Surrounded by Souvenirs of Life: A Conversation with John Biguenet




JOHN BIGUENET, winner of the Louisiana Writer Award in 2012, had established himself as a significant writer of fiction, poetry, drama, essays, and translation long before the failure of the federal levee system that followed Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. After the storm, The New York Times chose Biguenet as its first guest columnist, and his Rising Water Trilogy, first produced in 2007, has become a touchstone through which audiences have grieved, remembered, and understood the city that the disaster irrevocably changed.

Before and since, Biguenet’s work has appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Esquire, Ploughshares, Playboy, Granta, Zoetrope, The New Republic, Tin House, and North American Review, and has been reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories, Best Music Writing, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. His 2001 debut collection of fiction, The Torturer’s Apprentice, received comparisons to Chekhov, Flaubert, and Faulkner, and he published the novel Oyster in 2002. A two-term president of the American Literary Translators Association, Biguenet is the Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University New Orleans, the city where he was born and raised. His plays, which include The Vulgar Soul and Broomstick, have received many prizes, among them a National New Play Network Commission Award and a Big Easy Theatre Award for Best Original Play.

This August, on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the flooding of New Orleans, Louisiana State University Press issued the Rising Water Trilogy in a single volume. The first of the plays, Rising Water, was originally staged by Southern Rep Theatre. Biguenet followed it with Shotgun, which debuted in 2009, and Mold, in 2013. The trilogy and a new work of nonfiction titled Silence — a volume in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series — form the basis of the following exchange, conducted via email over the course of several weeks leading up to the publication of both books.

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JENNIFER LEVASSEUR and KEVIN RABALAIS: Even before returning to New Orleans, you began writing a guest column for The New York Times. In what ways did the realizations you experienced and expressed in the column create the spark for Rising Water? What was the process of moving beyond raw grief and the logistics of recovery to write that play?

JOHN BIGUENET: The nonfiction I wrote after martial law had been lifted was an attempt to provide an accurate account of what life was like in the aftermath of this vast manmade disaster. My wife and I were homeless after the flood and wound up sleeping in a daycare center until we could find a three-room shotgun duplex to rent. We would spend a sweltering day gutting our house, still caked in scales of dried gray mud, then return to the daycare center to take cold showers since there was no hot water available. I’d write my column, sitting on a child’s chair with my portable computer on a barely taller plastic table, and we’d go to a coffee shop with free wi-fi to send the piece to New York. It was only after I’d completed the series of columns and videos for The New York Times that I began to imagine what it would have been like if, instead of evacuating to Texas, we had ridden out the storm and found ourselves trapped by rising water. The play I began to develop, informed by the interviews I did for the columns, was about a couple who flee to their attic and then to their rooftop in the middle of the night.

You’ve worked in almost every genre. What made the dramatic form the most suitable for this material?

There’s nothing in the canon of American literature to provide a narrative model to describe the destruction of an entire city. So reporters and audiences quickly fell into a hurricane narrative, which opens with a formidable display of nature, is followed the next day by weeping survivors thankful to be alive, and concludes the third day with citizens beginning to rebuild. Since New Orleans was on the weak side of Hurricane Katrina as the storm followed the Mississippi state line north, that narrative led to widespread misunderstanding of what had actually happened when defective levees, designed and built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, collapsed all across the city in conditions far below their intended capacities. On the third day, instead of beginning to rebuild, New Orleanians continued to await help from the federal government — help that would not arrive until the end of the week. A play, with its immediacy and intimacy, allowed me to tighten the frame of the story and depict the disaster from the point of view of locals trapped by rising water that they cannot explain, since the hurricane has passed. In the process, audiences rethink their own understanding of the flood. In city after city, audience members said the same thing in talkbacks after performances: “We had no idea that’s what happened in New Orleans. We thought a hurricane destroyed it.”

You discuss the first play in the trilogy, Rising Water, as “a gift to the city,” a work that strove to be local rather than universal. What did you want that play to achieve? How did you think it would affect your local audiences?

Theater is always, in some sense, local. The actors who perform a play are often from the town where the theater itself is located, so audiences hear something of their own English in local productions, something of themselves. (It’s useful to remember that even Euripides and Shakespeare wrote for their neighbors in Athens and London.) So one of the functions of theater, as opposed to other forms of narrative, is to pose questions a particular community needs to address. I thought Rising Water might serve as a forum where New Orleanians could sort through some of the things we needed to talk about. But I could not have anticipated the overwhelming response engendered by the premiere run at Southern Rep Theatre under Ryan Rilette’s direction. Here’s how I describe the audience’s reaction in my introduction to the trilogy:

In the sudden blackout [as the play concluded], there was never any applause. Only as the lights rose for the actors’ curtain call would someone in the audience stand and begin to clap until the entire audience were on their feet.

