Hook: A Memoir through Letters
This piece was submitted by Linda Perez and Randall Horton as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Linda Perez and Randall Horton’s event: Writing on the Inside, Reading on the Outside: Exploring the Work of Prison Writers and Their Mentors
I initially met Linda when I was completing course work for my PhD at SUNY Albany after serving five years in prison, and Linda had returned to school upon finishing a three-year prison sentence. Soon after she graduated, she found herself incarcerated again. These letters began initially as a way for Linda to step outside her boundaries (prison) through the creative imagination, a process that would allow her to understand the value of language as a component of freedom. In the present tense we seek the intersections in our lives and how we both ended up in prison. We dialogue on the idea of identity constructions, culture and society while commenting on the prison industrial complex and the lives often forgotten behind prison walls. —Randall Horton
CONNECTIONS AND DISCONNECTIONS
I received The Genealogy of Morals and dictionary/thesaurus you sent, as well as your memoir excerpt. I managed to read about 20 pages, and I can see how you got sucked into the drug game. Money is everybody’s mistress, and yet this part of the drug game is something I cannot relate to because I didn’t come up smoking crack. But I can relate to chasing a dream, we all do that, one way or another. I always wondered what went on at Howard. I never learned much about black colleges growing up in the Bronx. Sounds like a lot of classism to me—that whole W.E.B. Dubois double consciousness debate playing out among students. I wonder if your painter friend Margaret Bowland can capture that with a brush?
On Monday, I finished reading Paula by Isabel Allende. It’s a memoir written in epistle form to her daughter Paula, who became ill, fell into a coma, and never woke up. She died within a year. The story travels back and forth through time as Isabel explains the history of their family and the political ties they had in Chile after it was taken over by the military coup. I believe it’s the best book Allende has ever written. She has also written In the House of Spirits, Eva Luna, and a few other works of fiction. However, I am much fonder of this biography because it shows how Allende developed the ideas to write these books. Paula shows the journey of the writer and provides an inside look on how novels are created. It’s a very spiritual and enlightening piece of work. You should definitely read it when you have some downtime.
Allende said something interesting that has stayed with me. She was teaching a writing class at a university in California and did not know how to make the class interesting and worthwhile. She decided to tell the students to write a bad book, an awful piece of writing. This allowed the students the freedom to let their thoughts flow without focusing on errors. The students edited throughout the course, and by the end, one of them even got published. Any writer can write a bad story, the objective is to get the story out, and I agree with that concept. Allende also mentioned how novels are born beyond the thought process, that there is a deeper connection with the Divine that ordains stories to come to life on paper. She would save newspaper articles of tragedies for years at a time without understanding why. Eventually, Allende used those clippings to support the ideas and characters in her stories. Every writer has a greater purpose to serve. Allende said people would often tell her their life story. She would eventually use these stories as characters in her books. Randall, we all go through things in life and there are stories to be told everywhere. I also discovered Don Quixote was written by a Miguel de Cervantes while he was in prison, very interesting! Sharing your story with me lets me know almost anything can be overcome. I want to take that leap of faith you took, I want to believe in my dreams and myself, and you are helping me. I spoke to my lawyer and things are still up in the air, but I’m learning how to make the most of my time.
I have also been wrapped up in Louis Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running. It is phenomenal, and I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before. Rodriguez moves swiftly throughout the pages. I never considered any writer a graceful gangster, but he earned that title for sure. I’m going to get into The Genealogy of Morals soon because I’m eager to see the “parallelisms regarding the fallacy of color and on skin construction,” as you put it. It’s interesting how Rodriguez touches on race issues, but really focuses on class struggle and how we, meaning all of us (people of color), deal with being the underdog in America. But these issues always make me wonder about America’s majority. I mean the white America no one dialogues about; the ones Dorothy Allison depicted in Bastard Out of Carolina. Class struggle should be an issue involving all of us who live below the invisible medium. These labels and divisions and subdivisions only further cloud the real issues. These problems are older than both of us put together. So how can literature tackle these issues? How do we touch the average person who doesn’t care to read books because they are too busy trying to work and survive? How can short stories address serious issues without losing significance? That’s why I liked The House on Mango Street so much, because Sandra Cisneros managed to do that with vignettes.
