The PEN Ten: An Interview with the 2019 Writing for Justice Fellows
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program Director Caits Meissner speaks to the 2019 Writing for Justice Fellows. PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship commissions writers—emerging or established—to create written works of lasting merit that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration and catalyze public debate. Learn more about this year’s Fellows and their projects here »
1. What does your writing process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
CLEYVIS NATERA: There was a period of time during which I gave up writing. It seemed at that time the world kept telling me it wasn’t meant to be by how much rejection I kept getting. I didn’t understand then that’s a big part of what a writing life is made up of. It wasn’t until I was at the cusp of losing my young son, Julian, at the time only four years old, that I realized my purpose in life was directly tied to my work as a writer. Since then, I have been relentless and unwavering in remaining focused on that purpose—I get up a 5am most days before my full-time job, and the demands of being a Mom, and a wife, and all the other roles I must fulfill pull at me. Any time I’m prevented from doing my morning session, I work at night. I work on four or five projects at a time, and there is no excuse that will keep me from completing all I’m working on. No excuse, because I’m inspired by the devastation of that moment, of the miracle Julian survived when he might not have. My son, and my daughter, Penelope, represent a continuation of my history as an immigrant and the history of the USA, but also of the tenuous nature of all our existence. It is a miracle to breathe, to take another step, to work in the service of a gift.
JUSTINE van der LEUN: My first step is to find a project that I can get obsessed with, and with that comes natural momentum and inspiration. Research takes me forever—probably inadvisable in a world that values constant production. I read everything, talk to everyone, try to peer into every corner of a story. When I’m researching, I record my reactions and feelings and surroundings, in addition to transcripts of all interviews, so I can access those later and recapture the immediacy, the details; sometimes, I do this by writing emails to someone I trust, which requires that I shape my thoughts better than when I’m just taking notes. Once enough of the background work is done, I start writing, which is by far my favorite part of the job. I have little kids, so the process is disjointed these days, but I try to get a chunk done before everyone wakes up, when my house is still and silent. Reporting mode and writing mode are very different for me. I read novels to kickstart the part of my brain that’s connected to rhythm and language, and I read articles by journalists I respect to figure out structure. My final step is to give a draft to my husband, who always has comments. I get defensive and we briefly argue. Then, a day or two later, I integrate the comments into the work, and it is much improved.
“It was there at rock bottom and buried under the rubble of all my failings that I discovered books have the power to expand one’s world and enhance one’s life.”
2. How does your writing navigate truth? What role does narrative play in how you shape the truth in your work?
C.T. MEXICA: We all have an ethical and poetical duty to tell the truth and the truth has no temperature—it both burns and freezes if we can’t handle it.
J.D. MATHES: As a fiction writer, to paraphrase Hemingway, I’m looking to tell truths that I can’t tell in nonfiction. My writing navigates truth by staying true to the story and being honest with the reader. The story must come first, so if whatever I’m writing isn’t honest and true to the narrative, I cut it. The narrative is constructed so the truth arises organically from my work, so narrative and truth interact like when you hear two musicians with duende jamming together and create something true and beautiful within the framework of the notes and chords. It resonates with the listeners.
JUSTINE van der LEUN: In journalism, especially investigative and longform, we use real-life narratives and facts to illuminate larger truths. For this current project, where I’m looking at women’s unique pathways into the criminal justice system, one focus is: What are their truths, as they say them? So many incarcerated women have experienced enormous trauma and repeated abuse. A central theme for most survivors, but especially for incarcerated survivors, is that they are not believed, they are silenced, and their credibility is shattered. Typically, the stories that I hear directly from incarcerated women are diametrically opposed to the stories that are told about them, by prosecutors, police, and, often, the media. My approach to more accurately representing these stories—and therefore the larger story of women in the justice system—is to start from a trauma-informed place of belief, not skepticism. Not because I’m a bleeding heart, but because I know that this is how to get the fullest and most accurate understanding of my subject matter. Then I also support whatever I’m saying with documentation, which I consider one form of truth, and I’ve recently started to incorporate data into my reporting, because numbers also tell their own unassailable truths. And then, put simply, I use narrative to shape and humanize these truths, to make readers care about the issues by allowing them to get to know the people affected.
