Bouncing Back in the Big Easy: New Orleans’ literary community rises from the ashes

In 2006, the great Sam Weller, one of my writing professors at Columbia College Chicago, asked me to write a story for Fictionary, an annual publication of the school’s Fiction Writing department. Sam was interested in the effects Hurricane Katrina had had on the ever-vibrant New Orleans literary community. Writing the article turned out to be one of the toughest, most rewarding tasks of my career, and it left me feeling like there might be some real hope for my adopted homeland’s recovery.

The section of Maple Street between Carrollton Avenue and Tulane University is one of New Orleans’ hidden gems, a slightly upscale strip of boutiques, restaurants and salons beloved by locals and largely undiscovered by tourists. Although floodwaters ravaged frat houses and campus buildings only a few blocks away, Maple Street remained relatively undamaged and was one of the first retail districts to rebound after Hurricane Katrina. Still, even five months after the storm, not everything is back to normal. The street’s two coffee shops remain shuttered, a major loss in a city that loves its java dark and bitter. Fortunately for area residents, Maple Street Book Shop is picking up the slack.

“We started brewing free coffee every morning on the porch,” says Rhoda Faust, Maple Street’s owner. “CDM coffee, the kind with chicory. We also had a bunch of books that we couldn’t return or that people had given us as donations, so we started a free book exchange on the front porch. And we got free wi-fi so people can go online and find out about their FEMA checks.”

The bookshop has long served as a sort of community center for locals, but with the city’s libraries still closed in the wake of post-Katrina layoffs, that function has become more essential than ever. Faust recalls the neighborhood’s response to Maple Street’s re-opening: “People were teary-eyed with joy. It was unbelievably moving. It made us feel like we were doing something important, for real. These people are in need… People come in and compare notes on how they couldn’t read after the hurricane. They say they just could not pick up a book for two weeks, or for some people even longer. It was part shell-shock, but also a sense of, ‘It’s hard enough being in this reality; I don’t want to escape into something pleasurable and then have to come back to my whole world being changed and here I am in this strange place.’”

Business has been good at Maple Street since New Orleanians started returning to their waterlogged homes, but Faust sees the sales figures as more than just a patriotic desire to bolster the local economy. “People have been buying books that are relevant and hopeful,” she says, noting the great demand for books by local authors, particularly titles dealing with Katrina and its aftermath. A recent in-store signing by Mike Dunne and Beverly Knapp, authors of America’s Wetland: Louisiana’s Vanishing Coast, drew the store’s biggest crowd ever. “Many autograph parties, we’re lucky if we get several bodies,” Faust says, “At this one, we ran out of books at the very end, so they said, ‘We’ll just come back next week.’ We’ve never had back-to-back autograph parties.”

Tom Piazza is another author whose work has been flying off Maple Street’s shelves. His most recent book, Why New Orleans Matters, is a heartfelt argument for preserving the city’s culture and history. “The impetus of the thing was that stupid remark by Dennis Hastert,” Piazza explains, “that maybe New Orleans wasn’t worth rebuilding. I thought, ‘If the Speaker of the House is saying something this stupid, there are going to be a whole lot of other people out there who don’t get why New Orleans has to live. Why it has to live.’”

Piazza wrote the book for Harper Collins in one month, working largely out of an abandoned cotton gin in his temporary home of Malden, Missouri, then hit the road for a national tour. “Most of the places where I read, there would be heavy concentrations of New Orleans people who had come. I don’t even take that as a testament to my book. It’s just that people really want to see New Orleans out there in the public consciousness. The New Orleans people you run into in other places are all just dying to get back. Worried, grateful to see the other New Orleanians in the audience. It became almost like a big reunion. Everywhere I went, people were passionately concerned about the fate of New Orleans.”

Back in the city, Piazza sees a familial atmosphere among returning writers, but he won’t necessarily say the bond is any tighter or looser than it was pre-Katrina. “It’s like red kryptonite in the old Superman comics,” he says, “You never knew what was going to happen to Superman when there was red kryptonite around. The storm was kind of like the universal red kryptonite. It affected everybody in different ways, but there are certain common things. Everybody’s forgetting stuff. Everybody’s borderline aphasic in one way or another.

“I say it better in my book, but I think at any given moment you’re a more exaggerated version of a part of yourself. You’re more observant, more oblivious, more sensitive, more energetic or completely exhausted. It’s like you’re put in a centrifuge and they separate out the strata. You’re usually more of an integrated personality, but I think everybody’s had their personalities disintegrated by this event.”

As an example of the city’s cooperative spirit, Piazza points to the thriving blogging community, where New Orleanians from anonymous high schoolers to best-selling horror writer Poppy Z. Brite keep each other and the rest of the nation abreast of the latest developments in the Crescent City. “There is a living literary community in New Orleans right now that’s sharing information, staying in touch,” he says. He also notes the many national media outlets that gave space to writers living and working in the Gulf Coast area in the storm’s aftermath.

