On September 14, 1722, Diron d’Artaguiette, inspector general of Louisiana at the time, wrote in his journal, “We are working hard here to repair the damage which the hurricane has caused.” Two days earlier, a hurricane had ravaged the city. Like with any event that attracts the media, Hurricane Katrina dominated our attention as the tragedy unfolded and its fetid aftermath festered, but then the media relented. Over the course of the intervening five and a half years, we are reminded of what happened, and more importantly, what has and hasn’t happened during the recovery, but d’Artaguiette’s words still ring true of the city and its citizens.
Films have been made, benefit concerts thrown, books and essays written – a whole body of post-Katrina creations exists, which highlights injustice and hopes to find opportunity in the process of renewal. Where We Know: New Orleans as Home is the second book in the Chin Music Press trilogy of titles that meditate on New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.
The book is an anthology, comprising fiction and nonfiction that deals with the idea of living in New Orleans today, the decisions behind staying during the storm, fleeing, and whether or not to return. As anthologies go, the best writing, like Ray Shea’s short story “Gather the Fragments that Remain” or Lolis Eric Elie’s “Still Live, With Voices,” overshadows some of the other work, though it is all genuine, the process of coping ordered onto the page.
But as a printed object from which unfolds a narrative much larger and more complex than any single writer’s words, this book demands you spend time with it because it so effectively reminds you that no single answer can resolve so many questions.
Edited by David Rutledge and designed by Josh Powell, this book celebrates, and rues, how Katrina was just another, albeit severe, chapter in the story of a city that has always been a place of swampy decay. The inclusion of historical texts dating back as far as 1721 (elegantly indexed on a timeline) and various illustrations allows for a nuanced and profound subtext of vulnerability.
Like the scores of architects and engineers who have surveyed this city “cradled by the river, on a pillow of mud” Powell has charted these stories with numbers that correspond to neighborhoods and other geographical locales. Details of archival topographic maps mingle with photographs of hurricane-inspired tattoos and Sandra Burshell’s haunting photographs of abandoned flood-damaged objects.
Some of these writers try to make sense of it all, the big picture approach, while others sweat the details, the politics of their block or the dissolution of a relationship. As a whole, Where We Know: New Orleans as Home, like the city it ultimately loves, makes you want to linger, to savor a place and a legacy confident with confusion and nervous about too much newness, all of which continues to be New Orleans, no matter what happens.