Between Worlds

I’m thrilled that my essay “Between Worlds,about members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe who live (or used to live) on Isle de Jean Charles in coastal Louisiana, is up at Orion Magazine alongside Michel Varisco’s extraordinary photos. We were both profoundly moved by the people we met for this project and by the beauty of their vanishing homeland.

gronerweb1

“For Hurricane Audrey, I was young,” says Boyo, recalling the largest and deadliest June hurricane in US history, in 1957. “[Audrey] was the first time they had water on top of the land over here; maybe a foot and a half, two foot at the most.” Since then, hurricanes have routinely flooded the island, and for a while residents rode out storms in wash buckets and wooden canoes, called pirogues, that they tied to their houses. When the water rose, the islanders floated. Long-gone forests protected them from the winds.

Since 1998, Terrebonne Parish, which includes Isle de Jean Charles, has suffered a presidentially declared natural disaster every two or three years. Climate change has made hurricanes more dangerous, slower moving with heavier rains and higher winds. Waves wash waist high, breaking gas and power lines and gobbling chunks of the road. Storm surges, no longer softened by barrier islands, run boats aground and sweep furniture into yards. The only safe option is to evacuate, though not everyone does.

“Every time there’s a flood, we lose everything,” says Damian Naquin, a nineteen-year-old tribe member from nearby Pointeaux-Chenes. “We don’t have any valuables. We know, if we get something, the next storm that comes through, it’s going to ruin it. It’s going to carry it away.”

After each big storm, tired of the constant rebuilding and the worry, a few more families go. The homes that remain are perched fourteen feet up on stilts, above the floodlines, but even their time is limited. Scientists predict that by 2050, the island will be gone.

Advertisements

Writing the Personal Essay–9 week course

I’ll be teaching a 9-week course through the Loyola Writing Institute. The course is open to the public and limited to 12 students. The class will meet for two hours every Thursday, beginning on Sept 22, 2016. Feel free to email me with questions.  You can register for the course here.

Writing the Personal Essay: In this course, students of all levels will draw on a combination of research and life experience to produce polished essays on subjects of their choosing. Students will read essays by award-winning authors such as Eula Biss, Joan Didion, Susan Orlean, Leslie Jamison, Kiese Laymon, and John Jeremiah Sullivan and, through class discussion, consider aspects of craft, structure, and content. Short, generative exercises will provide opportunities to practice specific writing techniques including dialogue, pacing, reflection, and characterization. During the last several weeks of class, students will workshop their own personal essays. The course will conclude with a discussion of revision, publishing, and developing a personal practice of writing.

Buckets and Balloons

I wrote about Public Lab and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, two New Orleans environmental groups that use simple tools–buckets and balloons–to find and monitor oil spills. The entire article is available at Guernica.

Petrochemical operations tend to cluster in poor and predominantly Black neighborhoods. Residents learn about the Bucket Brigade from individuals already engaged in monitoring activities. Typically, the Bucket Brigade gets involved when community groups ask for their assistance. Education, Rolfes says, is crucial because it “empowers individuals to take a stand.” Learning the names of pollutants, symptoms of exposure, data collection methods, and advocacy skills can be transformative. “It is so time consuming to win and the wins can sometimes be temporary,” Rolfes says, “but the advantages [of community science] to an individual . . . last forever. It’s not me swooping in and doing the work. It’s them. They aren’t intimidated anymore.”

A Speck in the Infinite

Inspired by the Jet Propulsion Lab’s stunning new series of space travel posters, I wrote about the changing role of space travel in storytelling for Electric Literature.

shadow.jpg

“Interplanetary life is still a far off dream, yet anxiety about Earth’s future imbues this research with new gravity. Rather than focusing on discovery, popular culture reflects an increased concern with the logistics of space travel: what psychological challenges will voyagers face during decades long missions to reach a destination; can travelers use asteroids to stock up on water and fuel; can astronauts have sex in space; can women give birth in zero gravity?

These practical questions give way to unsettling existentialism and thrilling narrative possibilities. The scale of the universe is unfathomable. What does it mean to be a speck in the infinite? Do specks have the right to colonize new planets? Will life on a new planet cause adaptations that fundamentally alter our species? To what extent would we include plants, animals, bacteria, fungus and viruses in resettling? Which humans would go and which would stay behind? What are the consequences of failure? Of success?”

Read the whole essay here!

Spring News!

I’m thrilled to have poem in the new issue of one of my favorite journals, Ecotone. This volume is themed around SOUND! The poem, titled “The Ecology of Falling Whales” is the longest I’ve ever written–a whopping 5 pages–and it’s all about visiting my sister, Maya, at  Friday Harbor Labs in Washington State, where I observed her and other biologists study aquatic life. You can buy the journal and read an excerpt here.

Ecotone-20-unboxed.jpg

**

I also wrote about sunlight for The Atlantic in honor of daylight savings. Read the whole thing here.

The frustration of lost sleep gives way to the luminous pleasure of a lengthening day. Sunlight extends past dinnertime. Dog walkers, soccer players, and children in playgrounds bask in a later twilight. Though humans organize our schedules around the clock, Daylight Savings reminds us that our lives, like our planet, revolve around the sun.

**

The lovely Anna Currey interviewed me about sisters, the environment, and writing across genre.

I don’t want to teach anything I don’t believe in. It’s important to talk about making writing entertaining, which is obvious, but doesn’t gets much air time in academic settings. Any piece of writing is competing for a reader’s attention span. It has to be more interesting than someone’s cell phone or television. Entertainment is something I talk about with my students, and something I think about in my own writing. We have to work hard for our readers.

**

41D7x+FB+GL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Here’s an excerpt from an interview I did with Chris Schaberg about his newest book The End of Airports. Read the whole thing at Terrain.Org.

