Monday, August 30, 2010

After the Storm

Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and claimed about 1,800 lives. President Obama has astutely pointed out that the disaster was both natural (a storm, duh) and man-made (a combination of poor planning and even poorer engineering). The BBC--my usual news source, I know--has done a pleasant write up of this anniversary.

But it's important to remember that this isn't only a natural or a political disaster; it's a conflict that tears at human life, that generates a tempest of emotions and troubles, and it's this element that makes the remembrance worthwhile. Although we mourn those who are lost and the districts of New Orleans that suffered, we celebrate because, out of the driftwood and wreckage, an existence gets hammered together. But it's also an opportunity for us to delve into the soul of America and see exactly how this country relates to itself.

So how do we keep those sentiments relevant while performing this investigation? You guessed it--literature.

Unfortunately, the body of Hurricane Katrina fiction (and I hate that I'm actually posting this link) is meager, and admittedly, I've read almost none of it--perhaps because the Hurricane Katrina stories don't get the hype that the burgeoning genre of the 9/11 novel gets. 9/11 appears to have been the seminal event of the current generation--America brought to its knees and its hegemony threatened--but Hurricane Katrina actually offers a more poignant portal into American self-discoveries. Instead of just the crashing of the American dream, Hurricane Katrina provides an opportunity to explore how the gears of our society grate against one another and if it's possible to make this great machine move forward again on a personal as opposed to a nationalist level.

The worst of the Katrina novels would be like the worst of the 9/11 novels: focusing only on stasis and inability to cope. But this isn't the reality, as some novelists (and here I have to praise my mentor, Porochista Khakpour, and her novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects), have cleverly observed: Regardless of the extent of catastrophe, life continues, one step at a time. And as Porochista's novel shows us, tragedy--large scale or not--is always personal, and it's an opportunity to recast notions of identity. Disaster is a porthole for discovery.

There's another thing a Katrina novel could do: explore the race relations in American urban centers. Most of the Katrina stuff I've read (most notably, Katie Ford's poetry collection Colosseum, which I suggest you pick up) studies how life is going to pick up again afterward the crisis. The past has been destroyed, now we rebuild.

Though Ford's collection gets the whole bit about tragedy being personal (her poems are somewhat confessional in that they conjure images from her own experiences in New Orleans during Katrina) this rebuilding idea remains far too facile. It's practically preemptive nostalgia. Perhaps soon we'll get a Katrina narrative that's focusing on the spirit of the Katrina recovery--but also on the spirit of America and the souls of those people who have lived through the crisis.


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