Documentary Book-Making in New Orleans:
The Neighborhood Story Project
by LINDSAY ALLEN
So begins the story of Kareem: his family, his neighborhood, his struggles and his education. Kareem is only twenty, but he is often told he is an old soul. Despite having seen, endured and accomplished much in his life thus far, he is quiet, willing to share when provoked but also comfortable sitting in silence. And despite being wise beyond his years, he still drinks hot cocoa, not coffee, and trudges, unfazed, through a New Orleans downpour with no umbrella, using only the hood of his black jacket for protection. When I ask him if he has a girlfriend, he laughs before he answers no, not right now—he’s still recovering from a break-up. His smile (and he smiles all the time) is contagious. Born and raised in New Orleans, Kareem began writing Aunt Alice vs. Bob Marley in 2007, during the post-Katrina arts renaissance. “I focused on helping [our writers] create ethnographies that will hold up to the test of time—make a contribution beyond just ‘Katrina stories,’” Rachel Breunlin, co-Director of the Neighborhood Story Project (NSP) and Kareem’s editor, wrote in an email. “[Kareem] recognized how much he learned from the neighborhood and people he met on the streets of the city. His book is a series of vignettes and stories about these people and encounters.” Though he is too humble to admit it, through the two-and-a-half year process of making this book, Kareem has become an expert on the city he loves. Kareem’s firsthand account begins with first grade and ends with twelfth. Similar to a scrapbook in its design, Kareem’s collection includes photos and interviews with important people in his life, including his brother, aunt, best friend, favorite teacher, girlfriend, a fellow Americorps member, and his mother. This format allows Kareem to expand from his personal perspective and not only compare his version of events with those of family members, but to show how his personal narrative fits into the bigger picture. The interviews provide another perspective on Kareem’s education so that the reader sees exactly who impacted him and why. His story is a testament to the belief that a good teacher can change the course of a student’s life. One of Kareem’s heroes is Bob Marley, whose song “Get up, Stand up” has become Kareem’s mantra. (For a while, he wore dreadlocks and “sought out the Jamaican subculture of Rastafarianism because Rastas weren’t rich, but believed in humbleness and the praising of blacks.”) Kareem also learned to be proud of his heritage from another of his heroes, Aunt Alice. Kareem’s aunt, who raised him from a young age while his mother battled drug addiction and his father was in and out of jail, filled her home with African artwork. Growing up, Kareem “was always reminded of Blackness.” As the vs. in the title suggests, Bob Marley and Aunt Alice seem to be diametrically opposed in their attitudes and philosophies, but in Kareem’s story, he gracefully incorporates both perspectives into his worldview. In discussing his neighborhood, Kareem writes, “the streets became the front line of my learning. I knew the lines of the poet Langston Hughes, just as well as I knew how to play hooky.” Thanks to Aunt Alice, Kareem learned to love reading and value education. Rachel writes that his stories are “in some ways an homage to Sherman Alexie’s “Indian Education,” a story about a youth’s struggle for cultural identity. “Even his title echoes Sherman’s use of the absurd.” In his final year of high school—despite the fact that they were only accepting sophomores and juniors—Kareem applied and was accepted into the Neighborhood Story Project (NSP). Kareem told NSP co-Director Abram Himelstein, “I’d like to have my voice heard—and I’m willing to stay and write after I graduate high school.” Abram says he was true to his word. The NSP describes itself as a documentary book-making project that strives to use writing, interviews, photography and group storytelling practices to create accurate portraits of New Orleans. In partnership with the University of New Orleans and founded by Abram (author of Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing and What the Hell Am I Doing Here?: the 100 T-shirt Project) and Rachel, instructor in the anthropology department at the University of New Orleans, the NSP has played a prominent role in the Seventh Ward since its inception in 2004. Located on the corner of Lapeyrouse and North Miro, the storefront which houses NSP both blends in and stands out amidst the neighborhood’s shotguns. Once inside, the high ceilings, white walls, large conference table and suspended modern wooden bookshelves create the sensation of being in a loft in Tribeca; a look at a few of the displayed posters of published authors reinforces the feeling that one has entered the epicenter of a cutting-edge literary revolution. Abram and Rachel first connected while teaching high school at John McDonogh Senior High in the Seventh Ward. They were good teachers but they faced many challenges. “The stories coming out of the school were a beast: shootings, fights, and 80 percent [of the student body] not passing the exams required for graduation,” explained Abram in a scholarly article on the subject. Frustrated with the limitations of teaching in a public high school and their inability to engage students in more profound ways, Abram and Rachel envisioned a different approach where students could tell stories that were important to them and the writers would get paid. The NSP was born. Kareem was attracted to the NSP because he was impressed with the success of several other NSP publications and thought that sharing his struggles might give others