travel back to my native land, then in scorching heat. My homesickness or nostalgia was mostly based in the differences between the two respective countries.

New Orleans, however, changed my way of missing it.  Shady, with large green trees that  caused me to wipe sweat drops from my neck as I was walking,  here was the same air as the air of Burma. Most of the native flowers and herbs are also familiar in Burma. The jasmine shrubs blossoming in their whitest form were everywhere.   The blazing ground and the cool aromatic breeze provided the closest synonyms for Burma’s atmosphere that I have felt in a long time. Forget-me-nots, oleanders, mabolo trees, crotons and even the geographical surroundings made me feel as if this was Burma.

Another coincidence yet is the fact that New Orleans was tragically hit by the Hurricane     Katrina,  which arrived in August of 2005, at the rate of 175 mph.  It left 2000 people dead and 700,000 homeless.  I was told that the overall loss is as much as $81 billions.

On April 8, our ‘Writers in Motion’ group was scheduled to meet with John Biguenet, a professor at Loyola University as well as a writer. John explained to us in detail what they experienced during Katrina Hurricane.  Mentioning the inadequate aid and the delays in the rescue processes, he said people felt the former president Bush’s administration was to be blamed.  Victims were deprived of proper medicines and treatments. The mercury-contaminated tap-water led to thirst. Schools were interrupted for 6-7 weeks. 2,500 school children had to wait on the streets to attend class.  In a dramatic story he retold the nightmarish scenes of the crisis

That same afternoon we visited the hurricane-hit area on a Disaster Bus Tour. The woman who was our tour-guide noted that some shattered buildings were yet to be reconstructed.  But the formerly catastrophic area gave me a certain strange feeling.  The buildings, which were somewhat luxurious for our country’s standard, were standing neatly along the street. I witnessed families, gathering and sitting on benches beneath the shady trees in front of their houses, avoiding the scorching heat. Children were riding their bikes. People sitting under the trees waved their hands at every tour bus. The tour guide was briefing us in a style that went something like, ‘Do you see the man wearing white T-shirt and waving to us?  His father and daughter were killed by Katrina in that very house.’  After passing every thirty or forty houses, it was likely that we would witness a damaged roof-top or a collapsed wall, guided by the orderly voice: ‘Please look at that house. It couldn’t be rebuilt till now’.  Everybody in the bus sighed.

As for me, I was sitting stiff in my bus seat while my mind was in turmoil. It travelled back to my native land, hit by lethal cyclone Nargis, and to its victims.  We had landed in the Day Da Ye Township, a week after Nagis and witnessed many floating corpses in the river, for the death toll had been over 130,000. The air stank of rotten flesh. To reach the village we were headed for, we volunteer rescuers had to row the boat in a narrow creek that had been blocked by dead bodies.  Some of my companions had to clear the way by pushing them with bamboo sticks, thearing holes in the corpses’ decaying skin. The villagers cried and greeted us as they saw the approaching aid, bringing food and medications. We were the very first rescuers to reach them, 8 days after the storm. The whole village had been swept over by the sea water. The drinking well was contaminated by salt and by corpses, while extreme winds and waves followed, leaving nothing behind, not even to drink.  I could not bear thinking about how they survived such a catastrophe of hunger, let alone thirst.

John’s words appeared to my mind. ‘Katrina hit on Tuesday. There was no aid available, or rescuing underway, until Tuesday.’ A picture of the thousands of books damaged as waters entered into his house was displayed in a slide-show on his computer screen. John was explaining us emotionally about the circumstances during and after the disaster. That was the most agonizing period in his life, he told us.  Instead of his gleaming eyes, a pair of faint-yet-hopeful eyes appeared in my memory.

That was on the remarkable May 15, a dozen days after cyclone Nagis hit, on one of our typical every-three-days visits to the stricken area, as we traveled to another village in Day Da Yal township.  While we volunteers were carrying rice, potatoes, medicines and clothes from a chartered car to a motor-boat, a woman with faint eyes and messy hairs approached me timidly.
‘Where did you plan to go, dear?’ she asked.  I told her of our destination.
‘Were these items intended for the cyclone victims?’ she asked again.
‘Of course’ I assured her.
‘Which ministry you are from?’
I told her that we aren’t connected to any branch of government; that we are just a  volunteer group, searching for local and outside donations and visiting the victims’ sites in person, providing basic aid face to face. She was simply unable to conceal her surprise in her eyes. After a while, I heard her timid voice.
‘Would you come to our village too?’ She pleaded.
‘Did your village receive any aid?’ I asked.
‘Only once’, she muttered. 
‘What did you get?’ I asked with hope.

