Portland author Ellen Urbani lived through the final years of Guatemala’s horrific civil war — an experience she wrote about in her first book, "When I Was Elena." She then spent 13 years as an art therapist working with oncology patients and disaster survivors. Both experiences primed her for her first novel, “Landfall,” about the days after Hurricane Katrina.
The book follows the intersecting lives of two mothers and two daughters.
Urbani will read from "Landfall" at the Powell's City of Books store in downtown Portland on Aug. 29, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall in New Orleans.
Urbani started her conversation with State of Wonder's April Baer by reading an excerpt set in the Ninth Ward the morning after the hurricane hit. It was that brief moment when everyone thought they were safe and had no idea what was about to happen. Listen to it above.
Q&A with Ellen Urbani
April Baer: Something happened after Katrina. I feel like the narratives that were being reported both in social media and traditional media sort of backslid and said, 'well, maybe people didn't die in the Superdome. Maybe it wasn't quite as dire as it was initially reported.' But the truth of Rosie and Cilla’s lives that you came up with for this book really bring this devastation back alive again.
Do you feel that people needed to anesthetize themselves to what happened, saying, 'well, maybe the initial reports really weren't that bad, maybe the human tragedy wasn't quite the scale we imagined?'
Ellen Urbani: You know it's a really interesting question; it's so nuanced and multi-layered. I'll try to walk you through how I came to some of this. You're right, in the aftermath of the aftermath — meaning the media aftermath — many months later the media wound up backpedaling and saying 'a lot of what we reported turned out not to be accurate once we were able to really examine all of this.' Which doesn't mean that they were lying when they did it; they were simply reporting what they saw and were told. And then it turns out some of the things they were told were not quite as dramatic as they had seemed.
But what fascinated me, and I think a lot of it has to do with that background I had in oncology — I used to work as a consultant in trauma and disaster for FEMA and the Oregon Medical Disaster Team — was that when people are in the middle of something horrific, when you are terrorized, everything is heightened. Every emotion is heightened; every sensation is heightened. When terrors what's ruling your day, you respond with terror to everything.
Meaning that if I had been in that Superdome, and I had been chased by a wall of water down my street just when I thought I was most safe, and I'd been rescued off of an attic after cutting through the roof and had been starving for days and left behind people I loved who fell into the water, and I got to the Superdome and some man went running past me and knocked me to the ground — in his perhaps eagerness to get to his own family member. But I don't see that. I just see a man charging me and hurling me to the ground. And I stand up and a news reporter says, 'what's it like for you in the Superdome.' And I say, 'I'm being attacked. That man, he's after me. Men are after me, help me.'
And the news reporter reports what he was told. But much of what he was told was heightened anxiety based on everything that had happened to those people. They were all telling the truth, and yet their truths turned out not to be entirely accurate.
Baer: There's balance in the book between the traumas that characters experience because of the hurricane and the traumas they're experiencing in their own personal lives and familial relationships. How did you differentiate between how these different types of trauma are shaping the characters?
Urbani: Again, a really fascinating question. Trauma, whether it's an acute trauma like living through a hurricane or a diagnosis of mental illness, versus the small traumas we affect on the people around us every day sometimes, it's an interesting thing for me to look at.
What we call trauma is often no more traumatic than things that happen in our everyday lives. It mattered to me in sort of this truth telling effort, to be honest that the things that we do to each other are often much worse than anything nature could do to us.
There are a number of scenes in the book, one of which there is an attack and rape scene, and in the beginning some of the early readers and people who were involved in moving this book towards publication, said you would reach a much larger audience if you get rid of that scene. I didn't want to be overly graphic, but it was important to me that that scene stay because again to me it's a very fine example of the fact that the things that happen, often in particular to women, happen every day, often hundreds if not thousands of times in our country, that don't get the attention that Katrina got and are no less dramatic.
Baer: 'Landfall' is concerned with two mothers and two daughters. This scenes that you draw of Gertrude and Rose's relationship and Rosie and Cilla's relationship say a lot about the completeness of life as a single parent, that hermetic environment of parent and child, and also the loneliness of that life.
Urbani: In terms of being a single parent myself, it wasn't that I missed having a partner because I felt like I couldn't take care of myself or my children on my own, but I so missed someone to share the joy with. I wanted somebody to turn around and look at when they rode a bike for the first time or made a pretty picture.
It was really important to me and creating these characters to show the full spectrum of parenting. I think so often, and I see this even in my own children, where the choices we make, we make for very specific reasons that we can't necessarily disclose to our children when they're little. And they resent us for some of those things, some of those things we're doing that are most designed to protect them or to craft a life for them that we think will be best, and that's hard for them when you can't transmit that.
So much I wanted to show in this book is that sort of broken-heartedness of parenting, when you were doing the best you can possibly do for your child, who is not grateful for it at all.