Words Can’t Describe What Some Writers In New Orleans Lost Literary Figures Wrack Brains To Recall Poems, Stories Destroyed by Hurricane

DANIEL GOLDEN – The Wall Street Journal

November 1, 2005; Page A1
As the murky waters swelled in his New Orleans bungalow, Niyi Osundare’s first instinct wasn’t to preserve himself. Instead, he frantically moved his manuscripts from file cabinets and bedside table to higher bookshelves until his wife, Kemi, warned, “Niyi, we’ll drown trying to save the poems. Let’s go to the attic.”
After 26 hours trapped in the attic, the couple was rescued. But Mr. Osundare, widely considered Nigeria’s leading poet, still mourns his lost “babies” — 300 unpublished poems, written in longhand over 20 years, ranging from satires on Nigerian political corruption to a meditation on the beauty of Mt. Monadnock in southern New Hampshire.
Mr. Osundare, who writes in both English and his native Yoruba, often wakes in the middle of the night, remembering an isolated line or image. “I was typing them when the storm hit, trying to get them ready for publication,” he says. “My house is insured, but my manuscripts are not. There are certain things for which monetary compensation cannot atone.”
He’s just one of several New Orleans authors who lost poems, stories and novels in Hurricane Katrina. Technology limited the literary toll because many writers backed up their works on central computer servers or emailed copies to friends and relatives. But other storm victims had only a home computer or notebooks. Now they’re wracking their brains to recall their lost words, paying firms to try to salvage text from waterlogged disks and taking greater precautions with post-Katrina compositions.
Like New Orleans itself, these writers face a daunting task of reconstruction. Some are determined to emulate British historian Thomas Carlyle, who rewrote the entire manuscript of “The French Revolution” (1837) after a friend’s maid accidentally burned it. Others, including Mr. Osundare, say their creations were rooted in a bygone time and place, and cannot be resurrected.
Pre-Katrina New Orleans was a literary haven that nurtured playwright Tennessee Williams and novelists Kate Chopin, Walker Percy, John Kennedy Toole, Richard Ford and Anne Rice. Poets and authors read their work at coffeehouses and found inspiration in the city’s street festivals, jazz music and Cajun culture.
Read two poems from Mona Lisa Saloy’s poetry collection “Red Beans and Ricely Yours,” which won the 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize.
Mona Lisa Saloy, author of a poetry collection, “Red Beans and Ricely Yours,” that won the 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize, had ridden out many a storm in her one-story, shotgun-style home in the Seventh Ward. Although her cousins persuaded her to flee on Aug. 28, the day before the hurricane hit, she expected to be away only a few days. She drove to Baton Rouge, taking her dog, an elderly neighbor, and changes of clothes — but not her notebooks, filled with half of a book-length poem about her grandfather, Frank Fitch. Born a slave, Mr. Fitch walked from Alabama to New Orleans to be free and lived to 110.
Ms. Saloy’s poem recounted how her grandfather as a boy watched a plantation overseer dye his mother’s white hair black with shoe polish so she would look younger and fetch a higher price at a slave auction. It quoted much of the folk wisdom Ms. Saloy’s grandfather imparted to her before his death in 1963. Now the notebooks are lost and she remembers only snippets, such as, “Sleep is the cousin of death. Keep moving.”
“I was really proud of it, which is why I took my time,” says Ms. Saloy, a visiting associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. “I was really crafting metaphors to tell the story and leave the reader with a sense of this heroic spirit.”
Kris Lackey, an English professor at the University of New Orleans who has published stories in several literary magazines, thought he had hurricane-proofed his fiction. He saved manuscripts four ways — paper, hard drive, diskettes and a flash drive — and boarded his home against the wind. But when he evacuated, he left his papers and computer equipment on tables and bookshelves, not nearly high enough to withstand the 11 feet of water that engulfed his house near the west breach in the London Avenue canal.
Gone were several short stories and the first 40 pages of a novel called “Haymaker,” about an Oklahoma student who is torn between studying the French horn and playing high-school football. Mr. Lackey says he “hated most to lose my central supporting character — a comical, fiery, fanatical Italian high-school band director in a small 1970s Oklahoma panhandle school.” In Mr. Lackey’s favorite scene, the director, realizing that most Oklahoma kids “don’t know the cha-cha from a bagel, dances the cha-cha himself, clapping out the syncopated rhythm.”
In early October, Mr. Lackey donned respirator, goggles, headlamp, elbow-length gloves and steel-shank boots to inspect his house. He found “manuscripts floating in muck” that were unreadable as well as his corroded flash and hard drives. He sent the flash drive to a Florida data-recovery firm, but it was unable to recapture his prose.
Now staying in Oklahoma himself, Mr. Lackey doesn’t plan to rewrite anything for two years. “Like everyone else, I’m stunned,” he says.
Thomas Bonner, chairman of the English department at Xavier University of Louisiana, and his wife, Judith, an artist, left New Orleans on Aug. 26 to celebrate their 39th wedding anniversary in a Mississippi inn. By the time they realized they needed to batten down their home adjacent to City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art, they couldn’t return, because all roads had been redirected outward. Seven feet of water flooded the sun room and destroyed his manuscripts and her canvases. Among Mr. Bonner’s casualties: 50 poems and a murder mystery set in Taos, N.M., in which a former New Orleans crime reporter stumbles onto the beheading of a ruthless real-estate developer.
He plans to rewrite the story. “My father was an army officer,” he says. “He taught me a great deal about resolve. I’m just not going to let the hurricane beat me.” The Bonners are staying with their daughter in Georgia.
Kay Murphy despairs of recreating the short stories that she left on computer disks in her flooded apartment. Ms. Murphy, an associate professor at the University of New Orleans, says reinventing lost fiction is harder for her than for most authors because she doesn’t rely on conventional narrative but writes “from one consciousness” and experiments with language and syntax. “If I was just writing a story, I could rewrite the story,” says Ms. Murphy, now in Illinois.
Niyi Osundare’s mother warned him not to play near water. After a diviner told her that Niyi was a gift from the Yoruba river goddess, Osun — after whom the family was named — his mother worried that the deity might snatch him back. As an English professor at the University of New Orleans, Mr. Osundare disregarded her cautions, often composing his poems on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. Then, he says, “the lake I love so much came to my bedroom and nearly took my life.”
After climbing to the attic, the Osundares crouched there without food or ventilation, in darkness except for a flashlight. Mr. Osundare bruised his knuckles trying to punch a hole in the roof. Fortunately, a neighbor heard their shouts. Wearing life preservers the neighbor had handed out earlier, the couple swam through their front door to his boat. Without shoes or identification, they shuttled through five evacuation centers until Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H., which had given Mr. Osundare an honorary degree in 2001, traced him to a Red Cross shelter in Birmingham, Ala.
Now a visiting professor at Franklin Pierce, Mr. Osundare carries his latest verses with him, stored in a flash-drive memory device that hangs from a cord around his neck. One poem, “The Weeping Book,” begins, “There is a weeping book in my flooded room,” and ends, “A whole life’s labour is washed away/By the murderous madness of Katrina’s sway.”

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