I think I was drawn to you as a friend because we shared a common difference not too many people in the Writing Center at SUNY Albany understood. It was our secret, our past, and we were the only two people of color. I was cool with the other folks, but it wasn’t the same. I felt connected because we spoke the same language. I loved how you didn’t try to assimilate; you wore your difference and celebrated it. Those people in the Writing Center were all blown away by your swag; you really impressed me, and still do. You are doing everything I dreamed of doing, you made it happen. Having tunnel vision only helped speed your progress and get you closer to your goals. Nothing and no one got in your way. I couldn’t do that, I stumbled and fell, and now I’m back at square one. The funny thing is: it wasn’t that I wasn’t smart enough. I just couldn’t let go of the dumb shit like you did. I felt drawn to the “life,” compelled to straddle two worlds because only then did I feel normal. If I gave either side a hundred percent I always found myself feeling displaced, does that make any sense? You always make me think and I love you for it.
I finally got a chance to read Nietzsche. Although the first half is interesting, I jumped to the second and I’m amazed at how easily this guy confuses me. I love it because he takes reading and interpretation to another level. Nietzsche makes me question the morals imposed by Christianity, society, and the difference between the moral values throughout the Americas, you know: White America and Latin America (Central & South), the Caribbean as well in contrast with Europe and the rest of the Christian World. I’ve never been more certain of my own curiosities and now the questions I’ve been pondering make a lot more sense. Everything I have read throughout this period of my life has led to the same question: what is Man’s search for meaning and life’s purpose, which is guided by the Divine? It is amazing how even mistakes can help map and shape who we are and who we are destined to become. Randall, each of us has a mission that we are uncertain of. How often do we really get to understand and know our true “selves”?
I know I kind of rushed that letter about my past and said a lot, but didn’t explain much. Those things are kind of hard to talk about, but I’m trying to get them out. I’ve been waiting for a reason to write about them for years. Actually, I’ve never been able to write about my suicide attempt, and twenty years later I’m telling you. I don’t feel so vulnerable now that you are sharing your story with me. You got me all in now. Send more when you can. Thank you for helping me find my voice again, for bringing the darkness out. It’s helping me heal and somehow your story is shining a light on the past and helping me see things clearly now. I’m figuring out answers to questions I didn’t even understand back then. Tonight I finished the excerpt. I’m sorry about Jesse. That’s gotta be some hard shit.
PROCESS AND ENDING POINT
Interesting point you make about Isabel Allende and the writing process. Purging to break free of constraints. I like that and agree. But when I consider the writing process, I tend to start with the poet Etheridge Knight who contemplated the relationship between reader/audience as a sacred phenomenon, an unexplained parallel universe of equal exchange, a state of being. The idea of trust between writer and reader is not rooted in: “am I telling you a lie, or am I telling you the truth,” but more so, it is based on the idea: “do I trust my reader.” I tend to think writers should be able to lead the reader to a particular subject or “intent” without the reader being aware that’s what the writer is doing. Beginning writers all too often make these assumptions about imagery in terms of presentation.
For example, let’s look at the following sentence: “I can hear salsa music around the corner.” Lxxxx, can we say the writer doesn’t trust her reader? The line is presented in a way that leads the reader too much. There is no surprise. No experience. How can we pull the reader through the music? An alternative would be: “A compilation of son montuno, guaracha, chachachá, mambo, y bolero seeped around the corner, spreading electric energy throughout the block.” If we embrace this approach then perhaps more is gained out of the description, presenting the sentence in a way as to make it an experience through imagery while staying true to cultural intent. Another example would be: “I see her in a red dress, walking the dog down the street.” Again, the writer makes it too easy. This is supposed to be a shared relationship; and, yet, the writer does not provide a more rounded scene. What if the writer wrote: “The black and white dog, walked by a silver-haired woman in a red dress, tows her owner. Each day, the old lady walks the small dog down the street, perhaps reliving summer days when she stopped buses in her leather miniskirts.”
In your previous letter you also asked “How can short stories address serious issues without losing significance?” One of the ways would be in themes that convey choice and calling as suggested in one of your letters, because of our society’s fundamental belief in a free society. The reason I say this is because some people’s choices have been geared to suppress other people’s choices/voices (check Marxism), and so to choose a unique path in life and/or literature is revolutionary in our mimetic society. Each person (including you and I) has to be his or her own protagonist; and yes, I am echoing Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Remember how the protagonist moved to other people’s choices before making his own? Failure doesn’t mean we are not capable narrators of life’s journey. However, even more than that, it means in failure resides future triumph, yours and mine—bottom line. We have been writing (acting out) stories all of our life, and we conjure them through memory; however, that cannot be enough for the writer. Application develops imagination.
