Guest post: Nicole Cooley on Hurricane Katrina, four years later

Four years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Nicole Cooley, who grew up in New Orleans and whose poem The Flood Notebooksappears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself, reflects on the anniversary.

Go on, I’ve had enough.
Dump my blues down in the Gulf.

—Johnny Cash, “Big River”

It is not you who will speak: let the disaster speak in you.

—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster

In New York, it is raining this weekend—the side effects of Hurricane Danny—and I am wishing I was in New Orleans where I grew up. New Orleans: the easy city to miss—we all know the song, “Do you Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” The easy city to mythologize—and I have done it—Live Oaks along St Charles Avenue, mint juleps on wrought iron balconies, the French Quarter. I know that it is easier to think about New Orleans if you keep your vision of the city romantic, if you align it with the most popular and resonant clichés.

I am talking about a different New Orleans, the one that four years ago endured the greatest “natural”—or not—disaster in US history: Hurricane Katrina. I am talking about the city that my parents and my friends still live in four years after the storm. I am talking about the New Orleans that former president George Bush and his administration ignored and ruined. The city that people have told me—well meaning people, my friends and neighbors in the Northeast—should not be rebuilt. “Who would live there?” one man said to me. “Everyone knows the city is going to be eventually destroyed. It is only a matter of time.” (“The Status of New Orleans: An Update,” in Friday’s New York Times, shows the stark reality of the conditions in the city. )

For me, the anniversary also marks four years since my parents refused to evacuate New Orleans, despite the first-ever mandate to leave the city. “We are not leaving,” my mother said. “This is our home.” And for several days, my sister, brother and I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. We called FEMA, the Red Cross, the Louisiana State Police, the local hospital, begging for help. All the phones were out, circuits busy. We typed their names in Coast Guard search engines. In that first week after Katrina, none of us knew the scope of the damage or how many people were missing or dead. All we could do is watch the news—the roads in and out of New Orleans shut down, the floodwalls cracking open, the city filling like a bowl. In the end, my parents were safe—and this is less a miracle than random luck—though they remained in the city for three weeks after the storm. But so many other people on the Gulf Cost did not survive.

I am also wishing President Obama was in New Orleans. On Friday, the day before the anniversary, many citizens of New Orleans wrote and signed an open letter to the president, asking him to visit the city for this important fourth anniversary, and published this letter in the Times Picayune newspaper. The opening of the letter reads: “Tomorrow we will mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which claimed the lives of more than 1,400 Louisianans and nearly killed a great American city. We will miss having you in our midst.” This year, unlike other years, there are several organic commemorative events to mark the fourth anniversary of the storm. They include a ceremonial bell ringing at the Charity Hospital Cemetery at the time of the levee breaches and a festival celebrating the city with food and “entertainment” in Congo Square in Armstrong Park.

In my mind, I return to my experience on the first anniversary of Katrina, August 29, 2006. My parents did not want to participate in any commemorative events—I understand this, as the aftermath of the storm is their daily reality—but it was important to me to be part of the anniversary in any way I could. I went alone to an informal Second Line Parade downtown: a large group of us walked from the Convention Center to the Superdome. Those two sites were part of the worst of the aftermath of the storm, one the shelter that should have never been a shelter and one a shelter of last resort. The walk was a jazz funeral—familiar to me from my childhood. But the parade also brought together so many disparate communities: The Mardi Gras Indians, The Black Men’s Social Club from Treme, out-of-towners who had come down to New Orleans for the anniversary. It was not an orchestrated, rehearsed memorial. It didn’t follow the conventional narrative of disaster and the aftermath with invocation of heroes. But the parade invoked the spirit of New Orleans.

And it reminds me of the words of poet John Berryman in The Dreamsongs: “We are on each other’s hands/ who care.”

Nicole Cooley is the author of two books of poetry, with a third, Breach, forthcoming. She has received a Discovery/The Nation Award and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America. She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, CUNY.


“Public Demons,” by José Rubén Zamora

Last week, PEN issued a letter to Guatemalan authorities protesting the conviction of Raúl Figueroa Sarti, owner of the publishing house F & G Editores, on spurious charges of copyright infringementcharges that appear motivated by Sarti's publication of books on human rights abuses in Guatemala.

PEN America 10: Fear Itself touched upon such abuses in two pieces: The Secret Lives of Citiesa conversation featuring, among others, Francisco Goldman, who spoke about Guatemalaand Public Demons, by José Rubén Zamora, which was recently selected to appear in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of The Utne Reader. Public Demonsis reprinted below.

This has to be recorded for your children, one of my captors says. You’re going to die, you son of a bitch. They throw me in the room with my family. Ramón is eleven years old. The rest of my family has their eyes taped, but not him. He’s watching. I tell him: Be cool, don’t worry. I even smile. And deep down I’m thinking: here’s where the shit ends. Ramón is dripping snot.

