Aspen Summer Words: The lessons of Katrina |

Aspen Summer Words: The lessons of Katrina

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – When 17-year-old Troy Simon says “pain only lasts a moment; quitting is forever,” he knows what he’s talking about.

Simon lived through Hurricane Katrina, but learned quickly that the battle to survive would continue long after the storm. He also learned that thriving in post-Katrina New Orleans was about more than just rebuilding buildings. It was about rebuilding lives – namely, his own – so giving up was not an option.

“Before Katrina I couldn’t read or write; I was illiterate. I was heading down the wrong path,” says Simon, who is in town this week participating in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Young Writers Workshop. “But what I realized after that experience is that I needed to change. That I could change.”

James Jones, also a 17-year-old Hurricane Katrina survivor, similarly learned that life after Katrina was as much an opportunity as a tragedy. With hopes of attending Harvard someday, and his eye set on politics and poetry (for his part, Simon hopes to go to Xavier University to pursue a career in child psychology), Jones’ Katrina experience became a catalyst for creativity.

“Writing, poetry … that was my outlet. It helped me get through,” says Jones, also a participant in author Randall Kenan’s Summer Words workshop. “It was a hobby, but being here has inspired me. It has given me new hope about being published.”

But the lessons learned and the dreams created by these young men in the past few years aren’t theirs alone. In fact, they are shared by many, which is yet another lesson learned by Simon and Jones since the ravages of Katrina.

“It is amazing how much these young people all have in common, and how much they learn from each other,” says Lisa Consiglio, executive director of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation.

The foundation launched the Story Swap program’s undertaking to connect students from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with students from New Orleans through words. “And that was the idea behind this Story Swap … that we all walk on the same planet, walk in each others’ shoes,” Consiglio said.

Beyond the simple sharing of stories, Story Swap includes a book of work by the students, as well as a documentary film. The film will premier during the Aspen Ideas Festival, when two Haitian students and three New Orleans students will share a stage to discuss the project.

Simon and Jones will also share a stage, Thursday at Summer Words, when they join Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson for “Sketches of New Orleans.”

It is a unique pairing – two young men from the heart of New Orleans, struggling to survive, and Isaacson, head of the institute, noted journalist and author of “American Sketches.” It’s a match Consiglio concedes came together because the stars aligned.

“Walter is a strong believer in Story Swap, and as a native son of New Orleans, he has a passion for this project,” she says, explaining that Isaacson met Simon by chance and immediately boasted of the boy’s talent; Jones was a “superstar” of the story swap and was a logical choice to come Aspen.

Though the trio’s talk Thursday is somewhat unscripted, Consiglio promises it will offer an enlightened look at post-Katrina New Orleans, both from a writer’s perspective and from a personal perspective. Indeed, Simon and Jones will share with Isaacson the lessons they’ve learned – and he will do the same.

“This is Walter’s turn to mentor them on stage, and you can see they, too, have a lot to offer – both at Summer Words and through Story Swap, and I am quite sure in their futures,” she said.

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