Tag : katrina

Jesmyn Ward (BSS #463)

Jesmyn Ward is most recently the author of Salvage the Bones.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Testing the limits of his fury towards the Bush family.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Subjects Discussed: Smoothies, fruit, bad franchises, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, what it means to be a mother and a woman, Medea, America’s lack of mythology vs. Greek mythology, life within a poor community, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an author’s responsibility to community, the regional limitations of contemporary American fiction, being made angry by comments relating to Katrina, Pat Robertson, Barbara Bush’s insensitive comments about Katrina, FEMA and Michael Brown, novels of ideas, the physicality of characters, sinewy muscles, stomachs in fiction, close third person vs. first-person perspective, bad models of womanhood in the natural world, language, China as an anagram of chain, words as tokens of physical identity, present stigmas against figurative language, collisional rhythm, Outkast and Deuteronomy, finding an incidental rhythm, when to resist feedback that gets in the way of a natural voice, violence in fiction, creating a ferocious and multidimensional dog in Salvage the Bones, being surprised by the middle, pit bulls, Manny as a conflict generator, the mysterious ghostly mother, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, sexuality and promiscuity, unstoppable emotional forces, not glossing over the truth, describing trees with limbs, paradisaical cesspools, keeping a natural environment alive, and finding the right details to depict impoverishment.


Correspondent: You have Esch reading this Edith Hamilton book, especially Medea. And you also point out near the end that mythology won’t entirely help you out in a fix. Esch says that she is stuck in the middle of the book. And aside from Hamilton, I have to ask, did you draw on any other inspirational mythology when you were creating this book? Was there a point when you abandoned mythology at all like Esch? I wanted to start off here from the origin.

Ward: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t draw from any other mythology. I don’t think. Greek mythology, that was the thing in this book. I think in my first book I did — well, if you consider some of the older tales in the Bible mythology. I drew from some of those in my first book.

Correspondent: Do you consider them mythology?

Ward: Well, they are tales that explain how the world became what it is. So in ways, I think it is. But did I use any other sorts of mythologies in this, in Salvage the Bones? I don’t know. I don’t think that I abandoned it. I think that mythology’s important to her because it’s helping her understand what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a woman. So therefore, like even though she turns away from it, she still can’t help but go before the storm. To come back to that story and read more of Medea. Because see, she’s searching. And in there, she’s found something. She can’t figure out what it is. But she’s found something.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you would have her cleave to mythology in America, which is a nation that is constantly in search of its own great mythology. The Great American Novel. We’re Number One. You name it. I’m wondering if this mythological concern was in some sense related to, well, whatever American identity that Esch and her family had.

Ward: Well, I think she feels very much like an outsider. I think that the culture that she is from, that she lives in a small world — you know, a poor black community. I mean, I feel like they think they’re outside of that. They exist outside of that American dream. And so, in ways, they have to look elsewhere. And Esch, particularly, she finds that she is even more isolated than that community that her family is. Because she’s this only girl who grows up in a world full of men. So she really has to look outside what is easily available to her or in front of her in order to find some sort of kinship.

Correspondent: This leads me to wonder. Have you read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful ForeversWard: No.

Correspondent: Because your book, on a fiction level, reminded me of this great journalism book. Which I think you would love and I’m just in total admiration of. It basically deals with this inner life of the people who are poor, who are collecting trash on the edge of Mumbai. And your book reminded me very much of this response to typical First World guilt or what not. That instead of actually pitying or looking down upon these people, your book is very much about giving all of these characters a great inner life. They do live. And it’s important to remember that they live. And I’m wondering where this impulse came from. Whether this idea of allowing Esch and her family to live was in some sense a way for you to counter any accusations of “Well, I’m responding to politics” and so forth.

