Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Who died and made me book review editor?

While originally featured on, the following piece is now showing up as a "Page not found" number. So during this fun downtime on the intertubes, you, dear reader, get to hear it HERE. FIRST. ¡OLÉ!


A Howling in the Wires

Edited by Sam Jasper and Mark Folse

When the President flies back to Washington, and Anderson Cooper exchanges his Musicians Village backdrop for a more commodious New York network studio, New Orleans remains. It exists before, during, and after catastrophe and celebration alike, seemingly impervious to suspicious political tides, and resilient enough to accommodate seasonal hordes of tourists and Lutheran volunteers. Despite (or maybe because of) what everyone thinks about it, New Orleans is. Not only does it exist as a space or place, but as a frame of mind, a constantly evolving reference point for experiences, memories, realities, and lives.

New Orleans is known as a place that defies description. Just as sure as the individual visitor or resident each has a unique sense of the city, documentation of the experience of New Orleans becomes difficult: How can one do written justice to something so inherently inexplicable? How can the writer avoid homogenizing, or at worst, tokenizing, something that differs from every dimension?

As editors Sam Jasper and Mark Folse have found, anthologizing appears to be the best method in reconciling such potential dissonance. Their new book, A Howling in the Wires: An Anthology of Writing from Postdiluvian New Orleans, compiles bloggers’ accounts of New Orleans through – directly before, during, and after – Hurricane Katrina.

What could have been a sticky effort at recording the trauma of the storm instead is a reflection of an evolving community – the Katrina-motivated literati, and, some might argue, the blogosphere as a whole – and a text that by its own design admits incompletion.

Jasper and Folse readily acknowledge the delicate nature of publishing a book composed solely of online material. Their preface notes that in editing the text, they have left most typographical errors intact; Jasper and Folse believe them to reflect the emotional urgency underlying the context in which the pieces were written.

Such issues may well become a more common concern as bloggers gain respect as legitimate journalists and artists and the publishing industry embraces electronic media. For now, there remains no benchmark in this respect, but it may be an important point for future editors of similar projects: The text should , after all, speak for itself. If the story’s form requires description or justification, then what of its content?

Concerns of this ilk were dashed momentarily at last month’s book release party, at which many of the Howling contributors were present. Over several hug-filled hours upstairs at Mimi’s in the Marigny, they shared aloud selections of their published pieces, supported by each others’ words, tears, and drink tickets.

Through the spoken-word medium, the stories gained the kind of emotional profundity that one assumes had given birth to the words in the first place. Attendees were visibly moved by many of the performances, through which writers became readers. They were able to share their thoughts in an emotionally gripping way that may well have differed from the original experience produced from a keyboard.

In its physical form, Howling is an important testament to the visceral power behind the spoken words. It speaks to the difference and universality of experience, without sacrificing earnestness. As Valentine Pierce, a Howling contributor who blogs under the handle “Backpocketpoet,” writes in her piece “Reluctant Migrants,” New Orleanians are not a special breed in the sense that they should be considered alien to all other forms of humanity. Decisions should not be made for or on behalf of them. Rather, “we give a damn in spite of what you may believe. We honor our dead, respect our elders, celebrate our lives, spoil our babies and pay homage to our heroes.”

Like New Orleans itself, the book unfurls at its own pace. Most contributors have three pieces published, allowing the reader a more full experience of the breadth and dexterity of each writer. This structure works especially well for the journalistic prose writers whose works are complementary, at times sequential, adding to the reader’s understanding of events.

So while the Katrina anniversary buzz fades away – at least until 2015 - what we have left is the stories of what happened and what continues to happen: those of trauma, anguish, painful recovery, and memories distilled in the collective conscience.

As with most important things in New Orleans, these stories will be remembered and retold, and it is in their retelling that they communicate most effectively. A Howling In the Wires is an excellent compilation of these stories, respectful of the raw form and innovative as a historical document. One can only have faith that many more experiences can be preserved in whatever medium does them the most justice.

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