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[VIRTUAL] A Stronger Desire to Live: A New Listening Experience from the PEN America Prison Writing Archives

View a transcript of the event and more information on our partners here.

Join together with virtual community in this time of distancing to experience an emotionally stirring 90-minute podcast performance. “A STRONGER DESIRE TO LIVE” draws together a roster of powerful artists standing in to voice a tremendous series of prose, poetry, and drama works penned by award-winning incarcerated writers.

Tied together with original music by Kenyatta Emmanuel, an artist and activist who has shared his music from Sing Sing to Carnegie Hall, the program is a moving tribute to the immense—and often hidden—talent behind the walls. 

The live release event will feature an original slideshow with artwork sourced from Artists at Risk Connection, Rehabilitation Through the Arts, and The Confined Arts, and invite listeners to join in a live chat. As prison restricts incarcerated people from being able to join the program, all captured reactions will be shared with our featured authors in the event’s aftermath.

Curated by PEN America Prison Writing Committee Members:
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, Carissa Chesanek, Michael Juliani, Grace Kearney, Katie Lasley, Ryan D. Matthews, Amanda Miller and Crystal Yeung, in partnership with Program Director Caits Meissner and Manager Robert Pollock.

Featured Performers and Writers

Caroline AshbyCaroline Ashby was born small but grew large in mind. Her brother, George, is her hero. She loves swimming, dancing, watching films, walking dogs, and listening to punk rock. She enjoys teaching yoga, designing clothing, studying African American history and water/food conservation. She stands for kindness, compassion, and expressions of love.

Paul J. Betts, Jr. won first prize in memoir in PEN America’s 1999–2000 Prison Writing Awards for “Flattop For Cherry Hill.”

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is the author of historical nonfiction books Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present, The Voting Rights War, and The African-American Woman: 400 Years  of Perseverance with a forthcoming nonfiction book titled She Took Justice. Browne-Marshall is a playwright with six produced plays, a professor of constitutional law at John Jay College (CUNY), an essayist, and a civil rights attorney who has litigated cases for Southern Poverty Law Center, Community Legal Services, and the NAACP LDF. Her action screenplay “Freeman’s Men” won awards in New York City, London, Amsterdam, and Mexico and received many Official Selection designations. Browne-Marshall is working on her first book of fiction, a historical novel titled Camilla.

Kenyatta EmmanuelSongwriter Kenyatta Emmanuel is an artist and activist who has shared his music from Sing Sing to Carnegie Hall. His music and message explore the beauty of life, love, and the human condition, reminding us of all that we hold in common.

Dr. Adam Falkner is a poet, educator, and arts and culture strategist. He is the author of Adoption (winner of the 2017 Diode Editions Chapbook Award) and The Willies (forthcoming from Button Poetry, 2020), and his work has appeared in a range of print and media spaces including on programming for HBO, NBC, NPR, BET, in The New York Times, and elsewhere. A former high school English teacher in New York City’s public schools, Falkner is the founder and executive director of the pioneering diversity consulting initiative, the Dialogue Arts Project, in which capacity he develops and facilitates trainings for schools, companies, and cultural institutions across the country. Falkner has toured the United States as a guest artist, lecturer, and trainer for thousands of students, educators, and corporate employees, and was the featured performer at President Obama’s Grassroots Ball at the 2009 Presidential Inauguration. He holds a Ph.D. in English and education from Columbia University.

Arthur Fitzgerald won first prize in fiction in PEN America’s 2015–2016 Prison Writing Awards for Saturn Returns.

Shanelle Gabriel is a poet, singer, and lupus warrior from Brooklyn, NY who has performed in 43 of the 50 U.S. states as well as Africa, Bermuda, Europe, and more. She has shared the stage with artists such as Jill Scott, Nas, Eric Benet, and more. Gabriel was spotlighted on the Rachael Ray Show, was listed as one of Blavity.com’s “Artist Activists You Should Know,” and featured in Women’s Health Magazine. She is the deputy director at Urban Word NYC, a youth organization that uses poetry and hip-hop to promote literacy and youth voice. 

Casey Gerald is the author of There Will Be No Miracles Here, a memoir that stands the American Dream narrative on its head, while straddling the complex intersection of race, class, religion, and sexuality. TWBNMH was named a Best Book of 2018 by NPR and The New York Times. He most recently published “The Black Art of Escape” in New York Magazine, which reflects on the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia, in 1619. A native Texan, he is a graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale.

