In 2013, Bayou Corne, a nearly unknown area of South Louisiana, was met with one of the largest man-made ecological disasters at the time, and no one outside of the direct vicinity seemed to know or care. A salt cavern, created during injection mining in one of the state’s huge salt domes, failed. As a result, a sinkhole opened. Growing quickly, it swallowed land and life like a famished mouth. There are internet videos where you can watch whole trees, whole copses of trees, pulled down, down, down into the earth. Homes had to be evacuated. A whole town lost. Today the sinkhole spans roughly 37 acres, and is estimated to be 750 ft. deep.
This is how the first bits of my novel-in-progress, When We Drowned, appeared. I had never been to Bayou Corne, but it was only an hour or so away from where I lived at the time. I read one local news article about it, then another, watched YouTube videos, began to take notes. I became a little obsessed. I had questions, like when did the residents of Bayou Corne realize something was wrong? How scary was it? What do you do in the face of something like that? I once had lost everything to a natural disaster, too, but nothing so final.
Nothing so terrifying.
Most of my stories start the same way, with me reading the news. Rarely the national news, which is in many ways so impersonal. Instead the local news spurs my imagination, everyone in it could be someone I know, someone I love, could even be me. Reading the news is my first advice to writers. Get to know your world.
But this was different.
It terrified me. Like a horror movie.
I couldn’t approach the story the way I had been taught—through stark realism. I tried. But the sinkhole, the strangeness of a swirling swamp disappearing into itself, simply would not be contained.
It was just too weird. It felt better suited to something else.
Something I had been wanting to embrace for years, had skirted and flirted with in my stories, but had never fully leaned into.
It felt magically real.
I love “genre” literature, but I’ve been afraid to write it. In the same way I once tended not to write many Latinx characters for fear I would step too far from what seemed to define the “literary.” I also shied away from stepping over the boundary of strangeness. But for this story, it seemed impossible not to do so.
And if I was going to step over one boundary, I might as well step over many.
In writing, When We Drowned, I’m embracing my truest storytelling self. I am writing a story from the people of my homes, Miami and South Louisiana. I’m writing crime fiction. A thriller. Magical realism. This is grit lit with Southern Latinx characters and a mystery and a monster. Luli’s hallucinations are real. Anything at all can happen.
I’m still scared this mismatching will fail, but failure is simply not an option in writing. It is an inevitability of the process, and so one might as well take risks. It is the brave writers who catch our eyes; and it is those truest to their own vision, I believe, who catch our souls.
LEIGH CAMACHO ROURKS is a Cuban-American author from South Louisiana, who is an Assistant Professor at Beacon College in Central Florida. Her debut story collection, Moon Trees and Other Orphans, won the St. Lawrence Book Award. She is also the recipient of the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award and the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize, and her work has been shortlisted for several other awards. Her fiction, poems, and essays have appeared in a number of journals, including Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, and Greensboro Review.