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The What and the How of It

Online Only, posted 7.01.10

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I was able to write through the whole ordeal, but I lost the ability to read. Even sitting through a film was agony. I think I was holding on so tightly, with such focused attention, to the myriad of problems that beset us—housing, jobs, money, looters, health care, insurance—that I simply found it impossible to relax my imagination long enough to slip the bonds of the self and inhabit an invented character on the page or the screen. Others complained of similar incapacities.

But even being able to write, I wasn't sure what to write. We had known how to depict New Orleans before the flood: Each art form here had its conventions, nearly all muddying the threshold between past and present. Jazz, for instance, usually took flight from an old song and came home to it at the end. Writers here made more use of ghost stories than authors elsewhere in America. Photographers situated the present under the mossy arches of the past. All of us, in one way or another, depicted life among the ruins.

Since the destruction of the city, though, we are adrift in the present, far from the familiar coastline of the past. What conventions exist to depict something that has never happened before? What American novel traces the eradication of one of our cities, the exile of two hundred thousand citizens, the obliteration of a set of intertwined cultures centuries old? Do we have a musical idiom for the wail of lamentation such loss engenders? And what is it our
photographers could shoot and our artists paint that might frame in an image the vast devastation of the city?

Because I had no models, for me it seemed necessary to start small, to confine the dimensions of the story I wanted to tell. So I wrote a play based upon one of my New York Times columns, "How They Died."  In Rising Water, a couple awaken in the middle of
the night to find their pitch-dark house filling with water.  Clambering into their attic, and then onto their rooftop, Camille and Sugar struggle not only to survive but also to keep the guttering flame of their love from being extinguished.

It took ten drafts to find a workable form and to purge the play of my anger. What was left was a first act in a cramped attic, filled with the mementoes of a lifetime together, and a
second act in which Camille is able to escape to the roof but her overweight husband can squeeze no more than his head through the hole he has made to escape the flooding attic. The form revealed to me the subject: The first act would explore memory; the second, dream as the couple discovered in moonlight a city unlike any they had ever before imagined. Camille was light enough to escape the past, but Sugar, weighed down by all the losses they had suffered, found himself stranded between memory and dream, past and future.

We all of us were changed by what we experienced and what we witnessed. How did so much suffering remake us as writers, photographers, artists, musicians? We are only now just beginning to discover what it's done to us. But like Sugar, we are trapped between the New Orleans we remember and the new New Orleans that still seems a kind of dream. Some have retreated to the attic; some are pacing the rooftop, knowing help is unlikely to arrive.

From “The What and the How of It” by John Biguenet (in Before During After, edited by Elizabeth Kleinveld, to be published by the University of New Orleans Press in 2010).

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