hope. Kareem’s books are popular locally, selling more than 400 copies in just over a month, and may be incorporated into a curriculum at UNO. Aunt Alice vs. Bob Marley is also part of the NOPLAY (New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth) program. Though Kareem had financial incentive (a thousand dollar advance) and encouragement from Rachel and Abram, writing was still hard. He spent the first year and a half doing free writing every day before Rachel and Abram noticed certain themes emerge and directed Kareem’s work toward a narrative form. “I was just doing it to get [the emotions] out of my head, but I didn’t know that it was going to have rhythm and flow,” says Kareem. “I didn’t know my book discussed so many social problems when I was writing it, but now that I’m studying sociology I see the underneath. I think it helped me cross borders. Because I’m older now I see I made a small imprint in the world. You can pick me up and read me and hopefully learn something.” Unlike most MFA writing programs, which expect writers to create in isolation and then share work with other writers in a workshop format, NSP stories emerge and are conceived through collaborative efforts. NSP’s book-making projects are process-oriented and ethnographically influenced. Each book includes interviews with family members in an attempt to show a broader and more accurate view of the city. Kareem learned to conduct interviews; Rachel taught him to focus. He explained that he often wrote out more than 40 questions for each person that he interviewed, just in case, and that often only half of them, if that, made the book in its final version. NSP utilizes a story circle methodology, which was developed by the New Orleans community-based theater company Junebug Productions. Members sit together in a perfect circle and tell stories one by one, without interruption. The emphasis is on listening and providing a safe space for stories to be told and heard. "When we tell stories, we are sharing with each other how we put things together. When we share stories, we share parts of ourselves. The use of a circle where everyone can see each other is critical, as it implies an equal, active and democratic role for each participant,” writes Junebug founder John O'Neal on his website. Through the tradition of oral storytelling, stories are refined as they are told and certain themes emerge, which can be further explored. “Every act of writing is the act of addressing an audience,” Abram explains. Writers often ask, “Can I use swear words?” His answer is always, “Sure, if you want, but your grandma’s going to read this.” NSP writers write with audience in mind, knowing that their readers are both locals and outsiders. It’s very important to Rachel and Abram that NSP get it right. “Each book has lived a very large life past publication,” he explains. According to their promotional literature, the NSP has published eleven best-selling books thus far. Like the true New Orleanian that he is, Kareem looks forward to Mardi Gras every year. The Zulu parade is one of his favorites. He listens to all types of music, but he especially likes R&B, songs that are soothing, which sounds more like soodin in his Southern drawl. He attends poetry readings with his older brother, a poet. In the future, he sees himself using his background in sociology to help out his community. He’s not sure exactly how, but maybe something with youth and maybe something with writing. “Right now I have a little notebook filled with random thoughts and stuff like that,” says Kareem, “but I’m not in a big push.” Currently he’s taking classes at Delgado Community College and teaches poetry at a public middle school. Despite his early literary success, Kareem still values education above everything else. Click here to learn more about the NSP and buy Kareem’s book.
Breunlin, Rachel and Abram Himelstein and Ashley Nelson. “Our Stories, Told By Us,” Telling Stories to Change the World. Ed. Rickie Solinger, Madeline Fox and Kayhan Irani. NY: Routledge, 2008. 75-89. Print.
Eckinger, Helen. “Their Worlds, their Words.” The Times Picayune, 29 June 2005: E1, E8.
Larson, Susan. “Doers and Dreamers.” The Times Picayune, 9 December 2009: C1, C3.
Larson, Susan. “A New Chapter.” The Times Picayune, 15 October 2008: C1-C3.
Larson, Susan. “The Neighborhood Story Project Story First Annual Write-a-thon”
The Times Picayune. 5 May 2009: online.
“My City, My Story.” Gambit Weekly [New Orleans, LA] 10 May 2005: 16-21.
O'Neal, John. "Junebug Productions Story Circle Methodology", Junebug Productions,
Personal Interview with Abram Himelstein, Co-Director of Neighborhood Story Project,
New Orleans, January 27, 2010
Email interview with Rachel Breunlin, Co-Director of Neighborhood Story Project,
February 23, 2010
Personal Interview with Kareem Kennedy, Author of Aunt Alice Vs. Bob Marley,
New Orleans, February 4, 2010
“Young, Black & Positive”
A young scholar making a path to better himself, through writing books, working, and attending school. My books consist of real-life stories about living in the 7th Ward. I want to tell the stories that haven’t been told. Through my eyes you’ll get a taste of New Orleans, its moments of triumph and also despair.
from Aunt Alice vs. Bob Marley, My Education in New Orleans
LINDSAY ALLEN recently moved from Brooklyn, New York to New Orleans to pursue her MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing. She graduated from New York University with a BFA in Dramatic Writing and Community-based Theater. Upon graduating she worked in the film industry in New York. She thoroughly enjoyed her first Mardi Gras in New Orleans and is looking forward to catching even more beads next year.