A couple weeks ago I received a brief email from a friend of a friend asking if I might answer a few questions regarding New Orleans’ “literary scene” for the blog attached to Fictionaut. I was tempted to admit that I’d only lived in the city for a few months and was therefore probably not the best person to ask about such things, but the sparse punctuation and complete lack of capitalization in her request indicated that this probably wasn’t the most serious undertaking, and I’m always happy to offer an opinion.

So, she sent me her questions, I sent her my answers, and she edited my answers down into a single answer and posted it with some other answers to other questions that she had asked a writer who spends time in Haiti and another who started a Fictionaut group that has something to do with the Gulf oil spill. You can read that post here. Below, I’ve posted the complete set of answers I sent her.

whats the word on new orleans re: post-katrina literary world. i heard an influx of hipsters moved down in solidarity to volunteer their help. true or untrue? if true, has there been a change in the literary scene?

True. Lots of young people have moved to New Orleans since Katrina to participate in the rebuilding of the city. Some are hip, and others are not hip. Some help out “rebuilding” in literal ways, like volunteering to build green homes or starting entrepreneurial ventures or nonprofits, and others just sort of figure that adding themselves to the mix as bright, motivated, intelligent people is good enough. I saw a clever advertisement for the University of New Orleans the other day that showed a picture of a smart-looking girl and it said, “She’s part of the BRAIN GAIN.” There’s even a nonprofit here whose sole function is to keep all the people who have moved here post-Katrina from moving away.

As far as the literary world goes, I would say that it has not been tremendously affected by the influx of hipsters … yet. Remember Adorno’s idea about writing poetry after the Holocaust? People had other things to do after Katrina besides write fiction and poetry, on top of the psychological trauma. In fact, Anne Gisleson, a writer who runs a cool gallery/publishing house here called Press Street, said in an interview that she even stopped reading fiction for a long time after Katrina.

There are some stirrings, though. The best example of good new blood I can think of is Paul Killebrew, a young poet and attorney who recently released a book with Canarium and also recently moved here to work for the Innocence Project New Orleans. Lots of people have been coming through, too, some as a residual result of the storm: Dave Eggers taught a master class last year at NOCCA and did some other stuff with the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival; Deb Olin Unferth is (tentatively) coming to teach a master class at NOCCA this upcoming year; Amy Hempel recently completed a residency at Tulane; and an outstanding unknown writer and generally all-around great guy named Nate Martin has really been shaking things up and doing good for the community.

All that said, people in New Orleans are kind of tired of hearing about all this post-Katrina blah blah blah. Seriously, it was in 2005. Get over it. Mary Robison got away with publishing a post-Katrina book last year only because she’s Mary Robison. I met a Bosnian filmmaker named Mirko Rucnov who’s working on a film set in post-Katrina New Orleans and he’s getting away with it only because he was a war refugee and can perhaps bring a perspective on trauma, displacement and loss that differs from David Simon’s. In case y’all hadn’t heard, there’s a new catastrophe that’s devastating the Gulf Coast AT THIS MOMENT. Sure, a lot of New Orleans is still deeply scarred by Katrina, but we have no choice but to move on.

how has literacy in new orleans changed if at all since katrina?

Literacy, yeah … hmmm … I think it was at 40 percent in 2005, which made aid difficult to distribute in some areas of the city because people couldn’t read the forms they needed to fill out in order to get the aid. I don’t think it is any worse now than it was then, if that’s any consolation. Although I do know that some Vietnamese fishermen who were trying to file for compensation from BP for oil-spill-related losses couldn’t fill out the requisite forms because they couldn’t read English—but I think most of them can read Vietnamese alright, so I believe that’s being somewhat sorted out.

As those of you know who read The Shock Doctrine (or at least made it through the introduction), New Orleans’ school system underwent a radical transformation post-Katrina, as neocons—alongside ordinary people who were exasperated at the thorough and relentless fucking-up that has plagued N.O. public schools throughout history—essentially dissolved the city’s school district in favor of a system dominated by private charter schools overseen by a state board. There are currently more charter schools in New Orleans than in anywhere else in the country. Obviously this divides people along ideological lines, but I think it’s really too early to tell what positive or negative effects this has had on literacy, or education in general.

There are also a number of literacy organizations that have either launched or undergone a rejuvenation with help of federal aid since Katrina. The Louisiana Literacy Alliance is a sort of umbrella organization that pulls a lot of them together, at least informally, and there are smaller independent groups, too. Press Street was running an after-school program for a while, but they’ve yet to restart it since moving to a new space last year. The Neighborhood Story Project is a fruitful undertaking. I talked with some folks at McSweeney’s a while back and they are really interested in launching an 826 center here, but as one might imagine, there are obstacles that make such things difficult (crippling poverty, etc.).

[Addendum: After the interview, I found out that the 40 percent literacy rate was ascertained in a nationwide study that accompanied the 2000 census. A similar study accompanied the 2010 census, but Louisiana did not participate because of a lack of resources.]

what can writers, readers do to help?

Move here. Sure, it’s hot in the summers, the crime is atrocious, and sometimes attaining goods and services is tougher than in other places, but New Orleans is a magical town abounding with amazing sights, sounds, interactions, and activities. My girlfriend and I live in a (veritable) mansion in the coolest neighborhood in the city for $1,000 a month. There’s an incredible insularity to the city’s culture that distinguishes it from the blasé amalgam that you find in much of the rest of America. While most of the country piddles along stagnant or receding, New Orleans is in a period of rebirth. While in New York you can be one in a million and there are still eight of you, in New Orleans you can make a perceptible impact. The city’s strong literary tradition hit a glitch with Katrina, but will soldier forth anew. Perhaps all it needs is you.

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