Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Abram Shalom Himelstein

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

This was a protest to shut down the cages of juveniles at Tallulah, where children are brutalized to teach them right from wrong.

So first we danced. This is New Orleans, where victory is never assured and usually unlikely, so we have our victory party early and often. A bit of joy to remind us that it ain't all shit—something to bolster our spirits before we listen to the truth-telling and speech-making.

We listen to the politicians, the judge and the kids who have been there. Then we dance again. As people start to disperse, I tell my story and take photographs. Everything a protest should be except that INJUSTICE ENDURES AND THRIVES and wit and anger are only the beginning of a response.

Abram Shalom Himelstein was born in Mississippi and grew up in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. He is the co-author of Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing (New Mouth from the Dirty South 2000) and author of What the Hell Am I Doing Here? The 100 T-Shirt Project (Garrett County Press 2003). He lives in New Orleans and is co director of The Neighborhood Story Project.


EG     You don't seem to be a writer in the traditional sense. Would you agree, and how do you define yourself as a writer?

ASH     No, I think I am a writer in the traditional sense. I am working with the same tools and desires writers have always worked with—words, and the desire to communicate. I don't know how I define myself as a writer—I write about what interests me, and I work to make it interesting for the people reading.

EG     I need to clarify the question. What I meant was you don't write in the traditional narrative format, at least not in your last two books. How do you define a narrative?

ASH     To me, narrative is storytelling. And to me that storytelling can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including things that challenge the convention of the reliable narrator. The axiom, "Nothing like a good story, well-told," remains true. There is just greater and greater experimentation with the definition of "well-told." I like reading and using narrative structures that work, and often work differently.

EG     How did you get interested in writing?

ASH     I've always been interested in reading, and I feel like writing is just entering into the conversation in print. So I think I've always wanted to be a part of this larger conversation. Also, my great-grandfather, Abe Issacson, emigrated to Mississippi from Russia, and he wrote and self-published books of poetry and two autobiographies, so I've always had that model in my mind's eye.

EG     Besides Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing and What the Hell Am I Doing Here? The 100 T-Shirt Projecct, have you written any other books?

ASH     I've written two other books, a novel called The Landlord about punk rockers going to jail and getting pregnant and writing books, and just generally dealing with growing old. I've got no plans to publish that one. And the newest book is a collection of short stories written with both eyes fixed on Damon Runyon storytelling structures. It's my favorite of my books (but isn't the newest one always?). Garrett County Press is going to publish it next year.

EG     Both WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE?and Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing were both motivated, in part, by the narrator's failed romantic relationships.WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE? is clearly influenced by your failed relationship. Is Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing also your story?

ASH     There is a lot of me in Elliot, and the disastrous relationship of WHAT THE HELL? is my actual story, unfortunately. But I'm not feeling especially plagued. I think failed romance is the norm for most of our twenties, and fairly regular for all of us. I think that is what makes romance so popular as a subject—most people can relate to the extreme feelings romance gives us.

EG     In Tales, Elliot Rosenberg reminds me of a young more adventurous Woody Allen in that Elliot, like Woody, never seems to keep the girl. What is Elliot's problem?

ASH     I don't know. Maybe this is our gender divide—but does he really want to keep dating Christa? Or his high school girlfriend?

EG     Elliot is an endearing character. Did you want him to be?

ASH     No, I think Jamie and I were going for more rough edges. But considering that he is heavily lifted from our own lives, I'll just say thanks.

EG     To quote somebody from the book jacket of Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing, "This is a novel about a Jewish kid from Tennessee, who moves up to D.C. and starts hanging out with militant vegetarians, manifesto writing shoplifters, and strippers who write feminist theory."

ASH     This is the sales speech Jamie and I perfected during two years of selling Tales on the road. We needed something quick that would get people's attention and let them know we weren't selling Bibles.

EG     Would you say Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing is a coming of age tale in the 1990s?

