WTF, Texas? Lacy M. Johnson and Natalia Sylvester on Surviving the Recent Storm and Unraveling the Whitewashed Myth of Texas
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by author Lacy M. Johnson and novelist Natalia Sylvester. First, Johnson recalls her personal experience through the recent storm, and talks about the ongoing debate over deregulation and privatization of the Texas energy grid. Then, Sylvester unravels the whitewashed, exceptionalist myth of Texas; elevates its Mexican, Black, and Indigenous history; and talks about what it means for her, a Latinx, Peruvian immigrant woman, to be a “Texas writer.”
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With Lacy M. Johnson
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I know some of the story of how your family fared in the recent freeze in Texas because you were occasionally texting during that period. Can you walk our listeners through the timeline of your experience and tell us what the situation is like now?
Lacy M. Johnson: In the week leading up to the storm, people were increasingly aware that it was going to freeze. Anytime that it drops below freezing in Houston, it is on the news. It’s a big deal because Houston doesn’t really have the infrastructure to deal with freezing temperatures. A lot of the homes in Houston are built on pier and beam, and the plumbing runs underneath, is uninsulated, and if it drops below freezing, your pipes can break. If there’s freezing rain, as they were predicting for this storm, or ice, we don’t have snow plows and salt trucks and all the things that, growing up in the Midwest and Missouri, get you through a storm like that. So there was a lot of messaging in advance of the storm to just be prepared to hunker down as we do when there’s a storm coming, a hurricane, or something else like that.
So we purchased a lot of food and were prepared to stay in our house for five or six days, and not leave while the roads were impassable. We went to bed Sunday night, expecting the storm to arrive. Monday morning, we woke up, and there was snow on the ground. My kids were super excited because they have seen snow maybe a handful of times in their life. They put on winter coats and went outside, and scraped together some gloves, and made these tiny little snow people, which was charming and great. But there was no power. We didn’t have any power. We also didn’t really have any cell reception, and didn’t really have any way to get information about what was going on. On the first day, Monday, we were without power for 24 hours. Our house got down to about 35 degrees inside the house overnight. That was the night that our pipes froze the first time. We got a little bit of power on Tuesday for about 10 hours. And then we were without power for another 36 hours after that.
Whitney Terrell: 35 degrees in the house is not good! What were you doing? When I was a kid I remember I’d light candles and do that sort of thing. Was that what it was like?
LMJ: We have a gas-powered fireplace. We had that on. We were cooking our food with a propane camping stove in the garage. We had these little power banks to keep our cell phones charged and things like that. And we were making frequent trips to sit in the car, to turn the car on and get warm, and to try to listen to the radio and learn what was going on. But then the second time we were without power 36 hours and all the food spoiled in the fridge. The house got to about 40 degrees that time.
WT: You should have left the fridge open then. You could maybe have put stuff outside.
LMJ: I know. That would have been better. We put a lot of stuff outside to keep it cold. But the stuff that we hadn’t put outside to freeze was done for. But then there was a boil order. So water wasn’t safe to drink for people who had running water in their houses. We didn’t have water running because the pipes were frozen. But people who don’t have electricity can’t boil their water. And water was sold out of stores. There wasn’t any food and there wasn’t any way to cook. It really felt like being on the precipice of something much, much worse. I really sort of understood how the kind of infrastructure that makes life comfortable every single day creates a veil in some ways about how close we are to catastrophe at all times. You flip a switch, and people can’t drink, they can’t eat, and they can’t flush their toilets. You can’t much less take a shower or wash your hands during a pandemic. So now, power is mostly restored but even this past week was the first time I was able to find milk. And I know a lot of students at Rice and at other universities still don’t have their WiFi restored. Their power is still a little shady. So things are still not quite back to normal.
VVG: I was shocked when you said you were excited about the milk and you texted. You were like “Milk!” and I was like, “Oh my god, it’s been days!” I was surprised.
LMJ: It was two weeks, I think, between the time that the storm hit and when things were back in the stores at normal stock. Even when the electricity came back on, everything in the stores had spoiled also. And then once it does get in the store, then there’s a run on supplies. And so it took quite a lot of time for things to be in stock and be normal. But the sort of joke running around Houston was, 2020 was the year without toilet paper and 2021 is the year without toilets.
WT: Did you consider driving and leaving the state?