Milton Jones: “Demise is the cost of most at-risk youth, like I was. I ran away from a broken home at 10, homeless by 14, and suffered under too many bad influences. l righted the ship while incarcerated by joining Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA). Credits now include dancing in Susan Slotnick’s Figures in Flight, and Sarah Dahnke’s Dances For Solidarity, and acting in plays including Starting Over, The Bull Pen by Dennis Watlington, an abridged staged reading of August Wilson’s Fences, and Fade. I wrote and acted out an interpretation of two Edward Hopper paintings. With this podcast, l’ve come full circle. The one constant in my life is performing. At the time this pandemic shut everything down, l was in four CUNY theater classes and three acting classes each week. I’m grateful for my experience with RTA, because it’s now helping and allowing me to do what l love to do on the outside, and proving the therapeutic value of the performing arts.”

Nicole Shawan Junior is a black, queer, and justice-involved counter-storyteller. Her writing appears in Emerge, the Lambda Literary Anthology, as well as Gay Mag, Zora, The Feminist Wire, Color Bloq, For Harriet, and more. A Bread Loaf and Hurston/Wright alum, she received literary residencies and fellowships from various arts organizations including Hedgebrook, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Lambda Literary, and Sundress Academy for the Arts. She is completing Cracked Concrete: A Memoir of Crackheads, Cousins & Crime. She’s the creator of both the “Roots. Wounds. Words.” writing workshop and “COUNTERpult,” a Brooklyn-based reading series that centers QTBIPOC storytellers.

Darrell Larson is an actor/director/writer/producer. His acclaimed production of The Unseen Hand/Killer’s Head by Sam Shepard just closed at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles. Recently, he also staged Deanne Stillman’s Reflections in a D’Back’s Eye, based on the Gabby Gifford shooting. Acting credits include the films Mike’s Murder, Frances, Stepmom, several appearances on Law and Order, and vintage shows like Bonanza; Gunsmoke; and Marcus Welby, M.D. He adapted, directed, and produced The Wizard of Oz in Concert: Dreams Come True, a benefit for the Children’s Defense Fund at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, which featured Jackson Browne, Roger Daltrey, Nathan Lane, Jewel, Debra Winger, Natalie Cole, and many more.

Yvette M. Louisell grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Cincinnati, Ohio. She was incarcerated at age 17 and is currently serving a life-without-parole sentence in Iowa. Louisell is a multi-year winner of PEN America Prison Writing Awards in poetry.

Amanda Miller is a writer and actor who published her memoir, One Breath, Then Another, on Lucid River Press and whose writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Freerange Nonfiction, Cratelit, So Long: Short Memoirs of Loss and Remembrance, Underwired Magazine, and more. She’s performed her solo shows The Jew in the Ashram and How To Suffer Better at a variety of festivals and venues including the Edinburgh and Edmonton Fringes. Miller has produced the series, “Lyrics, Lit & Liquor,” since 2012. She earned an MFA in creative writing from The New School and a BFA in acting from NYU.

Robert McKown is 42 years old, a graduate of Long Ridge Writer’s Group, and writes both fiction and nonfiction. McKown has had short stories published in small publications such as Downstate Story and Conceit. An honorable mention award winner of the PEN American Prison Writing Contest of 2007 for the first chapter of his memoir, Bobby’s Innocence, McKown captured second prize in the 2009–2010 fiction category for Little Prisoner.

Matthew Mendoza won the 2018 PEN Prison Writers Poetry Award and was a finalist for the American Short Fiction Insider Prize. His play, Freedom Feather, was performed at the Brooklyn Book Festival as part of “Break Out: Voices from the Inside: 2018.” Grace Notes & Other Poems is coming soon from Swimming With Elephants Publications. Mendoza answers hate mail, love letters, and questionnaires and thanks you for hearing him.

Justin Rovillos Monson, inaugural PEN America Writing For Justice Fellow, is a first-generation Filipino-American poet and writer and winner of the inaugural 2017 Kundiman/Asian American Literary Review/Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Mentorship in poetry. Monson’s work has been published, or is forthcoming, in The Asian American Literary Review, Pacifica Literary Review, The Offing, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. He is working on his first collection of poems, and is currently serving a sentence in the Michigan Department of Corrections, from which he hopes to be released in 2027.

Ashley Starling Thomas was awarded Second Prize in Drama in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.

Josie Whittlesey is the founder of Drama Club, a nonprofit providing theater programming to youth who are incarcerated or at risk of incarceration. Drama Club is committed to providing New York City’s most vulnerable and overlooked youth the opportunity to play, be seen and heard, and cultivate life skills via improvisational theatre. Prior to founding Drama Club, Whittlesey taught theater to men at Sing Sing Correctional Facility with the nonprofit, Rehabilitation Through the Arts. Whittlesey has taught at Fordham University, New York University, Monclair State University, Nassau Community College, Purchase College, SUNY, and Larry Singer Studios. She holds an MFA from NYU’s graduate acting program.

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