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‘I Thought I Was Going to Be This Big Fucking Superhero’

A Conversation With Nicholas Powers

Nia Nottage Oct 31

In August 2001, Nicholas Powers returned to New York to start a new life. He was born in Gotham, his mother a Latina anti-Vietnam War activist. They left when he was young. After college he worked as a Boston-area newspaper reporter and then moved on to begin his Ph.D studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. Working as an adjunct at Borough Manhattan Community College, he walked past the rubble of the Twin Towers on his way to class. “9/11 was the first time I experienced history right in my face,” he recalled.

As cremation dust hung in the air, he wrestled with questions of how history changes us and how to bear witness to pain while offering hope of a better world.

Powers’ new book, The Ground Below Zero, is a record of the deeply personal odyssey that followed. Tragedy and ecstasy fuse together in his narrative. We see through his eyes Hurricane Katrina flooding New Orleans, the rubble of Port au Prince in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the anti-Iraq War protests and the rise of Occupy Wall Street.

Nia Nottage: Many of the essays in your book originally appeared as articles in The Indypendent. Describe some of your intentions going into writing these articles. How did you initially get involved with the Indy and at what point did you decide to turn your work for them into a book?

Nicholas Powers: In 2004, I was studying at the CUNY Graduate Center when I saw a copy of the Indy. It had a call for writers. My first essays took cultural theory and used it as a prism to analyze politics; Slavoj Žižek, Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud were my influences. After I came back from reporting in post-Katrina New Orleans, I needed a deeper connection to my experience. I shifted toward creative non-fiction and poetry, which I found in the work of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and the Surrealists. As I was writing each article I had a feeling in the back of my mind that it was for a larger project.

Each article was not just a news report, but an attempt to see what the central human conflicts were — the details that make it rise above that specific moment. I was driven to do that because I felt that in each specific protest march, or funeral, or relationship with someone, there were universal themes that were going through all of them.

Over the years, my essays became more personal and The Indypendent gave me space to develop. Of course they pay in hugs, not money, but I can’t put a monetary value how they’ve allowed me to grow. It’s priceless. If I had written for mainstream news or even a dogmatic political magazine, I would have been imprisoned in clichés.

NN: You start the book with a glimpse of your family history, which you return to often in the more personal sections of the book. What did it feel like to juxtapose the intimacies of your family life with the major tragedies of the 21st century?

NP: Some of the fights and long-standing silences in the family are a product of class and racism that seeped into my family and warped our relationships, sometimes breaking them. Those family scenes in the book that are very intimate are scaled on the same ideas that affect the larger disasters that I experienced. The same racism that I saw play out in New Orleans or in Bed-Stuy is the same racism that I could see on the very head of my own mother — who for years fried her hair and was told by her mother that she was not white enough.

NN: In the book, 9/11 provides the initial call to action for you to position yourself to shine a spotlight on tragedy. Why did 9/11 have this effect, when it could easily have caused you to shut down?

NP: 9/11 was the first time I experienced history in my face. I lived through all of the clichés, including washing my hair to get the smell of the Towers — which just saturated the air in the city for months — out of my dreads. So many things at that time changed the trajectory of my life — the anti-war protests, breaking up with my then-fiancé. Most of all, I felt like a failure because I never physically got a chance to help people at Ground Zero. When Hurricane Katrina came, I directed all of that pent-up energy towards New Orleans.

NN: In the book, after leaving New Orleans in the wake of Katrina there’s one point where you say that you “wanted to be free of caring for people [that you] could not help.” Can you explain what this feels like? After experiencing this, why continue to go back?

NP: I thought I was going to be this big fucking super hero — I went there and I accomplished nothing. Coming back in shame, I aimed to write the most beautiful, poetic, honest stuff I could to get people’s attention, but hardly anyone read it. I just got really angry at the world. I was isolated and ashamed, and that’s what it actually felt like.

NN: Do you feel that you have a bit of a “white” or “Western savior complex?”

NP: Well, I did listen to a lot of U2 growing up. It’s a white savior complex, but in my case, maybe it’s more of a mestizo savior complex? It wasn’t like I was trying to save the “Other.” I was the “Other” and I was reliving the tragedy of my mother’s life. I was trying to bear witness to the racism that she dealt with and tried to stop it from hurting other people.

NN: Your visits to the annual Burning Man festival are a big part of the healing process for you. Do you feel that attending Burning Man has changed your views on spirituality? Or on reality?

NP: I was raised Catholic and became an atheist. I think Catholicism has made more atheists than World War Two. But being an atheist is very lonely. After I studied evolution, god vanished. There was nothing in the sky. I had no one to talk to. There was nowhere to find meaning in my life and the world became very cold. Atheism was like the great nothing in the never-ending story, it just destroyed everything but it was a necessary clearing.

When I went to Burning Man and I was on LSD and ecstasy, candy flipping, I began to feel like I was creating my own sense of spirituality. When I went into the desert and I looked up, I saw countless stars and realized just how big and far away everything is. I suddenly began to feel that atheism wasn’t a great nothing, and that I could build something. I felt the sacredness of life, exactly because there’s nothing after it.

NN: You consistently express your exasperation over the ineffectiveness of rallies, protests, journalism and relief efforts. If not these things, how is the reader of The Ground Below Zero meant to respond? What do you feel is the proper response to tragedy?

NP: I think we have to save lives in the moment and change the system over time. And the rallies and marches are necessary for people to meet and see each other. So is theory but theory is not, on its own, sufficient. And it can blind us to reality.

When I came back from Haiti, my friends on the Left wanted a vision of it based on leftist ideology. Of course in Haiti I did see people who were suffering and trying to defend themselves, but I also saw people stealing things that they didn’t need. What I knew before and realized again is that “The People” are a spectrum of personalities but when you report on that ideologues will accuse you of being naïve or stupid.

For them, there is a central thesis that demands certain kinds of images to prove itself, and those images do exist in reality, but so do a lot of other images. If you’re an honest person or a good reporter, you’re going to report on all of the things that the central thesis doesn’t want to acknowledge. In literary theory that’s called deconstruction, but I think it’s just called telling the truth. I think this makes me a good writer but maybe also an awkward Leftist, and that’s okay.

Nicholas Powers is an associate professor of English Literature at SUNY-Old Westbury. He is the author of Theater of War and Ground Below Zero (UpSet Press, 2013).

Nia Nottage is a collaborative artist who studies music and poetry at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. Her tumber is whatispurpose.tumblr.com.


INDY AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

In next month’s paper longtime Indypendent writer Steven Wishnia talks with Adam Johnson about his second novel, When the Drumming Stops. He also reflects on the lost underground world of the Lower East Side and what it’s like to go from playing in a popular punk rock bank at the height of the Reagan era to eventually crashing against the realities of middle age and the Great Recession.


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