A PEN Ten Interview with the 2018 Writing for Justice Fellows
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s biweekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program Director Caits Meissner speaks to the 2018 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. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
Naturally, my status as an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota nation influences my writing. I have deep ties to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota but live in Denver, Colorado. So, my work examines the duality of being Native but living away from my people. There’s a lot of talk today about the split between urban and reservation Indians, but I believe this is too simplistic. Most urban Natives retain strong connections to their homelands, and many reservation Natives often move between the rez and nearby cities and towns. This duality is mirrored as well in our status as dual citizens: members of our Native nations as well as of the United States. So, Natives exist in a liminal space, and my work explores the dichotomy of being simultaneously Self and Other. As the original/marginalized inhabitants of this land, we belong everywhere and nowhere.
—David Heska Wanbli Weiden
2. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
My writing navigates the truth through my commitment to be fair, and to always utilize best practices in my work, like recording and transcribing interviews, following up with sources to confirm and clarify their versions of events, and triple checking the facts of a piece. My entire purpose of writing a literary nonfiction story about people in prison was to get closer to the truth in a way that I felt was missing in straight journalism. Even though I always stuck to the facts in all my prior reporting, there are essential truths that are sometimes lost in third person, objective journalism, particularly when covering criminal justice stories. Who is the person that committed the crime and what happened to them before they entered the system? Those contextual details bring readers much closer to a true story than the usual media treatment of running a person’s mugshot along with details of the worst thing they ever did. I think narrative journalism can employ many rich literary devices to tell the truth in a richer, deeper way than a straight news story. There should also be truth in good fiction—not factual truth, but human truth about love, loss, meaning, struggle, forgiveness, redemption. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, isn’t the purpose of all writing to illuminate our common humanity? If someone wants to call that “alternative facts” or “fake news” simply because it presents a point of view they disagree with, so be it. Our jobs as writers is to write it anyway.
“Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, isn’t the purpose of all writing to illuminate our common humanity?”
Credibility is the mountain that every incarcerated author in America has to surmount if they are going to find a receptive audience. Because we all start with such a massive deficit of status/integrity, I’ve long felt that I had to strive to be as accurate with recordings as someone submitting something to a peer-reviewed journal. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been wildly inaccurate at times, because I have. When I locate an error, I acknowledge it, correct it, and then try to analyze what motivated the mistake in the first place. Ignorance? Bad vetting of source data? General dumbassery? I’m capable of all these and more, so it’s important that I stalk my thinking processes with the most rigorous skepticism I can manage.
This commitment to truth is vital to me because it is what saved me. I’m deeply embarrassed at the levels of the mental illness I allowed to creep into my life when young—it shames me, the things I believed and the actions these beliefs sponsored in my life. It wasn’t religion that saved me, it was Francis Bacon, David Hume and company, and the scientific method they helped bring into being, the understanding that something like facts (provisional though they may be) exist as an ontological category and that some people have greater access to this knowledge. Learning how this method worked and how I could apply it to my own thoughts is why I am who I am today.
Perhaps this is my naïveté showing, but I’ve always assumed that most people that pick up a novel understand on a very conscious level that they are making a choice to voluntarily suspend disbelief about the world they would find within, that they are willingly moving into a special world of untruth for a limited duration. I understand that there’s certainly a discussion to be had in certain circles about writers like Faulkner, Ford Madox Ford, and David Mitchell that favor a reality in which subjectivity rules and other writers like Tom Wolfe that favored a realism that hews closer to objective truth. But most people pick up a novel to escape discussions like this—to escape the world they inhabit. This is a beautiful thing, and I don’t think our fact-challenged, postmodernist predicament has much of anything to do with such escapes. Truth and fiction can both exist comfortably next to one another, so long as one is capable of recalling the function and purpose of each, and not to let the intersection blend too softly casual. In other words, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Scott Pruitt aren’t cancers on the body politic because they read too much Joyce or Musil; they’re liars because they are trying to write fiction onto the world and they know they are this, they know why they are doing this.
—Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
In Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, he argues that poets, again and again, engage in what he terms “creative correction,” or in other words, a willful revising of the work of one’s predecessor. Bloom references poets, but in my own work, which is prose, I often find myself pursuing a Bloomian “correction” of work that has inspired me. The word inspiration evolved from the Latin inspirare, which means to “blow into, breathe upon,” and work that has most inspired me has breathed something into me: a sense of beauty of wisdom of possibility or sometimes something as concrete as eschewing quotation marks. That said, I’m never trying to copy what another writer has done. Rather, I aim to revise it given my philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, etc, aim to, as Toni Morrison says, make something “beautiful and political at the same time.” Appropriation, though, is something else. There’s little to no “correction” in appropriation. It’s like copying another person’s work and/or claiming an experience to which one lacks an authentic connection, an act that, let me tell it, is grounded in faulty ethics. And not only is it often unethical, it’s lazy. As I see it, the line is the degree to which a writer transforms the source of their inspiration into a new thing. If what a writer produces is flat-out mimesis, they’re on the wrong side of the line.
—Mitchell S. Jackson
4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
My work is involved in resisting the perpetuation of incarceration under the guise of prison and jail “reform.” As many brilliant scholars and activists—mostly trans and cis women of color—have shown, attempts to reform incarceration have tended to further entrench carceral systems and punishment as a mode of social control and state-sanctioned violence. Prison abolition movements draw from centuries-long history of resistance to race, class, and gender oppression. In the contemporary moment, under an administration openly committed white supremacy and its violent enforcement, it is even more crucial to hold reformist projects accountable to our collective vision of liberation, because history shows us that even “reformed” institutions can be bent to the purposes of domination.
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?
I think that everyone’s freedom of expression is inhibited to a certain degree. Obviously, when I was incarcerated my freedom of expression was severely constrained. However, even after I was released, having a felony record seriously limited my employment and educational opportunities. While an education and a job may not seem directly related to the freedom of expression, I think they definitely are. Without steady employment or a livable wage, all of a person’s time and energy are inevitably eaten up by working multiple jobs or longer low-wage shifts. The fatigue that comes from this lifestyle can dull every aspect of life, including the emotional, mental, and internal ones related to expression. For me, it inhibited my ability to express myself not only to the world but also in my own mind. In short, it’s hard to express yourself if you are broke and tired all the time. And education provides some of the fodder for free expression. That’s not to say that I think only the highly educated can express themselves. I don’t. But I do think that an education can help illuminate what you want to express and help you articulate it. I was exposed to ideas that helped me understand my own life, concretely and materially, and articulate my feelings about it. They say it can also help you get a job (theoretically). So, I would say that the biggest threats to free expression today are the material obstacles to reliable income and education. While it is not as dramatic as some other threats, these subtle forms of suppression affect almost everyone in some way—through expensive degrees, student loans, discriminatory hiring processes, domineering jobs, long hours, etc. Incarceration is simply one of the most extreme examples of it.
6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
The most daring thing that I’ve ever put on paper is the truth about my life as a Mainline Mama. For about 13 years I lied to people about my life. Those who were not family or close friends were unaware that my then husband was incarcerated and that I spent most weekends with our children visiting. I kept my weekday and weekend lives separate out of fear of the stigma that comes with being in a relationship with an incarcerated person. I feared how people would judge me not only for being in a relationship with an incarcerated person, but also for being a regular—I worried people would judge me for my commitment to keeping a family together every week by visiting the prison. It was a secret that I held very close to my heart; I did not trust people with this part of my life and I didn’t want to be vulnerable. As each year passes, I walk a little more in my truth each day. But it wasn’t until I wrote it down that I truly started to understand my story as one of resilience and survival instead of wearing it as a scar.
7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
I’ve written so many things that I’ve later returned to and realized that I missed out on something. The emotion, the complexity, some fear. But writing is about failing, and so I don’t stress those failures, as much as I regret when I don’t catch it quick. When a poem marinates and then gets published, and only a year or two or three later do I realize how suspect my thinking was in the poem. I could give examples, but part of this is also about the ways in which my responses to my own poetry might not be the public’s response. And so, it’s really a personal thing. But one example, that isn’t about the things said in the poem, but the structure. I wrote “What We Know of Horses” about five or so years ago. It was a canzone, a really formal poem that repeats five words, always at the end of the line, in a preset order. The poem is maybe 65 lines long. I dug this poem. It was published and won a Pushcart. But, it nagged at me. The lines were long, longer than my usual line. And I’d read it and find myself inserting hard caesuras—I had to revise it. And what I ended up doing was shortening the line, loosening the form, and ramping up the repetition even more. Maybe the point isn’t that I wish I could take back the first version, but that I realized the first version should have never been published. It wasn’t ready. Though, publishing it is what made me realize that it wasn’t ready.