They were hungry
 I found myself covering my mouth with my hand to keeping from crying out, for the young woman’s answer made me almost mad.
‘Two days ago, drinking bottles were dropped from a helicopter. We had to rush to pick up one, in a stampede, exhausted. When I got the bottle, I emptied it in one gulp.  After the helicopter disappeared, we counted the bottles. Our village’s quota of drinking water was 23 bottles altogether’, she said.

.I have not told my experiences to John or to my companion writers. As a matter of fact, many people from all over like to learn from America, one of the best developed countries of the world.  My native country is a poverty-stricken nation where people are nearly dying of starvation in spite of its rich natural resources. It is the poorest developing country in the world as far as education, healthcare and many other social aspects are concerned .  

So, in matters of life and death, and with similar situations on hand, why was the response from the leaders of two such different countries somehow almost the same?  If we can see behind the "almost the same", we might find an answer in the similarity of power, which regulated the speed of response in both places.

Catastrophes and natural disasters are never good to witness. The suffering in New Orleans was lighter, ours was deeper, and such comparison makes Burma look worse. I know that. But I just couldn’t help to make the comparison anyhow.

Khet Mar.

Birmingham, 11 April, 2011
translated from the Burmese by Tazar

Damage in Burma 1

Damage in New Orleans

Damage in Burma 2

Reconstruction in New Orleans

Reconstruction in Burma 1

Reconstruction in Burma 2

For more writing on and by Khet Mar go to Sampsonia Way, the magazine of the City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, and to The Irrawaddy. For extensive coverage of Nargis, including some of the events and people described above, go to The New Yorker. The Burmese version of this piece can be found at MoeMaka Multimedia .

Thursday, April 14, 2011

God creeps up

Washington, D.C. -- As this all-too-brief tour winds down, I find myself thinking about God. God has crept up on me on this trip, in a rather strange and stealthy way. (Because I was raised Roman Catholic, God to me is, by default, the Yahweh of the Old Testament who sent his son Jesus Christ to redeem humanity.) Although I am aware of the deeply religious roots of the United States, I hadn't expected it to factor so prominently in my impressions.

In Morgan City, Louisiana, I move with a tour group through Mr. Charlie, the first submersible, moving oil rig, wandering through the spaces once inhabited by tough men who lived here for up to forty-five days at a time, doing dangerous and difficult work. The oil rig is now a museum designed to give visitors an idea of how it worked, though its former life as an actual workplace lends it an eeriness, as though its men had merely gone on furlough at the same time. Signs still remind people of rules and regulations, staterooms stand clean and ready for occupants, cooking utensils hang waiting for mess hall preparations. This is a micro-community devoted to seeking out and extracting one of the most precious commodities on earth, its existence defined, controlled, and informed by oil.

Morgan CityIn a dimly lit, long abandoned recreation room, amid a foosball table, TV and VCR, packs of cards and boxes of dominoes, God makes his first appearance on this tour. Comfortable couches range around a coffee table, on which lie two Bibles -- one a generic hardbound volume of the Gideon variety, the other something that looks more like a technical manual. God's Word for the Oil Patch: Fuel for the Soul, it says. It's produced by the Oilfield Christian Fellowship, and inside appears to be a standard Bible in a modern American translation, prefaced by some inspirational material targeted at the men who work the rigs. God is here, I said to myself.

A rather strange place for God to be, this behemoth that moves and acts with sublime power, conquering bayou, river, gulf, and ocean floor. God here is an enabler, granting human beings dominion over the earth and its lesser creatures, entitling them to seek out the fulfillment of a promise -- a reward for faith, loyalty, and service.

God's promise was also the theme of the sermon at the Trinity Bible Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. It's a boxy structure that feels more like a concert hall than a church, reinforced by the band onstage. Members of the congregation are handed a questionnaire upon entrance, the answers to which play into the sermon.

The theme is "Life in Transition: Where is my Focus?" The pastor, a virile, energetic man, walks his people through the questionnaire, tying an episode from the Old Testament to the contemporary challenges facing his flock which, by his own admission, depends on "the oil" for its survival. This is shepherd as motivational speaker, gospel as self-help, and I am reminded yet again of the absolute necessity of charisma in keeping a congregation congregated. Bullet points projected on the cyclorama summarize his affable patter, and he manages to bring his discourse back to the enabling power of Christian rhetoric. We end with exhortations to focus not on people, tasks, or oneself, but on "God's promises," and "God's presence." God is here, as well, the fierce, awesome, vengeful Yahweh who led armies into battle, who would brook no doubt or disagreement.