“We all have an ethical and poetical duty to tell the truth and the truth has no temperature—it both burns and freezes if we can’t handle it.”
3. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you written something you wish that you could take back?
STERLING CUNIO: An autobiographical account of my life is the most daring thing I’ve ever written. It included my worst failures and greatest shames, revealed domestic violence in my grandpa’s patriarchal home, my uncle’s criminal activities, and other family dysfunction. It detailed my introduction to the culture of street crime as a teenager and all the harm I’ve caused others. I wrote about guilt, depression, and believing my life was meaningless while wrestling with suicidal thoughts during long-term solitary confinement. I wrote of remorse as well as my hopes for redemption. I wish that I could take it back only because of how poorly it was written. The writing was more an emotional purge than a carefully crafted story.
JONAH MIXON-WEBSTER: The poem I wrote about having nightmares about my father, “Triptych in Which the Man Is Sometimes My Father,” was the craziest thing I’ve ever written. I thought it would get me disowned. If my father knew how to read, that poem probably would have done it. I wouldn’t unwrite or unpublish it, though. It was my experience and my truth and it echoed other people’s truths as well.
4. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
STERLING CUNIO: As a child and early adolescent, I viewed reading and writing as a punishment, and wouldn’t come to discover the power of reading until I was locked in an isolation jail cell with no way to connect to the world except through books. It was there at rock bottom and buried under the rubble of all my failings that I discovered books have the power to expand one’s world and enhance one’s life. The first book to have a profound impact on me was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as I read about his transformation from drug addicted hustler to world leader, I knew it was also possible for me to become more than a thug.
ARTHUR LONGWORTH: When I was 21, I was in a prison that a federal court not long prior had ruled being sent there violated the 8th Amendment prohibition against “Cruel and Unusual” punishment. What that means is, the prison was so old it was infested with vermin and falling apart; four prisoners were crammed in every cell; when prisoners stabbed each other in fights, other prisoners had to sew up their wounds because medical care virtually didn’t exist; guards and other prison administrators referred to you as “boy,” but what they really meant was “animal,” or something even less than that; and there was no education—at least, there wasn’t for a young prisoner sentenced to Life. In that prison I found a battered and moldering book whose pages were as yellowed and time-worn as the older convicts’ faces. The book turned out to be One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—the story of a Russian ‘average Joe’ who’d learned to navigate the gulag system in the Stalin-era Soviet Union. When I read it, I realized that the immensity—as well as the chaos, carnage, and inhumanity—around me wasn’t as singular an experience as I’d believed; it’s happened before.
“No matter what side we are on, we are always resisting something: change, conformity, subjugation, rebellion. We are all always resisting.”
5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
J.D. MATHES: The rise of Fascism in the world. It is especially egregious in the United States where the First Amendment, the free press, and freedom of expression are under constant threat, and not by some fringe group, but by the executive branch, half of the legislative branch, elements of the judiciary, and the base of a major political party. The First Amendment is first for a reason and to have it assaulted with impunity every day is insulting to me. So are internet trolls and troll farms who try to suppress free expression either by swarming people online with insults and, in too many cases, death threats, or by the shame machine that forces people remain silent instead of speaking out. There is also the threat of fascists who want to stifle free expression by claiming anyone who disagrees with them is trampling their right of free speech, which is absurd, to silence opposing views. I’m also worried about how authoritarian governments are working to undermine free expression in democracies with propaganda and misinformation.
My free expression has been challenged by students, the parents of students, by school administrations, by school boards, by corporations, and curiously also by a literary journal who explicitly said the rejection was for something I had written about. The essay was later published in a different literary journal, anthologized, and recognized by the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays as honorable mentions.
VIVIAN D. NIXON: The biggest threat to free expression is the way it is tied to survival. As director of a non-profit for the past 15 years, I have known many, many times that exercising my right to free expression might threaten the survival of the organization, its employees, and the community the organization serves.
