Tuesday, May 31, 2011

PEN World Voices

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel on New Orleans at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City. We had an interesting discussion, moderated by Nathaniel Rich with a panel that also included Sarah Broom, Richard Campanella, Nicholas Lemann, and Fatima Sheik. Part of what distinguished this New Orleans conversation from many others that I have heard and been a part of was the fact that there seemed to be a consensus that New Orleans needs to, at least in some ways, shed some of its claimed exceptionalism if it is going to be able to break out of its myriad difficulties. This is something that I have been banging on about for years and which, at least in some ways, appears to be the view of other folks who care about this city.

WNYC has a recording of the panel discussion on its website and highlighted the following "bon mots" from the discussion (not all of which I agree with):
Billy Sothern, a New Orleans anti-death penalty lawyer and author of "Down in New Orleans: Reflections From a Drowned City," on understanding New Orleans: "I think there are many who view NOLA as this exceptional place and some of them are the city’s biggest fans. But I argue that instead of its exceptionalism, the rest of America needs to be concerned with New Orleans because it's highly representative of the problems of the rest of the country ... These kinds of issues are coming to a neighborhood near you — they may already have but they are going to get worse. Instead of a metaphor, I think it's important to not say we have this 'New Orleans problem' with the schools and crime. Instead, we have this 'American problem' that is tragically magnified in the city of New Orleans."

Nicholas Lemann, a New Orleans native, staff writer for The New Yorker (among other magazines), and Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, on race: "The fabled white elite that controls everything in New Orleans are probably the least powerful white elite than you'd find in any big city in the country. Not because someone took their power away, but for various cultural reasons. New Orleans has no locally controlled major economic institutions, so the infamous New Orleans white elite does not have the inclination to do what one would want done in New Orleans. And if they had the inclination, they would not be able to do them."

Sarah Broom, a New Orleans native who wrote "A Yellow House in New Orleans," on local pride: "I think this 'love of place' is really just from people who are stuck in a lots of ways. There were very few opportunities for [career] advancement. It's almost impossible for a highly-educated person to move back to New Orleans and find some sort of intellectual rigor. That is just the truth. Part of it is that Hurricane Katrina forced a lot of people from New Orleans and now they don't want to come back. This population of people who can't come back because they can't afford to are also made up of people who don't actually want to return."

Fatima Shaik, who is the author of four books of fiction set in Louisiana, on writing about New Orleans: "I think writers after Katrina were thrust into the roles of sociologists. People who are from New Orleans are likely to write about it. I think those people who are not from the city and want to write about it should focus on writing across the cultures and writing accurately. People don't have a conversation across cultures. Writers can do that."
Because PEN had proposed a New Orleans-based project, the panel drafted a statement reflecting the kind of project that we believed could be beneficial as well as some general statements that we felt should guide any effort to "help" New Orleans:
A few things we don’t want to do: we don’t want to be redundant, meaning we don’t want to start a service or project that already exists locally. Even worse, we don’t want to compete or confuse. There was a consensus in our group that education is of paramount importance and should be a component of PEN’s work in New Orleans. One way of doing this is to expand upon initiatives already in place within PEN, such as the children’s education program, prison writing and folklore projects. Where such programs exist we think there is a pressing need to implement them in New Orleans in an aggressive way. Ideally we would hope for PEN to extend these projects into New Orleans, while at the same start a new, unique project. It’s crucial that this process leads to real results.

The project should be mindful of the fact there are major human rights failings in New Orleans that have not been addressed adequately by the local and federal government and the criminal justice system.

Some ideas for projects to be implemented with PEN’s help in New Orleans:

1. Books are not allowed in New Orleans prisons. PEN should aggressively advocate to change that policy, especially given the incredibly high incarceration rate.

2. PEN should continue to support the MLK Visiting Authors program financially.

3. PEN can launch a mapping project. We would like for students to be involved with the technical and creative process of creating maps of their local neighborhoods. We could partner with the (potential) forthcoming publication, “Mapping New Orleans.”

4. Science and engineering can be a venue for storytelling. We can begin an initiative to create a workshop to bring together scientists, engineers, and writers and teach research methodology to writers—perhaps in the form of a lecture series.

5. Introduce the Prison Writing Program into New Orleans prisons.

6. We would like to launch a movie series in various parks and neighborhoods by pairing local documentaries with films that are about New Orleans in the hope of drawing a large public.

7. A regular reading series that could be held in outdoor places around the city—perhaps we can partner with local reading series, arts markets, and farmers’ markets.

8. A PEN/New Orleans literary prize should be established, for a writer, a student, or a group of students.

9. Establish a relationship with local radio stations as well as the Times Picayune, following the example of the StoryCorps project two years ago. The Times-Pic featured selected stories from that project.

10. We can try to launch a series of guest editorials in the Times Picayune by influential PEN Writers, which could be connected to another of the projects mentioned herein, where applicable.

11. Once we have identified projects on which to focus our energy and funding, have a PEN author write an editorial in a national publication to draw attention to our efforts.

12. PEN should provide a page on its web site for people who are coming to New Orleans and may be interested in doing nonprofit or volunteer work in the city, including partner organizations: a page of links to local projects.

13. Some local organizations that PEN can partner with include Tulane’s Center for Public Service, Times-Pic, MLK School, Neighborhood Story Project, Xavier, Loyola, Dillard, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities, the American Folklore Project (Maggi Michel, a representative of the American Folklore Project has expressed great interest in helping), the New Orleans Film Society, and Patois.

We would like to stress the importance of bringing into underserved schools professionals in the arts, sciences, technologies, and engineering.

All programming should be forward-looking and should not dwell excessively on Katrina.

We hope this will be the beginning of a practical discussion about what steps to take and how to implement one or several of these projects effectively. We hope such a conversation can take place within the next two months, whether at a meeting or through a web conversation. In many of the proposals given above, we have much more to add, including contacts and local organizations with whom we are in touch and who can bring about immediate results.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sarah "Lyons" Wakeman

Thinking of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who joined the Union army during the Civil War, fought, died, and was buried, all as a man, "Lyons." She is buried at the Union cemetery at the Chalmette Battlefield.

We brought her zinnias this Memorial Day.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Life for Pot

In case you are wondering why America's prison population has exploded to become the largest in human history, the fact that a Slidell, Louisiana man received a life without the possibility of parole sentence for possession with intent to distribute marijuana might provide some answers.

From the Times Picayune:

Fourth marijuana conviction gets Slidell man life in prison
Thursday, May 05, 2011, 5:51 PM
By Ramon Antonio Vargas

Cornell Hood II got off with probation after three marijuana convictions in New Orleans.

He didn't fare too well after moving to St. Tammany Parish, however. A single such conviction on the north shore landed the 35-year-old in prison for the rest of his life.

State Judge Raymond S. Childress punished Hood under Louisiana's repeat-offender law in his courtroom in Covington on Thursday. A jury on Feb. 15 found the defendant guilty of attempting to possess and distribute marijuana at his Slidell home, court records show.

More here.