August 2010

Colleen Mondor


Pieces of Katrina: The Rising Voices of UNO Press

Five years after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees, there have been many books published about New Orleans by a variety of publishers. In the city itself, however, the University of New Orleans Press found itself reborn in the wake of the flood, and has embraced a new future that encompasses not only an ongoing dedication to stories of the city, but a multitude of other topics as well. As managing editor Bill Lavender explained to me in a recent e-mail exchange: "UNO Press didn't actually exist in August of 2005; or rather it was at that time dormant, with no staff. Shortly thereafter, I proposed that we reawaken it and was able to get it started again. We didn't start it up for the specific purpose of publishing Katrina-related books, but the Katrina Narrative Project was ongoing and we decided early on that one of our first books would be Voices Rising, excerpted from these oral histories. Then a friend suggested we take a look at Jerry Ward's memoir, The Katrina Papers, and we found it irresistible." 

Ward, a professor at Dillard University in the city, maintained a diary of the weeks and months after the storm hit that became The Katrina Papers. It includes his wide-ranging thoughts upon leaving his home, and then striving for a return to normalcy in such an altered environment. His record of loss illustrates how the totality of the destruction defies our own ability to understand it -- how it transcends loss of life and home to include loss of the future, loss of hopes and dreams and what might have been. As recounted in Papers, while clearing out the molding books and documents of his home he came to a particularly sad conclusion: 

"It is strange. Emptiness fills you. It is strange. As you dump one load of the poetry chapbooks and poetry volumes from the wheelbarrow, two chapbooks fly to the sidewalk. They are works by Dudley Randall and Audre Lorde. You lovingly gather them up for deposit in a safe, dry place. There is a message here. The English language needs a new word: MISSAGE. The second message is this: For several years you had considered starting the Project on the History of Black Writing database by using your collective hard-to-find or totally limited self-published poetry books. The dream deferred is now your dream destroyed. Live with the emptiness." 

In publishing books like Ward’s and the products of the Katrina Narrative Project: Voices Rising and Voices Rising II, UNO Press stepped outside of the standard reportage boundaries and acknowledged the voices of those on the ground as more than sound bites on the evening news. Initiated in the months following Katrina, the Narrative Project involved UNO students and faculty members interviewing dozens of people across Louisiana and Mississippi in an effort to gather their stories in an oral history project. The immediacy of the events gives a rawness to these interviews that makes readers long for similar studies in the aftermath of other catastrophic disasters, such as the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, or the 1900 Galveston Flood. The Voices Rising volumes are real time history and carry a level of significance that future studies, suffering from emotional distance, will never be able to claim. Consider this passage from the recently released second volume: 

I’m afraid of how quickly memories dissolve without touchstones. This is why my legs are black and blue from diving over a wet sofa to pick up a decorated heart encrusted in mud in my grandmother’s floor. It’s why I won’t open any of the swollen photo albums on the floor of my temporary concrete apartment. I know they can no longer remind me of what my grandmother’s uncles looked like or how beautiful her Aunt Prue was. Everyday I remember a picture of my great-grandmother. We called her Mimi. She lived until I was a teenager. In the photo, she is eighteen, looking over her shoulder at the photographer. Her black hair is piled on top of her head except for a few loose strands. It’s the eyes I don’t want to forget. They are enormous and brown. I always thought them incredibly sad. I close my eyes at night and imagine that photo and her sadness. It’s as though she’s looking at me, saying, “I know.” 

I’m getting on my knees now to pick through an album. I believe it’s the one that contained this photo. Annabelle and Ruby are sniffing around the box. I sneeze; pieces of Katrina on the floor in front of me. 

Can I touch it? 

The first Voices Rising volume is currently the second best-selling title for the press, but only seven of their fifty books either currently in print or set to be released within the next year are Katrina-related. They have, however, as Lavender explains, “devoted a lot of effort toward these titles.” This is due in no small part to both the city’s ongoing post-Katrina struggle, but also the interest developed by visitors to New Orleans, who continue to be transfixed by what became a national disaster. Lavender is quick to point out however, that Katrina (and the levee failure) is not the only subject UNO Press is interested in. “We'll continue to publish on the subject,” he explains, “but we'll also continue to publish other things. It's not the only thing on our agenda, certainly. We want to serve the local community, both academic and popular, but we don't want to focus too particularly on any one thing.” 

