Panelists: Sarah Broom, Deanna Fei, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Lacy M. Johnson, & Maria Mockett
Ten takeaways from a great panel about writing about catastrophe:
1. Lacy M. Johnson, whose new essay collection The Reckonings is getting deserved acclaim, knows how to organize a great panel. She pulled together four terrific women writers because “white men have done so much of the writing about disaster” and she felt we needed “a different perspective.”
2. Catastrophes come in many forms and sizes. The disasters these writers have chronicled include Hurricane Katrina, the Sri Lankan civil war, the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the premature birth of a baby girl.
3. Catastrophes that aren’t really catastrophes can turn into real catastrophes. Deanna Fei’s little girl arrived prematurely in a birth that was called “catastrophic.” The baby hovered between life and death for three months and Fei could not write about that or anything for a year. Then, when an executive at her husband’s company blamed Obamacare and the cost of her daughter’s hospitalization for cuts that the company made in their employees’ 401ks, she realized she had to take the story back and wrote an essay that became the memoir Girl in Glass: Dispatches from the Edge of Life.
4. The catastrophe that is our country’s employer-based health insurance system is not the only manmade catastrophe. Sometimes natural catastrophes turn into manmade catastrophes. The Great East Japan Earthquake begat the tsunami but also caused the meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
5. Catastrophes become personal. In Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, which Marie Mockett described as a “travel book about the traditions Japanese people use to deal with death and loss,” we are told that the Buddhist temple her Japanese mother’s family owns is just a few miles from Fukushima Daiichi and that radiation from the disaster prevented the family from burying her grandfather. Sarah Broom, whose memoir The Yellow House is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic, told us her ancestral home in New Orleans East was demolished by the city without her family’s knowledge. Her brother found the notice in a mailbox that now stood in front of an empty lot.
6. Disaster may be unwitnessed or invisible because the letter is never received or because men don’t see it. V.V. Ganeshananthan, author of Love Marriage, proposed that male writers “fetishize the moment and privilege the individual over community,” but “disaster is not located in a single moment” and “time moves beyond the individual.” For this reason she chose to write about war widows and generations and the “slow forms of disaster.” Lest we forget just how slow, sly and continuous history can be, she explained that in an apparent coup the Friday prior to the panel, the president of Sri Lanka had rehabilitated the dictator he had been elected to replace in 2015 by appointing him prime minister.
7. Sometimes men have other ways of deciding how history will be written. Marie Mockett said her agent told her, “The New York Times will never want your piece. They’ll want something by Ian Buruma.” (History, however, continues its ironic march. Mr. Buruma recently lost his job as editor of The New York Review of Books for giving disgraced woman-beater and former Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi space to publish a poorly edited and self-pitying essay about his lost celebrity.
8. The panelists were asked, “how does one resist disaster tourism?” Sarah Broom, who told us that tourist buses actually drove by to look at the disaster that was post-Katrina New Orleans, said that she tried to “get close to the people so that you’re not taking an aerial or satellite view.” She wanted hers not to be a Katrina book but a book about her family, her eleven brothers and sisters, her family who lived in the house before she was born, and “lots of disasters,” including Hurricane Betsy that hit New Orleans in 1965. Deanna Fei said she resisted by not giving readers a happy ending. Her daughter’s recovery was not the whole story. The story that spiraled out from her baby’s birth was the story of “policy, money, governments, corporations, bankruptcies, shared vulnerabilities,” and a healthcare system that tried to make her daughter “a villain, a price tag, a problem, a life not worth saving, a high-risk birth.” The real questions, she discovered, were “What is it worth to save a life?” and “What do we owe to the most vulnerable?”
9. In the chaos of disaster and the long work of researching and remembering, how did you find the structure of your book? Sarah Broom said the house itself gave her a structure. She thought of her book in terms of architecture, a floor plan, and rooms as well as a map. Marie Mockett said she finally opted to use the life cycle of a soul, which was for her “a kind of Hail Mary.”
10. How, asked Lacy Johnson, did you take care of yourself in the midst of all this tough and depressing material? V.V. Ganeshananthan said she found teaching to be a respite. She taught a course on jokes and humor, which reminded her that humor is also a response to catastrophe. Marie Mockett wrote about others to protect herself and, she added, “travel helps.” Sarah Broom transcribed lots of interviews with relatives, a practice that helped her set herself outside of the story.
Bonus takeaway: During the Q & A, Lacy Johnson modeled excellent moderating. When one man began to talk about how this panel reminded him of his own experience, she saw immediately that he was about to go on and so asked him if he had a question. He replied, “Not really” and then returned to his disquisition, at which point she said – kindly, quickly, and firmly – that we did not have a lot of time and so needed to move on to someone who had a question.
Ned Stuckey-French is an Associate Professor and the Director of the FSU Certificate Program in Publishing and Editing.