Katrina refugee: A Q&A with author Michael Tisserand

Michael Tisserand is the former editor of Gambit Weekly and author of The Kingdom of Zydeco. His new book is Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and his Storm-Struck Students Created a School to Remember. It's an eloquent, moving chronicle of how Tisserand's family and friends struggled to piece their lives back together in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He'll be reading from the book at Magers & Quinn on Sunday. I spoke to him last week by phone from his new home in Evanston, Illinois.

City Pages: What are you doing in Evanston?

Michael Tisserand: I have been writing, to this point at least, only about New Orleans. I was the editor at Gambit. But that first week of Katrina I sort of became a writer again. At this point I haven't stopped doing that, writing about New Orleans. As odd as it seems I've been living in Evanston and writing about Louisiana

CP: Why Evanston?

MT: Tami, my wife, lost her job. That was our biggest personal impact from Katrina. We didn't lose our house. We didn't lose our neighborhood school. We didn't lose any family. But my wife lost her job. That was the thing that made us figure out our next move. She's a pediatrician. We didn’t know how many kids were going to be back in New Orleans. She found work up in this area. If we were going to live anywhere besides New Orleans it'd be back in the Midwest because we have family across the Midwest. My mom's in Minnesota. Tammy's family is in Wisconsin. My dad's in Indiana. So returning to family was part of it also.

CP: You write about the immediate aftermath of Katrina and the impact on your family and friends. The focus turns to getting this school up and running. Why did that become so important in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina?

MT: It was the first thing we could do to take something in our hands for ourselves at that moment, and for our kids. Which is every parents first concern. What are the kids going to do? Our lives were shattered at that point. But the kids weren't. They were dealing with what they were seeing and hearing, and absorbing the grief that their parents were feeling, and they were confused. But our kids could still be cushioned in some way, and we had evacuated together. Our kids kept together a splinter of their kid community, of our neighborhood. The only option, because Katrina hit the first week of school, would be to separate them, because we had evacuated to different small towns around rural Louisiana. So they would all be separated going into little small town schools. The thought of separating the kids, who had been getting together every day since the flood, was just unthinkable to us.

CP: When did you determine that there might be a book to be written about this experience and the experiences of other schools that were formed in the wake of Katrina? Was there a particular moment when it crystallized in your mind?

MT: Yes, when my editor said this should be a book. It really wasn't me. I wrote a book about zydeco music a few years back and the editor of that book and I became friends. It was said that after Katrina you found out who would show up at your funeral just by who sent you emails to see if you were okay. And he was one of the ones that did. We started talking and he asked what I was doing. I was starting to do some writing for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a series called "Submerged," which ran on a lot of alternative weekly web sites and in a few papers. And he said, "What are you doing about your kids?" I told him that we started this school and it was a one-room schoolhouse and the kids named it Sugarcane Academy, and we don't know what's going to happen to it or to us, but that's what we've got going on right now. And he said, "Stop, I think that's your book. I won't talk with you about it anymore. Have your agent call me."

CP: So at that point you hadn't written about that particular aspect of the storm at all?

MT: No. Actually the first thing I had done was a first person piece. The first day that we realized that the levies broke and the city was flooded, another person I spoke to was Richard Karpel, who's president of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He said that a lot of weeklies wanted to hear from Gambit. He wanted to know if I would write something. So I sat down in the house where we were staying and just wrote like I'd never written before. Literally from start to finish. This became the first of the series. It was a very bleak piece. The first sentence was "New Orleans is gone." That's what it felt like. So I wrote about that. I wrote about my love of New Orleans. I wrote about not knowing where my friends were, especially Katy Reckdahl, Minnesota's own. One of our last phone calls was from Katy asking my wife if she thought it would be safe to go to the hospital. I just sort of poured it all out.

CP: You mentioned the zydeco book that you wrote. How was the writing process different for this book?

MT: I wouldn't even describe them as the same process at all. The zydeco book was writing about other people. This book was writing about myself. The zydeco book was a very exciting adventure. I lived around Lafayette, Louisiana. I spent a year doing nothing except roaming around interviewing accordion players and telling their stories. This book, whenever I had writer's block, I would actually think, what makes me cry the hardest? And that's what I wrote.

CP: At this point in time how would you characterize your optimism, or lack thereof, for the future of New Orleans?

MT: Every small step that people take in New Orleans is incredibly inspiring. Last weekend I went to this production of Waiting for Godot, which a theater company from Harlem staged in the Lower Ninth Ward, right near the levee break. Hundreds of people turned out and hundreds of people had to be turned away from the production. Everybody there has a connection to a play like Waiting for Godot now. Everybody knows what it's like to wait for something that never seems to show up, whether it's a trailer or old friends who moved away or promised money to help rebuild a house. Today I just found out that the merry-go-round in City Park is back up and running again, and they've taken the first test drive of the streetcar. These are symbolic and they pale in comparison to the still thousands of families living in desperate straits in FEMA trailers or apartments, still trying to get back on their feet again. Nonetheless you get comfort and inspiration from these moments, because there's still a cloud of anxiety that hangs over the city.

Everyone knows that the levees have been rebuilt maybe to failure level at best, to where they were when they failed during Katrina. Which everyone in New Orleans knows wasn't a category-five storm, but a fast-moving category-three storm, the kind of storm that the levees were supposed to protect the city against. So stacked against those big issues we have to be excited about the streetcars and merry-go-round and individual successes and neighborhood successes. You have to take some comfort and inspiration from those moments because that's what we've got.

CP: Do you think the media two years out has done an adequate job in following up and documenting the aftermath of Katrina?

MT: The short answer is no because [Michael] Chertoff still has his job. If the media had done it's job Chertoff would no longer have his job. The role of the federal government has been cast as something that should be diminished. Conservatives have successfully taken control of that conversation and so the federal government is a bad thing. This is an example of what happens when you don't consider a strong federal government to be necessary to protect the lives of American citizens in times of need. When you allow an agency like FEMA to become a political game for a presidential administration, when you don't raise an uproar over the appointment of incompetent hacks to head vital agencies. In that sense I think that these kinds of long range, serious discussions, both about what is needed to protect New Orleans and what is needed to rebuild a government capable of responding to this kind of disaster, I don’t think those kinds of conversations have been had in the media. So in that sense I think the media has still failed us.

There has been a lot of good reporting and there's been a lot of alternative sources of reporting as well. You can go to youtube and see a lot of great citizen journalism. This guy Josh Neufeld has this online graphic novel that's lovely. It's called "After the Deluge." It's a series. It's up to chapter seven now, just showing people coping with the flood coming in. There's a group called the Neighborhood Story Project that worked with a social aid and pleasure club in New Orleans to document how they came back to the city. It's an amazing first-person account of the kind of spirit New Orleanians have exhibited to get themselves back on their feet and to reclaim their communities. So I consider that part of the media as well.

CP: Do you ever see yourself living in New Orleans again?

MT: Everyday I see myself living in New Orleans again.

CP: Realistically do you think that will happen?

MT: Yes. I don't know how yet, and I don't know when. I've been back about once every month or two. I was there last weekend. The family hasn't missed a Mardi Gras yet. I brought the kids there for a month this last summer. They went to an arts camp and we checked in with our friends. A lot of people who left, myself included, without a doubt feel a degree of guilt for leaving, because our friends are trying to rebuild a shattered community. We pulled our little piece out of that. By keeping in touch and going back and doing my work I feel like I’m paying off a little bit of my debt to the city which has given me so much—or at least that's my attempt.