Every year, Saint Mary’s College chooses a text for Freshmen to read, a narrative that unites the incoming class with a common frame of reference, joining students in a shared discovery of learning. This year’s pick was Cheryl Wagner’s memoir Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around. At the time Wagner wrote her book, our students were thirteen years old. They were familiar with the footage, and they knew Katrina was bad, but Wagner’s story turns, what many of us might have experienced as an abstract national crisis, into a visceral and personal campaign of survival and re-building.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, the memoir, self-involved by nature, pulls readers into an intimacy that, often times, can be too close for comfort, especially for eighteen-year-olds who generally have a prescribed aversion to dislike any text they’ve been assigned to read. Though they grappled with the voice and style, the story stood out and shocked us all.
The hurricane season arrives with autumn raising heightened anxiety for anyone who lives in the Gulf, and, since 2005, this anxiety is multiplied by terrible memories. Tragedy happens everyday but tragedy of this magnitude, when so much of it could be prevented, is a national disgrace. In Wagner’s memoir, The Hurricane itself is portrayed in a series of emails, capturing a small sense of the confusion and displacement that wreaked through three states. Wagner focuses on the brutal aftermath, and we shadow her personal recovery in the two years that followed after the initial catastrophe. Even before the storm, Wagner admits she was no optimist: “Injury was injury. I had never met a single person who emerged from a car accident or a house fire fundamentally better off than they were before they went in. I didn’t believe in clouds with silver linings. I believed in clouds” (17). Despite her vegetarian, artsy ways, she maintains a pretty cynical outlook, which has sharpened her voice and perspective, giving audiences a particularly poignant lens to view the wake of the storm.
“People’s minds are breaking” (32), she writes. “Around the city, there was heartbreaking garbage clotting the interstates. Toys, clothes, mattresses. My eyes could not get used to it” (53), Wagner describes a horrific world and guides us through the utter disbelief that we all feel: how could this happen here in the U.S.? Her voice is gritty and quirky at the same time. She does an excellent job balancing sharp humor with an adept ability to describe what so easily could be blanketed under the general terms of “shameful” and “tragic.” Wagner’s strength is in her skill to portray the reality without resorting to platitudes. Every frustration, every shock, and every moment of distress is uniquely addressed, and Wagner takes great pains to ensure her story-telling doesn’t become repetitive: “I didn’t know that you could leave your house one person and return another. That the planets can shift suddenly to make you four or five people all at once, none slightly resembling who you thought you were before. I did not start this summer as a haphazard victim, rescuer, roofer or adventurer” (61). Wagner puts these questions to the test as she scrapes her life together piece by piece: How do we define normalcy and, conversely, how do we act in a crisis or how do we budget stress and learn to take a hit?
Her narrative scrutinizes issues that we take for granted on a daily basis. Having shelter, being able to drink clean water, take a shower, and wear clean clothes, these were daily struggles for her and her fellow neighbors of NOLA. Owning things means being responsible for them, and being a part of a community means you have to take some ownership for your community. Most of the time we can just commute through without stopping to take notice of our surroundings. We’re so busy with our lives, rarely do we care who we live next to and what they do, but after Katrina, all of this changed for Wagner and her partner, Jake.
Unlike many of the interviewees in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, Wagner and her peers had options, which really kept them afloat. They owned their home, had college degrees, and a place to stay when the storm hit. They could come and go as they pleased though the pull of their home ultimately keeps them rooted. Though her life wasn’t as devastated as many of the survivors we’ve seen in many of the documentaries, Wagner still had her own challenges and difficulties to face, many of which were tinged with a strong sense of survivor’s guilt that she may carry with her for the rest of her life.
The most palpable theme that Wagner emphasizes is the idea of home. Its so rare now for us to grow up and stay in the city where we were born. For many of us, this idea seems out-dated, but Wagner, like her mother, is determined to keep to her roots, which is what keeps her and Jake committed in their two-year struggle to rebuild their home. They tear down walls, pile garbage that’s strewn everywhere they look, they fight with contractors and FEMA, and protect their property from looters and squatters. Home. Wagner tells us exactly what this word means through every experience she recounts and every sentence she stitches together.
In addition to the assigned reading, Saint Mary’s also invites the chosen author to come speak to Freshman classes and share informal discussions with the graduate students in the MFA Creative Writing Program. Wagner visited with our class in the morning and also read for a huge audience of Frosh in the evening. Like her writing, she is sharp as a razor’s edge and candid, at least candid enough to tell us from the start that she wouldn’t answer questions about the neighborhood, her house, or the people close to her who were covered in the memoir. That book is closed she explained to a disappointed audience. “I don’t want my life to become like Jersey Shore,” Wagner makes it clear that she wanted to pay respect to the people who allowed her to write her story by giving them their privacy.
Here are some of the tidbits Wagner did share with audiences:
The experience in many ways was so much worse than what I wrote and also so much better. Fear so pervasive, can’t drink the water without suspecting what might be in it, can’t sleep at night without wondering how someone could break in, or, if they happen to spend an evening away, wondering who might be poking around our property. Constantly measuring, trying to keep things in perspective between big losses and small gains. We had solidarity in misery at times.
Before the memoir, Wagner explained how she had been revising a tragicomedy novel that took place in NOLA before the storm hit, and, afterward, that NOLA wasn’t around anymore. The non-fiction was fantastical enough at the time.