Ward: Well, I think that I write about the kind of people that I grew up with, and the kind of people that are in my family and about the place that I’m from. I mean, I’m from a poor rural Southern community that — at least in my part of the community, which is mostly black. And you know, our family’s been there for generations. And I have a very large extended family. I’m related to almost everyone in my town. And so, for me, it’s like writing about the people that I’m writing about — you know, I feel that it’s a responsibility. Because I’m writing about my people. Even though my path is very different from most of the people I grew up with, I still consider myself — you know, that’s still my place. And those are still my people. So for me, that’s what this is. I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider who’s speaking out for the rest of the people inside my group.

Correspondent: Sure. I totally understand that. Do you think that this is going to be how it’s going to be for your fiction career? That you have to respond to this responsibility of speaking for this group of people? Because nobody else will. Or, in fact, one might argue that maybe American fiction, or regional American fiction, isn’t actually hitting that particular territory. What do you think of this?

Ward: I mean, I think that for the foreseeable future, as far as my writing life is concerned, I intend to write about the place and the people that I come from. Because part of the reason that I do so — I mean, part of the reason that I wanted to write about Katrina is because I was uncomfortable and made angry by the way that I heard others speak about people who didn’t evacuate from the storm. About people who stayed. About poor people who were caught in the maw of that storm. And I wanted to write against that. And so in a way, I do think that the voices of the people that I write about, or even just the people that I write about, that they’ve been absent in the conversation, in the national conversation. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do by writing about them. Introduce their voices into the conversation so that people pay attention and people aren’t so quick to write them off as worthless or stupid or all the other crazy things that I heard after Hurricane Katrina.

Correspondent: Are there specific things that really pissed you off?

Ward: Well, I heard this one woman. She’s from Atlanta too, which is close enough. It’s six hours away from where I live. And she said that the reason that Hurricane Katrina had hit us and done so much damage is because we were sinful. That we were in a sinful place. Like, for her, it was very much about — you know, she was approaching it from a religious standpoint.

Correspondent: The Pat Robertson-like charge.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: “Well, they brought it onto themselves.”

Ward: Yeah. So we deserved it because of our proclivity for gambling and drinking and all the rest. And then other people that I encountered said that, one, they couldn’t understand why people stayed. Why people would stay and try to survive a hurricane like that. And, two, that they didn’t understand why people would return and try to rebuild. Because what’s the point if global warming just means that there are going to be more storms, there are going to be just as powerful as Katrina and more of them are going to hit that part of the United States. And that comment really made me angry. Because that person was from L.A.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ward: That person was from California, which has its own.

Correspondent: These bicoastal buffoons.

Ward: So I just heard commentary like that. And it just made me really angry. And I wanted to counter those. I really felt that our voices were absent from that. Especially that conversation. You had what’s her name. It’s Bush’s mother. Remember when she said that crazy stuff?

Correspondent: Barbara Bush.

Ward: Yeah. About the people from New Orleans. Like this was like a vacation for them. Because they got to go ahead and stay in the Astrodome. Like really? Are you serious? Just so far removed from the reality of these people’s lives and their struggles. Just so far removed. Comments like that just made me realize how, when people said them, it’s like they didn’t recognize our humanity at all. And that really made me angry, and made me want to address Hurricane Katrina in the book.

Correspondent: Well, this seems as good a time as any to confess to you, Jesmyn, that at the point where they are scrambling for their boiled eggs and their packages of ramen, and there is of course the depiction of the carton of bones in the fridge — and then they say, “Oh, well, FEMA and Red Cross will help us out.” At that point, I thought I had a maximum level of anger towards Bush and Brown. And then I read that. And I became even more furious towards them.

Ward: (laughs)

Correspondent: And you’re talking here about anger. And you’re talking about it in a very calm manner. And this book is extremely focused, I would say. So what did you do to not get so caught up in this understandably furious impulse and actually focus in on the book? Was it really the inner life of these characters that was enough for you to counter any socioeconomic, political responsive bullshit?

Ward: I think so. Because I feel that my book will fail if my characters are not alive on the page. There have been great novels of ideas, right? But, for me, the kind of writer that I am, I can’t write those novels. And I don’t think that they would be successful novels.

