Hurricane Katrina has made an inner-city book project an even greater story of defying the odds.
A year ago, New Orleans high school teachers Abram Himelstein and Rachel Breunlin started the Neighborhood Story Project, a way for students to write about where and how they live. The idea came after a 2003 shooting at their school, John McDonogh Senior High, killed one student and injured three others.
McDonogh Senior High is virtually all black and the shooting seemed yet another sad, defining story of guns and gangs.
“The writers wanted to address the perception that our neighborhoods are only about violence and drugs,” said Himelstein, 34, co-author of “Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing,” a self-published novel.
“Our city and our world is so much more complicated. All of the writers in our series chose to address the negative parts of their lives, but they also wanted to show that you have people struggling to make beauty.”
Five student books were published in June by the neighborhood project and have been a great local success. Himelstein said that about 2,000 copies have sold through bookstores, corner stores and block parties, and that a print run of another 4,000 was set to go when Katrina struck. Himelstein has no idea what happened to the books, which were at a print shop in one of the areas hit by the storm.
“We had just gotten the money together to reprint them,” Himelstein said in an interview from his mother-in-law’s home in Houston. He has not been able to locate two of the student authors.
The manuscripts are preserved on computer, but Himelstein cannot afford to print and distribute them himself. An acquaintance of his, Brooklyn-based publisher Richard Nash, is trying to help. But Nash, too, says he cannot handle it alone.
“We’re trying to find someone who can print up the books for free, because we do not have the cash flow to do that ourselves,” said Nash, publisher of Soft Skull Press, which publishes a wide range of books, including poetry, art and graphic novels. “Our sales rep is running around to all the printing plants, trying to find someone.”
Examining a neglected pastThe project’s motto is “Our stories, told by us,” a comment on the shallow headlines of the present and on the neglected side of the city’s past, Himelstein said.
New Orleans is predominantly black, but there are no author equivalents to Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino or the city’s many other musical greats. The city does have a rich literary history, from Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” to John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” to the novels of Anne Rice. But it has essentially been a story told by, and about, white people.
“It’s not surprising,” said Richard Ford, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Independence Day,” who has lived in New Orleans and currently lives in Maine. “A lot of blacks didn’t get to go to school. They were kept from being educated. It hasn’t been a question of talent, it’s been a question of opportunity.”
“John Kennedy Toole is one of my favorite writers, but he’s not someone who means a lot to the kids I teach,” Himelstein said. “This is all about having other voices.”
For the Neighborhood Story Project, students interviewed and photographed neighbors, relatives and friends. The books run from 80 to 130 pages and cost $15, Himelstein said. The students each received $1,000 advances.
One of the students, Ashley Nelson, had already been writing poems when she heard about the book project. She said that she did a lot of interviewing and a lot of observing, and found neighbors increasingly willing to participate.
“It wasn’t easy at first, because a lot of the people did like not to get recorded on tape,” said Nelson, 18, who is staying with her parents at an apartment in Houston. “But now I have people who are mad at me because they’re not in the book.”
Nelson’s book, “The Combination,” includes vignettes, poems and photographs, and is set in the downtown Lafitte public housing complex. She had planned to write about her block, but started weaving in personal experiences. Noting that both her parents have had drug problems, and that her mother died four years ago, she said her family story is really a neighborhood story.
“The book is basically about how the neighborhood is one big community and how they took care of me when my mother passed away,” she said.
Nelson had just started 12th grade when Katrina hit last week and she doesn’t know when, or where, she’ll resume school. She loves to read — her favorite authors include Alice Walker and Sister Souljah — and is thinking about writing a new book, with an obvious subject.
“The hurricane,” she said. “That would be the main focus.”