Eyes of the Hurricane

palmyra_150.jpgLast June, the Neighborhood Story Project published five books by teenagers documenting life before Hurricane Katrina in inner-city New Orleans, including the Ninth and Sixth Wards. The books feature interviews and photographs of the writers’ families and neighbors, as well as personal stories, such as how residents in a public housing complex became one young writer’s surrogate family once her mother, who struggled with drugs, passed away.
The books were an instant local hit last summer, selling 2,000 copies at New Orleans bookstores, corner stores, and block parties. A print run of 4,000 more copies was scheduled when Katrina struck, and all existing books-for-sale disappeared in the storm and ensuing flood.
Soft Skull Press, a Brooklyn-based independent book publisher, quickly got involved, agreeing to help raise money for another print run. Via an email interview, Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash talked with Youth Media Reporter about his collaboration with the project and how the books can help contribute to New Orleans’s reconstruction.

Why did Soft Skull decide to get involved with the Neighborhood Story Project after Hurricane Katrina?

In effect, those books show you who was flooded.
In the reporting being done about the hurricane, people mostly hear either about the collapse of civic order (whomever you might blame—federal government or local, or poverty, or what have you). Or they hear about the physical devastation of Katrina. But a crucial and too often overlooked element, especially when thinking about what is to come is: What are the social networks of people in the Sixth and Ninth Wards? How do you rebuild using the knowledge of the people who actually live there?
The Neighborhood Story Project books are ethnographies of the blocks. They tell you about the people. And when thinking about reconstructing the city there’s a danger both from laissez-faire conservatives (who say, “give them tax credits and school vouchers”) and from liberal urbanists (who say, “here’s a massive plan for fixing the whole shebang”) that the people will be ignored in the process. These books are documents of the people.

The neighborhood books have sold well in New Orleans. Do you think residents outside of the city will be interested in them?

People want to learn about the world in which they live. This is especially the case when it’s a world that is insufficiently documented. That’s why they’ve sold in NOLA.
In the rest of the country, it will be much harder. The books in and of themselves are valuable—a couple of them are awfully strong—but there would ordinarily be a perception that these books speak only to New Orleans, and under ordinary circumstances it would have been rather difficult for a publisher to overcome that perception, given how reliant any publisher is on booksellers and the media to get the word out to consumers.
(A publisher is just one little part of things, and we operate at the mercy of other sectors, and we talk, talk, ’til we’re blue in the face about how important the content of books might be, but if folks don’t believe us, that’s that.)
But because of what happened in NOLA, we believe interest will be higher, and that’s what gives these books a shot at a national audience. Perversely.
But really, fundamentally, no one in publishing knows why some books are hits and others aren’t. Sometimes a connection is made, and we have explanations ex post facto, but really we’re just blind people grasping elephants.

The neighborhood books appear on Soft Skull’s homepage. How are sales going so far?

No idea. Way too early to tell!

Is this the first youth media project Soft Skull has gotten involved in?

A whole chunk of our books overlap in some fashion with youth media. You look at the totality of our list, and there are a gazillion different actual and potential overlaps: Bomb the Suburbs, No More Prisons, Hey Kidz, Buy This Book, Please Feed Me, Life and Limb, Zine Yearbook, How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, That’s Revolting, Get Your War On, Classified, You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive, all books that we’ve published or are about to publish.

What is your arrangement with the project?

This is being done as a benefit, so we are structuring the deal whereby the neighborhood project is getting an enormous proportion of the revenues from the sales, a proportion that would ordinarily be impossible for Soft Skull to survive on, but morally that’s what is necessary under the circumstances.
The Neighborhood Story Project plans to use proceeds to help refugee high school students document the stories of life in the Astrodome.

How did you hear about the neighborhood project?

Well there’s a long a complicated back-story to that. Abram Himelstein, one of the neighborhood project’s two founding schoolteachers, was known in the indie publishing world because of his popular, self-published book Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing. Plus two of our staff knew him even better. Plus one of those two folks had actually moved down to NOLA and was working for Soft Skull from a home office.

How has the experience of working with them been so far? Any future plans with the organization?

Oh I love them, I’m really proud to have the opportunity to help. I hope I can keep doing so.

What’s the best way for youth media groups to approach independent publishers?

Email the publisher. That’s where you can start.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Given the questions you’re asking, probably what’s necessary is a conference. We know that the Right—both Christian and secular—has been networking and conferencing, logrolling, quite frankly for 30 years, and progressives should start doing that. Think tanks, policy institutes, grassroots organizations, web and print media, publishers, should all be meeting, ideally with funding from the kinds of organizations who are throwing money at Democratic Party candidates, since a tiny percentage of that money could do wonders for developing more robust approaches to progressive ideas in the coming decade and beyond.
Above left: Palmyra Street, by Jana Dennis, published by the Neighborhood Story Project, 2005.

Independent publisher Richard Nash talks about why books written by local teens can help rebuild New Orleans.