Part of that community focus includes the documentary book series, The Neighborhood Story Project. NSP works with neighborhood writers to “create portraits of place.” Originally established in 2004 with the first series of books, UNO Press is now their publishing partner, and more titles were released earlier this year. They include four books by students who enrolled in the project at John McDonogh Senior High School and were taught everything from photography to interviewing techniques in a process which culminated in publication, and a series of celebratory book-release block parties across the city. In a manner similar to the Voices Rising titles, the NSP books record the lives of people easily overlooked by those who prefer a fast and easy version of the city. The 2010 series was written by students in the Calliope and St. Bernard Projects and the Seventh Ward, and includes a Honduran immigrant trying to learn as much about where she came from as where she lives now and a young man trying desperately to “find my light at the end of the tunnel.” The authors write candidly about family members who deal drugs, are incarcerated, or, in one heartbreaking passage in Beyond the Bricks, die in acts of senseless violence. The books are poignant, startling, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. With dozens of black and white photographs and extras as varied as recipes and handwritten journal excerpts, From My Mother’s House of Beauty; Aunt Alice vs. Bob Marley; Signed, the President; and Beyond the Bricks are brash statements from brave teenagers who have stepped up the plate and laid their hearts bare in an effort to find themselves. These are unique coming-of-age stories that, taken as a whole, show readers a side of New Orleans life that is a model for documentary study. 

As much as the NSP titles are not about Katrina, however, the authors were all indelibly affected by the events of August 2005, and to one degree or another, write about in their books. What's interesting about the titles at UNO Press, though, is that there are those that are ostensibly not about Katrina, and yet the reader ends up drawn back to it anyway. Jonathan Traviesa’s Portraits: Photographs in New Orleans 1998-2009 is a collection of black-and-white pictures of New Orleanians taken at their homes or studios. There is no hint of destruction to be found here, because the city is not the point -- Portraits is about the people. And yet seeing the faces of NOLA residents in such relaxed settings will likely lead readers to recall the many faces of frustration and despair from five years ago. Traviesa soundly refutes the statements made after the hurricane that New Orleans was not worth saving, or significant to the rest of the country. He shows us the part of the story we did not see back then, and in many ways brings Katrina full circle -- his photos were taken before and after the storm, and yet you cannot perceive a chronology while turning pages. Readers bring Katrina to this book, not the author or his subjects. Realizing this, we learn a little bit more about ourselves and the city and what we expect to find in its books. Essentially, the storm is ever with us. “I actually don't think it's going to fade away,” says Bill Lavender, “even as the BP spill threatens to eclipse it in terms of scope. As many books as have already been published about the disaster, I think there are many more to come. There were lots of Zeitouns.” 

And there are a lot of portraits, which take us back simply because we are still halfway there already. 

The press’s current top seller, Dogs in My Life by John Tibule Mendes, is a hybrid of photo essay and memoir. Mendes’s book includes a fascinating introduction about how his early twentieth-century photos were found, along with his own story about growing up in the city. Local readers are likely transfixed by the disarming photos which show photos of big and small moments in the city’s history (from the 1927 flood and destruction of the Cotton Exchange to a variety of parades and candid city snapshots). It is another example of how the press is able to bridge the gap of past and present and create a collection of topical and compelling titles. As the spill drama continues, Lavender points out that the story of New Orleans and the people who write there will continue to evolve.

"I think Katrina galvanized the national imagination because of the extremes of suffering, generosity, and also venality and xenophobia that surfaced in it. The Nashville flood was a horrible thing, but it was over so quickly the vast diaspora that took place in NO did not really develop, and so there was no occasion for such literary photo ops as the Gretna police or Danziger bridge or Zeitoun. So I actually think it's a combination of the very real long-range effects of the event, plus the fact of New Orleans' literary nature.

"The larger story-- In my crystal ball I can see (darkly) Katrina and the BP spill together as the opening salvo of an age of increasingly serious and frequent environmental disasters. Maybe this age will finally shock us into being pragmatic stewards of the planet. Or so, given the alternative, one would hope."