A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge
As a participant in a panel called "Catastrophe Practice," sponsored by the French cultural institute Villa Gillet and N+1 magazine (held February 2, 2011, at the New School's Tisch Auditorium as part of the "Walls and Bridges" series), I was asked to prepare a paper. I am greatly indebted to an essay by University of Chicago PhD candidate Margaret Fink Berman, which helped me organize many of my thoughts on this topic.
Filtering Catastrophe Through Comics
I don’t have the training or the intellectual resources to understand catastrophe on a rational level. Instead, I am left with many (some might say foolish) impulses: to see it, to run toward the chaos, to immerse myself in its media coverage — all ultimately unsatisfying. For me, it’s deeply frustrating to not understand the event on a real, personal level. So then I do what I can: Respond with art.
There are a couple of recent catastrophes which really affected me on a personal level: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
On September 11, 2001, I was in my Brooklyn neighborhood, visiting a local bodega when the news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center filtered in. I spent the rest of the day running around watching the news, trying to reach my wife at her job in Manhattan, and watching the horrific scene from my roof.
In the following days and weeks, my wife and I volunteered, we walked through the dust-covered downtown, and we visited the wreckage of the Twin Towers. I felt more kinship with the rest of New York City than I necessarily did with the country as a whole. I didn’t understand a lot of the jingoistic flag-waving, but I understood the loss and terrible sadness — and I felt the pain of the ravaged, smoking scar in the heart of downtown.
Like I’m sure thousands of other New Yorkers, I emerged from 9/11 with two overwhelming feelings. One was powerlessness. There had been nothing I could do to forestall the tragedy, no survivors to help rescue, no blood that needed to be donated. And I continued to suffer from a sort of PTSD for years afterward, continuously startling at loud noises on the street, peering suspiciously at airplanes flying overhead, and, most unnerving, suffering from a crisis of interpretation — the destruction of confidence in my ability to interpret the world. After all, if hijackers could fly planes into the World Trade Center, and knock the Towers down, killing thousands of people in one fell swoop, then how could I count on anything I had ever thought of as real or permanent?
Here I quote from Margaret Fink Berman (an English PhD candidate at the University of Chicago) and her essay, “Talk for Chadbourne Convocation” of August 31, 2010:
Psychoanalytic studies of trauma have drawn a distinction between narrative and traumatic memory. ... Ordinary memory, or narrative memory, according to psychoanalyst Pierre Janet, is formed when people use mental constructs to make sense of new experiences. Traumatic memory is the unsuccessful or insufficient integration of experience into interpretive constructs, resulting in symptoms like repetitive, spontaneous, all-encompassing flashbacks.
Bessel Van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart expand on Janet’s work to characterize narrative memory as social, articulated in language and modified for the audience as appropriate; traumatic memory, on the other hand, is inflexible, a solitary activity not addressed to any audience, and often cannot be articulated in language; time does not flow according to socially normalized minutes, hours, or seconds, and an event that occurred over a short period of time may dilate to occupy what seems like a number of hours.
Van der Kolk and Van der Hart explain: “When people are exposed to trauma … they experience ‘speechless terror.’ The experience cannot be organized on a linguistic level, and this failure to arrange the memory in words and symbols leaves it to be organized on a somatosensory or iconic level.”
Not long after 9/11, I wrote and drew a short comics story about that fateful day. It struck me that the lyrics of the famous Kander & Ebb song “New York, New York” — usually thought of as a triumphalist anthem — were weirdly resonant with the imagery and devastated emotions of post-9/11 New York. So I juxtaposed images from my life that day with those of the attack on the Towers to create “Song for September 11."
A little later — maybe a year after the attacks — I came out of a gym on the West Side of Manhattan to witness a cloud passing over the Empire State Building. In my still-addled state it almost looked like the building was freezing, cracking, and crumbling before my eyes. Something like that would never have occurred to me before 9/11 — it’s the stuff of childish nightmares — but I actually stood there, frozen in fear, until the sun shone on the building again, still happily standing tall and secure. Again, I used that moment to generate another short comics piece, “Post-Traumatic Skyscraper Anxiety.”
In the end, I found that conceiving and crafting both “Song for September
11” and “Post-Traumatic Skyscraper Anxiety” actually did
go some way toward my processing the catastrophe of 9/11. Apparently, they
spoke to others as well, as both pieces have been published and re-published,
and have been included in museum exhibitions both here in the States and abroad.
A few years later, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans’s levees were breached and the city flooded, I was at home in New York. Like millions of other people around the country and the world I watched the TV in horror as events unfolded. (It’s important to remember that the effects of Katrina were very different in coastal areas in Louisiana and Mississippi as compared to in New Orleans. What happened to, say, Biloxi, Mississippi, which suffered from a 35-foot storm surge, was most definitely an act of nature; the flooding of New Orleans was the result of multiple human and governmental failures before and during the storm, not in the least of which being the failure to create levees which could withstand anything above a Category 3 Hurricane. Katrina was at least a Category 4 storm.
