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Katrina: a matrix of stories.

In those brief, rare moments since August 29, 2005, when I am my old self and not out for daily walks on a tightrope of despair, I think about the importance of stories. In the unsettling aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I focus on narratives and natural disasters. Mark Twain delivered a mouthful of truth when he proclaimed that nothing in our country is as interesting as the human mind. Despite the unprecedented damage that Hurricane Katrina and her sister Hurricane Rita accomplished, the compelling minds and bottomless imaginations of survivors have prevailed. The survivors have refused to release their grips on dreams of life, refused to cast faith in God and themselves to the winds. Women, men, and children have told and are telling stories of bodies and psyches in pain. And in the future those stories will become more polished and more suspect. That is unavoidable. What is most valuable is that elements of genuine literature are preserved in raw, passionate, uncensored stories of survival rather than in media-constructed stories about survival.

The uncensored stories include the narratives of local victims and evacuees; this type must perforce include the immediate stories of newspersons who defied the most basic human instinct and became intimate witnesses. The latter type is marked by the reporter's sense of what is a "good" story, the newsworthy replete with inventions, ideological and political baggage, unverifiable rumors, threadbare stereotypes, angles and staging, cosmetic departures from "truth." The former is marked by the sense that story and survival into a future are symbiotic. The types are not discrete: formal and emotive features overlap. Uncertainty is all.

We are still in the whirlwind of production. We are enslaved by professional habit and tempted to theorize and interpret immediately. There is virtue still in the caution that to render judgment, one must have distance. It is difficult, however, for literary and cultural scholars to resist automatic metanarratives. We want to be on the cutting edge.

For some of us displaced scholars, the cutting edge is elsewhere. It lies in listening even as we speak or write. Perhaps we would do well to resist our acquired, self-conscious tendencies, to test our skills at preternatural listening to the rich multitude of stories issuing from the matrix of hurricanes. A renewed appreciation for the power of story comes as the sympathetic ear listens to the tale of spending 26 or more hours in a fetid attic with roaches and no water and no ax to break through the roof and being saved by the providence of a neighbor who returned in a boat, heard your cries, chopped a hole in the roof and transported you to an evacuation station; listens to the eloquent outrage of a woman who trugged through a waterlogged New Orleans with family and friends--a band of criminals in the eyes of some who had the authority and means to rescue them, endured many indignities because she was female and non-white, suffered the crowdedness, stench, hunger, heat, and frustrated displays of self-centeredness and ill-temper among strangers, and reluctantly accepted deportation to where she did not wish to go; listens to parallels between the New Orleans Superdome, the slaveship, and Dante's Inferno; hears the pain-stitched final cries as water enshrouds the elderly and infirm abandoned in a nursing home. Let the ear smell the stench political and racial. Our ears will reach into our hearts and bless us with a humble wisdom we have never known.

These ur-stories, I admit, may not be breathtakingly "literary." They are merely real. They evidence how human beings always use languages to depict situatedness and resilience. From sympathetic treatment of such materials we should forge our literary and cultural histories. Privileged gazing upon the matrix without entering it may only lead to curious rewritings of Sister Gertrude Morgan's stunning statement: "I was so busy with the Lord, I didn't notice the house across the street had burned."

Editor's Note: In this issue, AAR inaugurates a new occasional column. Back talk, as Clarence Major defines it in Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (Penguin, 1994), in southern parlance, means "to rebuff, to repel" (15). Contributors to this column seek to provoke, challenge, and affect readers' attitudes and feelings. So, are you ready to throw down?

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Professor of English and African World Studies at Dillard University, has served on the AAR Advisory Board since 1991. He sent these reflections from Vicksburg, Mississippi.
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Title Annotation:Back Talk
Author:Ward, Jerry W., Jr.
Publication:African American Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Previous Article:Alan Rice. Radical Narratives of the Black Atlantic.
Next Article:Lloyd Richards: reminiscence of a theatre life and beyond.

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