But then, instead of leaving, nearly all of the audience would sink back into their chairs again. The night of that first preview, though no talkback had been planned, Ryan hesitantly stepped onto the stage and asked if anyone would like to talk about what had just been seen. Some commented on the play, but most talked about what had happened to them, to their families, to their neighbors. Nearly an hour later, Ryan brought the discussion to a close. A few people were still crying.

It went on like that for the entire run — talkbacks and tears at nearly every per­formance.

Can you tell us how Rising Water moved from being about and for a specific city to becoming a play that captured the interest of theaters and audiences around the country?

In the end, the events depicted are only the setting. When I considered the central metaphor of Rising Water, of water creeping up the attic stairs, I began to see that every couple will eventually find themselves trapped in a dark attic, surrounded by the souvenirs of their lives together, as water rises around them without an ax to cut their way onto the roof. It might be another kind of disaster or a terminal illness or something else, but when death is climbing the stairs, how do you go on loving the person across from you? In the end, Rising Water, like Shotgun and Mold, is a love story.

All three of the plays are love stories at the core. Alongside being love stories between people, they ask how residents can continue to love the destroyed city. Before and after the flood, New Orleans has been riddled with corruption and surges of crime. You examine this in Mold, a play in which the character Trey finds himself torn between his devotion to the past and to a different kind of future elsewhere. His wife describes New Orleans this way: “some of the worst schools in the South, it’s the murder capital of the country, our politicians steal us blind…” In what ways do you see New Orleanians — at home and still displaced — struggling with what is often a love-hate relationship with the city?

I suppose it’s like a bad marriage where you simply love the other person too much to give up on him or her. With all its problems, New Orleanians feel privileged to live here. The summer before the flood, a national Gallup poll found New Orleans the happiest of 22 major American cities, with 53 percent of its citizens describing themselves as extremely satisfied with their personal lives. As far as New Orleanians were concerned, everybody else was looking for it; we’d found it.

In your New York Times columns, you discussed the prevalent feeling among New Orleanians that, post-Katrina, life would change, not only externally but internally. Old habits would be abandoned, attachment to things — even houses — would weaken. Ten years later, how have residents handled the psychological changes?

Many locals found the commemorations of the 10th anniversary of the flood difficult to endure. In local television reports, those eyewitnesses of the events 10 years ago — a police officer, a firefighter — couldn’t recount their experiences without breaking into tears. I tried to give a sense of how the effects have lingered in an essay I published in The New York Times at the end of this past August. The headline for the piece was “The Water Receded. The Anger’s Still Here.” But my working title may have been closer to the way we still feel here: “The Big Uneasy.”

That play on the city’s nickname tells a lot about its temperament. How would you describe a typically New Orleanian view of life? What was it before the flood? How has it changed?

Perhaps because we bury our dead above ground in cemeteries throughout the city, often at the center of our finest neighborhoods, memento mori is not something of which New Orleanians need to be reminded. And yet our major local holiday of the year, Fat Tuesday, is followed by Ash Wednesday, when all across town that whole day, citizens carry a cross of ashes on their foreheads impressed by the thumb of a priest as he uttered an ominous warning to each of the faithful — even the children: “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” So death — whether fire or yellow fever or hurricanes or murder — is the foundation upon which the culture of New Orleans rose. Life was celebrated because we were aware how brief it is; we even danced home from the cemetery after funerals.

So it wasn’t the death and destruction that changed things. But something did happen when the city flooded and the United States waited a week to send help, when national politicians blamed us for choosing to live in a city like New Orleans, rather than taking responsibility themselves for the collapse of levees designed and built by an agency of the Federal government. At our moment of greatest need, we were abandoned. Americans may not have fully grasped the significance of their government’s failure to respond, but the rest of the world noted it with disgust and outrage.

When I was a child, New Orleans was called “The City That Care Forgot.” No one would use that nickname anymore. In 2005, it wasn’t care that forgot us. And no one down here has forgotten who did.

The response of outsiders to the flood and about the future of the city ranges widely. How do you respond to the sentiment that New Orleans should never have been rebuilt?

What’s most infuriating is that such sentiments are expressed by Americans living in San Francisco, in the Tornado Alley of the Midwest, and in similarly vulnerable areas of the country. While visiting New Orleans Senator Ted Stevens pontificated that if a natural disaster of equal magnitude occurred in his native Alaska, the state would move the city rather than rebuild it — apparently forgetting that the largest earthquake in recorded North American history leveled much of Anchorage in 1964 and that Anchorage still sits astride the same fault line. Again, all of these blame-the-victim tirades ignore the fact that the destruction of New Orleans was a manmade disaster, as the US Corps of Engineers admitted in 2006. But, of course, the Corps has dodged all financial responsibility for its incompetence by invoking the immunity provided it by Congress. And by blaming New Orleanians, those vitriolic critics of New Orleans seek to dodge financial responsibility as well for the enormous damage done by an agency of their own government.

