“Are you from New Orleans?” is a question that inevitably comes up at book events for my novel Wading Home: a novel of New Orleans.
“No.” I say to the person who wants to know why I wrote a book set there. And then I go into a long-winded explanation about hanging out in the city on vacations and loving the food (Creole and Cajun), the music (jazz), the architecture (amazing), the history (rich), and about what a cool place it is and why.
The real answer is a little more complex. When I begin a novel, I’m obsessed with place. My protagonist has to interest me so much that I wouldn’t mind spending mornings, late evenings, weekends, and all the ‘spare change’ of my days – those untapped minutes and hours – inside his/her head. But place - that’s what gets me up in the morning and to the computer. Stepping into a fictional world of one’s own creation prompts, in a curious way, the same emotions as stepping off a plane into some real-life location.
So I choose character and place very carefully. The choice of New Orleans gave me both: a place that happened also to be one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever written about.
You hear writers talk about how ‘place’ can become ‘character.’ Not to anthropomorphize the city too much, but New Orleans has a certain flare, an accent, a style that sets it apart from every other American locus, and has even earned it the moniker of ‘northernmost Carribean city.’ It’s 300 years of history and layers of culture and tradition make it a natural setting for literature, and like a colorful eccentric with tons of baggage and ‘back story’ it’s the kind of place that can carry the weight of a tale as well as any human character ever created.
By 2005 I had made at least a dozen trips to the city over the previous 20 years; first to audition, unsuccessfully, for the local symphony a few years after music school, and later with a good friend to hang out, eat, drink, hear jazz, and revel in the ongoing party that is New Orleans. It was close enough to Dallas to drive there in a few hours, but exotic enough to fool me into thinking I was on holiday on a foreign shore. When I crossed that real-world/holiday border, I could shrug off the close-fitting garments of perceived identity, convinced that all the rules of home did not apply. Like Paris, maybe, or San Francisco, or Rio or Bali (I’ve heard), New Orleans has the power to encourage self-reassignment – a re-definition of who you are – and defiance of what others expect you to be.
Not that I was doing so much that I wouldn’t do at home; it just felt like I could.
So by January of 2005 New Orleans and I were old friends, and I felt familiar enough with its style, its sound, its smells and even its closeted eccentricities to set my next book there. Jazz, culture, history, tradition – these were things I wanted to explore in my made-up world set in that city. But the book I planned was not the book I ended up with.
On my last trip to New Orleans before the storm that would change everything – New Year’s, 2005 – I was determined to explore the city outside of the French-Quarter-Garden-District tourist haunts. I had just finished More Than You Know, my second book (the first was a history of black opera singers) which was set in New York, my home town of Kansas City, and my family’s ancestral home, southern rural Arkansas. Jazz was prominent in More Than You Know. As a professional classical musician who was born in a city known for jazz, I relished the idea of stepping away from the conservatory mindset to explore the music created from the whole cloth of African American history and culture.
Writing under the canopy of jazz was a joy. There’s sound, rhythm, meter and cadence to play with. In jazz, words and music are sometimes interchangeable, as a musical line speaks like language, and language can sing like the most gorgeous tune. So when I finished More Than You Know, I could easily see returning to a theme of jazz, especially in the city where jazz began.
So I went to New Orleans to celebrate New Year’s with a friend, and also gather notes for my future novel. Hours into our celebration, while putting our picnic basket of wine and cheese together to watch the fireworks over the Mississippi, my friend, Sam, and I met a sad homeless man in Audubon Park. Sam, who worked at helping homeless people in L.A., decided we would help this guy begin the new year with a new start.
We found the Salvation Army shelter deep inside a New Orleans I had never seen, and got the young man safely checked in. Sam bought clothes for him, a little food, a backpack, some cigarettes.
It was this detour that allowed passage from the New Orleans of the oblivious tourist to the world of most of its citizenry.
It was a different place. Poverty, and lots of it, but mostly a workaday world. Interesting characters. Extraordinarily open-hearted people, young and old. Neighborhoods exuding a blend of blight and history and porch-sitters waving at passers-by. Music drifting out of bars and hole-in-the wall dives. Wafting kitchen scents of red beans, rice and deep-fried chicken.
I began to build a novel based on what I had seen.
By August of that year, I had a few pages down, my characters laid out, my central conflict taking shape. But on August 29th, my story was rendered wholly inappropriate, and unusable.
The storm and flood unfolded like a protracted disaster movie on CNN and every cable and network channel. I stopped writing. I planned a trip to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity which would take months to materialize. I joined what would become, literally, an army of volunteers. I took up a hammer with people from Boston and Oregon, Canada and Italy, students and retirees from 16 to 65. Habitat turned down no one, no matter how inexperienced with homebuilding, who wanted to help.
Our crew began working in what is called the Upper Ninth Ward, where badly flooded houses still stood, but what was essentially a ghost town. Over the next couple of years I traveled back several times and watched as New Orleans wrung itself out, struggled, stumbled, crawled, fought to regain a semblance of itself. And then I began to write.
The stories people told me filled my head; stories of evacuees who spent 20 hours stalled on the highway, or even more on a bus with a one-way ticket to an undisclosed place with no way back. There were stories of people who watched the waters rise, got trapped on rooftops, took weeks to find family, or never did. And when the waters receded, there were those who were passionate in their refusal to leave the place they called home, and those who, having left, were equally passionate in their determination never to return.
I learned a lot about character and spirit, and the indomitable power of pure human will. When the rest of the world wrote off New Orleans as forever uninhabitable, most of the people there were going about the business of trying to become whole again, whatever that meant, whatever that took.
It was like watching Rome rise from ruins.
It’s hard to believe this month marks the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the flood that crippled New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish and much of the gulf coast. Progress has been slow by most accounts, and uneven by all. Parts of the city look better than ever, while others look like mere months into the aftermath of a storm.
Like the greatest novels, the story of New Orleans and the flood that almost destroyed it had the arc of a powerful narrative, complete with dramatic acts of courage and generosity, heroes and goats, wise people and fools, brilliance and ineptitude, blessed good fortune and horrible, damnable luck.
What the story does not have is an ending.
Seven years into the rebuilding of this great American city and the story goes on. But here’s what I learned: that in the long history of any city, state or country, when that history is recounted years or centuries later, there will have been times of disaster, near-destruction, re-building, set-backs, revivals, steps forward and steps back that may seem like the end of things but in the grand scheme, only account for a hiccup, a blip in time. But it’s always a mark of greatness of the people when those events are no match for the power of human beings when they have asserted a fierce desire to go on.
So the story I initially set out to tell was put aside; I’m not even sure I remember it. The story I ended up writing is not, and was never intended to be the definitive story of New Orleans and its’ near-death experience. As time passes, and this period of history is viewed from the perspective that distance allows, there will be many, many more.
I’m not a native of New Orleans, just a fan. Wading Home is just my story, a simple tale of family, love, history, and home. It’s my tribute to the people who deserve never to be forgotten for what they endured – the greatest test – and how they responded to it.