We are not lacking for literary responses to Hurricane Katrina; the one that has engaged me the most so far is playwright and novelist John Biguenet’s. As a New Orleans resident, Biguenet wrote about the disaster’s aftermath for the NY Times. He also used the disaster as a backdrop for a play, Rising Water (video info and stills from the performance), the first of a trilogy considering Katrina. After hearing him speak about it, I hope it’s coming to the Bay Area soon.
I recently had the opportunity to see Biguenet discuss Rising Water at an event put on by the Center for the Art of Translation. The play involves a couple trapped in the attic of their house, watching the water slowly creep up the stairs and into their refuge. As Biguenet explained, their likely fate was rather unenviable: many real-life Katrina victims did just as the couple in the play did, climbing from living rooms to attics as the water invaded their home. The lucky ones were able to punch out a window and escape to the roof before the water enveloped their home completely; those that didn’t faced likely dehydration and death while waiting for rescue that was criminally slow in coming.
This was an event by the Center for the Art of Translation, and though Biguenet published his play in English, there is translation involved. For the play, he integrated a haunting short story he wrote about the wife and daughter of a ship’s captain who died and are buried at sea. For the play, the story is told by one protagonist to the other as they pass the time it the attic. Biguenet read his story to us, and then we watched the "translated" version by performed by two actors as a story-within-a-story in the play.
After the performance, Biguenet discussed the metaphorical significance of the water in his play. He considered the play primarily about the couple’s very personal response to crisis and likely imminent death. Only secondly was it about the disaster, and for him with water worked on multiple levels: he mentioned the titular rising water being something that every couple faces, either as strife due to a souring relationship or as an inevitable part of life and death. He said that the story he translated into the language of the stage was a way to implicate the hurricane while maintaining focus on the central relationship.
The week following Biguenet, I saw novelist Horacio Castellenos Moya read from his new novel, Senselessness, at City Lights. Moya is either an aspiring actor, someone who has internalized the narrative voice of this novel, or simply a person who has given this reading many, many times, because his interpretation of the protagonist’s inner monologue was spot-on. Moya speaks English with a heavy accent, and this perfectly suited the narrator, especially as Moya repeatedly returned to the narrator’s refrain: "I am not compleet in de MIND."
Moya read from the novel’s first pages, in which two things are repeated again and again: "I am not complete in the mind" and "one-thousand-one-hundred pages" (the length of a report on atrocities the narrator is editing). Hearing Moya speak these refrains with emphasis and color hammered home the importance that these two quotes have for the novels opening section. Hearing Moya read also worked as a curious kind of re-reading–while he read I started seeing new associations between the starting chapter and the rest of the book.
Publisher Barbara Epler and translator Katherine Silver were also on hand for the event. I was surprised to hear Epler say that she had first learned of Moya from novelist Francisco Goldman, who had also first brought Roberto Bolano to her attention. At the event, Epler mentioned that the next Bolano novel from New Directions would be The Ice Rink, and that, in addition to his poems and novels, they will be publishing a book of his essays. Epler mentioned that much more Cesar Aira is on the way, as well as another novel from Moya (I’ll be eagerly waiting), with a title currently translated as "She-Devil in the Mirror."