LMJ: Where would we go? Texas is as big as France. If we go north, it’s six hours to get to Oklahoma and gas was scarce here. I imagine it was scarce all along the way. Going east, Louisiana had it just as bad. There were not a lot of places that we could go and roads weren’t safe. The roads were frozen. So we were just sort of trapped here.
VVG: I remember one of the things that happened, right at the beginning, you were saying that, “We got warnings that it’s going to be like a category 5 hurricane.” To what I suspect will be my enduring shame, I was like, “Really?” I just kind of didn’t believe it. I grew up in Maryland where someone sneezes and there’s a little snow, and everything grinds to a halt immediately. And now I live in Minnesota where you could have several feet of snow and people would go on stoically.
LMJ: My husband and I joke about that, too, because I told him the thing about the category 5 and he also kind of laughed. He’s like, “That’s ridiculous.” But as I was saying, Houston doesn’t have the infrastructure to survive a storm like that. And I’ve actually heard now that there were more insurance claims from this storm than there were during Harvey. In Harvey, I still haven’t gotten the official count, but it’s 200,000 homes to 300,000 homes that had flooding. So, more homes than that submitted insurance claims during this storm. But I did not expect there to be a power outage. That was not part of the messaging.
With Natalie Sylvester
V.V. Ganeshananthan: You grew up in Texas and in Florida, and you live and write in Texas now. So what does it mean to be a Texas writer? And is there such a thing?
Natalia Sylvester: I was really fascinated by this question. I had to really think hard about it. I was just like, do I self-identify as a Texas writer? I both do and don’t. And by that I mean, I do in that I understand how important it is, for me and other writers of color like me, to really take up space and also claim this as our own, given the ways we’ve often been so violently left out of that mythological Texas identity. But I’m not completely comfortable with thinking about it as a reaction to that, because that’s still really centering this white supremacist-created identity that continues to be glorified over time in Texas history.
Ultimately, because so much of Texas history is rooted in this exceptionalism, I’m only comfortable in self-identifying as a Texas writer as long as it doesn’t take away any other part of my identity. I am also a Peruvian, I’m a Latinx writer, I’m an immigrant, I’m a woman, I’m a Florida and Texas writer, and all of these spaces and identities are equally valid. And they’re equally places where I should feel at home, and that I do. I think I would be equally uncomfortable with any of them being taken away, but also with any of them being seen as the sole thing that identifies me.
Whitney Terrell: That’s the thing I thought about when I was thinking about this podcast, is that there’s the cliche of the Texas writer. It’s related to race, and also to gender. Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove, I think, is the book that outsiders from Texas, or maybe white readers not in Texas, think of when they think of Texas. But there’s also Cormac McCarthy. There’s James Michener, and, you know, I like James Michener. He gave a Michener Award that I won when I was in grad school, and he’s done a lot of things for literature. But there’s still this tradition that writing about Texas means writing about cowboys, and for the most part being white. But Texas is not like that anymore. How much is that still alive as a tradition, do you think?
NS: It’s not that it isn’t like that anymore. It’s that it never was.
WT: Yeah, that’s true.
NS: It’s just whose voices got to be centered. Because Texas—and all land in the US—was Indigenous land first, and then it was colonized and part of Mexico, and then it was its own country for a bit. It has this really long history of this violence of white supremacy and the notion of each man for his own. We hear about the Texas Rangers, and there are some who would love to consider them heroes in Texas history. But really, they were agents of state-sanctioned violence against the Mexican population here—people who had land here, and whose land was taken from them and who were massacred and who were victims of lynching, even in the 20th century. This isn’t distant history.
WT: Who are Texas writers who work outside of that myth?
NS: There’s a project called Refusing to Forget. It’s created by John Morán González, Monica Muñoz Martinez, Christopher Carmona, and they’re all Texas writers who are, as the name of the organization implies, refusing to forget the true history of Texas that isn’t just about this mythical cowboy hero, and that is really telling the truth of it. Telling the truth not only of the contributions of Mexican Americans, but also the violence that they were subjected to systemically for generations. And then there’s also, gosh, we have such a rich literary community: writers like Bryan Washington who wrote Lot and Memorial. There’s the poet Tarfia Faizullah, who I had the pleasure of meeting a couple years ago. Addie Tsai is in Houston—she wrote this really great Y.A. novel called Dear Twin. Varian Johnson has written countless children’s books, and so many of them are really beautiful stories about Black history in Texas. There’s just so much.