It’s a common response that “everything changed” after 9/11. But having worked at the airport during—and through—that time, my overwhelming feeling was that things hadn’t changed at all. It’s just that people suddenly had a scapegoat for all the things they wanted to do, say, and enact around air travel. Racism especially: this became so ridiculously easy after 9/11. But it was already there, in the airport, of course. If the airport is postmodern, it is for the ways it struggles with and against Ezra Pound’s modernist mandate, “Make it new!” On the one hand, airports want you (the traveler) to feel the verve of the new. On the other hand, airports want you to feel—and to perpetuate—all the old comforts of the same, on and on and on.

 

Big Week: Part II

When it comes to publishing, this week has been huge! Last Thursday, I had two essays go up. At VIDA, I wrote about my experience leading writing workshops when students write about triggering material–sexual assault and domestic violence. My essay, “Is there a Doctor in the Marriage?” was posted on the NYTimes Modern Love page the very same day.

And there’s more news!

16735998022_b847c02d48_z.jpg

In a new essay titled “The Public Is Us,” I wrote about the conflict between disease control and civil liberties at Guernica. Here’s an excerpt:

“By virtue of having bodies,” Eula Biss points out in her recent book On Immunity, humans are “dangerous.” Taking care of infectious individuals can be as much about limiting public risk as it as about recovery. When Barack Obama asked Congress for six million dollars to treat Ebola patients in November 2014, he emphasized the potential risk to Americans, rather than the current risk to West Africans. “Over the longer term,” he said, “my administration recognizes that the best way to prevent additional cases at home will be to contain and eliminate the epidemic at its source in Africa.”

I also have an essay in the brand new anthology, A Manner of Being: Writers On Their Mentors.  The anthology includes essays by 67 writers, including George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, Tayari Jones, Henry Rollins, and Christine Schutt!

5128XpypF6L._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Publishers Weekly says:

In this inspiring anthology, 67 writers discuss the effect mentorship had—or didn’t have—on their work and lives. Parker explains in his introduction that he initially started looking for contributions in 2011, hoping to make sense of his experience studying under Arthur Flowers and George Saunders for his M.F.A. Saunders and Flowers are both included, writing about what they gained from their relationships with Douglas Unger and Tobias Wolff (Saunders’s mentors) and with John O. Killens (Flowers’s). Four writers discuss not having a mentor, whether due to missed opportunities or, in Paisley Rekdal’s case, by her own choice. Rekdal’s essay is one of the best, detailing the disappointment she felt overhearing professors and writers she admired dismissing minority writers as beneficiaries of white liberal guilt, and wondering whether similar comments had been made about her. Many writers describe a sense of family and even love, as in Henry Rollins’s piece about Hubert Selby Jr., and admiration and awe are present throughout. What the writers share of their mentors, and what their mentors shared with them, makes for a fascinating work on writing and the student-teacher relationship. (Dec.)

Most of the time writing requires intense solitude. It’s really fun to have a week like this where that solitude breaks and I can share the work I’ve writing in the big green armchair in my living room.

 

Papa Can’t Buy You A Brand New Earth

“For decades, science fiction has viewed outer space as the great, and final, hope, the wildest Wild West, a blank canvas where we can deposit our trash and refuel space crafts and expand human civilization. As far as we know, Earthlings are the only humans in the universe, so the problems that typically accompany new colonies—unequal power, cultural imperialism, and genocide—aren’t at play, at least not in any kind of familiar way. Of course, exactly what does exist out there is still to be determined. Space, as any Trekkie will confirm, is “The Final Frontier,” and we don’t even know how little we know.”

I wrote about lullabies, Interstellar, and climate change for Public Books. Check it out!

The Politics of Drinking Water

lead

As we near peak water, hydroclimatologist Peter Gleick warns that skirmishes over resources will intensify. “Water can be—and often is—a source of cooperation rather than conflict,” Gleick notes, “but conflicts over water are real.” Already Gleick’s organization, the Pacific Institute, has created a 5000-year timeline of water-related conflict. Highlights include Assyrians poisoning enemy wells with rye ergot in the 6th century B.C., the World War II targeting and destruction of Soviet hydroelectric dams, the U.S. bombing of North Vietnamese irrigation canals in the 1960s, and riots in Cape Town, South Africa in 2012 sparked by insufficient water supplies. By 2025, scientists predict that one in five humans will live in regions suffering from water scarcity, areas with insufficient resources to meet water usage demands.

I wrote about the Politics of Drinking Water for The Atlantic.

More from my review of Kerry Howley’s debut memoir…

“It’s here where Howley’s experience shifts from passive-spectator to bookish-mystic. Huffman was eating shit, his grin growing “with each precisely timed shot to his own mouth,” and then—there’s no way to put this that doesn’t sound loopy—time and space yo-yoed. In Howley’s words, “cloudiness momentarily departed” and she “dissolved into a kind of mist and expanded to envelop the entire space that held these hundred men.” Her body became “a tuning fork,” and thoughts “whistle[d] their way across [her] mind without . . . friction.” The graduate student underwent what Heidegger describes as “the poignant sense of having been thrown into the world without preparation or consent.” Philosophers call this ecstasy. In layman’s terms, Howley woke up.”

Read more at the Oxford American.

 

The Heart You Save Won’t Be Your Own

“That August I moved from a high ceiling dorm room in a historic landmark to the attic of an old flag shop downtown. The distance was a few miles, but the difference was like flipping channels from Masterpiece Theater to Cops. My dorm had overlooked manicured lawns and a circular garden with an endowment all its own; my new house was two doors down from a grass rotary where women sold blow jobs for $5.”

 

Over at Guernica, I wrote about heart transplants, social services, and quitting my first job after college. Here’s a link!