Hurricane Katrina, The Deepwater Disaster, and the Southís Slow Recovery:
A Review of C. Morgan Babstís The Floating World and Jesmyn Wardís Sing, Unburied, Sing
The dead/Ask us to be better people.
Both books are great. Read them. I could stop here, but that would deny me the pleasure of dwelling on the texts a bit longer. At the center of each is an inter-racial marriage, and the stories of the couples’ children and the histories of both their maternal and paternal families are woven around those controversial unions. Ward’s text returns to Bois Sauvage, Missississippi, the setting for her Katrina novel, Salvage the Bones, and traces the continuing cycle of poverty in the rural Gulf South. It is the loss of his job after the Deepwater explosion that pulls Jojo and Kayla’s father back into his emotionally compromising and economically depressed hometown. Babst’s novel centers on New Orleans with a beautifully drawn comparison (and coalescence) of Seventh Ward artistry and Uptown artifice.
If I were writing a scholarly article, I would probably look at mothering. It is not surprising that Ward’s text is dedicated to the author’s mother, “For my mother, Norine Elizabeth Dedeaux, who loved me before I took my first breath. Every second of my life, she shows me so.” That inscription supports and carries a book heavy-laden with parental failures.
Philomene, Mam, recognizes the inability to mother in her daughter in Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner, 2017), and she apologizes to her grandson,
Shush. I don’t know if it’s something I did. Or if it’s something that’s in Leonie. But she ain’t got the mothering instinct. I knew when you was little and we was out shopping, and she bought herself something to eat and ate it right in front of you, and you was sitting ehre crying hungry. I knew then.. . .She ain’t never going to feed you (233).
Through three generations of the Boisdore family, The Floating World (Algonquin 2017) also explores motherhood and mothering. Del recognized at an early age the lack of mothering instinct in her mom (Tess), and in one of their post-Katrina arguments, she accuses her mother of failing the family by always having been in love with another man and not even knowing it (276).
It is her mother’s own reflections that are the most telling. They show the complexity of motherhood and the intricacies of selfhood, partnership, and parenting that even a perceptive child would miss. At the start of the novel, Tess circles the airport, attempting to greet Del from her New York flight. She takes on this task because Del’s father had forgotten to do so. As she drives, she reviews the past. “To the rescue again, she kept thinking. Tess to the rescue. No matter what had been agreed upon or how often Joe was reminded or what responsibilities she had besides, it was always Tess to the rescue” (29-30).
Both texts challenge staid and conventional concepts of mothering and explore the possibility of un-natural mothers, those not cut out for the role. The Floating World also explores the double bind on women who choose to have a career and motherhood, this through Tess, who has struggled with her children and her marriage for years, but who had established a successful career as a psychiatrist. It is in fact through the lens of Lacanian theory that she reflects bitterly on motherhood,
--creation ex nihilo. A consolation that was supposed to be, until they clipped the cord. After that it was nothing but abandonment. No shoes on their feet, they left you. They grew up, they left you. Their faces painted with powders and pastes, they went out into the streets, they left you. No note, no phone call, they left you, they left you” (139-40).
Tess’s discontent is obvious. It can be inferred that her career choice was based in part, on her relationships with her abusive, alcoholic father and her lonely and disappointed mother, who shared sodas and menthol cigarettes with her teenage daughter in a clandestine conspiracy of resistance.
Readers realize the heavy weight placed on women of Tess’s generation in one semi-comic scene, when their neighbor’s mother, Mrs. Randsell, mourns her legacy, “It’s just that I always thought—old-fashioned of me, but I saw the house passing down into the future, to my grandchildren and their children’s grandchildren” (197). While Tess would have understood the older woman’s train of thought, her twenty-eight year old daughter, Mrs. Randsell’s audience, interprets the legacy differently. “Cora counted—Augie’s children her age, their children having children in 2030, those children’s grandchildren taking possession of the house in 2090, when, according to the most recent climate models, the sea level would have risen three feet” (198). Cora de-isolates the nuclear family and contextualizes its lineage within an environmental framework.
During the post-Katrina crazy phase, the burden of motherhood was especially heavy. At one point, her oldest friend and new beau tries to comfort Tess, “I know you’re still worried about Cora. You wouldn’t be much of a mother is you weren’t” (326). Sadly, his reassurance fails. Tess confronts herself unfairly, “She wasn’t much of a mother, then. She had no business being here, in somebody else’s house, with her lover and a gigantic Mardi Gras cup of wine. If she was a good mother, she would be looking for her daughter in diners, motels, truck stops from here to Canada. The problem was, she had given up on Cora just as Del had accused her of doing, . . .” (326). The truth is she hadn’t.
It was Tess’s money that had allowed her husband Joe to devote himself to art and that had put her daughters in private school, but while this family enjoyed wealth and privilege, it also experiences as much unhappiness as the poverty-stricken clan that Ward portrays in nearby Mississippi.
In addition to searing examinations of motherhood, both texts present portraits of masculine nurture, with Sing, Unburied, Sing depicting a brother, Jojo, who is unrivalled in literature for his care of his younger sister, Kayla. Jojo’s maternal grandfather has been a great role model, but this young man’s devotion, compassion and intuition regarding her care is exceptional—reminding one of Seita in Isao Takahata’s animated Grave of the Fireflies.
