Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Questions for ZZ Packer

By Jane Ciabattari

It’s hard to judge how many writers have been displaced, dislocated and disoriented by Katrina and aftermath. I’ve been keeping track of some of them via our series, Thinking About New Orleans. Now it is nearly three years since we were glued to CNN watching Katrina, the flooding of the levees, and Rita, and the bitterly insulting lack of federal response. The aftermath continues. ZZ Packer, author of the short story collection “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” and guest editor of the forthcoming “New Stories from the South 2008,” will be in New York August 28 for a fundraiser for New Orleans writers (KARES—Katrina Arts Relief and Emergency Support). Details below.

Q. Where were you when Katrina hit? Did you have friends or family in New Orleans during Katrina, Rita, and aftermath?  How did Katrina and aftermath affect your work? (And what are you working on now?)
A. I had just delivered my first son, Donovan, when Katrina hit, so I was in the hospital, on my third and final day there. My husband was born and raised in New Orleans, and his entire paternal family still lived there so we were worried about his uncle Andy, who refused to leave NOLA, his cousins, grandparents, everyone. We’d been hearing about “the storm” for a while, but New Orleanians pride themselves on knowing which hurricanes to weather out and when they need to hustle out of Dodge parish and evacuate. We arranged payment for phone cards and paid for a few hotel nights, though as far as I know, the hotels were heavily discounting, making matters easier.

Q. How did Katrina and aftermath affect your work? (And what are you working on now?)
A. To answer the second question, the novel I’m finishing (yes, finally, finishing!) concerns the Buffalo soldiers, and the regiment whose storyline I follow were mustered in just outside of New Orleans and the whole first third is set there, so I’ve been NOLA-centered for quite some time. I think it was only post-Katrina, though, that I think I began to have an understanding as to why New Orleanians feel so strongly about their hometown. Family is everything to people in New Orleans, and moving way from New Orleans is really moving away from ones roots. The poor, the rich, the middle-class, they all take pride in living in a problematic place and evincing some mastery of it. They are snake-handlers of dilemmas, and one’s family is often an encyclopedic resource, often inducting you into the business with their own myriad problems. It is a baffling, charming, addictive place.

Q. You spent time in post-Katrina New Orleans as Writer-in-Residence at the Tulane University English Department Creative Writing Program in Fall 2007. What were your impressions of the city as it was recovering, in particular New Orleans’s writers?
A. Well, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a writer in New Orleans. There are tons of writers, from the porch-swing scribblers to the serious scribes. The great thing about art in New Orleans is that it is (unlike some other New Orleans institutions) very democratic. Writers of all stripes are respected, which I found great; you can pop into Rue de la Course and find about 30 tables with green banker’s lamps, and a person writing at each and every one.

I’d unwittingly gotten a place two blocks away from one of my favorite contemporary writers, Richard Ford, only to discover that he and his wife had moved to the French Quarter. My place was just across from the house of George Washington Cable, and interesting if not somewhat forgotten writer. As for living writers, I hung out with Paula Morris, who is a New Orleans writer by way of New Zealand, Eric Vrooman, Ladee Hubbard and John Biguenet and Brian Keith Jackson. Only later while I was in Ireland did I meet the excellent Moira Crone, and for a while I’ve known Yusef Komunyakaa, a Louisiana native and sometime-New Orleans resident. Also, a few students of mine, Chanel Clarke and Tommy Mouton wrote in ways that either evoked place or that profound sense of disorientation, post-Katrina.

What I’d notice most, however, was that I’d start talking to someone, find out that he or she considered themselves “a writer,” and would inevitably find that what they’d written was actually good. There is just a wealth of talent in that city. What I’d like to see are programs in place to help the mostly black youth of the city express what they saw, how they felt. I think more can come out of this than just “cathartic” or therapeutic literature, I think this can identify a whole new pool of talent that typically doesn’t come up via the MFA route. We need to hear their stories, and find a way to expose them as well as be exposed to them.

Q. As we approach the third anniversary of Katrina, what needs doing? How can the rest of us do to help out the writers who have been displaced, disoriented, dislodged?
A.New Orleans has a habit of rallying around its artists. I remember everyone looking for Fats Domino, then coming out with a collection of covers of his music to support displaced New Orleans musicians. It is a music city, and great, free music is everywhere; the people come out for festivals, parades etc. The same is the case with theatre and lit readings—I’m thinking of the FEMA-themed “Waiting for Godot” performance with Wendell Pierce which brought out hundreds, thousands, once it had gone into multiple performances. So the interest is there. It is just a matter of funding the artists, and providing a platform for them.

Bestselling writers, like long-time New Orleans resident Anne Rice, really don’t need support, it’s the struggling coffee shop writers, the people totally wiped out of the Ninth Ward who need support. I’d say festivals, grants, anthologies such as “New Stories from the South” and anthologies of “Katrina” stories—all these would serve to highlight writers who come from this unique place, but whose stories get drowned out by fake New Orleans stories, not only in literature, but in television and film. I think the writers of “K-ville” suffered a bit from this. One hopes David Simon—whose “The Wire” I loved—gets this. In “The Wire” he’d use black actors, but would pretend not be able to find qualified black writers. Hmmm. He’s now doing a series based out of New Orleans, so I hope he uses some local talent.—ZZ Packer

ZZ Packer, guest editor of “New Stories from the South 2008,” will appear at Housing Works Bookstore (126 Crosby St., one block east of B’dway btw Houston & Prince) on Thursday, August 28, at 7:00pm. The celebration is presented by Algonquin Books and Paste magazine. Maud Newton will emcee a reading and party with trivia, door prizes, and food from Mara’s Homemade and Acme Bar & Grill. Suggested donation $5.00. Proceeds will benefit KARES (Katrina Arts Relief and Emergency Support) and Housing Works.