Art & Culture In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

29 Aug
Civil engineering and infrastructure repair in...

Civil engineering and infrastructure repair in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that Hurricane Isaac has to a tropical storm and, more importantly, I know that my friends and cousin in New Orleans are safe, it seems appropriate to pause for a moment and think about the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. If not for Isaac, I suspect that today–the 7th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans–would have been a day of remembrance. Instead, the federal and state government stood by, ready to demonstrate that lessons had been learned about response and rescue.

I’ve been thinking a lot not about what we lost in Hurricane Katrina–certainly plenty was lost and not yet regained–but what we gained, culturally and artistically. I thought I’d dedicate this post to a brief round-up of Art & Culture in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. I have not read or seen everything that deals with the hurricane, or life after it, but I do have a few favorites.

Cover of "Zeitoun"

Cover of Zeitoun

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Dave Eggers may be one of the best literary non-fictionwriters of my generation and in this book he tells a story that may illustrate the defining mindset of our post-911 U.S. Zeitoun follows Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born father of 4, owner of a painting and contracting company, and a Muslim, as he attempts to protect his property during the aftermath of the storm. Having sent his wife and children out of the city, Zeitoun not only checks on his own properties and renters, but also aids animals and people stranded by the storm.  Eventually, after being seen praying on the rooftop of his house, Zeitoun is detained by Homeland Security. His wife has no idea where he is. Eggers’s narrative follows Zeitoun from the decision to evacuate his family to his 6-day detention during which time his wife thinks he is dead. Eggers describes, in restrained prose, not only Zeitoun’s impressions of NOLA in the aftermath of the storm by the humiliations through which this man is subjected when he is mistaken for a member of Al Quaeda.

I read this book in 2009 and write all of the above from memory because it is that indelibly printed on my psyche. As a memoir of the hurricane, the book helps us see the lackluster response of FEMA to the storm, the devastation of the city, and the inherent socioeconomic inequalities of evacuation and rescue. Inevitably, it prompts conversations about civil rights. This tale of a compassionate man who is mistaken for a terrorist because he is a devout Muslim drives home the xenophobia that remains one of the ultimate legacies of President Bush’s post-9/11 policies and rhetoric.

As one reviewer wrote (I paraphrase), if we were to create a time-capsule including one book that epitomized the post-9/11 mentality of the U.S., this book should be it.*

Beasts of the Southern Wild: I wrote about this film last week. In some respects it underscores the issues of diversity raised by Eggers’s book. In other respects, it shows the staggering free will and independence of the proud people of the “Bathtub.”  I remember seeing the road to the “Bathtub” washed out and hearing news reports of people who had refused to leave, of a peninsula turned island by the storm. This film shows us all that through the eyes and words of a six-year old, in all its exquisite (in both the sense of beauty and of blinding pain) emotions. As the mother of a seven-year old, I can’t fathom how a child can be as strong and self-reliant as HushPuppy or how an eight -ear old can summon the reserves to portray her on film. Read my notes about Beasts of the Southern Wild here.

Service Learning at Tulane University: One of the most wonderful outcomes, in my viewpoint, of the storm was the reaction of the institutions of higher learning and their collaborations with the city in rebuilding. A requirement added across the Tulane curriculum in 2006, “Academic Service Learning,” in the words of the university’s website, “is an educational experience based upon a collaborative partnership between the university and the community. Through reflection and assessment, students gain deeper understanding of course content and the importance of civic engagement.” I’ve heard anecdotally that high school seniors are considering Tulane not just for its fine academic reputation and choice location in New Orleans, but also because they want to be part of the service learning program and give back to the community.

Treme: Entering its third season on HBO. It follows the residents of the Treme neighborhood–musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, business owners, regular people–as they try to rebuild their lives and neighborhood. American television at its best by the master, David Simon. What more need I say?

Of course, there is more. There’s the Spike Lee’s Emmy-winning When the Levees Broke and Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Academy Award-nominated Trouble the Water. More I’ve seen and can’t call to mind right now. More I haven’t seen or read. More civic and religious rebuilding programs and legacies. But, these are my highlights, the unforgettable watermarks of a storm that changed the way I think about storms. Please feel free to suggest your own favorites.

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*In a sad post-script, I note that the hero of Zeitoun has recently been arrested for allegedly assaulting his now ex-wife and plotting to injure or kill several other people.

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3 Responses to “Art & Culture In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina”

  1. Brandon Isaacson August 30, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    LOVE Zeitoun, I read it the week it came out. I had just read What Is the What and fell in love, so I checked on his other work and found out he had a new book on the way! I bought the hardcover at my local Borders, which is of course no longer in existence 😦 I’ll never forget the utter shock I faced when he was detained by Homeland Security. The book didn’t feel like it was building to anything remotely like that (which I’m sure was Eggers’ intention).

    I’m also a big fan of Treme & Trouble the Water.

    I don’t know of anything else that relates to Katrina, however since you touch a bit on post 9/11 I’d like to mention the recently controversial film Margaret directed by Kenneth Lonergan. While the film didn’t have many fans at first, it now has an intense cult following. To be honest, I didn’t understand why certain critics felt it to be a masterful depiction of “the post 9/11 mindset” (Kris Tapley, Hitfix). Regardless, it’s worth mentioning and I definitely plan on revisiting the film.

    • Culture Bean August 30, 2012 at 8:45 am #

      I haven’t seen (or even heard of) Margaret, but I’ll definitely seek it out. Thanks for the tip, Brandon.

      • Brandon Isaacson August 30, 2012 at 8:53 am #

        Suddenly at the end of last year several voices in the indie film community fell head over heels in love with the film (which came out in May). I recommend reading about all the legal troubles that plagued the film which was filmed in 2005.

        I know a few critics that I follow who are major supporters are Richard Brody from The New Yorker, Guy Lodge from Hitfix and Kris Tapley from Hitfix. There are many more big fans and I think Kenneth Turan from the LA Times was one also.

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