Days later, we would find ourselves in another church -- the famous 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where the bombing that killed four little girls fanned the flames of the civil rights movement in America. The centerpiece of the church is the Wales Window, which depicts a dark-skinned Christ-like figure in a slightly modified crucifixion pose: one hand outstretched to block oppression, the other to ask for forgiveness or mercy. Running along the lower edge of the window are the words "You do it to me," a paraphrased extract from Matthew 25:40. God is here too.

BirminghamOur guide, the charming T.R. German, doesn't miss an opportunity to extol the goodness of God, and to urge us to honor the mystery of God's intentions and trust in God's wisdom. This seems to be his way of dealing with the problem of evil in the world. Because he is a black man who lived through the days of segregation and the civil rights movement, we press him for stories, personal perspectives on the historical narrative. Race is clearly still a sensitive topic here -- "We ain't going to get into that," he says, though allowing that "The devil is busy" -- but he surrenders everything to Jesus Christ, believing that wrong will be righted in the end. It's a faith that emphasizes endurance and patience, even in the face of persecution. It's a faith that could slide easily into passivity if allowed.

"It's a taught thing," he says, referring to racism as well as respect. The face of God is a taught thing as well, and people learn to see it in many different things. God is everywhere.

As we leave, Mr. German says, "Y'all be blessed." It's a gesture of kindness and generosity that is aware that many people move in unblessed ways in an unblessed world.

-- Vicente Garcia Groyon

Extracts from Adisa Basic’s coverage of the ‘Writers in Motion’ tour
for the weekly magazine “Slobodna Bosna”  (Sarajevo, Bosna-Herzegovina),
dated  04/07/2011



The first stop is the surreal town of Gettysburg, the place where the biggest battle of the Civil War took place a century and a half ago, and which today lives comfortably off its past. A million visitors annually visit its National War Monument, the former battlefields teeming with tourists having themselves be photographed in historical uniforms, as well as communicating with the spirits of the dead warriors.


In the stream of visitors coming through Gettysburg there are virtually no black faces. The reason is, apparently, that the majority of the visitors here come to gaze with nostalgia at the suffering of the heroic Southern troops, ignoring the fact that it was the Southerners who put in place the slavery upon which their economy was based. Peter Carmichael, professor of history at the local university tells me: “This place has always provoked lively controversies; people interpret history according to their own ideas, they romanticize the past, and they tell stories the way it suits them. Mostly people imagine gentlemanly battles of volunteers giving lives for their ideals.  The fratricidal slaughter, in which men gauged out each other’s eyes fighting face to face, or how they starved —that does not get talked about. Precious sources of facts from that period are the letters the soldiers wrote, and which show not the heroic but the tragic side of war. “

According to the Civil War specialist Carmichael, many people appear to still accept the Southern ideology: “I really have heard much here about how this is really a celebration of the Southern troops... take the monument to General Lee, the commander of the enemy Southern army—it's ten times more visited, not to mention grander, than the monuments for the fallen Northern soldiers. I often hear people commenting Lee's greatest defeat by saying:  “If only he would have done this or that, gotten here earlier, played the situation differently or estimated things differently.... “  And I ask myself whether they are conscious of what it is they are saying, whether they truly realize this means wishing that the South would have won and that we would today be living in two different American countries.  I'm not sure they understand the consequences of what they are saying....” says Prof. Carmichael with slow resignation.

He and his colleagues are indeed involved in ongoing debates about the war even today, hundred and fifty years later. For them this dialogue is an indispensible part of the American identity, even if the participants’ opinions about these fundamental questions can never reach a point of agreement.  At the same time there is the problem of the diverging interpretations of recent history—a problem that daily provokes bitter arguments in Bosna-Herzegovina.  Comments professor Kent Gramm, the author of a recent book the about major traumata of US history: “We live in a post-modern era but a whole generation of students is now raised within this postmodern perspective, in which history is simply a narrative shaped by whoever is (re)telling it.  The final consequence of such an approach is a complete relativization of everything from the past-- yet there were actual people who made a heroic effort so that our life today is what it is.  People fought here, as president Lincoln says in the Gettysburg address, for a government of the people, by the people, for the people.  When it’s necessary to confirm an undeniable historical fact, all we are left with are facts and historical data, nothing more.”