Students asked her what NOLA is like today, and Wagner describes:
75% of the houses are recovered in her neighborhood. In the 9th Ward, 30-50% less recovered. New Orleans still needs to take care of its crumbling infrastructure like aging dams, and a lot of these things can only come from the Federal Government. The crime lab is still not open there. All the levies and canal walls still aren’t fixed, so every hurricane season we have to think about it and have a little ambivalence. Try not getting attached to things and not having a lot of stuff. Some think their house is a camp and others have to do a mental trick and believe ‘its not gonna happen again.’ I try to keep it in the forefront but not obsess about it. Trying to stay flexible into the future. The pyschological, social, and economic cost is greater than people had anticipated. Many friends and colleagues had lost time in their career trajectory. There were articles in the paper that compared us to Japan after their recovery, and they said that recovery takes 8-10 years for rebuilding of infrastructure, but there’s the social, cultural and psychological cost. There was that wave when everyone’s elderly people were dying. Some people went crazy immediately after, and others who got hit later. You don’t know who’s going to be resilient. We thought the [mental] snapping would only go on for a certain period of time, but that’s not true. There’s another wave of snapping.
I haven’t seen the Lee documentaries and know a lot of people who don’t want to or can’t see the images. You kind of pick what you can engage in. I have lost all hope on certain aspects that I don’t think it’ll ever come back to the numbers we once had in New Orleans though we are geting some modernizations like a bike path and re-thinking the school system, so there’s some shaking up. There might be more libertarians, people who are both liberal and conservative but don’t trust the government. Weall hope the Saints when again, and we have a general shared mistrust of the government, especially after the BP oil spill.
Another student asked how she managed to write so much tragedy, and Wagner responded, “In what way could I tell people this story and how I could get them to read this? I knew I didn’t want to read about disaster or write a disaster story, yet how do you preserve or communicate an important cultural moment and overcome that human aversion to look away. There was an absurdity in this rubblescape, seeing how humans can still act out in a lot of petty dramas.” She wanted to capture the legacy of the storm, and Houston/NOLA thing. “The displacement caused a lot of commuting between the two places.” She was always meeting waves of new people: “artists, coming and going. Before Katrina, our lives were band stuff, writing stuff, artists’ stuff, but after the storm, now, there are these people who have had to rebuild their whole house like us, people who I’ll be spending the rest of my life with. What do I have in common with a sixty year-old? But when we’re rebuilding a wall or trying to make sure no hobo comes to squat, we now have everything in common.”
In her evening talk, Wagner acknowledged the continued engagement SMC has committed over the years including the “Plenty Enough Stuff to Go Around,” a school supply drive where pens, paper, and backpacks, etc were distributed in New Orleans. Wagner read towards the conclusion of her book dedicating her passage to Saint Mary’s commitment to civic engagement. She also read from an essay on a follow up after the book. Before the Q&A, she shared a film called Mouse Holes from her friend Helen, a video artist. Helen had lost her life to random violence in NOLA, during some of the darker days that followed directly after the storm, which Wagner wrote about in her memoir. The film, a celebration of life, explores where loved ones come from and what happens to them after they leave us. Wagner warned us, the movie was shot on Super 8, “and many of you can probably do higher quality on your laptops now.” Mouseholes is now in the Harvard Archives, produced by Peripheral Productions.
During Q&A, one of the graduate students asked Wagner about her craft in which Wagner, replied, “I think in scenes now. In comparing fiction to journalism there is a lot of explication and information in the latter, and the two genres are very different in this aspect.” She knew that with her background in journalism she’d “Need to describe in a way that’s tactile and scene-based with a little bit of history but try not to bog down the readers with the history.” A lot of the book was reconstructed from memory and emails though some of the book was written concurrent with the reconstruction and often used as an exercise of escape. Writing was definitely preferable to being a carpenter’s assistant. In regards to writing non-fiction, Wagner talked to the people who she knew she would see again and asked them if they wanted their names changed, and those she knew for sure she’d never see again, she explained how she didn’t really bother for permission.
Five years after the footage, the crime and the uproar, Wagner’s memoir Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around gives us a chance to zoom in and see the grand scale of catastrophe through a very particular and grounded perspective. The relationship between Jake and Cheryl is amazing in that they’ve been able to stay together through so much. It’s interesting to see the choices she made in revealing who he is since we barely know what he looks like. In the memoir, Wagner expressly leaves out any description of height, clothes, or mannerisms, but we know Jake in the truest sense from what she does leave us on the page. Wagner keeps the memories fresh in honor of those who are still dealing with the catastrophe. There are wounds still bleeding, yet beauty and magic catches us by surprise, just as we’re sure Wagner was caught unawares: “Sometimes I tried to picture what my yard had looked like underwater. In the less murky version it was not the pit bull puppy that had paddled up to my friend’s dad’s canoe. It was a sea garden with sea sprite ladies in old Nola housecoats tumbling on bright strawberry bottlebrush tree anemones. In the sea garden, old century plants were blue squids. A filthy Barbie backstroked” (97).
A student had asked her what kept her going through the re-building process, and she answered: “Visitors couldn’t see what we saw. We moved at a snail’s pace of progress.” But what really pulled her through were the “Random acts of greatness like elderly ladies swooping in and cleaning up the place.”