Lxxxx, the best advice I ever received from another writer was “fall in love with someone else’s writing before you fall in love with your own,” and since you mentioned Isabel Allende and her writing class, let us turn to The Flagellants by Carlene Hatcher Polite to further explore the writing life. The book can be viewed as a microcosm of The Black Arts Movement insomuch as Polite deconstructs male and female “assumed roles” according to the unofficial doctrine of the 60s. Jimison is a virile black male, a poet and an idealist, but fallible, which comes out in his interactions with Ideal, a woman who refuses to subscribe to the tenets around the “movement” because she believes them to be oppressive. Jimison’s flaws reside in his inability to see this woman as equal, oppressing her while he battles the oppressor through revolutionary rhetoric. Here, I want to use the analogy of music to writing, and the discipline needed. Jimison retells the story of an aspirant musician who thought he was ready to play jazz until he sat in one night with Charlie “Bird” Parker. Bird told him, “you could develop into a beautiful cat; but, man, you have got to study…If you really want to play, to become a pro, you will have to step on out, man, and take that step which will not leave you hung up in a room listening to yourself blow.” Now, if I had to translate this in a way to correspond to the writing journey, it would begin with: One can be a stunning writer, but one must understand the lineage, those who came before. Know their work in your sleep and write, every day. Step past that which makes you comfortable. Don’t fall in love with yourself reciting words into a mirror.
See, there is really no difference between life and language. Miles and Coltrane knew how to intersect both into a neoteric way of looking in to get that field holla out, sometimes by china white and tap water flamed in the bottom of a bottle top, soaked by a cigarette filter, then syringe. The solution redistributed into the bloodstream bringing euphoria to the body, which is why Miles and Coltrane slow-ground the melody, saturated sound into a KIND OF BLUE. Lxxxx, in order to begin you have to reach an end point. It is not a matter of being smart enough as you say. The bottom tip of the rope is where you have to dangle. Perhaps your last bit of hope, so you have no choice but to climb back through the hole in which you’ve fallen. This is what I had to accomplish, because I did not want to let go. I desired to live, as I know you do, if nothing else, for your son. Solitary time will force you to know yourself, as I was forced. There are no easy answers or solutions to difficult problems, especially the ones you face with this court system. Lxxxx, today the sun is echoing last summer’s heat, presenting a future soon to come. A cluster of sparrows outside my windowsill sing of spring. The trees are decorated green. Although the sky hints at blue, it is more gray, reminding us this world is not a monotone drone. There has been a silence in your life, which is really the universe’s way of saying I am preparing you for the noise you will make. Linger in the silence and use that to be baptized into the living.
Whenever I need to think scenarios through, I often walk the two blocks over to Harlem West Piers and stare blankly at the dark blue Hudson while sitting on one of the three benches facing west. There is something meditative about the movement of liquid, about the wake left by sputtering motorboats, how the receding foam gently brushes against your eardrums—like a soft echo. Perhaps it borderlines on the spiritual in the way egrets glide low, and then without a moment’s notice, catch a wind gust at a 90-degree angle, hung inside the glow of a noon sun. I have this theory about water and how it retains memory through invisible particles floating in the liquid. Since I claim water as a muse, an entryway into writing, I am preparing a trip to Eleuthera, and more specifically, Hatchetbay. If you remember, I mention Eleuthera in the manuscript. I haven’t been back in almost ten years. So, please excuse the shortness of this letter, as I have been multitasking these past couple of days. Wanted to get something in the mail before I leave this weekend. I am receiving research money from my school to travel and continue working on my memoir and a few travel essays. I want to get a feel for landscape, the places and foliage I refused to “see” when I first set foot on the island. Perhaps I can add more detail to my memory. You should be getting the next section soon. Lxxxx, I am still your eyes; yet, I refuse to give you redundancy of language, to recycle our conversations as cliché. I promise, I will take you with me.
This piece is excerpted from Hook: A Memoir through Letters by Randall Horton, which will be published by Augury Books in September.