The town of Gettysburg together with its National War Memorial complex may seem as a precarious place of militaristic pilgrimages, where assorted militant  inclinations come to the fore.  Yet it is interesting to see how, in being overtaken by consumerist kitsch, its martial air has gradually lightened.  There is barely a house which is not in one way or another tied to the Civil war. T-shirts with pictures of generals, uniforms of both warring sides, dress-up photo-stands, wax museums, the model of the most decisive battle of American history enacted by 120.000 miniature figurines….   In answer to my question whether it doesn’t seem tasteless to be merchandising trauma in this way and whether such war tourism (sometimes known as black tourism)  oughtn’t be avoided so as to retain a sense of piety,  the American writer Hugh Ferrer says:  “I  understand that this may seem strange to an outsider, but the economic aspect of war's heritage is in fact fundamentally American. The fate of the entire town rests on it, it lets people make a decent living-- and such entrepreneurial spirit is fundamentally in keeping  with the American culture and way of life.“

Indeed, Americans trade on trauma in this way even when it comes to much more recent events.  9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, too, are occasions for souvenirs, themes for movies and TV series;  both New York and NO offer special programs on the spots where catastrophes occurred:  “Soon after Katrina a bus tour operator started offering  visits through the hardest hit places.  There certainly were people who were upset and raised objections, but in the last analysis, and taking into account the economic aspect, perhaps a tour of such places can be both informative and sobering,  one of those life-altering experiences that mark us forever,“ says an American commentator.

From the Bosnian perspective such questions and perspectives may seem unusual, to say the least.  Though there now are groups of tourists who visit out country in search of Sniper Alley, “Sarajevo Rose,” the debris of The Tunnel or similar  places, the idea still strikes us as dark, morbid and somewhat offensive.  Yet it's interesting to see not only the different manner in which other cultures tackle their painful experiences but also how disagreement around large-scale historical questions is a more universal phenomenon than we may have thought.

Translated from the Croatian (nd)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fall and Recovery: Final Chapter

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…

On Civil Wars & Civil Rights, the Exotic & the Banal

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.

Ruins Of The River City Always In The ‘Future’ – A Narrative of Transcendence

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.    

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chicken Gravy

Today, a creative writing student at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, told us that in her family, as in most white families in Alabama, there used to be members of the Klan. But we don't talk about this, she added coyly. When we asked the class if they'd written about that, if they thought it important for an Alabama writer to face that recent Birmingham past, one student said that she was afraid to say the wrong thing. Another student replied that she preferred to write about the good things in Alabama. Like going to church. Like her grandmother's chicken gravy. I noticed that there were no black students in the class --no future black writers to write about the Birmingham future, or past. As I listened to the students, I couldn't help remembering the photo that I'd seen this morning, on the front page of The Birmingham Times, of a black man hanging from a tree. A supposed suicide. The family of the dead man disagrees. Either way, no one in this class is going to write the story of a dead black man hanging from a tree. Maybe none of them even know about him. In this country, one student was still saying, we prefer to move forward, and not dwell on the past.

A Small Prayer for the Unflummoxed Beaver

so unmoved by the boat’s slow approach – the boat

drifting across the flat green acre of water; a small prayer

for these acres of water which, in the low light, seem firm;

the squirrels, however, are never fooled or taken in;

a small prayer for the squirrels and their unknowable

but perfect paths; see how they run across

the twisting highway of cedars, but never crash;

a small prayer for the cedars and their dead knees

dotting the water like tombstones;

a prayer for the cedar balls that break

as you touch them, and stain your fingers yellow,

and release from their tiny bellies the smell of old

churches, of something holy; a prayer for the holy

alligators; you owe them at least that;

just last night you thought of Hana and asked them

to pray with you (the prayers of alligators are potent);

at night the grass is full of their red and earnest eyes;

a prayer for the grass that alligators divide

in the shape of a never-ending S; you lean over

to gather it because your friend says it can be cooked

with salt and oil; she says in Burma it is called

Ka-Na-Paw; a prayer for the languages we know

this landscape by; a prayer for the fragile French

spoken by the bayou’s fat fishermen, the fat fishermen

who admit to the bayou, we all dying. You understand?

Savez? A prayer for the bayou and its bayouness

and the fabulously unflummoxed beaver,

so unmoved by the boat’s slow approach.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Food, Inc.

Evening, 10th April 2011

Setting: Crazy ‘Bout Crawfish Cajun Café, 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.