Creating Beauty from Katrina

Yesterday I finished reading Barb Johnson’s collection of stories, More of This World or Maybe Another. Barb was the recipient this year of the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Foundation’s Gift of Freedom award, a $50,000 grant given to a deserving woman writer so she could practice her craft without financial worries.

I attended the AROHO women’s writing retreat in August, and Barb was an invited guest. She read from her new collection (just published this October), part of a short story called The Invitation. It was funny and wise and sweet, and uniquely told in her voice. I couldn’t wait to read the rest of the book.

Barb is from New Orleans. She grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and eventually ended up in the big city, working for 20 years as a carpenter. At some point along the way, she realized she had stories to tell, and enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program.

Barb brings to life the women and men and children of Louisiana, in all their specificity, with regional color and gorgeous description, peopling a world in her pages. What is truly remarkable is that she wrote the book in the wake of Katrina. Although the storm is not mentioned in the stories, the writing of it took place living on her apartment’s balcony, surrounded by the hurricane’s aftermath. She speaks of how beautiful it was at night:

The darkness provided a relief from the visual assault that went with life in the daylight: debris everywhere, pieces of my neighbors’ lives sitting in the middle of the street, animals that hadn’t made it through the storm.

Every day, National Guard patrols would drive by, and say to her, “Ma’am…you can’t be here. This neighborhood hasn’t been okayed for occupancy.” And I’d say, “Yes, I know.” Then they’d wave and drive off, and I’d go back to writing.”

In an afterword to her book, she said:

Anyone who was in the city at that time was starving for something normal – seeing a neighbor, walking the dog, sitting down to a meal with friends. Writing was the only thing I did after the storm that I’d done before it. It was normal. Having to write under those circumstances banished forever any notion that things had to be a certain way – neat desk, good coffee, agreeable temperature – in order for me to write.

And the result of that labor, produced on a laptop on a balcony in the midst of hurricane disaster, is this beautiful book. What a metaphor for what art can be!

Sitting and working at my neat desk, with the heat on, a roof over my head, coffee brewing in the next room, I know that there will never again be a valid excuse for not being able to write. The words do not rely on perfect conditions. All that is required is showing up.

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  1. Ah, we are both lovers of books. I have made note of Johnson’s book and will request it from the library. I have just finished Alice Munro’s newest book — Too Much Happiness. She is a wonderful writer. She is able to write about the most horrofic things and with enough space for the reader to handle the story.
    I do caution you about making comparisons ” there will never ba a valid excuse”. It is a trap to make comparsions and say you have no excuse or no reason to complain. This diminshes who you are and what you are coping with. We are all different.

  2. Marj,
    Your caution re: comparisons rings true for me. Thank you for pointing out that trap, one that is very easy for me to fall into. And I’ll put Alice Munro’s book on my list…

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