Jonathan Hills found his muse in the Barataria Nature Preserve. Devin LaFrance drew inspiration from his father’s barber shop, while Brunisha Jones carved a narrative from a memory of her father’s beat-up jeep.
All three Lake Area New Tech High School students, along with a dozen of their classmates, recently celebrated their debut as published authors with the release of the book “Straight Outta Swampton.”
The collection of essays, which was produced by the local Neighborhood Story Project, focuses on the relationship between the natural and built worlds in New Orleans.
According to Jeremy Roussel, a creative writing teacher at the school who assisted in overseeing the project, the students were given not only instruction on the craft of writing, but a chance to learn from nature as well.
The class took field trips to Barataria Nature Preserve, Who Dat Youth Farm in City Park and A Studio in the Woods, a forested artists’ retreat in Algiers.
Roussel said that at first many students had their gripes about the outdoors, but as they experienced nature in its different incarnations, their perspective began to transform.
“They knew what a tree was and where rain comes from, but they didn’t realize how powerful an impression it made on their lives, how small spaces and places were tied to such profound memories and emotions,” Roussel wrote in the book’s introduction.
At the book release, students munched on cake and joked about their incredulity at being transported from the air-conditioned confines of their classroom into Barataria Nature Preserve.
In her essay “A City Girl in the Swamp,” Ashley Heim described the mystery of the terrain she encountered.
“I actually thought we were going to walk through the trees like the wild men had to do a long time ago, ” she wrote.
Other students seized on wildlife for inspiration.
Janessa Langston wrote one of her essays from the point of view of a bright, red bug she saw flying about, while Unique Benoit focused on an elusive frog.
According to Woodlief Thomas, a former high school English teacher who worked on the project, the students’ writing delved into the fusion of nature and the manmade world.
Thomas, who worked on previous Neighborhood Story Project publications while in the classroom, now serves as a project coordinator while pursuing a master of fine arts in the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans.
In the book’s introduction, he wrote about how the student’s work became broader in theme.
“They went from asking questions of the wilderness to asking them of their porch, their neighbor’s closely cut lawn, their father’s barbershop or the local prison,” he wrote.
Thomas said that in the process of writing the book he often led students through as many as 10 revisions, a process that students characterized as tough, but rewarding.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve experienced outside of physics,” Tyjannay Matthews said.
Rejeanné Boudreaux, whose essay “The Red Door on Congress Street,” is a touching portrait of her family’s efforts to refurbish their home after Hurricane Katrina, said that she felt her confidence surging with each revision.
“It feels beautiful,” she said, about being a published author. “The experience made me look at things differently and gave me a lot of respect for my peers.”
The young writers also touched on issues of violence, drug addiction and incarceration in their pieces; some said that the writing acted as a catharsis, helping them sort out painful experiences.
“I got a lot of issues out, things that have been building up inside of me,” said Taharah James, who wrote about visiting her brother in prison.
The book is the 15th that the Neighborhood Story Project has produced in coordination with local schools since it was founded in 2004 by then-high-school teachers Rachel Breunlin and Abram Himelstein.
Himelstein, who was recently named editor in chief of the UNO press, said the books produced by the organization are sold everywhere from local bookstores to neighborhood convenience stores, where they are sometimes the only piece of literature on the shelf.
Many of the newly published authors said they wanted to continue to pursue writing, and Thomas said that often the program opens students up to talent that might have otherwise been left dormant.
“For them to have these gifts affirmed and to have their voices heard on a mass scale is truly powerful. They have a distinct worldview, and to be able to express and broadcast it is vital,” he said.