Why are you making trouble? they say. Stop fucking with the higher-ups. Every so often they say they are going to kill us. There are twelve or fourteen guys, and they can’t stop moving. Shouts, threats, guns. One of them closes the curtains and climbs on the bed. He starts jumping around with a shotgun.

Rodrigo cries silently. The raiders tear the house apart. In my son’s closet they find a collection of guns. That’s when they go crazy. They drag me out of the room, say they’re going to kill me. I’ve now lost my bathroom, I’m completely naked. Look, guys, I’m not making trouble, I tell them. Whatever you say, we’ll do. Just fucking kill me in the garage, so the kids aren’t brought into it.

They keep me outside for fifteen minutes with a shotgun in my chest. Twice they pretend they’re going to shoot me. I’ve accepted my fate. But I lose it when they drag me back in the room, naked, and tie me up with neckties. Tell your children to watch, they say. And to them: You’re going to witness your father’s death. Ramón is in a green pool. I have no idea where so much snot came from. Everyone is crying.

They fire.

False alarm.

We’re going to carry off the little one and your wife, they say. What are they worth to you? There’s no calculating their worth, I tell them. So if you want to keep them, they say, you have to keep quiet. If you go to the police, if you make a public statement, if you tell anyone you work with, if you complain to an ambassador, if what happens here leaks out in any way... We know your family’s routines, we’ll fucking kill them all.

Before they leave, one comes up to me and says, I was the good one. Did you notice? I was the one who kept them from killing everyone. So, in gratitude, you’re going to give me 250,000 pesos. Tomorrow or the next day. I’ll call and tell you where and when. You’ll get in your gray Volvo and we’ll meet up. I’ll be on a motorcycle. I’ve seen your house. You’ve got dough.

After two and a half hours, they leave. They take my cell phones, credit cards, a computer, a watch, my wife’s jewels, my grandfather’s guns, and a pair of running shoes.

I’m not going to say shit, I tell myself. But then I call Gonzálo Marroquín, another journalist. Look, man, I say, and I break down. What the fuck happened? he asks. Call my assistant, I tell him, and have her cancel my credit cards. They stole them. In case anything gets out, prepare my mom and my Aunt Marina, because she’ll be scared, remember her heart. What the fuck is going to get out? he asks me. And I tell him.

What are you going to do? he asks.

You know what? I’m going to report this.

Soon there are four thousand people in the house.

People from the military police come. And my wife says, pointing to one, That man was here, during the raid. I think she’s crazy. But in fact, he’s erasing fingerprints.

I have to get my family out of the country, and my children are pissed off. The second oldest says to me, I’ve respected what you do, but I think it’s unfair that because of your decisions we have to flee Guatemala like thieves. You did this to us.

Me, I decide to stay.

The house is empty.

José Rubén Zamora continues to edit El Periódico, the third newspaper he has founded in Guatemala. Because of the stories he has published, he has been repeatedly harassed, threatened, and attacked by government, military, and organized crime figures. The raid described above took place on June 24, 2003; a more detailed account is available at www.pen.org/publicdemons.


“Some Kind of Change,” by James Yeh

Yesterday, we posted a piece by Joan Downs about her experience teaching the story “Some Kind of Change,” by James Yeh, from PEN America 10: Fear Itself, in a literacy class. Today, were posting James’s story. Enjoy.

Over coffee a friend was telling me about a dream she had had the previous night.

You’re going to think I’m crazy, she began.

Probably, I said.

She told me her dream, in which she had dreamed she was a building. Bricks, mortar, and networks of piping. I don’t know why I felt like that, she said, but in the morning I felt like everything would be different, that I would be different.

Were you, I said.

No, she said.

Across the coffee shop I saw our server getting up from her laptop computer, where she had been checking her email and browsing the internet profiles of friends. I thought about my friend’s dream, of change and non-change.

It’s probably just because you’re moving, I said.

Could be, she said. How’s everything else?

The same.

She gave a sympathetic frown.

Well, I said, she’s immature. So am I.

At least you had something in common.

At least.

It doesn’t change anything.

No, I said, it doesn’t.

Our server walked over with the check. Outside was cold and windy and the streets were still damp with rain. I walked my friend to the subway. At the station for a moment I considered getting on too, riding out of my way so we could keep talking, a habit of mine, prolonging things, sometimes too far. She was flying back in the morning, returning to a long-distance boyfriend I believed she had cheated on while she was here but didn’t ask about because I thought it would have been too obvious and somehow ungentlemanly. We said our goodbyes.

Be safe, she said to me.

You too, I said back.

I turned around, walked down the empty streets, thinking about my friend’s advice, my friend who had been mugged not too far off, not too long ago. A group of men in hooded sweatshirts passed me by. I kept my hands in my jacket, my face serious. Jaw clenched. It was that kind of neighborhood. The neighborhood was changing—the coffee shop we had just been in was evidence—but it was still that kind of neighborhood. Beside a high-rise and the park there was a gas station. A brown-skinned man was refilling his sports car as his wife and child waited inside. A car in the city, I thought to myself, was a curious thing—the maintenance, the parking. The man’s wife was getting impatient with how long it was taking, she was opening the door. I walked on. I was the air and fog. I thought about what I liked about the city, what I liked about being there. So many beautiful things, constantly around me. I walked on. My body swelled up like a blowfish. My cheeks started to hurt.

