Interview with Neighborhood Story Project’s Abram Himelstein (AntiGravity. 2008)


In the early 2000’s, Abram Himelstein and Rachel Breunlin worked together for the Students at the Center (SaC) program, helping to bring community-based creative writing classes (with an emphasis on publishing), to New Orleans’ public schools. Their bosses and heroes at SaC, Jim RandallandKalamu Ya Salaam (whom Himelstein had studied and admired in college), imparted upon the young teachers the belief that New Orleans’ story must be told by the people who live in it, lest New Orleanians find themselves without voices, victims of misrepresentation.

Today Abram and Rachel helm The Neighborhood Story Project (NSP), which since 2004 has published seven well-received books, all borne from the brains of regular New Orleanians, most documenting the nuanced struggles and celebrations of various neighborhoods, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, Social Aid and Pleasure clubs, and other New Orleans phenomenon of which the outer world knows little.

Last year NSP opened its own office and writing workshop area in the 7th Ward, on Miro and Lapeyrouse St. Anyone’s welcome to pop in, tour the office, get free writing advice and guidance, maybe even a book advance – not to mention publication by New Orleans’ most successful (and righteous) imprint. AntiGravity sat down with Himelstein as well as NSP board-member, co-author of the best-selling Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward, and proud member of the Nine Times Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Troy Materre.

(Interview is below this video of Kareem Kennedy reading from his NSP book)

AG: How has the new office integrated into the neighborhood, and what kind of effect has it had on the neighborhood?

A: We’ve been here officially a year and a half, but it took us a year to have our housewarming, and welcome the neighborhood. Now a lot of New Orleanians drop by and say ‘Hey I wrote this book, and I see y’all do that.’ So we’re in consultation with maybe 15 people who are in some stage of writing their book. We have a presence now. And it’s exceeded the grandiose dream already.

AG: Especially since you published all those books by kids, people may have gotten the sense that NSP is a teaching organization, or a writing program that makes up for what’s lacking in public schools…

A: No, we’re more of a publishing company. We do writing workshops, but our fidelity is to readers, who pay money for the books. To that end, we teach narrative more than grammar or capitalization. We talk a lot about communication, character, plot, struggle, and we give a lot of attention to dialog – but almost none to spelling. I may write a note in their journals like, ‘If you write in paragraphs, your writing will be stronger.’ They learn the technical aspects of writing, but it’s more organic, like, they’re reading here too, and so you hope that will rub off.

AG: So they don’t necessarily have to do drafts until everything’s perfect, because the editor plays a big role.

A: A big role. Rachel Breunlin is the co-founder, co-director, and the editor. As the editor, she is the magic; she can find the narrative thread in a manuscript when even the author has lost it. We definitely make our authors rewrite when we just don’t know what they’re saying. But Rachel does a first edit with them. Then she stays up many nights by herself making sure the text relates to readers. Again, the authors get the last word on everything, but we prioritize the readers.

AG: Are the participants all volunteers, or are their some kids whose parents shove em in through the door and tell em they’ll be back in two hours?

A: Everyone’s volunteered. When we first started NSP, Rachel and I were teachers at John McDonough, and we walked to each class and asked ‘Does anyone want to write a book? You’ll meet the last period of every day and you get $1000 when your book is finished.’ That year we had seven people apply, six of them finished. Then right after the flood we had 55, because those first books had come out in June and they were a huge deal after Katrina.

AG: Don’t you worry that the kids will just be doing it for the money, and won’t see writing as art or…?

AG: One of our treatises is that writing is work, and work is worth money. That love of writing has to come from somewhere, and the money can be where it begins. Working class kids work after-school jobs where they’re trained to serve burgers, so when they’re older that’s what they’re used to, food service – whereas in high school I worked a job, but my parents also got me an internship at a newspaper. I am very proud that NSP pays people for intellectual work.

Another of the ways I sell writing to kids is: ‘Hey, you can use writing to woo your partner.’ I explain that how successful you are with language can dictate how successful you are in romance. But in the end, yes, some kids come in here amped to write a book, others just heard they can make a thousand dollars, but I think those are both valid reasons for them to come to the NSP.

AG: Writing their book also teaches computer skills.

A: No, we don’t use computers, we write it in journals by hand. Eventually we’d like to have five nice high functioning computers but… For now Rachel inputs it in the computer. 

AG: Obviously in New Orleans, writing is not as popular of an artistic hobby as music. Troy, how did you feel about writing growing up here?

Troy: I didn’t. (chuckles) I mean they taught it to us in school, and I used writing to do my work. And I can sit down and tell you a good verbal story, but as far as sitting and writing it down, I would say they had to beat it out of me (laughs) (NSP) really had to push us. But just like how we always do, once we start up something we gotta finish it. It started with like 15 guys coming to the workshops, then it broke down to like 10, the seven, then the five you see in the book made it come true.

A: That was before we had this new office, so every Monday night they would come to either Rachel or my house for workshop in that year after Katrina. That book’s awesome. We color coded the cover to go with their costume colors that year.

Troy: At first we didn’t want to do that! Because it’s a tradition that you don’t give out your colors till the day of your parade. But we figured even if someone saw the book beforehand, they wouldn’t know blue and white were our colors until the parade. And then they were like ‘Ooh, that’s nice.’

AG: Tell me your process for writing Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward. What does the title mean, and what made you want to write it? 