Joshua Clark is one of those writers. Founder and editor of Light of New Orleans Press, a small publisher best known for producing the popular French Quarter Fiction anthology, Clark rode out both of the big storms in his apartment on Royal Street. Salon.com ran his daily accounts of life in the city immediately following Katrina, and Poets & Writers recently published his impassioned essay speculating on the sway New Orleans has long held over writerly types.

Clark has two words for displaced New Orleans writers now working elsewhere around the country: come back. Although he acknowledges that writers living in the city were initially hampered by a paralysis similar to that of the readers at Maple Street Book Shop, he feels locals owe it to themselves and to their hometown to get the word out.

“We need people to be back here, writing about what’s happening here at home,” Clark says. “There’s been plenty written about the situation, but so much of it has been written either by people who have never lived here or by people who have but are writing from elsewhere. You can’t really know what it’s like here unless you’re on the street every day, living it, breathing it, eating it.”

Clark is doing his part to help those writers who do make the trip back by donating a portion of the proceeds from sales of French Quarter Fiction to Katrina Arts Relief and Emergency Support (KARES), a charity developed to help artists who lost their homes or livelihoods rebuild. Their website hosts a message board where displaced artists can post their whereabouts, inquire after others and generally get back in touch with the creative community.

KARES is also a beneficiary of this year’s Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. According to executive director Paul Willis, the fest never entertained a thought of holding this year’s twentieth annual edition anywhere but the Big Easy. “There really never was a question whether to go forward. We made our decision as early as September, when we could see that the French Quarter was mostly okay. The festival is all about tradition and history, and the people that are here really want to have this kind of cultural event.”

Still, even a venerable festival like this one will be unavoidably impacted by the hurricanes. “We have three Katrina-related events scheduled right now,” Willis explains. “One is titled ‘In the Wake of Destruction,’ and it’s going to be featuring writers who have books about Katrina out already. We’re also having a panel on reporting Katrina, more of a journalistic view from people who were here during and right after the storm. And we have a panel on urban development and the future of what the city’s going to look like.”

Local writers have been understandably enthusiastic about the opportunity to commune and get their stories out, but Willis has also been impressed by the reaction from artists outside of Louisiana. “It has been nice to see how many non-local writers have said, ‘I’ll pay my own way to get there. I just want to be supportive of this year’s festival.’ It’s the best thing you can do, I think. You’re supporting the local economy, spending money in hotels and restaurants and taking in the cultural events. Beyond sending a big check to the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity, I think a lot of people see this as a way to help.”

Even those who can’t attend have shown their solidarity. “A little theater group in Chicago donated their refreshment sales from a weekend run of Tennessee Williams plays. A group in Vermont donated their concession sales to us. We had a woman in Texas who organized a reading with some local authors and collected donations, more than $500. Things like that mean a lot,” Willis says.

John Biguenet would agree with that. The O. Henry Award-winning short story writer and novelist was one of the most visible faces of New Orleans in the hurricanes’ immediate aftermath. In October of 2005, the New York Times contracted Biguenet to write a wrenching series of first-person essays detailing his return to the city. “So many people have come up to me to tell me how much those columns meant to them,” Biguenet says. “Whether they were back in the city or wherever they were around the country, it seemed like it was important to people to hear these stories from someone who knows New Orleans.”

While the bulk of New Orleans’ writing community resides in hip, less flood-prone neighborhoods like Uptown and the French Quarter, Biguenet’s Lakeview community suffered considerable destruction. Of course, in the face of devastation this far-reaching, suffering is a relative concept. Biguenet lost his home, his personal library and, worst of all, extensive notes for three upcoming books. Yet when asked if he’s received any assistance, he sounds almost offended. “There are so many people so much worse off than me,” he says, “it never even occurred to me to ask for anything like that.”

Biguenet does have something that many New Orleans writers couldn’t claim even before the storms: a steady job. A professor of English at Loyola University, he was greatly encouraged by the campus scene when school resumed this January after a full semester without classes. “We have 91% of the student body returning. We’ve been running a series of panels on the culture and future of New Orleans. For the first event, so many people came, so many students, that we had to move it into the largest auditorium on campus. In the past, something like this might have been a sparsely attended event, but we had over 500 people show up.”

Loyola’s campus suffered very little damage, but neighboring Tulane and several other local universities required major renovations. Before the new semester began, the New Orleans collegiate community established a credit-sharing system in which students from Xavier and Delgado can take certain courses at Loyola and Tulane and vice versa, further fostering the city’s new, we’re-all-in-this-together outlook.

So where does New Orleans’ beleaguered literary community stand today, nearly half a year after the city was turned inside out? The outlook is not as brilliant as one might hope, but neither is it as bleak as one might fear. As with all aspects of life in the battered city, New Orleans writers face a long, uphill climb back to normalcy. One of Katrina’s silver linings is that their work is now more immediate and vital than ever, and writers like Biguenet, Clark and Piazza are making the most of their time on the national stage, casting light into corners that desperately need to be illuminated. And as the patrons of Maple Street Book Shop, the attendees of the Tennessee Williams Fest and the students at Loyola can attest, they’re feeding a hunger that will eventually drive this city back to its former greatness.

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