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Kristina Kay Robinson and Tom Piazza on How the Hurricane Shaped Our Past and Predicted Our Future

In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan talk to writer, curator, and visual artist Kristina Kay Robinson and novelist and television writer Tom Piazza in the wake of the 15-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Robinson describes the shifting narrative of her hometown and explains how the US is only now experiencing the full implications of Katrina. Then, Piazza reflects on how the disaster foretold a series of 21st-century catastrophes that would affect the most vulnerable among us.

To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below. And check out video excerpts from our interviews at LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel and Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel.

This episode was produced by Andrea Tudhope and Emily Standlee.

Part One With Kristina Kay Robinson

Whitney Terrell: One of your recent essays, “The Darkroom in the Attic: Blackness and Visibility,” deals with what we’ve been discussing in terms of current events in the South. … In that essay, you talk about photography and the pandemic and racism. While you mention the recent protests surrounding systemic racism and police brutality, you also mention the camera as a kind of weapon. And in the essay, you write, “Ahmaud Arbery’s right to anonymity was violated by the white men who demanded to apprehend him. It was pierced also by the camera lens that rendered him visible in our public consciousness and a decision made by the person recording a video of the scene to abet a literal death.”

On the other side of that, there’s been a lot of writing about current social media trends and tendencies to record what is witnessed, which has also led to what seems like an increase in awareness of systemic racism experienced by Black Americans and other people of color and Indigenous persons. Not only that, but so much of the consciousness of Katrina was about film and photography and people taking pictures of what happened there, right?

V.V. Ganeshananthan: Can you talk a little bit about what you think about the consequences of photography in contemporary America with regard to Katrina and also this kind of violence?

Kristina Kay Robinson: Yeah, it’s really interesting, right? There’s this history of how people of color, and then how specifically Black people, enter the canon of photography in the Western imagination, which is via the institution of slavery. And even in a lot of writing, or in critical writing about photography, when they’re trying to show you a photograph that is supposed to exhibit a real quality versus a flat quality, it was a lot of photos of Black people who had been abused in an institution of slavery. So they think it’s going to evoke this feeling of something being just so fundamentally tied to this type of suffering.

Something that was really interesting to me, of course, about experiencing the visual of Katrina, is that the premise is, okay, I’m exposing and showing this suffering, so that in some sense, this is supposed to evoke a moral response from the viewer. But if the people who are being shown have been rendered already in the cultural consciousness as non-human, non-deserving, criminal, there’s a callousness in the display of their suffering that you know could not exist in the reverse, right? And so I experienced that via the lens of Katrina, via the lens of the earthquake in Haiti—the way in which the camera is so comfortable with Black suffering. I can show you dozens of deceased Black people; we know we will never see an image like that of white Americans. That’s an image we’ve never seen in reality in American media.

And so, the premise even a few years ago was that the more videos we have, the more evidence we have that this murder was unjustified, the closer we are to justice. And we’ve seen video after video after video after video with no justice. So there’s something about what the lens presents, as suffering as titillation, as evidence of your positionality as a victim—the reifying of the image, the collective trauma of the image. And so I thought a lot about the consequences of that particular visibility for Black Americans and then Black people around the world. It has a relationship to these other, older images of Black suffering in America, of lynching mementos that were passed all around the country. There’s an appetite for this that isn’t necessarily to evoke a moral response. And if we had a hypothesis that it could, I think it’s been undermined in the past few years. I think that there was a moment where people did think that body cameras were going to bring this closer to justice.

WT: Thinking about it as an artist—and I’m white, but I write about race issues—and I think white artists have thought for a long time, hey, if I show this suffering, that will actually bring change, right? And you’re suggesting, in a very, very rational and believable way, well, maybe not. Maybe the action needs to come before. Just you collecting an image or writing something is not apparently fixing the problem.

KKR: Yeah. Because I’ve already suffered. The suffering is the thing that we’re trying to preempt.

