Habitus: A Diaspora Journal, No.4 — New orleans
Edited by Joshua Ellison
Exploring and explaining New Orleans has long been an alluring but difficult undertaking for writers. It's even more complicated more than three years after Hurricane Katrina and the displacement of residents and reconfiguration of the city. But imagine trying to capture it in the course of a short summer visit. That is what Joshua Ellison did this year. Perhaps working in his favor is that he does it all the time.
As the editor of Habitus: A Diaspora Journal, Ellison previously visited three international cities he knew little about beforehand – Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Budapest, Hungary. He met with local writers, photographers and journalists and conscripted them to contribute to a single volume about the city. Each issue of Habitus seeks to compile stories that reflect the experience of the Jewish Diaspora in a different place.
Ellison conceived the Habitus project at about the same time Hurricane Katrina hit. He recently released his New Orleans issue, a project he approached cautiously, but with determination and a solid vision.
"Obviously, none of the cities I've done so far has received so much attention so close to the issue," he says. "I didn't want it to be about what happened to the Jews of New Orleans since Katrina. As one writer said to me, that would be like looking through the wrong end of the telescope."
Some writers deal explicitly with Katrina, as with Rodger Kamenetz's essay about rebuilding his roof, a story that ends almost transcendentally at a Rosh Hashanah service. A series of poems by Andrei Codrescu offer more bitter versions of the Katrina experience, dealing with mold and overcrowding at relatives' houses on evacuation. Other contributors present unexpected and pleasant surprises, as with Ronne Hartfield's absorbing piece about the Jewish and African-American branches of her family. Iris Brooks offers a wistful narrative about trying to recreate the resonant images of her French Quarter childhood in her new home in New York by squinting just so.
An interview with musician and historian Ned Sublette (author of The World That Made New Orleans) gives a quick history of the city through the lens of its own diasporic nature. Joshua Clark (Heart Like Water) tells a wince-inducing tale about running into a former resident of the Lower Ninth Ward while exploring the neighborhood's destruction. Rather like Ellison or Diasporic Jews, Clark is not quite a local, not quite a native; a very hard position to explain, either in a journal or to a guy asking for two bucks.
Ellison writes, in his introduction: "This has always been a great Diaspora city; a place that contains multitudes and has been defined by the murky edges where people need to create something new. Now that saga has a new direction. Katrina still looms large, but this issue is not just about the storm. It's about the precious and ecstatically loved city that is still in turmoil." The stories in Habitus No. 4 — New Orleans are often about Katrina, but just as often, they are about the very personal accounts of living in the city. But there are few entries by those displaced and unable to come home.
The journal is not necessarily for New Orleanians. Ellison's photographs of signposts for evacuation routes, or an explanation that the city's cemeteries can be dangerous, are about as fresh to residents as a cute picture of an African-American child playing a trumpet in Jackson Square. Ellison says that issues of Habitus are not intended for natives of the cities he visits who want to read about home, or even Jewish readers looking for new stories of their culture. They are meant to cobble together tales of belonging and alienation, displacement and community, much in the way the Jewish Diaspora has created those experiences for thousands of years. Codrescu's poems are the frustrated, immediate outbursts of a hurricane evacuee. Hartfield's very personal piece is a fascinating story of a family as complex as the city. Clark's story is a snapshot of realization that there are many, many levels of belonging here. The project is not about understanding a place so much as the struggle to understand, and with that as a throughline, it is successful (although it didn't really need the picture of an African-American trumpet player).
"It's a moment of intimate access, a snapshot of a local conversation," Ellison says. "The view of the outsider, the view of the insider — the experience is somewhere between the two."