WT: I think of Donald Barthelme, great postmodernist writer who does not traffic in the cowboy myth, except to make fun of it, also grew up in Texas and founded that creative writing program in Houston.
VVG: Also seems like so much of this is, as you were saying before, Whitney, tied to masculinity. A lot of the writers that you’ve mentioned, and some others that I can think of too, like Anna North’s Outlawed just came out, and then, of course, there’s C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold. There’s Westerns, and then there’s Texas. And then, as you note, there’s “the border.” You’re talking about the way that these borders are really porous, and how this literature has always been here. And so much of it is coming, rightfully, to the more mainstream center stage now. But it also sounds like a lot of the writers that you’re talking about are really defining their own terms. So how does this narrative get changed? What sorts of different forms or strategies do you see people using? What sorts of stuff are you thinking about yourself in relation to, maybe being a Texas writer who’s subversive? Is that fair?
NS: I don’t know. Honestly, it changes. It depends on the spaces that we find ourselves in. Sometimes there are times where my place is more about supporting. Like there’s this really great bookstore and organization called Red Salmon Arts that was founded in 1984 by the activist Raúl Salinas—he was also a poet. At least from what I know, in Texas, it’s the longest running Latinx, Chicanx, and Indigenous bookstore. They’ve been doing this work for so long that every time I find myself in that space, I feel in awe of the writers who, their work isn’t just about writing, it’s also community building through their voices. There’s people like Tony Diaz in Houston who have worked for a long time to get Mexican American studies into the curriculum of Texas schools. Things like that are just so important. Because again, it’s just about, how do we really tell the truth? We need to cut the crap that has been all about glorifying that one myth of Texas history.
WT: You mean the independent, exceptionalist, rugged individualist, Chuck Norris, Jerry World, Texas Ranger thing, right? Is that what you’re talking about?
NS: Yeah, exactly.
WT: That has an effect; it’s having a policy effect now. I mean, I feel like that’s why Texas has the separate electric grid. That’s why the power outage disaster happened. That’s why Greg Abbott, your governor, just decided to end the mask mandate. That’s all part of that narrative, is it not?
NS: Of course. It’s harmful to this day. Gosh, who was it, Rick Perry? When he said, “Oh, Texans would rather freeze.”
WT: Yeah, and the lieutenant governor volunteered for old people to die. It’s all the same thing. They’ve been reading the same books, these guys.
NS: And it’s this warped sense of freedom. Of like, “Well, freedom means that we don’t need anyone and we don’t help anyone,” almost. It is very much this male patriarchy thing. Because for example, it doesn’t apply to uteruses when they want to govern people’s bodies. But Rick Perry was happy to say, “Oh, we want government out of our businesses,” and that’s why they’ve always had the Texas grid be independent. And that’s what left so many people freezing and dying during this storm.
Lacy M. Johnson
More City Than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas (forthcoming, University of Texas Press) · The Reckonings: Essays · The Other Side: A Memoir · Trespasses: A Memoir
Running · Everyone Knows You Go Home · Chasing the Sun
2666 by Roberto Bolaño · Cite Design Alliance · Cormac McCarthy · Dear Twin by Addie Tsai · Donald Barthelme · Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room Documentary · ERCOT · “‘Frozen Windmills’ aren’t to blame for Texas’s power failure” by Salvador Rizzo · “Houston is a cheap place to live – if you don’t count the trauma tax” by Raj Mankad · How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang · James A. Michener · Katherine Anne Porter · Lonesome Dove: A Novel by Larry McMurtry · Lot and Memorial by Bryan Washington · Necropolitics by Achille Mbembe · Outlawed by Anna North · “Perry says Texans willing to suffer blackouts to keep feds out of power market” by James Osborne · Public Utilities Commission of Texas Memo · Red Salmon Arts by Raúl Salinas · Refusing To Forget Project by Benjamin Johnson, John Morán Gonzalez, and Sonia Hernández · Tarfia Faizullah · “Texas Won’t Reduce $16 Billion In Electricity Charges From Winter Storm” by Matthew S. Schwartz · The Great American Bubble Machine by Matt Taibbi · The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White · The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein · The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind · Treme
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope, Megan Kipper, Katheryn Riley, Stacey Schell, and Anna Stokes.