Correspondent: Why do you think you can’t write a novel of ideas? Or that the ideas are best represented in the environment that you set down?

Ward: I don’t know. It’s just not my style. What comes naturally to me is telling a story that’s invested in people and in the characters, and making them live on the page.

Categories: Fiction

Susan Straight (BSS #367)

Susan Straight is most recently the author of Take One Candle, Light a Room.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Exploding Roman candles overlooked by the elite.

Author: Susan Straight

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Straight: I think what I’m trying to say about America is that it’s a series of villages. And everyone has a village. Again, people stay or people leave. But the idea that Americans want to forget that you come from a village — whether it’s the Upper East Side or Clackmannan Parish — that’s your village and you have to honor it. Fantine is the ultimate rootless traveler who goes on the road trip from hell with her father. Her father was really a pivotal character to me. I thought about Gustave and Enrique for months before I wrote this. And I wrote two short stories about them. The way that they became brothers was based to me on a true story told to me by an elderly neighbor. He came to my house for me to write letters to him. Because he couldn’t read or write. And I wrote letters to the VA. He was missing a little finger from the Korean War. And he was still trying to get money for it. And I grew up with his son. So he would come to my house. And I would write letters for him. And one day, we were sitting on the porch. And he told me this story of how he was an orphan. I mean, his dad was killed when his mom was pregnant with him. And he was seven years old. And he was hungry. And he wanted some meat. And nobody would give him any meat. No one would go get any meat. So he took a hammer. He walked three miles. He found a pig on a farm, killed it, dragged it three miles back to his house. Seven years old. And said, “Cook me some meat.” So that to me — the Enrique/Gustave — those are the men that I grew up listening to their stories of immense deprivation. Of walking fifty miles to go find a job. Of not ever having a mother and father, and making themselves into brothers. So that meant a lot to me too. That family at the end of the Clackmannan Parish Delta would say, “We’re still here.” It doesn’t matter what you do to us. We will still be here. Enrique was a big part of that for me.

Correspondent: Related to this desperate hunting, I have to ask you: Where did you get the idea of wrapping bacon around a gunshot wound as a home remedy? I asked a forensic science masters. I asked a medical student. And they had not heard of this. And I had not heard of this.

Straight: (nodding her head)

Correspondent: Aha! You did.

Straight: My mother-in-law told me that. My mother-in-law, I miss her so much. She died the year that that youngest child was born. And the last thing we whispered in her ear was that I was pregnant with her third granddaughter of our family. I mean, she had twenty-five grandchildren. My mother-in-law could have been born in Mississippi. She could have been born in Arkansas. She could have been born in Calexico. Nobody ever knew where she was born. We had to get her a birth certificate when she was fifty. My mother-in-law told me that when they were so poor — probably in Mississippi — that you would wrap bacon around the wound or salt meat. More likely salt meat. And that the salt pulled out the infection. She told me that when my children were really, really young. I mean, I knew her from the time I was sixteen on. And [my daughter] Rosette had this horrible infection on her leg. And we couldn’t figure out what it was. And we had tried everything. Antibiotics. Everything. One night, it was as if my mother-in-law spoke to me. And I had a piece of maple cured bacon. Farmer John. Stupid maple cured bacon. And I took that part. And I put it on Rosette’s wound. And I wrapped a dish towel around it. And the only thing I had to tie it with was Christmas tool. Like wrapping ribbon.

Correspondent: Wow.

Straight: She kept it on all night and all morning. Pulled it off. And the infection came out with the piece of bacon. It was the most disgusting thing you can imagine. And her wound healed over. And I just thought, “Okay, this is Alberta telling me what to do from the beyond.” And that’s exactly where that came from.

Correspondent: I’m shocked that, if this has happened, no mystery novel has picked this up. Or anything like that.

Straight: Exactly!

Correspondent: It sounds like the coolest way to get rid of a wound.