I remained unchanged.

James Yeh is a founding editor of Gigantic, a new magazine of short prose and art. His fiction has appeared in elimae and is forthcoming in The New-York Ghost and the anthology 30 Under 30. He is at work on a novel-in-stories called I Love and Understand You and Would Be Perfect to You Now and lives in Brooklyn, NY.


Guest post: Joan Downs on teaching “Some Kind of Change”

We’re busy finishing up PEN America 11. In the meantime, here’s another guest post—this one from Joan Downs, a retired magazine editor and writer and member of PEN, whose second act, teaching adult literacy, is just as involving and perhaps more important than the opener.”

They’ve never heard of Updike or Roth, ditto Hemingway. Shakespeare rings a bell, although no one has read a sonnet or seen a play. The students of Literacy Partners, Inc. (LPI), a nonprofit that provides a free adult literacy program serving low-income New Yorkers, are not PEN America’s usual audience.

When they first come to us, some students can’t recite the alphabet. We teach them to write letters—up the hill, over the bridge, down the hill; up the hill, over the bridge, down the hill. Imagine the desperation confronting such hurdles at age 19, 27, 34, 42, 55.

As a volunteer tutor, I try to find contemporary writing that’s both accessible and relevant to my students’ experience. The students—drop-outs mainly, teenagers and twenty- and thirty-somethings—are bright and motivated despite hardscrabble lives. These are our advanced students, maybe even harboring a success story.

One Saturday morning I’m browsing PEN America for reading to go with my coffee. The issue’s theme is “Fear Itself.” I come across “Some Kind of Change” by James Yeh.

The story, a conversation between a man and a woman, takes place in a coffee shop. Fate! (LGQ, my husband predicts: Low Gunplay Quotient.) I read it once, twice, again. (It’s short.) The writing is spare. Yeh evokes strong visual images in swift, deft strokes. His ear for language is pitch-perfect. This Yeh person’s got talent! (Little stab of excitement.) I have a hunch his story may connect with my passel of diploma-deprived adults who, nevertheless, have an uncanny instinct for honest writing—and zero tolerance for a scintilla of phoniness.

This is the drill: Silent reading, followed by reading aloud, taking turns doing the honors. Then the tutor tries to point out the allure of the vignette, how powerful small forms can be, the underlying layers—stuff teachers like to talk about. Nobody’s buying it. It seems they have their own ideas.

“I think the coffee shop is on the lower East Side.” Someone pulls out a wrinkled Edward Hopper print from an old lesson, “Like this?” “He’s dorky and smart. She’s pretty, not smart. But he’d like to hit on her.” “They’ve had an affair.” “No, she’s a tease. She cheated on her boyfriend, but not with him.” “She had a dream she’s a building, give me a break.” “He explained it’s because she’s moving.” “A building is supposed to be a woman’s privates.” “Shut Up!” “He should have ridden with her on the subway. He wanted to.” “No, he doesn’t want to get involved, he knows she’s nasty.” “He’s telling the story, we just have his side.” “He doesn’t take her home because they’re both moving on. The title says the story is about change.”

Tutor interruption: Where does the fear theme come in? “She tells him to be safe. Be safe in life.” “Probably it’s be safe in this neighborhood. He’s walking home. One block is good, the other is empty buildings, lots, and three guys wearing hoodies coming toward him.” “Guys in hoodies are trouble.” “Maybe they’re just cold.” “Since I got mugged and robbed, I see a man in a hoodie sweatshirt, I cross the street.” “He puts his hands in his pockets, puts his head down and walks faster—that’s just how you guys behave.” “But then he starts thinking how beautiful the city is. He’s happy.” “He’s happy he escaped her.” “He’s just another guy who’s afraid to commit.”

Fifteen minutes go by, and no sign of resolution. The conversation is animated. Judging by noise level alone, “Some Kind of Change” has opened up their nerve endings. Settle down, says the tutor. You have five minutes. Write what you think happens next.

No one here is bashful about expressing an opinion, but these students HATE to write. This time, though, they whip out their notebooks and get to it. When they’re asked to share their thoughts, everyone wants to go first.

On a whim I email the class’s handiwork to the author. Secretly, I hope he might email back. Nothing elaborate. Just thanks; I read the students’ work. Unlikely, however. But it would mean a lot to them.

So it makes the last class of summer session a celebration when I report James Yeh has read their pieces. A “real” writer validates them as bona fide students. He emails that writing is about connection. He says Holden Caulfield’s line in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye about liking books written by authors whom you felt you could just call on the phone and be friends with has always stuck with him. Of course, readers intuit that from James’s story. You really ought to read it.

Note: Tomorrow we'll post James Yehs story, “Some Kind of Change,” from PEN America 10: Fear Itself.