ASH     Yeah, I definitely think it is a coming of age tale with Elliot trying hard to figure out why adults suck so bad, then, after getting close to adulthood figuring it out, unfortunately.

EG     Is there a real Wilson, Tennessee, the place where the story begins?

ASH     I don't think there is a Wilson. Just Googled it, and there is a county named Wilson, but we didn't know that in the dark ages, pre-Internet, when we were too lazy to use an atlas.

EG     Christa and Elliot's relationship was a journey into good-Christian-girl-turns-man-hater. I like how you gradually let the reader know her background. At first she seemed only neurotic, but she had reason to act as she did. I think you could have written a whole book about just these two. I love what she wrote in RiotHere, RiotNow zine:

And I am not a man- hater, but I hate Elliot. And I hate you, Mr. reader. I hate you for reading this and thinking I am crazy.


EG     Do you see all feminists as women who have had trouble with men?

ASH     No. I think feminists (male and female) are the ones with a clue. And I think almost everyone should have problems with men. It's a pretty loathsome culture, with good parts. Or maybe a good culture with some loathsome parts. Either way, there's plenty of cause for man-hating. And plenty of cause to get to a more real understanding of why people (men) act like they do.

EG     Where did the idea of a feminist stripper come from?

ASH     Most of the strippers I've known are feminists, and many have been huge contributors to punk thought, (and bands, and scenes, and communities, etc.) so we pretty much just stole their thoughts and attributed them to the characters.

EG     Are you a musician?

ASH     Was. And would like to be again. I played bass in a band called Eternalux. Jamie was in a band—Rain Makes Applesauce. Our bands toured together, and that is where the friendship really came from. We were the nerds and worriers on the trip who liked to read the maps before we were lost.

EG     Speaking of Jamie, I think it is only fair to mention him in this interview. Tales of A Punk Rock Nothing was written by Abram Shalom Himelstein and Jamie Schweser. Where is Jamie these days? What is he doing?

ASH     Jamie bought a cargo van and is moving himself from New York to Minneapolis. He's writing another book, a trilogy. And he's mixing songs about chickens on his Mac. We just got back from what we jokingly called a mancation in Barcelona, where we had the most amazingly great old-man trip ever, drinking coffee, playing Jamie's favorite card game (NERTS) and fighting off an attack from a guy on a motor scooter.

EG     Where to begin? Songs about chickens, mancation, attack from a guy on motor scooter? Care to briefly comment on any of this?

ASH     The mancation was Jamie and I after years of doing business and scheming together, just us taking some time to remember how to hang out. It was fun, and the perfect kind of challenge because both of us have a hard time sitting still and doing nothing. The attack on the motor scooter was amazing because the guy tried to steal Jamie's bag. He didn't have a gun, so the nerdy Jewish guys forgot to be afraid, and just fought back. I pushed him off the motor scooter and he called me "Puta" and kicked me in the balls. And then he got on the motor scooter and rode away. But we kept the bag and Jamie's journal where he chronicles every NERTS game he has ever played (The Chronicles of NERTS).

EG     How was the experience of co-writing a book with Jamie?

ASH     Writing the book together spoiled me for the work of writing a book alone. The plan was to write the book in a month. Five pages a day, 30 days—a kick-ass 150-page novel. It took two years. We borrowed Jamie's dad's office in the Economics building at the University of Iowa, and we went there every day, like it was our jobs. We had an outline, and one person would try and write a section, and then the other would take a crack at fixing that part while the first writer played NERF hoops, or bought M&M's. And then we would have our friends read it. We bribed our friends with dinner—and they would come over to dinner (picture bad tofu scramble) and we would ask them what they didn't understand, or what parts sucked. Then we would fix those parts.

EG     How old are you?

ASH     Thirty-five. Thirty-six this summer.

EG     The combination of zine, diary, letters, posters to tell the story worked in Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing Reading this book was like watching TV with commercial pauses. Have you ever been involved in writing a zine? Why did you decide to use these various formats in the book? Had you seen it used elsewhere?