VVG: It’s interesting, as you’re talking, I can’t help but think of—and we talked about this a little bit last week with Maurice—but I’ve been watching Lovecraft Country, which I would watch every minute if I could. I watched the most recent episode, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but felt such intense joy watching Black characters, for example, in spacesuits, meeting other species. The imagining of that was so powerful, as a presentation of a radical joy of Black people not in that position that you’re describing. It wasn’t a reification of victimhood, but in fact of empowerment and reconciliation and beauty, which is one of the things that I like about the show so much. It is subverting, I think, some of the visual language I hadn’t even realized that I had imbibed. I’m often someone who doesn’t—when a video of whatever horrendous violence has most recently happened to Black bodies comes out, I don’t watch. I think there are people who feel like they watch those things so they’re bearing witness in some way. And I’m not sure what that does.

KKR: Yeah. It’s something I’ve thought so much about because, of course, we’ve been so inundated with these kinds of images. I think we’re five years past the tenth anniversary of Katrina, and I thought about this thing that I had written around the tenth anniversary of Katrina, and I was like, that’s what I was writing about then; I was thinking about these videos and this onslaught of imagery. And here we are five years later. With the cyclical nature of it, I just felt like if there was a hypothesis around that, it’s been taken apart in these last five years of being inundated with all of these videos that you thought you could never see or be presented with anything worse.

WT: I do remember people saying, these images that are being shown now are going to change the way America does everything. That was happening during Katrina, when you were seeing people on top of their roofs or in the Superdome. And it didn’t.

KKR: It didn’t. Because they developed a national narrative that said it was your fault. I think that that was the most profound thing about experiencing Katrina. And this has so many reverberations into the present, with this narrative that the people who were there were there due to their own negligence, or just poor people, Black people, who just hadn’t done the right thing. That’s why all of this happened to the city. And then that designation of refugee, that othering, the placelessness of it; I think you see some of that even in the early parts of how the media was discussing COVID. It’s interesting—now it’s shifting a little bit, but there was that narrative of the vulnerable communities who were suffering from COVID early, that it’s somehow been about lifestyle and all of these things, and I definitely saw that as a narrative that was developed in that time of Katrina.

* Part Two With Tom Piazza

V.V. Ganeshananthan: We’re talking about the 15-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And it has already been an active hurricane season, which seems to fit the 2020 aesthetic of complete suckage. We just witnessed Hurricane Laura barrel through Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Louisiana, and Texas, and ten hurricanes have hit Louisiana since Katrina. The New Yorker did an article in 2019 that says the Louisiana coastline loses a football field’s worth of land every hour and a half. Do you wonder if New Orleans is going to still be there in another fifteen years?

Tom Piazza: Well, I mean, of course, but I also wonder if San Francisco is going to be there in another fifteen years, or lower Manhattan, or Miami, or the Outer Banks.

Whitney Terrell: I think none of those places are going to be there. Maybe not in fifteen, but maybe thirty years? I don’t know.

TP: One of the things that’s been worthy of note in the years since Katrina, is that people really do land on it so heavily as a New Orleans event. It was bigger than a New Orleans event, though. These kinds of harbingers of climate change are ubiquitous at this point. So I always try to push back just a little bit about making it too much a New Orleans thing, although, of course, obviously, the mythic weight of New Orleans, the optics during the disaster and the sociology of it, the novelty of the hugeness of the devastation of an American city obviously makes it stand out. And at this point, very much like with a lot of the other social disasters we’re watching, we’re starting to get used to seeing it.

WT: I still teach a piece by John McPhee from his book The Control of Nature about the Atchafalaya River, where he explains, really, if there wasn’t this river control structure at this one particular river junction upstream from New Orleans that the Mississippi River wouldn’t even go by New Orleans. There are some unique geographical factors about New Orleans that make it hard.

