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New Orleans writers struggle to pen rebirth story

By Jeffrey Jones
Reuters
Monday, December 18, 2006; 3:35 AM

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Quirky characters, raucous music, jazz funerals, a warm climate and plenty of service-industry jobs made New Orleans an ideal base for writers and a rich backdrop for their work.

But, 16 months after Hurricane Katrina, the southern city that inspired Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, John Kennedy Toole and Anne Rice risks losing its unique place on the literary landscape. The city's recovery is plodding and many writers remain in exile around the United States.

"This applies not just to literature, but to music and all of the art forms that owe something to the character of New Orleans -- they're all going to be different," said John Biguenet, author and English professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.

"When we talk about New Orleans culture, we're not talking about a place but a community. If the people who taught the next generation to make the gumbo, to sing the songs and sew the costumes for Mardi Gras don't come back, that's the end of that tradition."

Novelists, poets and playwrights are struggling to save and rebuild their scene in the city that was setting for classics like Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire," and Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces" and Rice's popular "Interview With the Vampire."

Some have launched efforts to provide housing assistance and other aid for basic survival so writers can chronicle disaster and recovery in what previously was an affordable Bohemia on the Mississippi.

Six weeks after Katrina, Dave Brinks invited fellow poets to his funky French Quarter bar to read for about 250 people.

The "Still Standing" event at Gold Mine Saloon went long into the night despite a curfew, an early sign the storm did not wash away the city's love for the written word.

"We just closed the doors and let things keep going," Brinks, 39, said at the bar one recent morning. "It was a beautiful exposition of how everyone felt at that moment."

At the event, he and his colleagues began work to locate more than 200 writers evacuated to cities around the United States with the aim of eventually bringing them back.

"We've got to get life back so the city can do what it does," said Brinks, whose own house on Canal Boulevard stewed in 8 feet of dirty water after the storm.

He still hosts Thursday night readings. But the Gold Mine also serves as a community center where his colleagues can get information on medical and psychological help and other needs.

HOUSING SQUEEZE

Relatively cheap housing in the city known as the Big Easy lured those who could no longer afford sky-high rent in other literary hotspots like New York and San Francisco.

But after the storm that flooded 80 percent of the city, homes and jobs disappeared, problems that still threaten the recovery as the population remains at half the pre-storm number.

Neighborhoods popular with the artistic community, like the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, did not flood. But rents there have risen by 50 to 100 percent, said author Robert Smallwood, who is also executive director of the Louisiana Writers' Foundation.

"If writers were scraping by with odd jobs, they can hardly make it now," he said.

His foundation and Habitat for Humanity teamed up in an effort to secure lots and build low-income housing to assist writers and their families. It's a similar plan to the Musicians Village begun by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis.

To raise funds, the foundation in November recreated Truman Capote's famous black-and-white ball, which was held at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966. The 2006 version was in New Orleans, the birthplace of the author of "In Cold Blood."

NONFICTION SHIFTS TO FICTION

Katrina is an unavoidable touchstone for New Orleans writers as they get back to their craft.

Since the disaster, it's been largely a subject of nonfiction, such as Douglas Brinkley's tome "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast" and "The Five People You Meet In Hell: Surviving Katrina," Smallwood's tale of French Quarter denizens who stayed put while most citizens evacuated.

Now, the storm and its aftermath are fodder for fiction, said Biguenet, who lost 2,500 books when his home flooded.

"Rising Water," his play about a couple trapped in their attic after Katrina who must make their way to their roof, has attracted national attention.

Brinks' poetry is filled with explorations of life, family and death post-Katrina.

"Only now are we returning to our creative writing to try to comprehend what exactly has happened to us and our fellow New Orleanians," said Biguenet, 57.

He describes his city as a cultural island in America that managed to maintain its unique French, African, Spanish and Caribbean character as well as its love of conversation. That fostered its literary scene.

Said Smallwood: "It's important to save this, because this is part of the soul of the whole country, to be able to have writers and artists and poets exist and create and maintain our culture."

© 2006 Reuters