In Shotgun, the second play in the trilogy, you focus heavily on some of that uneasiness: race relations and the self-enforced segregation by white and black communities. After the flood, the races were forced to mix in ways that some people had previously avoided. Everything in New Orleans is about race, you once said. What challenges did you experience in examining race in New Orleans? What particular responsibilities did you feel in writing about the African-American experience?

As with all writing, my overriding responsibility was to get it right — whether it was the food, the voices, the family relationships, the jokes, the daily humiliations of life in a racist society. In a talkback after a preview of Shotgun, a black member of the audience asked how I knew that some people used to say whites smell like dogs when their hair gets wet. Her question confirmed that I had gotten it right — even the secrets a white writer wasn’t supposed to know. But I also recognized the limitations of my authority to write about the experience of African Americans. So the scenes about the white father and son take place in the intimacy of their own kitchen, but we witness the black characters in public settings, such as a porch, or in the home of a white man — places where I had the confidence of firsthand experience.

You’ve talked about your grandfather referring to non-native-born New Orleanians as “The Americans.” When did your family first arrive in New Orleans? What did your ancestors do in the city?

My great aunt, the Mother Superior of an order of nuns, traced the family’s arrival in New Orleans to 1760. One ancestor was a fire fighter; another, a salesman. My guess is that, like me, they were ordinary New Orleanians who survived disasters and preferred their coffee with chicory.

Considering the current national conversation about race and the symbols of racism, Shotgun (which was first produced in 2009) seems prescient. Dex asks: “Think they ever gonna pull down that statue of Robert E. Lee? General fought a war to keep us slaves. … what you think they saying with a statue like that?” When you wrote those words, did you imagine that we’d now be considering removing that statue?

I thought the question of whether that monument should be dismantled was an issue New Orleanians needed to address, especially in the racially charged aftermath of the flood. The slow decline of the city from a population of over 600,000 fifty years ago to fewer than 400,000 today reflects a continuing racial divide. As I wrote in a recent essay on the future of New Orleans, “With our coastline crumbling into an encroaching Gulf of Mexico and sea levels inexorably rising, whether we realize it or not we are already in the midst of a slow-motion catastrophe far worse than what happened here 10 years ago. Even walled round with levees, this island we inhabit cannot go on supporting two cities. Either we merge our common strengths and work together to solve our common problems, or we continue to disappear, little by little, like the wetlands that surround us.”

In your recently published book of nonfiction, Silence, you write about the act of reading and how literature has the capacity to take us out of firsthand experience and let us become “lost in another’s consciousness.” Later in the book, you say you “still find it impossible” to lose yourself in a book as you once could. Talk about how your own reading life changed since these events. What do you find yourself seeking in literature that you didn’t seek before the failure of the levees?

As I discuss in a chapter on “Silent Reading,” many New Orleanians complained about the loss of the ability to read with sustained attention in the aftermath of the flooding. Reading requires yielding consciousness to the writer. If one is overwhelmed by the problems of serious illness or disaster, one does not yield easily. In my case, I don’t think I ever fully recovered my ability to read with the intensity of which I was capable before. But I have brought my experience of life among the ruins of New Orleans to bear on my reading, experience that has illuminated aspects of literature I hadn’t fully grasped. Surviving such a disaster, I recognized how I’d been sheltered from the sort of resignation to loss that surely has been a common feature of human consciousness from its origins, and undergirds many lasting works of poetry, drama, and fiction. I’ve come to this understanding late, it’s true, but perhaps that’s because our culture buffers most of us from early acquaintance with such hopelessness.

Does this resignation continue to affect how you choose characters and scenarios in your work?

It’s not the choice of characters and scenarios that has been affected. Rather, what’s changed for me is a diminishing of the character’s ability to forestall defeat and loss. I suppose one might describe the change as an embrace of the tragic mode — or perhaps a greater appreciation of tragedy as a literary form.

Do you have specific tragedies in mind?

Ancient literature and international literature resonate in new ways for me now, especially the Greeks, the Russians, the Germans, and the Africans.

Long after the flood of 2005, parts of New Orleans remained quiet, without birdlife or typical city sounds. How did your relationship with and understanding of silence change because of that experience?

Like many inhabiting our bustling, noisy world, I had associated silence with peace. I imagined it something to long for, to seek out. But as a character in my play Rising Water laments to her husband as she paces their rooftop, “It’s deadly quiet out here, Sugar. Nothing but the sound of water lapping at the roof. No dogs, no motors, no human voices. Nothing. … Not a sound. No wind. No birds. Nobody knocking. Nothing but the sloshing of the water.” Silence, I’ve discovered, has two faces.

