We interview Michael Tisserand (B.A. 1992), who helped start a school for his kids in the immediate wake of Katrina—and has now written a book about their school and others serving the evacuated children of New Orleans
Michael Tisserand (B.A. ’92) was editor at the New Orleans alternative cultural newspaper Gambit Weekly when Hurricane Katrina hit. He and his family found themselves still in New Iberia, Louisiana, after evacuation settled into lingering displacement, with the school year ticking on and no news about New Orleans school re-openings. Tisserand and some other parents contacted a favorite teacher, Paul Reynaud, from their neighborhood school, and Reynaud agreed to direct an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse of variously aged children, all deeply affected by the swamping of their hometown.
Published summer 2007, Sugarcane Academy (Harcourt) is Tisserand’s evocative record of the little school’s creation, growth, and eventual move to New Orleans over the fall of 2005. The book is also the story of the many New Orleans children who found themselves lost and unwelcome in Houston’s public schools, cut loose in a FEMA trailer park with no support structure, or temporarily sheltered in a make-shift classroom in the Cajundome. More than anything, however, this is a book of children’s stories about the hurricane: how the flood came; how it felt to survive it—and witness others’ failure to survive; how it uprooted and dispersed families across the country; how the hurt continues.
Although he and his family moved to Evanston, Illinois, in 2006, Tisserand continues to cover New Orleans for The Nation, Utne Reader, The Progressive and The National Catholic Reporter. We interviewed Tisserand via email. His website is at www.michaeltisserand.com.
Many people who read your book are probably curious how teacher Paul Reynaud is doing back at your old neighbhorhood school....
He’s got another class of 25 lucky first graders at Lusher. He showed up at a Sugarcane Academy book reading in New Orleans, along with his parents and other various relatives. I can tell you that it was intimidating to give him a copy of the book—it was much worse than turning in an end-of-the-year class assignment. When he showed up at the bookstore, I knew I had his stamp of approval. I think more people asked him to sign a copy of the book than asked me.
In Sugarcane Academy, you've created these finely detailed portraits of people reaching out to other people to create or recreate something helpful and sustaining. And then there’s Renaissance Village, the ragtag FEMA trailer park for evacuees. You could have written a darker book. Why did you choose otherwise?
I first wrote about Renaissance Village for The Nation, back when the park was just opening. Two years later, there are still 1,500 evacuees stuck in those trailers. Many are clearly mentally ill and not receiving proper care—they barely leave their trailers. Two years ago, I didn’t know that—in addition to being isolated—the residents there would be breathing toxic fumes from the trailers themselves. EPA standards were relaxed for the trailers, which were never made for two-year habitation. I’ve also written about public schools for The Nation and other magazines, and some of those stories are equally bleak. There are times when I don’t feel much hope. And then, to be frank, I turn to our four months in Sugarcane Academy. That counted for something in our lives, and I started to seek out others who had similar experiences. It was integral to my personal recovery.
New Orleans is a city of complex, sometimes contradictory, interconnecting stories. One part of the New Orleans story is that ordinary people are responding to impossible times with intelligence, creativity and tenacity. You see this all over the city, and it crosses class and race boundaries. I wanted to tell some of these stories in Sugarcane Academy. Yet at the same time, I was concerned about writing a simple, feel-good story and going for cheap inspiration. I believe the political right is using New Orleans to argue that private initiative works when governments fail. I didn’t want my little story to feed into that cynical and false interpretation of the events of the past two years.
I worried about this a lot, actually, and I remembered an undergraduate class I had with Michael Dennis Browne, and an essay he taught by Czeslaw Milosz about writing poetry in the ruins. What I recall from that lesson was the importance of the background reality in whatever you’re writing—don’t forget to pull the camera back and show what’s going on outside your immediate little narrative or poem. And that’s what I tried to do in Sugarcane—write a very intimate story about the teachers, students and parents, while not neglecting the larger picture.
On one level, the book is a very moving narrative about leaving New Orleans and how painful that process is for you and your children. How does it feel a year later? What of New Orleans seems irreplaceable?
The pace, the music, the tastes, the passions, the sno-balls. The musicality and theatricality of day-to-day life there. The way that cultural history comes alive in a night of brass band music at the Sound Cafe in the Bywater. The chance to sit in that same cafe during the day and never get any work done, because there are too many conversations to be had.
We go back, over and over. That 850 mile drive is getting to be old hat. I’m a Midwesterner by birth, but for some reason New Orleans became my home. Living there, it was a great joy to share that home with my children. Although we’re not living there now, we can still be part of the city, and part of our friends’ lives, and play a small role in the rebuilding effort. So that’s what we’re doing.
Last winter, the New York Times wrote about the educated class moving out of New Orleans in an article entitled “Fed-Up New Orleans Residents Are Giving Up.” What is the feeling among your friends in New Orleans—does it feel like the “window of opportunity” to repair and even improve the city has closed? It seems that people who stay often resent those who leave. How does one sift through layers of personal and projected shame around the issue of leaving?