ASH     Jamie had written zines, and after writing "Tales" he and I wrote a zine together called "Factory Direct." The format of the book came together very organically, and while we were thinking out the story line, we felt like zines would make it more interesting.

EG     What happened to the zine called "Factory Direct"? How would you define a zine?

ASH     "Factory Direct" stopped after issue eight. It was an art envelope (done by a different artist each issue) with three zines in each issue, one of which Jamie or Asia (our partner in this project) or I made. I think a zine is anything self-published that looks more like art than a trade magazine.

EG     In 2003 WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE? (the message on one of the t-shirts and the title of the book) THE 100 T-SHIRT PROJECT was published. This book is about what goes on in our heads and was motivated by another failed relationship (sorry to bring that up again). You write in the intro:

I thought about how many people have half a brain working on their tragedies, triumphs, and neuroses. And I wanted to tell everyone mine and hear everyone else's.

For a year I used this project as a way to get my friends to talk about their lives, asking them what their t-shirts would say.

I went to my regular spots, a backpack full of t-shirts and fabric markers and a camera. I told the story of my ex cheating on me, then gave people shirts and took their picture.

I like that the title WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE? is in caps. It creates a yelling effect. Was that your intention?

ASH     The title of the book is the line a woman wrote on her t-shirt at the horsetrack here in New Orleans. She wrote it in all caps, and it definitely felt like she was yelling.

EG     How interested were people in revealing their thoughts and feelings in writing on the t-shirts?

ASH     People were amazingly into it. I still see t-shirts being worn, almost six years later.

EG     What is your favorite t-shirt?

ASH     My favorite shirt is: Play My Game Every Time. I think about that a lot, as I am trying to figure out what to do with my life—that is like my mantra. I want to play MY game, and not necessarily the game I am being offered.

EG     Did the t-shirt project succeed in the way you had hoped?

ASH     Beyond my dreams. It's still my favorite of all my art projects. Well, up there with the Neighborhood Story Project.

EG     Were you in New Orleans during Katrina?

ASH     My wife and I evacuated to Houston, 14 of us in my mother in-law's house there.

EG     Do you live in New Orleans now?

ASH     I live in New Orleans.

EG     What is it like?

ASH     New Orleans is no longer big or easy, but it is still the best city I've ever been to in America. It is back, it just is badly wounded. When all the people who want to come home have come home, we will be fully back, like any place that has been through trauma.

EG     What was your favorite thing about New Orleans before Katrina?

ASH     The people. People hang out, talk to each other, entertain each other, in ways that the rest of the country will never approach. Great story-tellers.

EG     What are the strengths of New Orleans a year after Katrina?

ASH     We know our neighbors better than before. We are more clear that America (the government) is not going to care for us. (The American people are very generous, our government, not-so-much.) I am hopeful George Bush will sell us to Holland. We have a lot in common with Amsterdam. We are where a continent comes to do the things that are considered illegal or immoral in their own communities. A lot of which is just having fun.

EG     Community and family play a part in your writing and life. Your publisher G. K. Darby from Garrett County Press has called your writing "literary activism." What do you think about this description of your writing? Do you feel you are a writer first or an activist?

ASH     Literary Activism? Is that propaganda? He and I have this fight a lot since he hates propaganda. I'm proud when I see people without big funds doing it well. I'm not sure that I am an activist—but what could be more activist than to run from the term? I think of myself as being obsessed with stories. I like reading them, telling them, and am interested in hearing stories I don't hear very often. Which has led me to doing the Neighborhood Story Project.

EG     What is your involvement with The Neighborhood Story Project in New Orleans?