You discuss this dichotomy throughout the book. You say that depending on whether it’s voluntary, silence can be valued or feared. And you talk about reading as “silent debate,” noting that it is “itself the interruption” and “an act of hospitality toward another’s mind, in which we silence our voice in courtesy to the voice of another’s consciousness.” What happens to the emotional life and intellectual life of a reader when he or she loses this ability to allow room for another’s consciousness?

Certainly the intellectual life is stunted, and perhaps so also is the emotional life. It’s a bit like the body’s response to extreme physical stress: blood flow is reduced to the extremities to make oxygen available to core functions. If one is fully preoccupied with issues that bear on one’s survival, it’s understandable that consciousness will fix on the immediate problem rather than reflect in leisure on the imaginative and the intellectual.

How long have you wanted to write about silence? What drew you to the subject?

When I was approached by the publisher and asked if I would write a volume in its Object Lessons series, silence was the first subject I proposed. A writer spends so much of his or her life in silence, composing and reading, that it seemed an object with which I was very familiar.

Silence, in about one hundred pages (not counting notes or bibliography), delves into a wide range of topics and references — from Twain, Poe, Foucault, Kafka, and Chekhov to solitary confinement, luxury goods and experiences, sensory deprivation, punctuation, Edward Snowden’s leaks, and the Afghan practice of raising a girl as a boy when a family has no son. You also balance the personal, political, and philosophical. Is that what you were trying to do?

I wanted to create something that would mirror the life of the mind — integrating information, the testimony of others, personal experience, and then doubt about the conclusions reached. Someone has written that Silence reads like a novel. If that’s true, I would be very pleased.

One of the fascinating things about this book and about the series Object Lessons as a whole is its open-ended yet confining nature. While its topics are enormous and wide-ranging (and about things most people casually assume they understand), the short form requires the author to make difficult decisions about how to approach these subjects. Silence could have taken endless shapes. What ideas or examples did you immediately know you wanted to include? What did the short form force you to exclude? What did you wish that you’d had more room to explore?

The first paragraph of the book is about silence, but it might as well be about silence as a subject for study:

We may conjecture that somewhere in the cosmos, beyond the border of all human trace, a zone of silence awaits (always receding, of course, before the advance of future explorers), a great sea of stillness unperturbed by the animate, an utterly quiet virgin territory. But our imagination misleads us if we conceive of silence as a destination at which we might arrive.

The boundary of the subject, too, always recedes before our efforts to reach its frontiers. The deeper I descended into silence, so to speak, the more the subject expanded until there were few aspects of life that didn’t seem to depend, in some sense, on silence. I knew, for example, that I would have to address the relationship of silence to power and to religion. I could not have guessed, though, that I would write a chapter on the silence of dolls. I expected to write about torture as the antidote of silence: “For what is the purpose of torture … is it not to force stubborn silence into speech?” But I was surprised by my argument that the camera is, fundamentally, a silencer. On the other hand, I anticipated writing about the erotics of silence — examining, for example, “Murke’s Collected Silences” by Heinrich Böll in which a man records the enforced silences of “a very pretty blonde” so that he can listen to the tape in the evenings when he is alone. But the contractual word limit of my book silenced me before I could speak of such things.

It would be surprising to read a book on silence that didn’t include discussions of reading and noise, for instance, which you cover in fresh ways. But you also challenge the reader with more surprising ones, including the chapter on the uncanny silence of dolls, and another on the silencing of women. What drew you to these two topics in relation to the project as a whole?

Those chapters come toward the end of the book. I hope they point toward the enormous terrain my word limit could not encompass. I do think those two chapters have something to do with each other, but there’s more than one book to be written about that relationship and about the function of silence in the exercise of power.

The book invites debate — it sparks questions about the various aspects of your subject rather than attempting to have the last word. Did you set out to write about silence in a way that asks the reader to “talk back,” or did that structure evolve during the process?

With some of my students, I recently discussed the fading of the sonnet as a vital form in the 20th century, certainly as compared to its vitality at the beginning of the 19th. A form that counter-poses problem and resolution in a mere 14 lines depends upon the willingness of the reader to accept the authority of the poet in proposing a resolution to the problems of unrequited love or guilt or early death or any of those human mysteries that eventually drag us into their vortices. But after a century in which we were betrayed by authorities over and over again — whether a president dragging us into a war without cause or a bishop shuffling a pedophile priest from parish to parish — who has the authority to be an author? Or, at least, who is willing to trust another to be an author, rather than merely a writer? So only someone who has slept through the last hundred years doesn’t speak back to authority. I thought I could take advantage of this dynamic between author and skeptical reader even as I discussed it. As I argue in (and through) Silence, a book isn’t a monologue; it’s a conversation.

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Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais are writers and editors. Their Conversations with James Salter will be published in November by the University Press of Mississippi.



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