Troy: Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward means that when we come out the door on parade day, we come out and do it for our hood, where our smoke came from: Desire Projects, upper Ninth Ward. I did a lot of interviews for that book. The book was actually written by me and six other club members because one of NSP’s previous authors, Waukesha Jackson, had already written a book about our club, and so NSP came to us and asked if we wanted to write about ourselves. We thought that was a wonderful idea!

A: Naw, you came to me with it. I remember standing on Waukesha porch and you came to me and said, ‘This is good, but we want to do our own book.’

Troy: Yeah… That too. (laughs) We pitched the idea to them, they pitched the idea to us, either way, that book is now one of the best sellers in New Orleans. And we wrote it because we needed to tell the story of coming up in the Desire Housing Projects — the third largest project in the country — and why we started our clubs.

AG: I’ve read a lot about how Neighborhood Story Project was started because you think New Orleans is misrepresented. How is New Orleans misrepresented?

Troy: Well the murders…

AG: But the murders stuff is true.

A: But it’s not the only story.

AG: But is that misrepresentation then, or is it just the impossibility of giving the big picture?

A: Is there a difference?

AG: Well, covering the murders is not lying.

A: To focus on one aspect of a city is to tell an incomplete story which is to tell a lie.  The positive things that happen in the black community don’t get media attention, even locally. Like the huge Easter egg hunt that the Nine Times have been throwing at Sampson playground in the Ninth Ward for kids — with money out of their own pockets! — for seven years now. Last year it was huge, and you didn’t even see it in the society pages. A story about that would have presented a much more realistic picture of the Ninth Ward. That would be media justice. And that’s what NSP is doing: helping people get the real more nuanced story out there.

Troy: I just hope that our book makes other people want to tell their stories, about their hoods and where they come up from. We want to start that trend, and then maybe the story will get to America that New Orleans isn’t just bad, that there’s a whole lotta good people here.

AG: I dunno. I think people do know that.

(awkward pause)

A: Well, they didn’t read it in a book. They may know it, but they sure as hell didn’t read it…

(laughter)

A: I mean, I agree with you; a lot of people in this country love New Orleans, and especially outside of America. But music has been the emissary, not writing. New Orleans is rich in so many ways, but not in book ways. We have historical richness but not a current richness. We celebrate music and make room for it in our lives the way New Yorkers do about reading – we have no equivalent experience for reading in New Orleans. No one here identities themselves as a reader or writer.

But as far as misrepresentation: one thing I myself never realized about Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs is how almost churchlike they are – at least the Nine Times is, with the prayer before and after the meetings. I’d thought it was mostly about money-wasters, about being like ‘Yes, I am here and I’m beautiful.’ And Nine Times exhibits that too, but there’s also this intense brotherhood, and supporting each other, especially during members’ hard times. ‘I’m here and I’m beautiful’ is definitely enough of a reason to have a parade damn it, but there’s so much more than that. And if you accepted the media’s picture of the 7th Ward, it didn’t look like what these people were experiencing. If you believe the media, the 7th Ward was a place you didn’t want to live.

Troy: Our club events are like family reunion, cause now, a lot of people who grew up in those projects don’t see each other like that anymore. They go to our events cause they can’t wait to see so-and-so. That makes us excited to come out and hit that street. I was in Terry, Texas in the mall after Katrina, and this guy comes up to me: ‘Say bruh, when is the Nine Times gonna parade.’ (perplexed look). My girl said later, ‘Ooh you psyched up now.’ But that does make you feel like you’re doing your job!

A: Nine Times!

Troy: Nine Times!

A: (to Troy) Man, I remember riding to JazzFest with y’all, that was the first time I was happy after Katrina. I thought y’all’s bus might explode from all the noise, people screaming, “Nine Times! Nine Times!”

Troy: Yeah when we come into JazzFest people know we coming it be so loud. But it be fun noise, we be beatin, and aw man. So much fun. Our club is about family feelings, and fun. Don’t come in there with no negativity, because we’re just about togetherness.

AG: What is the next major project for the Neighborhood Story Project?

A: We have our eighth book about to drop in March, it’s called The House of Dance and Feathers, a Museum by Ronald Lewis. It’s based on Ronald’s museum that he built in his back yard in the Lower 9th Ward on Tupelo Street. It’s not just the beauty of the Mardi Gras Indian world, but both the magical and mundane: how it works, who sews patches, what those relationships are like. Ronald then takes you through the Social Aid and Pleasure Club world, and the Northside Skull and Bones Gang. And through all that he sort of maps a history of the Lower 9th Ward. The book is phenomenal, 212 pages long, our first in all color. 

AG: But I thought the publishing industry was collapsing right now, every wing of it? It doesn’t seem like NSP even feels a breeze from that.

A: Well, the Lupin Foundation pays for our office building, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities helps tremendously, and our number one supporters have been UNO, who pay Rachel and my salary. But we’re also thriving: our books are among the best sellers in the city, and New Orleans has been great to us. Coming Out the Door has sold close to 5,000 books. And it hasn’t even been put through a distributor yet so…

AG: You sold 5,000 just in New Orleans?

A: We have a website people can buy them from too, but I’d say 4,000 of them were sold in New Orleans. That means one in every 100 people in the city has one. That means we’re really beginning to penetrate the consciousness of New Orleans. And that’s the tide we want to create. There’s a Paulo Freirequote I like, “We make the path by walking.” We’re not swimming against the tide, we’re creating the tide.

NSP invite writers to its write-a-thon on May 17th. Writers are given a three-hour block of time in which to finish a short story, some poems, postcards, anything. Authors are then welcome to share their work, if interested. For more information call, 504-908-9383

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