Writing Home

Sometimes I think it’s the best thing that could’ve happened to me, Hurricane Katrina. But such a thought always feels so calloused given the memory of so much devastation it caused, those many lives suddenly changed or ended. The reminder returns to me as a taste of rust, overwhelming my tongue, shutting me up.

The truth is, just two years before I first crossed Westlands Lawn as a first-year, that hurricane would ravage much of the American Gulf Coast; ravage and revise the City of New Orleans, my home, in particular; revise my idea of home, to be most precise. I saw that changing idea reflected back to me each time I was swept into those obligatory, if sometimes awkward, new-student introductions that first year.

“Hello—”

“Hey …”

“I’m—”

“My name’s …”

“Where are you from?”

“Pittsburgh.”

“Oakland.”

“I was born in Belgium, but—”

“Brooklyn!”

“New Orleans.”

Saying it, I admit there formed a kind of comedy in my mind as I took in each person’s reaction. Funny, I mean, to watch their eyes glimmer and flash only slightly wider, as if just behind my head they took sight of some Spanish moss suddenly clinging to the tree branches, or down the street came a Mardi Gras float teasing us with its beads, or as if their ears were echoing with some version of jazz—all these romances and stereotypes of New Orleans. Then to see them see the other thing, and the eyes grow cloudier, the lids drop just a little, as if all they could see now were gray water, up-to-the-roof high, and those black families, deserted, stranded among the roofs. And here I was before them, at Sarah Lawrence, bringing the whole ordeal back.

This is the first time, in fact, I’m writing much of this—the first time I’m writing so directly about being a “Katrina Survivor” and the ways such an event takes sudden, enormous influence on a life, even if miles away, tucked safely in Bronxville. But this isn’t at all the first time I’ve written about it—from it, through it—in general, whether through poems or stories. Sarah Lawrence became the place that affirmed such an act and affirmed writing’s significance in my life; that offered poetry, in particular, as that medium for both self-reflection and critical political and social analysis. Sarah Lawrence became the place that offered me the very tools I would later use to critique it.

That I discovered the College at all may be the biggest miracle. I think back to that moment two years prior to walking MacCracken lower bridge to meet my suitemates. In that late July of 2005—when Katrina was not yet a name to know—the name Sarah Lawrence did not, in any way, exist in my mind. No “liberal arts college” did. I was the victim of regionalism, you could say, or of an education that did not wish for those who look like me to dream farther than a state line. Yet sometime in the convening years following Katrina, through a brief stay in Los Angeles (where my family had relocated), through the intolerable conditions of a FEMA trailer (when we eventually moved back), somehow the name Sarah Lawrence was introduced to me and it stuck. With it came the discovery of an education that seemed to trust in the value of the interdisciplinary approach, that understood the necessity of the arts and trusted in the power of writing—creative or academic—as a tool to process all of this. “You are different,” so the slogan went when I was there. “So are we.” And I believed them.

Yet that first day when I arrived, I came only with a gut instinct that I had made the right choice, without very much certainty but plenty of excitement, and certainly without the knowledge of the reputation, especially for writers, Sarah Lawrence holds. And to be honest, I’m glad of this ignorance. Maybe it better prepared me. Those times I do allow myself the thought that Katrina was the best thing that happened to me, it’s only because I recall how it so violently made me contend with loss. Katrina taught me that, in some cases, to have lost and to feel that grain of emptiness is to also be made more available to being re-filled, fulfilled even more substantively and completely. Among what I lost were all the writings, poems, failed short stories, and song lyrics I had written obsessively since late adolescence, swallowed by the water. But what I didn’t lose, and can never lose, is the memory of having written them, of reading whatever it was that inspired me to write them, and the lesson each piece would add to my still-growing craft. Maybe I’ll say I lost those writings, and later was satisfied with that letting go, in order to make more room for the writings, at Sarah Lawrence and beyond, to come.

Of course, Sarah Lawrence was not perfect. I think back to those occasions I felt isolated on the campus and to some of my peers’ blindness to many of the experiences and identities I claim—or to that awkward silence that inevitably followed when I revealed where I was from. But no home, I also learned there, is perfect—only, if we’re luckiest, protective. It may well be that home, despite a hunger to make it permanent, is always changing. New Orleans, I came to understand, was now both for me. Writing would be also, and is.