Straight: I took her to the dermatologist, who was Chinese. And she was like, “No, that’s not true. That’s not true at all. It couldn’t have happened.” And she dug a big hole in Rosette’s leg after that. And Rosette has a horrible scar now.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Straight: So for us, the bacon. We should have just stuck with Grandma Alberta.

Correspondent: Quite literally, you must bring home the bacon.

Straight: Well, the sad thing is that that is one of those folk remedies that was passed down to me from my mother-in-law. Along with the title of the book. Take One Candle, Light a Room is something I’ve heard some older women say at some family reunion. And someone said, “Oh, is that your only child?” And she was like, “Take one candle, light a room.” And I was like, “Wow.” That’s the best phrase I could ever imagine. In a kind of defiant way to say, “Yes, I have one child. And that’s all I ever needed to make my life.” So everything I’ve been given like that is kind of like a gift from listening, I think. I’m the person who listens.

Categories: Fiction

Rebecca Solnit (BSS #312)

Rebecca Solnit is most recently the author of A Paradise Built in Hell.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Finding hostility within legitimate clarification.

Author: Rebecca Solnit

Subjects Discussed: William James’s second treatise on pragmatism, the alternative notion which means the same as a preexisting notion, General Funston’s martial response to the 1906 earthquake vs. Pauline Jacobson’s push for camaraderie, beliefs conditioned by response, the psychological reset position, assumptions about human nature, innate helpfulness, responses to the Blitz bombings, the minority option of panic, Enrico Quarantelli’s disaster research in the early 1950s, Caron Chess and Lee Clarke’s elite panic, Kropotkin, the question of community’s compatibility with institutional authority, the LAPD officer who was courteous to protesters, good cops vs. anarchy, how Argentina’s government affects the manner in which people come together, the 2001 Argentina economic meltdown, the failure of Starbucks workers to give ambulance workers free water on 9/11, Martin Luther King’s notion of beloved community, John Guilfoy, the joy of disaster, resorting to Hobbesian metaphors, Henry James writing to his brother in San Francisco in distress, the looting question in Katrina, Timothy Garton Ash’s response to 9/11, assumptions that journalists make in relation to disaster, quibbling with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, acknowledging contemporary suffering, the Republic Windows strike, mutual aid, the slippery nature of the definition of “civil society,” taking control of the vernacular, work with TomDispatch.com, alternative media, a new language of emotion and not being connected, capitalism’s regulation of society, Dorothy Day’s notion of not being able to admit how people have failed us, becoming a writer, value-added theory and programemd human response, and the Donnell Harrington/Dan Baum controversy.


On April 13, 2008, Rebecca Solnit published an essay on TomDispatch.com called “Men Who Explain Things To Me,” in which she rightly complained about “the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in the field from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world.” In a September 2009 interview with The Believer, Solnit expanded on these thoughts, stating to Benjamin Cohen that she despised “the more face-to-face stuff when I get squelched, dismissed, insulted, and presumed ignorant by silly men in passing.”

I was aware of all this before I talked with Rebeca Solnit and I set out to respect this temperament. Solnit remains an interesting and an original thinker. And The Bat Segundo Show has always been about embracing people who are misinterpreted or misunderstood. permitting them to clarify their positions in a challenging and admittedly idiosyncratic manner. But my basic approach of civil disagreement, applied even to viewpoints I agree with for any doubting Thomas piped into the podcast, occasionally gets me into trouble.

danbaumblocksmallI was also aware of Solnit’s dispute with Dan Baum, in which Baum, reviewing Solnit’s book in the Washington Post, quibbled with the “evidence” that Solnit produced in relation to New Orleans shootings in the Algiers neighborhood just after Katrina. Indeed, in asking Dan Baum to clarify his thoughts, he proved obdurate in his viewpoint and proceeded to block me on Twitter.

Additional investigation, revealing the full extent of the Algiers evidence, is available at the Nation site and a link to A.C. Thompson’s article has been provided on the Bat Segundo website. But during our conversation, near the end, I hoped to get Solnit to clarify the nature of this evidence on the record and she proved just as uncooperative as Dan Baum.

