Louisiana: Literature Remains Critical to the Past and Future of New Orleans

Financial Times, 7/9/10

“In an airy, white-walled classroom in the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (Nocca), Anne Gisleson, its director of creative writing, is leafing through an anthology produced by her high school class. It was a scramble getting it together, she tells me cheerfully.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit Louisiana on August 29, 2005, Gisleson’s students— many of whose homes had been destroyed—were relocated to other schools across the country. Meanwhile, the old cotton factories and train depots that house Nocca were taken over by Task Force Raven, a division of the National Guard, who used it as Army barracks. For a year, Gisleson says, an officer slept under her desk.

A selective state high school that trains students in literature, music, dance, theater, or visual arts, Nocca is one of the cultural hubs of New Orleans. Its teachers are working artists, and its alumni include the actor Wendell Pierce (from The Wire and the New Orleans-set Treme), musicians Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and composer Terence Blanchard. Like many teachers in New Orleans, Gisleson, an energetic 41-year-old Nocca alumna who still looks like a student, responded to the storm with a fresh syllabus. She asked her class to explore the literature about New Orleans and to write about their own experiences of the city. ‘It’s something that everybody was feeling at the time,’ she says, perching on a de, ‘a near desperation to get across the worth of the city and to validate it. Faced with its loss, we felt a need to examine the culture that we had.’

Katrina, which left more than one million people in the Gulf region displaced and 70 percent of homes in New Orleans damaged, required an unprecedented urban recovery project in the United States. For this reason, historians have compared it to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which left 85 percent of the Portuguese capital in ruins. The aftermath of Katrina is reminiscent of the 18th century earthquake in other ways. After 1755, contemporary philosophers and writers sought to respond to and make sense of the disaster. Rousseau called for mankind to return to a more natural way of living—for people to take care of the small patch of earth over which they had control; as did Voltaire, if more satirically, in Candide.

Similarly, in the past five years, Hurricane Katrina has spawned an array of artistic responses—from homegrown community storytelling programs to blockbuster films. Meanwhile, so-called ‘Katrina Literature’ has become its own genre—so popular that the ‘Katrina Memoir’ has almost become a cliché.

There is a long history of writing about New Orleans, both by residents of the city and outsiders. Generally, says Gisleson, writers have tended to mythologize New Orleans, reinforcing a ‘gaudy image of the city as quaint, exotic, slowed down, somewhere where people do nothing but drink beer and talk.’ And since Katrina, writing about New Orleans has become not merely a literary but a moral issue.”

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