Strangers in our Home: Why Writing about Hurricane Katrina is Both Impossible and Necessary

by Clint Smith

Clint Smith
Clint Smith
Clint Smith is a teacher, writer, and doctoral candidate at Harvard University. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and was named the 2013 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council. As a poet and essayist, he is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, an Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, and The American Literary Review. His two TED Talks, The Danger of Silence and How to Raise a Black Son in America, collectively have been viewed more than 4 million times. His first full-length collection of poems, Counting Descent, is forthcoming from Write Bloody in fall of 2016.

The moment we opened the door, the escaping stench nearly knocked us out cold. I looked to my father for the go ahead, but could not read his eyes beneath the gas mask he wore over his weary face. His slow, heavy breathing created disappearing and reappearing clouds of fog, as if his eyes were small planets hidden behind the billows of their atmospheres. My sister and mother’s full-bodied, yellow rubber suits rendered them strangers to me in our home. I saw my reflection in my mother’s mask, and was startled to find I also did not recognize myself beneath the post-apocalyptic garments that weighed me down.

It was October 2005, and we were among the first to receive permission to return to our home in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Our neighborhood, Gentilly, located in the seventh ward of the city, was among the last to drain, after sitting beneath more than eight feet of water for weeks on end.

We entered the house. The kitchen stool dangled precariously from the light above where our dining room table used to rest, its wood frame eaten away by the weeks of water. The walls were stained with a muted green mold, omnipresent across the house, having swelled and festered amid the sewer water. The floor was littered with picture frames swept from their mantles, books stripped from their shelves, plates broken into pieces. All of them, spread out across the floor with asymmetrical indifference. We made our way through the wreckage, each heavy footstep an effort to circumnavigate the fallen memories beneath our feet.

unnamed-1And yet, the paragraphs above feel inefficacious. For the past decade, my attempts to construct some sort of language to describe what I saw that day has seemed a wrought and largely futile effort. I’ve struggled with analogies, euphemisms, and descriptions to express what I saw with the veracity it deserved. But it was not a bombsite. It was not the lost city of Atlantis. It was not a plundered village rotting in the residue of war. It was only what it could be, which was something that felt beyond the capacity of words.

I remember, years later after the storm, reading Elie Wiesel’s memoir, “Night,” in which he describes the way that language failed to effectively convey the totality of images, emotions, and destruction he had experienced in Auschwitz concentration camp:

…while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my intentions, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle. It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language…all the dictionary had to offer seemed to be meager, pale, lifeless. tweet

While this is certainly not to suggest that the Holocaust and Hurricane Katrina are comparable historical tragedies, the idea of a writer seeking, and ultimately failing, to capture the full essence of destruction is not uncommon. We see this today, in the psychological toll exacted on black journalists who are constantly forced to report on black death at the hands of police. They find themselves writing the same story merely with different victims, unsure if they are doing justice to the families and communities. We’ve seen this over centuries with writers that have sought to transport their readers into the pillage and ruination of war, knowing that nothing will fully capture what it means to be in such close proximity to state-sanctioned slaughter. This is not new, and yet, here I am, attempting to use words to describe what simply cannot be described.

I can tell you about the stool hanging from the light, but I have no words to tell you what I saw in my mother’s eyes as she watched generations of work swept away within a matter of days. I can tell you about the mold on the walls of our home, but I have no words to describe the palpable silence of an entire city that rested heavy on my skin. I can tell you about the broken glass spread out across the floor, but I have no words to tell you how it felt to be rendered refugee by the rest of the world, to be made more charity case than human. There are no words for these things, no language to encapsulate all that happened. So for many years following the storm, I simply gave up trying to. What was the point? How can we understand that which we cannot name?

I have spent the past week rediscovering photographs of our home after the storm, their frayed edges and blurred images previously locked away in Ziploc bags and boxes in the attic. I’ve sat on the phone with my mother for hours revisiting all that transpired over those days and weeks, each of her words a spark serving as catalysts to memories I did not realize were still there. I’ve spent more time than I should have watching YouTube videos of news reports from August and September 2005, feeling a tightness in my chest that I have not felt for a decade. I have done these things not because I want to, but because I am scared of misremembering. Scared of ten-year anniversary speeches from politicians where I  hear only partial, revisionist truths. I want to remember so that I can help tell a larger truth, so that I don’t forget what I saw and don’t forget why it happened.

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I write because it gives me the opportunity to wrestle with questions that cannot be answered anywhere beyond my own pen. I am a writer because I want to understand. It is, in many ways, a selfish task, to commit oneself to the privilege of searching for meaning. But what does it mean to write when writing cannot help you understand? When it fails to help you answer the questions you have put forth?

Ernest Hemingway once said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” For so long, I had told myself that I could not write about Hurricane Katrina until I was a talented enough writer to do it justice – until I had mastered this language and wielded it with perfect precision to capture what happened with indisputable authority and dexterity. I know now, that such a moment will never come. I know that I still feel deeply inadequate to tell a story I spent so many years trying to forget. All I can do is commit myself to the questions, to the seeking of a larger more honest truth, and accept that this might ultimately be more important than any answers that do or do not come.

 

About the Authors:
Clint Smith
Published by Clint Smith
Clint Smith is a teacher, writer, and doctoral candidate at Harvard University. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and was named the 2013 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council. As a poet and essayist, he is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, an Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, and The American Literary Review. His two TED Talks, The Danger of Silence and How to Raise a Black Son in America, collectively have been viewed more than 4 million times. His first full-length collection of poems, Counting Descent, is forthcoming from Write Bloody in fall of 2016. View all posts by Clint Smith

Comments

  1. MrAveryBrown

    Powerful piece! Words fail us, even years later, but, we have a beautiful struggle as we seek to understand why this happended and we have a task to always remember what happened. Not by a politicians words, but, by our truth.

  2. StrangeLoop

    Everything about the struggle you describe here resonated with me so deeply. A voice with so many things to say, but menaced by not having the words or feeling like I have inadequate tools with which to say them. #SeekingOfALargerMoreHonestTruth
    Thank you for this.

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