“If you’re curious how and where I’m from shaped who I am and what I write, I’d hope that you’d grant me the privilege of reading my work. It’s all in there—I promise you.”
6. How does your identity shape your writing? How does the history of where you are from shape your identity, and in turn, your writing?
C.T. MEXICA: I’m an ex-con, reformed gangster and, most importantly, the son of many mothers. It was a painful process for me to obtain a clarity of conscience for my violent criminality, and all of that anchors my writing.
ARTHUR LONGWORTH: I love that question. After all, what is our identity, other than an agglomerated history of where we’re from? And what is writing, other than our identity? When I want to know something about the forces that have shaped someone, and a little about who he or she is, I read his or her writing. It’s in there—threaded through the words and use of language. I’m no exception. If you’re curious how and where I’m from shaped who I am and what I write, I’d hope that you’d grant me the privilege of reading my work. It’s all in there—I promise you.
7. How can writers affect resistance movements?
JONAH MIXON-WEBSTER: Writers can give a very impassioned lexicon to matters and movements of resistance. Mostly, it’s the language we attempt to arrive at first when shedding light on injustice and subjugation. I think in matters and movements of resistance we organize ourselves around language. As a writer, with a very resistant attitude, I am always trying to consider the ways language can initiate and incite others to fight against the oppression of others, especially if those desires to oppress are within themselves.
CLEYVIS NATERA: If resistance movements are bodies, then writers are the body’s heart. It is our job to document and bear witness and speak truth to power but also to remember the beat, that music, which should help all feel the beauty that exists beyond what lies directly ahead, beyond the horrors we see. That’s the tension required to invoke in others what ought to be, to be the surge that rushes passion to act.
VIVIAN D. NIXON: No matter what side we are on, we are always resisting something: change, conformity, subjugation, rebellion. We are all always resisting. Writers tell the stories of what is being resisted and who is doing the resisting.
8. What advice would you give to young writers looking to contribute to socio-political discourses?
STERLING CUNIO: Use specific stories to illustrate larger points. Socio-political discourses are often so data driven and drained of emotion that they serve more of an academic pursuit than a catalyst for change. To move people to action you must reach their heart. Whereas it’s important to discuss structural issues in ways informed by research, I believe it’s imperative to do it in a way that people grasp easiest—which is storytelling. As far back as our genesis, humans have used stories to make sense of the world and our lives in it.
“The act of writing is political, which is public, but first it must be an argument with the self. Don’t ever assume because you believe something that the evidence supports you.”
ARTHUR LONGWORTH: I don’t give advice—I suppose, because I don’t listen to any myself. But if I were to give some, I’d say, “Cause no harm.” What I mean is, I think it’s important to remember how we got to the harmed state we’re in—mass incarceration arose from a sociopolitical discourse.
J.D. MATHES: The same advice I’d give to any aspiring writer (some writers start when they are older): Keep the fire in the belly. They need to keep in mind that persistence will win out over talent and connections. With persistence, a person will develop talent through working. By sending out manuscripts and getting rejections and sending out again, they’ll make connections. Never underestimate luck. This persistence means reading widely and being an expert in what they are writing about. Persistence means writing whenever they can and revising ruthlessly. I used the two-minute rule in grad school. If you have two minutes, you have time to write a little something or revise some sentences. It all adds up. Writers need to stay curious, trust the process of writing, and be comfortable in the unknown.
In writing socio-political discourse, the writer must have a passion for it and carry that passion like a hot coal through a winter night. It might be their only source of comfort because writing is lonely. The writer must be fair and must examine all sides of an issue. The writer must believe the story must be told and they are the only one who can tell it. The act of writing is political, which is public, but first it must be an argument with the self. Don’t ever assume because you believe something that the evidence supports you. Follow your conscience, stay focused, be honest with your readers, and don’t be afraid to take time off to clear your mind.
JONAH MIXON-WEBSTER: Just say it. Say everything you feel you need to say to participate in the dialogue. Don’t settle for reimagining or recapitulating the articulations of everyone else. Listen to the unique voice that you have and let it guide you in your protests and progresses.
VIVIAN D. NIXON: Read everything—even things written by people whose opinions are vastly different from yours.
