When Sam Wylie, 19, and his sister Arlet, 18, took the podium at the American Federation of Musicians hall in New Orleans' Seventh Ward late last month, the room was packed with well-wishers who'd gathered to celebrate the launch of five books about life in the sunny but troubled ward, written by local high school students. It should have been a joyous moment for Sam and Arlet, who co-wrote one of the books, Between Piety and Desire. But after Arletfinished reading part of an interview with Antoine "Twine" Dantzler that appears in the book, she broke down crying, telling of how Dantzler had been murdered.
Still, the event went on. Ashley Nelson, 18, had proudly introduced her book, The Combination,just minutes before: "I struggled most days I had to write, but I did it... I did it." Later, celebrants bought books and hit the jambalaya steam tables.
The mix of hope and tragedy, sadness and pride that filled the room was a microcosm of the lives chronicled in the books, which were written and published as part of the Neighborhood Story Project, a not-for-profit program cofounded by Abram Himelstein (PW, May 9). The New Orleans transplant is best known for writing and self-publishing Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing in1998; it has sold 40,000 copies.
It's unclear whether these new books—printed with the motto "Our Stories Told By Us"—will have a shot at that kind of success. While appearances on New Orleans TV and in the local papers have been driving sales at local bookstores (and corner stores) and through the Web site, neighborhoodstoryproject. org, the books are not yet available outside the immediate area. Though 1,000 copies of each have been printed, the books don't have ISBNs.
Himelstein said he never intended to publish the books for national distribution himself. He is hoping that their local popularity will result in a publisher offering to buy the rights to the books and release them to a wider audience. Of the five Neighborhood titles, Between Piety and Desire and Nelson's The Combination seem the most likely to sell, potentially as YA books. Between Piety and Desire features Arlet's wrenching interview with her mother, a domestic-abuse survivor, along with Sam's frank interview with 15-year-old hustler "Avon Seller." Nelson's book, on the Lafitte housing project, has an intimate yet panoramic feel, and remains upbeat even as it ends with a visit to her mother's grave, following her death from cancer after years of drug use.
"Pity is the last thing I need," Nelson said during the launch event, after speaking of her reluctance to write about her mother. She had the room's attention. The question now is whether her words will reach beyond her own neighborhood.