ASH     The NSP is the coolest thing I've ever been part of. I am co-director and it is the best job ever. Rachel Breunlin and I started it because we wanted to hear the stories of our neighborhoods, and we knew we couldn't write them. So we work with people in the neighborhoods to write books about the neighborhoods, then we publish them and have a block party. The books are best sellers in the city, have been excerpted in Harpers, and featured on NPR's All Things Considered.

EG     I read in this AP newswire story that the project was started after the killing of a student at the high school where you and Rachel taught.

ASH     The project had many births, but watching the media mangle the story of the shooting at our high school definitely reinforced the idea that we need to tell our stories in ways that the media can't chop up and sensationalize.

EG     Is Rachel your wife? Is she a writer, too? What do you specifically do in this documentary bookmaking project?

ASH     Rachel is not my wife, though people get it wrong a lot. She is an anthropologist who works at UNO and is the cofounder of the NSP. People come to us with book ideas about their places in New Orleans, and we help them write and interview and photograph, to tell the stories of our places.

EG     The Neighborhood Story Project is a partnership between the Literacy Alliance and UNO. How did this partnership come about? Were you and Rachel instrumental in forming it?

ASH     Yes, the people who run UNO and the Literacy Alliance believed in the project, and supported the work by (respectively) Rachel's and my salaries, and we are deeply grateful.

EG     It seems this project is tied in with a literacy program. Is there an attempt to teach people basic literacy through the project? How old are the people who participate?

ASH     We work with people where they are, and they are a cross-section of the city in terms of literacy. The literacy aspect of the project is more focused on creating a body of literature that people in New Orleans are deeply invested in reading. And that has been our biggest success, with the books becoming best-sellers in the city, and being sold in corner stores, where our books are the only books being sold.

EG     Can you pick one of the books (they all are listed on the website) and briefly tell us about it and the writer?

ASH     The new one, Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward is written by the Nine Times Social and Pleasure Club. Waukesha Jackson wrote about them in her book, Where Would the World be Without Women: Stories from the Ninth Ward. Her book came out just before the storm, and the guys in Nine Times threw her a surprise second line (street dance party) for her book release party. And they liked being in her book but they wanted to write their own book. And so they found us after the storm, and they were like, "Have we got some stories to tell!" So we started having them over to Rachel's house one week, my house the next, (our office was kaput) and we starting working on their book. It's about growing up in the Desire Housing Project, and starting the club, and losing a founding member of the club, and regrouping after the levees failed. It's an amazing book, and it's become one of the best-sellers in the city.

EG     Where can people buy these books outside of New Orleans?

ASH     People can order them from our Web site or order any of the first five at their local bookstores.

EG     What is your educational background?

ASH     I went to UT Austin for my BA in Latin American Studies, and the University of New Orleans for my writing MFA (took eight years, the longest ever)

EG     Why Latin American studies? And why an MFA (in creative writing?) What were your goals?

ASH     I don't know. I was young, and I liked Mexico, and I could get the college to pay my way to Costa Rica if I majored in Latin American Studies. So I went to Costa Rica and wrote a thesis. I learned Spanish, but most importantly I learned I didn't want to be an historian. In 1997 I was working on Tales, and I liked writing, and I loved New Orleans and UNO, so I went there to study with the writing teachers there. I think I frustrated them, because I was writing for a different group of people than most people write for, and so I fell short of the Fine Art mark many times. But I refined my craft while I was there, and I've written for the Daily Racing Form and the Houston Chronicle, so I feel like I've made the formal training pay off a little bit.

EG     What fiction writers do you admire? I noticed the quote at the beginning of Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing was by James Agee from Let Us Praise Famous Men:

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ. Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

ASH     Yeah. I was pretty into Agee. Right now I am obsessed with John Edgar Wideman, Wendell Berry, Sherman Alexie, Sicilian writing, Fante, Jeanette Winterson.

EG     Where are you going with your writing theses days? Anything in the works?

ASH     The book of Damon Runyon stories will be out next year. It's called Decatur Street Stories, and it will be published by Garrett County Press, who published What the Hell Am I Doing Here?


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