The thing that struck me the most was the sight of all those people in New Orleans trapped and stranded on their roofs, in their attics, and on freeway overpasses; as well as all those (mostly poor and African-American) who had been basically abandoned for days at the “shelters of last resort,” the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. I struggled to put myself in their place, imagining what it would be like to be trapped in the flooding, to wade through chin-high water, to lose everything you owned to water and mold. For me, the overwhelming emotion was loss — of people, of possessions, of government, of community, of trust in the accepted facts of life. I couldn’t get a handle on all those different types of loss.
Again, here’s an excerpt from Margaret Fink Berman’s essay:
Martin Heidegger would conceptualize the way a newscast fails to answer the question, “What was Katrina, really?” by noting that a newscast sort of viewpoint represents the event as an objective circumstance — something that happens “out there in the world.” He writes that whenever something becomes “the object of representing, it first incurs in a certain manner a loss of Being.” According to Heidegger, we represent objects, but we can only undergo events. The event as such is not something that can be represented — if anything, it’s what drives us to representation — we are moved/mobilized, compelled to respond, and thus are transformed. So while we usually think of an event such as Katrina as changing “the world,” it’s really us who have been impacted by the event, overcome by it, incorporated within the process of its unfolding.
This time, my anxiety and anger — at the authorities’ multiple failures, both before and after the storm & flooding — had a focus, and an antidote (of sorts). Again, I volunteered. First, my wife and I spent time at the New York headquarters of the Red Cross, working with refugees who were straggling in from the Gulf Coast. This was not enough, however; I soon pursued training as a disaster response worker, and six weeks after the storm I was deployed to Biloxi, Mississippi, to help with the recovery there. Mostly, I spent my three-week assignment bringing prepared meals to residents of the flood zone, many of whom had lost everything in the hurricane.
While there, I took many photos and I kept a blog about what I saw, from signing up for Red Cross training; getting deployed; the conditions in the Gulf; working with the survivors; a visit to New Orleans; my co-workers; issues of race, religion, and regional background; and much more.
My volunteer experience was incredibly rewarding, not the least because when
I left Biloxi, the residents of the area the Red Cross had served were in
better shape than when I arrived. Nonetheless, seeing the devastation that
Katrina brought, and hearing the stories of the survivors I talked to, left
me still grappling with the reality of the catastrophe. Moreover, all during
this period, friends and readers of my blog were encouraging me to do something
related to the Katrina story in comics form.
Finally, about a year after the event, I was invited by the online journal SMITH magazine to do just that. Working closely with SMITH editor Larry Smith, I decided to tell the story from the perspective of a cross-section of New Orleans residents — sort of a “people’s history” of Hurricane Katrina.
I wanted to do this for two reasons. One was that I recognized the opportunity to tell what was clearly a very important story in a new way. Nobody had yet used comics to deal with Katrina. I could focus on what I saw as vital issues in the storm’s aftermath, including the virtual abandonment of thousands of people at the shelters of last resort, and the misleading media coverage of those events. I chose the “character” of Denise as my guide through that narrative. I also I hoped that by tackling the multiple facets of the Katrina narrative — for instance the stories of Abbas & Darnell, who faced ten feet of flooding; or Leo & Michelle, who lost everything they owned — I personally would come to some understanding of what exactly Katrina was. And subconsciously, I realize now, I hoped that by telling these stories of trauma and heartbreak I would find a way to process the lingering anxieties I still harbored after 9/11.
So the events that occur in A.D. actually happened to all of the characters, and most of the dialogue in the book is taken from our conversations, quotes from interviews, or entries from their blogs. The places and details are real too, which really mattered to me: by obsessively recording and documenting, say, the comics and DVDs on Leo’s shelves, or the contents of Abbas’s store, I am speaking to all the things — from all the people and all the institutions — lost in the floods. (In A.D., things/objects/possessions are cues to each person’s personality; and the very specificity of each characters’ experiences, so particular and highly personal, helps us “relive” and thus understand them.)
For me, of course, the comics form is particularly suited for this type of work. There are some things you can convey in comics that you simply can’t put into words. The medium’s unique combination of pictures and text, and the fragmented narrative of the panel-by-panel format, engages the reader (and, of course, the creator) in a particularly active role of interpretation and inference.
Comics can be intimate and subtle, but they are also particularly suited to large moments: terror, violence. For instance, when I show Denise’s experiences in her apartment as the hurricane hits, I deliberately slow down certain key moments, and magnify panels to fill entire spreads, to evoke the “speechless terror” that Van der Kolk and Van der Hart write about— hopefully in some way communicating and deepening Denise’s experience for my readers.
And, as with the comics I did about 9/11, I have found that A.D. has had great resonance for many people, not only Katrina survivors, but those who have experienced other hurricanes or similar catastrophes. In fact, I wasn’t exactly prepared for it, but I’ve often found that A.D. has opened up a sort of “group therapy,” a way for both my readers and myself to process our feelings around this momentous event. As I write at the end of the book, A.D. is specific and limited in its scope, but hopefully it provides a window into a larger world, one that few of us understand and that we’ll be trying to make sense of for a long time to come.
— Josh Neufeld, Brooklyn, January 14, 2011