The artist’s eye can redeem a disaster. Perhaps.
—David Rutledge, from the introduction to
Where We Know: New Orleans As Home
No moment was sacred from the storm’s narrative.
—Anne Gisleson, ‘Reconstruction Baby’
From afar it might’ve been difficult to tell that Hurricane Katrina’s media coverage wasn’t as all-encompassing as we would’ve expected. As the event gradually went from natural disaster to manmade disaster—from Katrina’s historic weather records to FEMA’s incompetence and the discovery of the Army Corps of Engineers faulty levee construction—the only people who could attest to knowing what was really happening (and what continues to happen to this day) were New Orleanians.
Some of the real stories managed to reach the ears of the right people. A small independent publishing press based all the way in Tokyo called Chin Music Press felt an urgency to gather the real stories between two covers and publish a book as quickly as they could, while the country’s attention was still on New Orleans, before the media cameras had a chance to turn their backs. Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? was published eighty-nine days after Hurricane Katrina hit, an astonishing effort that was by no means easy, as Chin Music Press co-founder Bruce Rutledge notes in the anthology’s acknowledgements page:
We monitored the news as it broke, contacted writers, whose lives were in disarray as they took refuge in other cities and towns, and asked them to write for us. […] They wrote their stories while sleeping on friends’ couches and wondering about their neighbors, their homes. They did their edits in between consultations with insurance assessors.
The urgency to tell real stories was clearly a shared feeling, which bound each varying experience together to represent as accurately as possible not only the Katrina experience but the New Orleans experience.
And doing just that was not enough. Chin Music Press, from its incarnation in 2002, adhered to an aesthetic philosophy to create beautiful books, or what they call ‘literary objects.’ While each writer took on the task of writing through pain, experience, and memory, the Chin Music Press design team worked to create an artifact worthy of its subject’s magnitude.
Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? as a final product is ‘structured like a jazz funeral,’ with the first seven stories representing the somber, grief-filled dirge, the next eight stories acting as the celebration, or return, and the final story, Rex Noone’s lighthearted and touching ‘Professor Stevens Goes to Mardi Gras’, offered as the book’s lagniappe, a Louisiana French term that connotes a small gift, or a little something extra.
Five years later, Chin Music Press published Where We Know: New Orleans As Home, containing many of the writers that comprised the first anthology, along with new voices, to focus on the aspects of recovering and rebuilding in the city. In this second book’s introduction, co-editor David Rutledge (presumably Bruce’s brother) makes it clear that ‘this is not a post-Katrina book any more than New Orleans is a post-Katrina city.’ He continues:
America should be paying attention, but most of the cameras left while we were in the midst of recovery, as viewers—or perhaps, more often, producers—expressed ‘fatigue’ toward our suffering.
Once again, with national media coverage being absent at best and inept at worst, Chin Music Press took to documenting the rebuilding process through the voices they trusted knew best. Both volumes (and there is a planned trilogy, the third volume expected in 2015) exist as documentation in true form. In addition to the wide range of voices covering everything from the personal to the political, you will also find quotes about New Orleans from the past, from folks like Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams, in between contemporary tales. Also included are maps from various points in the city’s history, along with passages from forgotten texts from centuries ago. Where We Know includes a short passage by Barbara Bodichon written in 1867, documenting her encounter with a young New Orleanian woman whom Bodichon felt lived ‘the dullest life [she] ever knew.’ Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? provides ‘old engravings of the Crescent City that were discovered in the depths of a library in the Orient.’
Each piece included in these books work to present the historical spectrum of New Orleans, showing simultaneously that while Katrina was a defining moment in the city’s history, it doesn’t solely define it—and the only ones who can come close to defining their home are the people who’ve lived there.