I asked Solnit a perfectly reasonable question concerning why she could accept Donnell Herrington’s account on its own, without legitimizing his claim further with supportive evidence.

Here are a few reasons why evidence beyond oral testimony is so important.

In 1987, Tawana Brawley accused six white men of raping her. It was later revealed that Brawley created the appearance of a sexual assault. Brawley managed to dupe all manner of well-meaning people with her unfounded assertions.

In 1989, a man named Charles Stuart claimed that an African-American gunman with a raspy voice robbed him and killed his pregnant wife, Carol. He had injuries (or evidence, by Solnit’s definition). Subsequent testimony revealed that he had orchestrated the entire incident. There was no African-American gunman. Stuart had preyed on racist sentiments.

In 1994, Susan Smith claimed that an African-American had carjacked her with her sons in the car. As we all know, she was the one who had staged the entire incident after she had killed her own children.

I will leave the listener to judge whether my questioning predicated upon these considerations was right or wrong.

For what it’s worth, I do not believe that Solnit is entirely ignorant. Her books have demonstrated that she is an accomplished thinker. And despite some minor caveats, I can wholeheartedly recommend the book which forms the center of this conversation.

But it is wrong for Solnit to confuse clarification with dismissal of her viewpiont. It is also wrong for any person who purports or aspires to be an intellectual, whether Dan Baum or Rebecca Solnit, to insist that any view is above inquiry or examination.


Correspondent: One of the parties involved in this particular dispute…

Solnit: (looks at her watch)

Correspondent: This will be my last question. Don’t worry. One of the parties in this particular dispute actually blocked me on Twitter. And that is your online skirmish with Dan Baum. He blocked me when I was trying to actually ask him about this. I am curious. I want to just clarify this thing because there was considerable controversy over your use of the word “evidence.” You said, “I had the evidence.”

Solnit: Well…

Correspondent: Basically, when you wrote, “There are plenty of rumors, but the evidence was there.” Then you said, “I had the evidence.” Now I think the confusion of this whole needless pedantic skirmish had to do with the fact that you were about to describe what…

Solnit: Hang on just a second.

[Solnit interrupts and answers a phone call. Not recorded to protect privacy.]

Correspondent: Alright. Just to be…

Solnit: You know, in the short thing, I say that people go to jail on sketchier evidence that has been produced in a lot of ways.

Correspondent: But what specifically was the evidence? Was it the AC Thompson findings at the time? The FBI investigation? I mean, at least according to what was in the book.

Solnit: Well, the FBI investigation hasn’t led to any conclusions.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Solnit: But evidence to send people to jail depends on specific individuals being tied to specific crimes, but we have a lot of witnesses to…attempted murders, to bodies with bullets in them, in the area, and a lot of witnesses to men boasting of killings, etcetera. You know, there’s a lot of pieces. And there’s too many pieces to not believe that something happened and to not be pretty clear that what happened was that these vigilantes, you know. And these heavily armed vigilantes threatened, shot at, injured, and most likely killed black men in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Correspondent: So the testimony of Donnell Her….

Solnit: You know what? I’m not going to get into this. I’m not here to talk about a letter. I’m here to talk about the book.

Correspondent: Well, I’m trying to just clarify specifically what the “evidence” was. Was it Donnell Herrington’s testimony to you and AC Thompson when you were sitting at the table? Was it…

Solnit: It was a huge…it was a great many people who are not connected to each other coming forward with the same story. It was the medics and the common ground clinic telling me that they had many people confess to them in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that they had witnessed or participated in murders of this type. It was the videotape evidence of the Danish videographer’s videotape. It was Donnell Herrington’s testimony. It was, you know, other pieces of evidence about the vigilantes, including positive news stories about how they defended their neighborhood. It was Malik Rahim telling me and various other people, including Amy Goodman, at great length about what he had experienced in terms of threats and harassment and an expectation of a race war in his neighborhood, and bodies lying in the streets, including the body that he showed Amy Goodman and the Danish videographer on camera. It was the subsequent evidence that served us from the Pennsylvania detectives who went down who said that they found multiple bodies lying in the streets of Algiers with gunshot wounds and that they themselves heard many confessions and their videotape of yet another vigilante since deported, admitting, boasting of many killings. You know, there’s a huge amount of evidence. And the word “evidence” doesn’t mean that it’s conclusive.

