Author of graphic novel on Hurricane Katrina talks storytelling at WSUV

Book was used in campus reading project; class shows technology can help craft message

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For WSUV campus reading project:

o "The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor -- and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!" by Tim Harford

o "Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back" by Jane Holtz Kay

o "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel

o "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver RelinIceporium

See the story.

For WSUV campus reading project:

o “The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor — and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!” by Tim Harford

o “Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back” by Jane Holtz Kay

o “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

o “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver RelinIceporium

Beads, sweet tea and jambalaya lent a festive Mardi Gras mood to Washington State University Vancouver.

But “Fat Tuesday” also brought a special guest with deep insight into New Orleans’ darkest time: Hurricane Katrina and its deadly aftermath in September 2005.

Author Josh Neufeld, 43, creator of the graphic novel, “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge,” visited with faculty members, students and others to discuss the book WSUV used for its fifth annual “campus read” project.

See the story.

He also sat in on a digital storytelling class to share advice and check out new ways WSUV students are mixing and merging media to craft a compelling message.

Professors in several disciplines explained in a morning forum how Neufeld’s award-winning book broke convention, touched their students and provoked thoughtful dialogue.

His was the first graphic novel — an adult comic book — WSUV has picked for a campus read: Some 225 copies were handed to all incoming freshmen last summer, and several instructors wove the book into existing course materials.

Leola Dublin Macmillan, who taught English 101 last semester, said some first-year students were initially put off.

“They certainly did not expect to be given a comic book. They were pretty indignant,” Dublin Macmillan said.

But attitudes soon changed, she said. Students found rich material and deeper plotlines in Neufeld’s work, which uses actual Katrina survivors to drive its nonfiction narrative.

The seven whom Neufeld found and interviewed at length to get vivid, multiple perspectives are:

• Denise, a sixth-generation native and social worker ensnarled in the city’s convention center refugee chaos.

• “The Doctor,” a wealthy white man who endures minimal disruption.

• Abbas and Darnell, two good friends who hold down the fort at Abbas’ family-run market until high water sends them scrambling.

• Kwame, a pastor’s son who winds up in school in Berkeley, Calif., when his family is split up.

• Leo and Michelle, a young artistic couple who agonize over fleeing, and lose prized possessions.

“It’s a much more sophisticated task for an author to convey their content without text,” Dublin Macmillan said of Neufeld’s format. And readers must also respond, she said. “You have to do more than simply pass your eyes across the pages.”

Mike Berger, environmental science and biology professor, said the book “worked very well as a primer” in his coursework to spell out “natural disaster” and response issues.

“It’s very readable. If I’d given (students) a text that was 200 pages, you know, eyes would roll,” Berger said. Students really liked the intensively personal perspective, he said.

Social springboard

Neufeld interjected to remind panelists he considered Katrina to be a “natural hazard.”

What happened next — the breach of aging, neglected river levies, the bloated, floating corpses, the lack of water or supplies, endless confusion on evacuations, an armed standoff at a white suburb’s border — was the real human disaster, he said.

Societies have an understandable need to repress or “forget” such trauma in order to move forward, Neufeld said. Yet, he felt a calling to accurately preserve some grim history.

WSUV students are better off for his effort, Dublin Macmillan said. The book proved an excellent springboard for students to acknowledge social injustice and responsibility, she said.

“It showed them how race and class mattered, the difference in how government reacted. That’s not a conspiracy theory, that’s a fact,” she said. Neufeld’s characters clearly demonstrate real cases of betrayal, privilege, fractured families and deep personal loss, she noted.

“It was good to see students get fired up on their own, by recognizing disparities. The growth was really lovely,” Dublin Macmillan said.

John Barber, teacher of WSUV’s first digital graphic novel course, said Neufeld’s work exposed Katrina in a way that shows off the fast-growing genre.

“The juxtaposition of text and image together is much more powerful than either of them separately,” Barber said.

Even more intriguing, Neufeld posted his initial rendering online, then solicited feedback, clarifications or corrections and additional survivor stories, trading comments with viewers. The links to written and audio narratives, photos and videos made “A.D.” a multimedia powerhouse on many levels, Barber said.

New storytellers

A few of Barber’s students followed Neufeld into the digital storytelling classroom of Dene Grigar, director of WSUV’s popular Digital Technology and Culture Program. Neufeld consulted with students using a striking array of media to spin new tales of wildly original or personal, nonfiction nature.

In the former camp is an outer-space themed animation crafted by Andrew DiZinno. The Navy veteran, 28, who actually rode out Katrina near hard-hit Biloxi, Miss., said he based his tale on a real deployment.

A few seats away, Deanna Day, 46, an associate professor in WSUV’s school of education, struggled to stitch together cartoonlike panels meant to show a common teacher dilemma.

“You’re teaching 21st century kids and they want to use technology, and teachers are afraid of using it,” Day said.

Neufeld advised her that she lacked a strong narrative to make her animated point stick.

“Comics is not about the art. It’s about the story; the story is paramount,” he told Day. While his own wife is a novelist, he said, “I just can’t make things up from whole cloth. I can’t write stories, from squat.”

Rather, his skill is to report and gather riveting stories and edit them, with functional art, to maximize their effect, he said.

And what’s the compelling story many Katrina survivors would wish to relate, 5½ years removed from the death and destruction?

“Really, New Orleanians are special people,” said Neufeld, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who volunteered for relief work in Mississippi and has often since visited the Big Easy.

“They don’t want to be known as the poor, downtrodden people,” he said. A strong spirit remains, he said: “People want to get back to being ‘New Orleans’ again.”