As Tom Piazza's City of Refuge made its way to the final round of the Tournament of Books the comments on its subject matter have been very interesting to read. Some people thought it had gotten sort of a pity vote - moving forward because it was about Katrina and not necessarily because it was well written. (It fell to Toni Morrison's A Mercy in the end.) I've been wondering if we are perhaps still too close to Katrina and the failure of the levees to judge novels or stories written about those events without simultaneously judging the national response to what happened to the city. It seems that in writing about Piazza's book everyone brought themselves to the table - what they remembered or thought or felt while watching the city drown on television. City of Refuge is thus as much about the characters in the book, the actual events in the city and further, the people who read the book and their thoughts on the matter, as it is a fictional story. I honestly almost wonder if we are ready for novels about Katrina, or if we still need nonfiction to work our way through what happened. (Not to suggest that Piazza's book is anything less than good - but you know what I mean.)
Last month I reviewed Jerry Ward's The Katrina Papers over at Voices. It is a diary of his year after Katrina and the flood, written in dated chronological order. Ward writes not only about the impact of the storm and his subsequent displacement on his professional career but also how it made him feel. The balance between those two things - emotion and material loss - is excellent and really provides an excellent view on just how hard it was to be a survivor. Here's a bit of my review:
It is Ward's continued focus on working, his diligent determination to not stray from his love of students and learning that propels The Katrina Papers forward. His losses are great, however, and it is lists like this (written in the third person in vain hope of achieving some distance perhaps) that will hit home for fellow writers:
"The room used as an office sustained losses that will cause Mr. Ward to be in agony for months. He will grieve over the loss of his two-volume Oxford English Dictionary. Many reference books, autographed books, papers pertaining to the Richard Wright Encyclopedia and the Cambridge History of African American Literature, Ward's manuscripts for Reading Race Reading America, Hollis Watkins: An Oral Autobiography and To Shatter the Iris of Innocence (poetry) are beyond recovery."
Later, while clearing out so many water damaged and molding documents and books, Ward comes to a sorrowful 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 Lord. 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."
I think that readers might largely be uncomfortable with books like The Katrina Papers. You can read City of Refuge and feel like you are gaining the "Katrina experience" (or supporting/caring about those who lived it) while also criticizing the author for his characters/plot/etc. But you read Ward's book, written in "real time" as the drama was unfolding and through the aftermath and the pain is so intense, the trauma so honestly recorded, that you feel for this man and for all of his friends far more than you ever did while watching television. You get to know Jerry Ward while reading his diary and thus his losses - especially the incredible losses of notes and papers relevant to his work - are that much more acute. His book is one that will not let you look away.
Perhaps the reason why I read The Katrina Papers and see it as so significant is because Ward continued teaching and lecturing and writing as he struggled to return home, return to work, return to normalcy. It is a book about how hard it is to get your life back in order from the perspective of a man who was doing everything he could to accomplish that goal. He juxtaposes entries about clearing out his home against reports from visits to other universities where he guest lectured on his work. Seeing them side by side, written as they happened, you wonder how he kept his sanity, traveling between such extremes. And you can't close the book and set it aside as fiction; instead you turn the final page and wonder how Jerry Ward is today and if he has returned to his scholarship and recreated the research he lost.
You wonder if he is okay.
We write stories and novels about life's tragedies, historians and politicans and environmentalists all weigh in with nonfiction studies about what went wrong or right about something like Katrina but how often do we find the words of someone who was standing in the middle of it? And even with those first person reports how often are we able to read their record over the length of a year? You can dismiss CIty of Refuge as a novel - even a good novel - but you can't dismiss The Katrina Papers as anything less than a legacy. All too often we think we know what has happened but as Jerry Ward reminds us, unless we were there, we really don't have a clue.