Correspondent: Okay.

Solnit: But there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that all points to exactly the same thing. And Donnell Herrington — you know, I trust him a lot more than I trust you, for example. And he’s — you know, his story checks out in every way. The doctors who treated him talk about other people coming with bullet, with gunshot wounds. And, you know, there’s a huge pattern that all points to the same thing.

Correspondent: But in relation to the people that Herrington saved on the boat, did you talk to those people who he saved? To have some independent confirmation of his story or anything along those lines? Or…

Solnit: (pause)

Correspondent: Did AC or anybody else? Just to verify his story against other accounts and the like?

Solnit: You know, many say — you know, that wasn’t part of the story that we needed to check out. And, you know, I didn’t verify a lot of other people’s stories that they rescued people, that they did this, that they did that either. Because, you know, this isn’t a legal trial. And Donnell’s story checked out in every way that it needed to check out.

Correspondent: So basically, for you, “evidence” means what they told you on the…

Solnit: You know…

Correspondent: I’m just trying to determine what you meant by “evidence.” Just to figure out. I mean, I happen to agree that videotapes, photographs, and statements are evidence. I’m just trying to determine if there were other additional third party ways of verifying the primary evidence. That way, you have a really all-encompassing — like a ballistics report of the shots that were fired as well. That’s what I’m….

Solnit: You mean, on Donnell’s.

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly.

Solnit: Well, the shotgun wounds, the medical.

Correspondent: Medical reports.

Solnit: The medical reports check out. The doctor checks out. Everything else Donnell said checked out. We spent a great deal of time with him. And then part of the complication is that the coroner perjured himself in the trial, you know, in the fight to get the medical records in court. A lot of those records are missing. The New Orleans Police Department is incredibly corrupt and incompetent. They chose not to investigate the case when Donnell basically came up and said, “Somebody tried to murder me and I want you to look into it.” They have yet to open a case. So the legal — until the FBI stepped up, the legal system had completely ignored this. So the kind of legal testimony that’s often demanded doesn’t exist because the legal system, you know, is not, has not, in New Orleans and Louisiana has not been interested.

Correspondent: But how can you be sure that everything that Herrington said to you is absolutely 100% true? I mean, memory, as we all know, is the worst liar of them all. Even if he had most of the details right, he may have general details….

Solnit: Well, what are you calling into question? That somebody shot him twice with a shotgun at point blank range?

Correspondent: Well, that’s pretty clear based off of what we see.

Solnit: Well, there were two other men with him who corroborated what he had to say. AC Thompson talked to both of them. There’s the doctor who saw him when he came in. And then you have to — you know, and this is how…. Absolute verifiable truth, you know, is a metaphysical question. Courtrooms get into it in some ways. But, you know, this is not a criminal trial. Everything checked out. Everything made sense. We spent a great deal of time with him. I don’t know why you’re calling him into question to begin with, but…

Correspondent: I’m a natural skeptic, that’s all.

Solnit: Why would somebody come up with — how else would somebody in those circumstances get shot? Uh, you know, it’s very clear he got shot twice with it. You know, this is totally fucked up and I can’t believe you’re doing this shit. I think it’s really obnoxious. It’s really off point and really kind of lame. And if you want, there’s a huge preponderance of evidence. It’s been checked out. It’s been checked out by CNN. It’s been checked out by The Nation Magazine. ProPublica, etcetera. You know, I’m not here. You didn’t ask me to bring a huge amount of documentation. I didn’t bring a huge amount of documen….

[Tape runs out]

Categories: Ideas