An excerpt of The Last Leaving
Before the leaving, there is the staying, there are days of in-betweens, sheltered in the arms of our mother’s mothers.
There are the days the water creeps closer and closer, teasing, like a dog lapping its tongue against our worn work boots.
August brings the storms, long, side-ways rains that overflow the town’s riverbeds and streams. Every heavy rain turns the backyard into an ocean of muddy-brown water. On those days, we stand on the porch of our tumbled-down homes, waiting, alone in the middle of a newly-birthed sea.
The world always narrows to this: the drumbeat sound of water hitting the tin roof, the rattling of the windows as the winds come hard and frantic. Everywhere around us, the sweet, heavy scent of rain.
The winds came earlier that year, catching us as we walked through the overgrown yard, our short legs gone red with the swirl of Delta dust. In the jungle of leaves, we ate at the flesh of melons and apples, while the sun warmed the skin on our backs for hours.
Here was a truth now understood: we were no longer home, we were not going back home, and we don’t know where home will be. We know that home is no longer a place where the leaves bend to the sound of our names, but somewhere that has come to know our silences.
There are days we spend looking at ourselves through mirrors. You pretend to smile, I pretend to laugh. But mostly I watch the way our reflections dangle there like a dream, and how your lips move but no words sound. This is the look of us leaving. This is the way we’ve learned to part.
Reflections on the writing process and the fellowship project
Through support from the CultureStrike Climate and Environmental Justice Literary Fellowship I was able to explore in fictional narrative form the relationship between family, land, and climate-change based migration in the Louisiana Gulf Coast. I was excited to use creative writing to highlight the experiences and voices of communities facing displacement and extinction in the disappearing wetlands of Southern Louisiana. From my research and interviews with local community members and activists, I have begun to craft a series of fictional prose and poetry pieces that explore the inner and outer lives of communities living on the precipice and in the middle of climate change.
As Louisiana and the Gulf Coast continue to face record-level flooding, land loss, and extreme weather, the stories I seek to tell situate the lives of my community members into the overall story of climate change. This project’s funding allowed me to begin to work on a series of poems and short stories that in its entirety will combine oral history, fiction, and poetry to craft a larger narrative of real and fictional lives. This is a project that I will continue to build on in the coming year. I will be seeking to publish pieces ranging from essay, fiction, and poetry in various outlets, as well as craft a multi-media page online (featuring audio, video, and photography) inclusive of audio stories from local communities impacted by climate change. My written fellowship work will also be included with a collection of short fiction/prose poetry that I am working to develop into a prose chapbook in the coming year.
This project is part of a larger year of writing for me, professionally and personally. I write to make space for my community’s words and stories, particularly stories of rural communities of color in the South. In many ways I seek to capture the disappearing stories of South Louisiana, even as I contemplate what it means to be a writer from a place that scientists say may not exist in the same way in 50 years. The urgent reality of my home disappearing, the threat of climate disaster, and the shifting and changing dynamics of living in a tenuous land, are all things I seek to process through fiction and nonfiction in the coming years.
This month I am excited to begin an MFA program in Creative Writing at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the leading MFA programs in the United States. The time and space offered in this program will allow me to continue to work on the pieces I first crafted through the CultureStrike fellowship. While pursuing my MFA, I hope to complete a novel and a short fiction collection. After completing my MFA, I will continue to explore professional writing and research opportunities, and continue my work with nonprofits and community groups using writing and the literary arts in low-income communities of color in the South.
I am grateful for the opportunities and funded time this fellowship offered, allowing me to begin to record stories of disappearing and at-risk coastal communities. These are stories made more and more relevant with each passing day. Yesterday, on August 9, 2017, the Washington Post reported on the recent flooding in New Orleans (flooding that devastated my old neighborhood with waist-high water and flooded two of houses I just recently lived in). The Post reported that “scientists and engineering experts say the weekend flooding is just another sign that neither money nor leadership will be enough to keep New Orleans above water forever as sea levels rise and the city’s mushy soil sinks about two inches per year."
What stories can be told in this new reality? Those are ones this fellowship has given me a chance to begin to explore.