In our 2005 cover story, novelist Martin Pousson described how his life was thrown in tumult by Katrina. His new job as writer in residence at Loyola University New Orleans was put on hold after the storm, but he turned down a replacement job offered to him at New York's Columbia University so he could help rebuild. He updates us below on what's happened since.
It’s one thing to go, another to leave. And like the Catholic Church, New Orleans is a place you never leave. You may go, but the faith follows. Two years after Hurricane Katrina, still shaken by the city’s trauma but not forsaken in my faith for its renewal, I went to Los Angeles for work at a university when such work was hard to find in the Big Easy.
After the flood, I stayed in the city as long as the work held. I turned down an offer to teach in New York and remained as writer in residence at Loyola University. While there, I o-hosted Fleur-de-Relief, a benefit for NO/AIDS Task Force featuring Jake Shears and Michael Cunningham, I moderated the Lambda Literary Awards panel at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, and I founded 1718, a citywide literary reading series cosponsored by Loyola, Tulane, and the University of New Orleans. That series featured established writers from the region, such as celebrated trans novelist Poppy Z. Brite, alongside emerging student writers.
The students were among the brightest stars I’ve taught on any campus anywhere, and I was thrilled to take part in the early stages of New Orleans’s resurgence. The city is a phoenix that can’t be burned — or drowned. And it offers the rest of the nation a vital contrast: African, Caribbean, Cajun, Creole, French, and Spanish more than Anglo; Catholic and Voodoo more than Protestant, and carnivalism more than careerism. The city favors play over work, constant creativity over conspicuous consumption, make over take. It also mixes cocktails and culture like no place else. As Dr. John put it: “In New Orleans, you can’t separate nothing from nothing … it’s all one funky gumbo.”
Do I know what it means to miss it? Every day, I know it. New Orleans remains a prayer for me, a wish, a dream. Like Ignatius J. Reilly, I found the heart of the wasteland not inside but outside the city limits. I walked past those limits only after the residency at Loyola ended, in the middle of a trying time for the campus and for the city’s soul. I was haunted for years by my decision to take a job in Los Angeles. Yet I tried to write that darkness into a new queer coming-of-age novel with stories set in the bayous and on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana featuring local legends of strange birds, odd ducks, and queer fish alongside sexual rites of passage, traumas of bullying and bashing, crises of family and faith, the plague of HIV/AIDS, and the rise of new activists ultimately fighting a common cause on common ground. New Orleans is the home of an alternate LGBTQ history: when Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was one of the first and most public gay bars in the nation, when Southern Decadence was reclaimed by Radical Faeries and trans people as a queer holiday, when the UpStairs Lounge was burned during Pride Weekend in the deadliest attack on queer people in the nation. Now the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres is home to Bounce and its queen diva, Big Freedia. Although I don’t (currently) live and work there, my new novel, Black Sheep Boy, is how I like to imagine the always old, always new New Orleans: a place for queers, by queers, of queers. —Martin Pousson
MARTIN POUSSON was born and raised in the bayou land of Acadiana. His short stories won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He also was a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award, the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. His stories have appeared in The Antioch Review, Epoch, Five Points, StoryQuarterly, and elsewhere. His new novel, Black Sheep Boy, will be released by Rare Bird Books in hardcover this winter.
Matthew Cardinale was only 24 when Katrina changed his life. The Point Scholar was working with homeless youth in the Crescent City, with hopes of starting an alternative newspaper. He was staying in uptown when the storm hit, but was forced to flee when fires ravaged the neighborhood — he was eventually rescued by the Coast Guard before finding refuge in Florida. Here's where he is now:
I had gone to Tulane for undergraduate from 1998 to 2003, and then had moved back to New Orleans in July 2005, only a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina, after a two-year stint in California.
I had been planning on starting a print and online news service, that I had been planning to call the New Orleans Street News.
The Advocate covered my horrifying experience during the storm, how I evacuated several days later and had to come back to rescue my cats, Beebosh, Annie, and Daphne. I was there, surrounded by water; all I did was cry and be hungry for like a whole week. When I look back, I am reminded of tragedy and stress.
After Hurricane Katrina, I relocated to Atlanta. At the time, there was so much uncertainty, including about housing costs as well as the levees.
So instead of starting the New Orleans Street News, I started the Atlanta Progressive News.
Today, APN is an Atlanta institution that will be 10 years old in November; we have produced over 2,300 original news articles and blog posts to date; we were the ones to break the story on the Atlanta Eagle Raid in 2009. We have had a significant impact on public policy, government, and elections in Metro Atlanta, of which I am truly proud.
But I do miss New Orleans. I am sad about the destruction of public housing and public schools. the charterization of Orleans Parish schools, and the general political shift. When I left New Orleans, we had a Democratic governor, two Democratic U.S. senators, and at least one Democratic House member. Today, those are all gone, and Louisiana lost an entire seat in Congress because of population losses.
I look back and wonder, would we have been able to stop the privatization free-for-all?
New Orleans will always be precious to me. I miss the slow pace. I miss class consciousness, the fertile ground for protest and organizing. I miss the decadence in general, and Southern Decadence in particular. There is no other place in the U.S. like New Orleans and I am sad that circumstances took me away from the city I loved.
The last time I visited was in 2007, when I defended my MPA thesis at University of New Orleans.
In retrospect, they did do a lot to repair and improve the levee system, so it certainly is not as vulnerable as it was before. But I made the right decision at the time, for me and my animals. Sometimes our personal choices are shaped in a major way by events that are out of our control.
Annie passed away in 2008; Beebosh in 2011. Daphne decided to become an outdoor kitty and was adopted by a same-sex couple in Atlanta. —Matthew Cardinale
MATTHEW CARDINALE is attending law school at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., while running APN from afar. He has a new family of cats, including Penelope, Veronica, Perspephone, and Mr. Fluffers.