TP: That’s right. It’s hard not to worry about what’s going to happen to the city. I mean, it’s famously below sea level. All that being said, it’s probably better protected now than a lot of other places in southern Louisiana or southwestern Louisiana. What you said about the disappearance of the coastal wetlands is true and extremely worrisome. It’s one of those things that you need a concerted governmental and societal response to that we’re not getting because we don’t want to face it, and it’s expensive and tedious. It requires a lot of hard work without a lot of high-profile publicity rewards for the people involved in doing it. So yeah, I worry about it. But I also worry about the whole country at this point. I think the entire country is suffering from the effects of not just climate change denial, but social reality denial.

VVG: I’m told that the high-water marks from Katrina remain on buildings even now. I’m wondering about other ways that the culture of the city has changed and adapted to Katrina’s memory. And if someone wanted to visit—I’ve never been to New Orleans—where would you tell me to go if you wanted me to understand the way that Katrina changed the city? Are there spaces that have disappeared, ones you wish you could show an outsider but can’t?

TP: We used to do a thing for several years after the disaster. My partner, Mary, and I would often trade off doing what we call the “disaster tour,” because a lot of people started coming a couple years after the storm. And I say “the storm,” but it’s really the failure of the federally constructed levees that made the difference in New Orleans. I mean, coastal Mississippi got absolutely decimated by Katrina. That was a natural disaster. What happened in New Orleans was a failure of planning and then a failure of the execution of the plans in terms of the levee system. So, we would go to Gentilly—it’s a city of neighborhoods—we’d go to Gentilly, Broadmoor, Lakeview, and, probably most famously, the Lower Ninth Ward. Those places are still there to see. Some of the buildings still have marks on them. The city has come back extraordinarily well, I would say. Fifteen years ago, if you had said the city would be where it is today, it would have been a little hard to believe. If you were to come to the city today, I would say let’s go take a ride down to the Lower Ninth Ward. Because it’s there where the damage that remains, that hasn’t been reconstructed, is probably the most widespread.

But really, you have to go looking for it now a lot more than you used to have to. Obviously, a lot of the places in town that have more affluent citizens were able to rebuild a lot faster than some of the less affluent areas. That’s just obviously the way it goes. Lakeview, which is a mostly white part of the city, close to Lake Pontchartrain, you wouldn’t have believed what it looked like after the disaster. It was hideous. It was, in a lot of ways, every bit as bad as the Ninth Ward looked. But the people there had insurance, by and large. They had resources. The Lower Ninth Ward is an extraordinary place, but working class, working people live there. A lot of people built their own homes and had been there for a long time. But it wasn’t a place with a lot of surplus capital, if you will.

VVG: It’s interesting to hear about people going as post-Katrina tourists, which of course, shouldn’t surprise me—I write mostly about Sri Lanka, and I’m reminded of the post-Indian Ocean tsunami and post-war tourism, which sounds like in some ways adjacent to what you’re describing.

You’re talking about New Orleans as a city of neighborhoods, and you wrote for David Simon’s HBO series Treme, which was named for one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city in a historically Black neighborhood. It’s adjacent to the French Quarter, if I remember correctly. I’m wondering how the real Treme looks these days. Lots of Black and Indigenous people and people of color were displaced to Dallas and Atlanta after Katrina. How many of those folks were able to return, and how have those neighborhoods changed?

TP: Well, as a general remark, New Orleans is certainly a younger city now and a whiter city than it was before Katrina.

WT: Really? I did not know that. That’s interesting. So, it was like a gentrification process happened after the hurricane?

TP: Oh, yeah. It’s a place where there’s a lot of relatively inexpensive property. It’s always been a place, at least ever since I’ve been coming here, where creative people, imaginative people, could come and live and be who they are more affordably than they could in a lot of other urban areas that you might have wanted to live in—than New York, San Francisco, Chicago. So that has begun to change. About the last figure I heard was that about 10 percent of the city population right now has moved here after Katrina. That’s a big percentage. Obviously, not all of that 10 percent is white, young, affluent people, but a big proportion is.

Selected readings:

Kristina Kay Robinson

Tom Piazza


Transcribed by Condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan and Andrea Tudhope.

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