After Philomene explains his mother’s inability to provide for him, Jojo blurts, “She hates me. . . .” His grandmother replies, “No, she loves you. She don’t know how to show it. And her love for herself and her love for Michael—well, it gets in the way. It confuse her” (234). Then Philomene assures her grandson, “You ain’t never going to have that problem.”
Similarly, in The Floating World, artist Joe and his father, craftsman Vincent, seem more sensitive and more nurturing than Tess. Both daughters date caring and considerate men as well, with Zachary driving a U-Haul trailer from New York to New Orleans to make sure that Del gets her grandfather’s furniture and Nathan searching for Cora before the storm, staying with her during the worst of it, and returning to care for her in the aftermath.
Both novels trace family histories as they unravel current mysteries. Both novels present intra- and inter-family dynamics between parents and parents and off-spring in mixed-race marriages. Ward foregrounds these in a novel that focuses on psychological probings more than plot, while Babst sketches familial and social issues deftly and deeply and contextualizes them among the histories of Creole New Orleans and the vivid and successful African-American artisanship in the Seventh Ward and the white Uptown carnival royalty crowd.
It is, in fact, this contrast of rural poverty in Mississippi in Ward’s novel and Uptown New Orleans wealth in Babst’s that make their similar studies so striking. It is each text’s commitment to its setting, to the South’s historical and current controversies, and the concomitant ability to expose these without becoming didactic that make the novels exceptional: un/ under-employment, cancer, drug addiction and escapism, meth production and street pharmacy, as well as imprisonment and the justice system in Sing, Unburied, Sing and PTSD, social anxiety disorder and other forms of mental illness, regionalism, classism, and the Katrina diaspora and consequent gentrification in The Floating World.
While Babst reaches into the fields of literature (The Little Prince, Jung and archetypes, pop culture, (The Rolling Stones and various New Orleans musicians) and art, architecture, and art history (Ukiyo-e prints) for her story’s background, Ward delves deeply into traditions of folklore and the supernatural. Grandmother Philomene is an herbalist who has tried to impart her knowledge to her daughter Leonie; her grandchildren, Jojo and Kayla, are both sensitives who can commune with animals and with spirits, the unburied of the title.
Both texts engage with the haunted nature of the South. The contemporary story of Sing, Unburied Sing skirts uneasily around two murders—one done in spite, the other, out of mercy, and the two who died are not yet at peace. It is the text’s charge to reconcile the past with the present and thus promise of just the possibility of a future.
The Floating World is similarly obsessed with the precariousness of a future. Cora writes her sister in an email, “Mrs. Randsell said- . . . . Said she’d never see the city again. I won’t either, of course. None of us will. Even when we were sitting out on Uncle Augies’s lawn, drinking coffee every day before I went out into the flood, I wasn’t there anymore. None of us were. We had already stopped existing” (258).
Although superficially her note reads like a PTSD outcry, Cora delves deeper, tracing the cycles of development and exploitation that did in fact put the city into the quagmire it became:
“If I could, I’d like to replace everything I saw—everything I did—with something else: histories, the world before we ruined it. To see, instead of Vin’s suburb, a copse of sweet gums at the end of a row of cotton, strung with spiked fruit. So see instead of cotton, the swamp that was drained to plant it—bald cypresses bending their knees above the water, tossing their wispy heads” (258).
Cora returns to the present with a complaint against the social pressure to say that one is fine. “They don’t understand that this is the way ghosts live, among the memories of the things they’ve lost, haunting houses and neighborhoods that are no longer theirs, maybe no longer there at all. A haunting of brass bands and churches, a haunting of buttermilk drops and purple plastic pearls strung from telephone lines” (259).
Despite this text’s epigraph from The Aeneid, “Each must be his own hope,” The Floating World ends up offering a precariously optimistic future based on couples and community. Unlike Sing, Unburied, Sing, where several main characters may not make progress away from the hauntings and horrors of history, and where tightly-knit, nuclear families seem to draw even closer unto themselves for survival, this text accentuates the affirmative aspects of change, of realignments and relocations.
Cora recovers herself sufficiently to start over in the mid-West, helping two kids who lost their mother after the storm. Her sister, Del, decides to stay in the city, not to return to her high-powered life in New York: “She would have liked it explained, why she was drawn back here, as her father had been in his time, to a place that offered them nothing of practical value, a place that was so actively and so vividly falling apart. He best answer was that she felt the need to try to fix what was clearly unfixable, to save what was already lost” (360).
In one of the most ambiguous and final scenes in The Floating World, Tess also moves forward by going back. She is one of two older folk, two old friends trying to find love after loss. (Augie’s wife has died; Tess is divorcing her husband.) Once they find that Cora is safe and decide to move in together, Augie finds a bottle of 1982 Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases to celebrate. Tess believes that the Bordeaux is flat—having boiled in the bottle during the loss of power after Katrina and the levee break—but she drinks with Augie, who is so caught up in his enthusiasm he fails to notice the sour taste. The two toast, “To better years” (366).
And we should too.
Reviewed by M. L. Byrd
M. L. Byrd, founding editor of the NOLA DIASPORA, knows what it means to miss New Orleans. She is currently teaching at Virginia State University.