What happened was Susan Tepper started the Oil group and my vegan anarcho-punk heart was thrilled. I clapped my hands and thought, “Alright team Fictionaut!” One of the many wonderful facets of our fair Fictionaut is our connection beyond geography. Our community houses writers in different time zones, countries, first languages, fifth languages, poetics, thoughts on form, input on aesthetic, we are a varied bunch, but one of the things we all have in common is our love of literature. We are writers, we are readers, we are Fictionaut. (Okay fine I went overboard on that one, fine.) Still, we Fictionauters enjoy certain truths considered liberal elsewhere, such as the freedom to write, and to talk about writing. Fictionaut as a community is partially founded in this premise, that we can share work and talk about others’ work and continue a dialogue of thought, of generous cheering each other on, that people are being seen.
Susan Tepper decided to include another element many of our community member’s journals discuss, which is an attention to global issues beyond the ones written in our own fiction. In the middle of the night, Susan started the Oil group and I thought, “Well now, we are doing something.” I decided to think on a larger scale this week. I rounded up some other opinions. Kyle Minor, incredible all around guy and indie fiction superstar talent just so happened to be in Haiti and agreed to give us a report. I’m from what’s called The Snow Belt of New England. Everything west of Connecticut is the South to me. Manhattan is the South. With this clichéd uneducated approach in mind, I asked Southern born one of my favorite people James Yeh to talk to me about New Orleans post Katrina. He’s from South Carolina which apparently is not where New Orleans is, but he put me in touch with blogger Nate Martin who actually had a bunch to say. I asked a bunch of new York based writers how they felt the city was post 9/11 and whether the disaster still rang true to the writing community and was told by all four that I am annoying for asking. I suppose in some ways this is a good thing, to think that a city can heal, that people can heal. I’m hoping Susan’s Oil group here at Fictionaut talks about the healing part, too. This week’s check in is with writer Susan Tepper founder of our Oil group, writer Nate Martin on New Orleans and writer Kyle Minor on Haiti. Am I too much of a peace loving hippie for hoping we as a world can all just have a break from gloom doom and despair?
Susan Tepper: I honestly don’t know. Forming this group was probably some type of release valve for my own pent up rage over the oil gushing into our waters. This destruction of a planet that is a paradise of nature beyond anything mankind could possibly dream up– now being destroyed by what mankind has dreamed up. There’s a hideous irony to that. I guess this Oil group is ultimately a place of comfort, despite the topic. A kind of half-way house for writers deeply concerned over the spill and needing to release those feelings into stories and poetry. So many people joined the first 24 hours! That says something to me about this group filling a need. And as I wrote in the Group Description, the work can take any form including humor and satire. Since we are on the subject of tragedy, I’ll stay here just a bit longer. I think once you’ve been involved in any large scale tragedy, it leaves its mark. Mine was the Northwest Airlines plane crash in Detroit, 1987. I was working for Northwest in the NYC marketing division. On an August day, one of our planes, enroute from Detroit to Phoenix, hit the roof of the Avis building during take off. A group of us were sent to Detroit as part of the rescue effort, which essentially turned out to be body identification, and lending support to the families. Everyone had died in the crash except a baby girl. This was before DNA. So the coroner’s team of doctors and dentists had little to go on, trying to ID the victims off dental records, etc, and descriptions given by distraught relatives, or anything we could dig up on old insurance claims. It was all very strange and horribly sad. Yet it was also mystical, and in some ways a state of grace. I only say that because I’ve never experienced a group of people working together so well under the most extreme circumstances. The summer heat and stench of bodies in the make-shift morgue (an old airplane hangar)– well it was like nothing I could have imagined. At the end of a few weeks there, I had to throw away my shoes and leather belts and purse, because they’d retained that odor. I did keep the file on the families I worked with, and all the details of the crash. It’s something I can never part with.
Kyle, how come you went to Haiti?
Kyle Minor: I’ve been visiting Haiti for the last three years. I’m working on a novel about Americans in Haiti and a nonfiction narrative about a child kidnapping-for-ransom in Ouest Province. This time I saw buildings pancaked and knew there were bodies crushed inside. I saw lots of people who looked like they had been through hell. I saw people sleeping in rubble, sleeping under plywood, sleeping under nothing, and it’s been six months since the earthquake. But I also saw good signs — good temporary housing going up thanks to people like the Maxima factory, the Dutch government, Samaritan’s Purse, Helping Hands for Haiti, the Church of God, and most of all Haitian neighbors helping neighbors. And in the Nord Province, where the earthquake didn’t do much damage, I saw people working on roads, cleaning up streets, and working on a government building. These are all hopeful signs. Less hopeful is the tent city situation. No workable solution seems at hand. I’m working with a group that is replacing housing very efficiently in mountain villages such as Callebasse and Barette, and in the remote village of Prospere. Bring me to your city and let’s do a benefit reading and raise some money for houses. From all I can tell, the best work is being done by small organizations on the ground. Consider partnering with one of them. If you must give your money to a famous person’s organization, I’d recommend Sean Penn, whose work is widely admired by people in the area. If you’re a doctor or nurse or medic, volunteer some time.
Nate, what’s the word on New Orleans re: post-Katrina literary world. I heard an influx of hipsters moved down in solidarity to volunteer their help.
Nate Martin: True. Lots of young people have moved to New Orleans since Katrina to participate in the rebuilding of the city. Some are hip, and others are not hip. Some help out “rebuilding” in literal ways, like volunteering to build green homes or starting entrepreneurial ventures or nonprofits, and others just sort of figure that adding themselves to the mix as bright, motivated, intelligent people is good enough. I saw a clever advertisement for the University of New Orleans the other day that showed a picture of a smart-looking girl and it said, “She’s part of the BRAIN GAIN.” There’s even a nonprofit here whose sole function is to keep all the people who have moved here post-Katrina from moving away. Lots of people have been coming through, too, some as a residual result of the storm: Dave Eggers taught a master class last year at NOCCA and did some other stuff with the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival; Deb Olin Unferth is coming to teach a master class at NOCCA this upcoming year; Amy Hempel recently completed a residency at Tulane; and an outstanding unknown writer and generally all-around great guy named Nate Martin has really been shaking things up and doing good for the community.
What can writers, readers do to help?