JUSTINE van der LEUN: Trying to get your ideas out there can be the hardest thing, especially if you’re starting out, not “known,” not connected. Editors and publishers, the people who give us a platform, are human beings and part of the larger culture—so sometimes, their resistance parallels the resistance of society to listen to hard stories and new voices. I see it as our job to continue along anyway: to keep saying what needs to be said, writing what needs to be written, having faith that our efforts will be recognized. Easier said than done, but I try to remember that nobody has ever had an easy time or a friendly reception when they start shining a light on what the powerful want hidden.
“Just say it. Say everything you feel you need to say to participate in the dialogue. Don’t settle for reimagining or recapitulating the articulations of everyone else.”
C.T. MEXICA: If you stay ready, you won’t have to get ready. Also, cultivate alliances, mentorships, and heavy-hitting sponsors.
CLEYVIA NATERA: Young writers have the passion and skill to make a significant contribution to socio-political discourse. The key is to take passion and hard work, and combine it with an unrelenting drive to impact change on a broad scale. Understand what your intention is in the socio-political context you care most about, and have your words serve that intention. Because your words have the power to inspire others to take action, to bring about change. Your words can help others see the world in an altered state.
9. Who is the most important voice writing about issues of mass incarceration and the justice system
STERLING CUNIO: There isn’t a single person who I feel is more important than everybody else. Yet, I do believe there’s a trinity of categories from which the most important voices emerge. The categories are: 1) prisoners providing firsthand accounts of life on the inside; 2) platforms dedicated to raising awareness and giving voice to those involved with, interested in or impacted by the justice system. Platforms such as PEN America, The Marshall Project and The Appeal.org; 3) scholars who offer critiques based on researched evidence such as Marie Gottschalk, Michelle Alexander, and countless others offering critical analysis of the carceral state. Ultimately it will take a plethora of voices. Finally, although I don’t believe there is a most important, my personal favorite author is Lauren Kessler. Her book A Grip of Time is a perfect example of how writers can best contribute to socio-political discourse with academic quality research woven into heart-touching stories.
ARTHUR LONGWORTH: I can’t grade or judge which voice might be more important than any other. Different voices appeal to different people for different reasons. It depends on where you are and what you went through to get there. For me, an important voice is Professor Robert Ferguson who wrote in his book Inferno that “No human being deserves that much punishment.” That assertion somehow feels like an important acknowledgement. I deeply appreciate it.
J.D. MATHES: The most important? That’s a tough question with all the important writers tackling these issues in different ways. I feel unqualified to say one, so several major writers, currently, are Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Baz Dreisinger, Byran Stevenson, Alisa Roth, Shane Bauer, Nico Walker, and Rachel Kushner. I’d also include screenwriters Spencer Averick and Ava Duvernay for writing the documentary 13th. There are others, I know, but I’ll keep this manageable.
“Different voices appeal to different people for different reasons. It depends on where you are and what you went through to get there.”
JONAH MIXON-WEBSTER: I think Reginald Dwayne Betts is one of the most crucial voices and an exquisitely practical advocates for prison/justice reform. I’m a huge fan of his work and the way he tries to engage and manage being him. Very inspiring and enlightening brotha.
VIVIAN D. NIXON: Ta-Nehisi Coates.
JUSTINE van der LEUN: Mariame Kaba, the organizer, educator, and prison abolitionist who works on issues of racial justice, gender justice, and restorative justice, among countless others. She interrogates and overturns every facet of the system’s design and execution, and offers hopeful alternatives to the human inevitabilities of harming and being harmed.
C.T. MEXICA: Rachel Kushner, Arthur Longworth, and the works of Miguel Pinero.
CLEYVIS NATERA: Mitchell S. Jackson’s sophomore effort, Survival Math, continues the critical work started by his novel Residue Years. It reveals the personal and societal impact of the brutal history of the USA, and beyond, to demonstrate how that history, when left unacknowledged and unresolved, creates an incarcerate state for all members of our society. We can’t deny that many in our society are stuck in cycles where much effort is put into denying the basic humanity of those of us who aren’t White.