New Orleans is not for everyone. If you have certain medical conditions, you shouldn’t live there. There aren’t enough good schools to go around, which is a disgrace. And there is an atmosphere of uncertainty there, because everyone knows that the levees have only been rebuilt back to failure level, and the wetlands are still vanishing more quickly than any land mass in the world. And there is a general breakdown of social services and the criminal justice system, which you see reflected in current crime statistics.
And yet . . . and with New Orleans, there’s always an “and yet” . . . it is a place where you know in a very real way that we are called to be part of something that is bigger than ourselves. If you want to have an immediate impact on other peoples’ lives, go to New Orleans. Even a quick visit to New Orleans will reveal that it is still a vital city. Hurting, but vital. A lot of people aren’t giving up. And those who left bear as much responsibility to not give up, either. It’s a cliché, but cynicism is a luxury that New Orleans can’t afford.
After Katrina, the first thing we knew for certain was that my wife’s job—she’s a pediatrician—had ended. That prompted her to look both in New Orleans and elsewhere for work, and we ended up in Illinois. Being up here made it possible for my wife to care for her father, who died this past year. We didn’t give up on the city, and we’re not fed up. It just worked out that we’re here for now.
Last year, a great New Orleans blogger singled me out for leaving. I got in touch with the guy, and we had some good conversations. The truth is that I did feel guilty for putting that “For Sale” sign in front of my house. Absolutely. We were pulling one more little thread out of our social fabric at a time when people were feeling very vulnerable. And the issue of moving threatened to split my wife and me apart more than anything that has ever come up between us. So yes, it was painful.
When New Orleanians speak of the people who abandoned the city, I know where their fierceness comes from. Yet they have to get past their anger, and we who left have to get past our shame. There are too many people hurting from this event for any of us to nurse our individual wounds for too long.
Speaking from Minneapolis, where we have also recently watched the media spotlight arrive and depart, I’m wondering how people can keep significant but no longer dramatic topics—such as the nation’s infrastructure—in the public eye?
In a world where Darfur exists, it’s difficult to get especially indignant that New Orleans is being ignored or neglected. There is much that demands our attention around the world and in our own cities. Yet as a fairly cushioned middle-class guy, I can tell you that I always thought that if my life turned upside-down, it would be my own doing. I never really imagined that my life, the lives of my family, and the lives of the people I love would be so directly affected by something like design flaws in a levee system.
That was my naiveté. Like Winston Churchill (and Al Gore) said, we’re now in a time of consequences. The levee system was designed and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—a branch of the U.S. military. What happened in New Orleans wasn’t because we were attacked by those who hate us—it is a massive failure of our own government. That’s a hard message to digest.
Now, the solutions are fairly simple in New Orleans. We need the kinds of advanced levees that Amsterdam enjoys, and we need to reverse the environmental disaster that is the disappearance of Louisiana’s wetlands. We are up to the engineering challenge. It will take money, and it will take political will. Americans responded—and are still responding—to the needs of New Orleanians with generosity. But we need political leaders who can tap into our better instincts and encourage Americans to take the long view.
Director Spike Lee continues to be involved in covering Katrina (via not only HBO's When the Levees Broke, but the help he is giving with the video documentary by teens presently living in New Orleans). Is art-making one way to keep a story in the news? Do you see that happening elsewhere (besides your book)—and perhaps more importantly, does it work, do you think?
For me, one of the most important scenes in Sugarcane Academy was when I returned to New Orleans with my kids, and we explored our neighborhood. My daughter found an old spray can left behind by a search and rescue team, and she made a red X on the street, to mirror the ones she was seeing on our neighbors’ houses. She was making her mark.
This past summer, we spent a month in New Orleans, and the kids went to a downtown camp at the Contemporary Arts Center. On Dr. Seuss week, my son made a crazy cardboard Dr. Seuss house and then added a flood-line in the center of it. He traced the line above the front door and explained to me that Katrina came in through the front.
Art is vital in the rebuilding of the city. It takes all forms. One of my favorite representations of Katrina is a serialized, Web-only graphic novel called A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, by Josh Neufeld. One of the most incredible books to come out of post-Katrina New Orleans is called Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward, by the Neighborhood Story Project, and it recounts how a social aid and pleasure club—the groups that sponsor street parades and jazz funerals in New Orleans—reassembled itself and returned to the streets.There is an immediacy to art-making in New Orleans, like there is an immediacy to everyday life there. It’s sustaining folks in all walks of life.
[One of my goals] for this next year is to get back to the kind of Louisiana cultural writing I did for my first book The Kingdom of Zydeco. In New Orleans, it’s both about raging against the ongoing injustice and celebrating the local culture. Both are necessary. And I’m in the mood for a little culture.
Author photo credit: Rachel Roze