—Reginald Dwayne Betts
8. In an era of deep fissures and divides across the American landscape, to what extent can the act of writing provide connection between disparate identities? What are the possibilities for writing to bridge difference—or conversely, what are the limitations?
As insane as the political situation is in our country right now, I have a lot of faith that America is going to be okay. That said, I think the biggest obstacle we need to overcome—and that means all reaches of the spectrum—is this strange echo chamber of personal belief we often seem to find ourselves in.
I truly believe that writing can shift perspectives and enable connection between people who would probably never spend time together. Yet, for that connection to happen, I think people need to read outside of their comfort zone. For me, I’m more than a little turned off by the idea that many of my readers might be specifically looking for “prison poetry,” for the “prison experience.” My aversion isn’t because I don’t appreciate the support, but because I want to reach readers who might not agree with my political views, who might not like ME, based on my background. I don’t want to be fetishized. In that context, I believe that, if readers can exercise some grace and curiosity, quality writing can bring people together on a level transcendent of our everyday political arena.
I think writing that explores the contents of a given consciousness as thoroughly as possible, while being careful in its use of explicit partisan politics, has the best chance of bridging cultural differences, rather than further widening the gap. The American landscape is our inheritance. Will we write ourselves away from each other, or go through the struggle necessary to explore that landscape together?
—Justin Rovillos Monson
“I truly believe that writing can shift perspectives and enable connection between people who would probably never spend time together.”
9. Can you tell us about a piece of writing that has influenced you that readers might not know about?
That readers might not know about? I’d say David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident. It’s a novel, fantastically meandering, historical but also old school storytelling. Not with the pyrotechnics, but with something that grips you and won’t let you go. I just read that Bradley shifted over the journalism and nonfiction after the Chaneysville Incident. Book won the PEN/Faulkner award. And then he walked away. His profile of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, written shortly after the novel, is great too.
I’d recommend Moby Dick, too. For a book that does it all, part travelogue, part scientific exploration of the whale, part adventure story, diatribe against capitalism. The book is so much. Maybe too plentiful. Like Don Quixote. If Melville were a basketball player, we’d tell each other he invented the crossover, the one thing on the basketball court that drives everything else.
—Reginald Dwayne Betts
A piece of writing that has been highly influential in how I conceptualize the history and legacy of racial domination in the United States is Saidiya V. Hartman’s 1997 Scene’s of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. Hartman argues that, under slavery, forms of domestic sentimentality and intimacy—constructed through white patriarchal kinship and ideologies of the family—were integral to enslavement’s violence. Her exploration of the role of humanist emotions and values in reproducing while concealing relations of domination informs how I interrogate projects to “humanize” institutions of confinement and punishment.
No Disrespect by Sister Souljah. This was the first book that wasn’t assigned for school and that I bought with my own money as a teenager. Her writing is so powerful and vivid, I could identify with so much of her life. After reading that book, I thought to myself how I would love to write my story one day. Looking back, it’s ironic that I’ve been given the opportunity to write my own memoir.
Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love is an inspiration for me, a touchtone. I admire it much because she writes about home, which is a central one of my concerns, but also because it’s voice driven. Bambara renders her characters in ways that are artful and truthful, which bestows them with dignity and grace. You can tell in every sentence that she loves her people.
—Mitchell S. Jackson
Maged Zaher’s The Consequences of My Body. The first time I read Zaher’s poetic sequence I was floored by the amount of desire bursting from each fragment. He explores the subtleties of love and war in a way that feels more real than pretty much anything I’ve read thus far.
—Justin Rovillos Monson
Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell.
The poetry collection The Abridged History of Rainfall by Jay Hopler is significant to me for a number of reasons. One, Jay was my first creative writing professor back when I was only in college to get a degree and a job. He taught me how to do things with words I never thought possible, and he encouraged me to indulge my love of language. He made me a drastically better writer, and so much of what he taught me is masterfully on display in this book. Two, this collection is very much informed by the death of the writer’s father, and the first time I read it I had recently lost a close, old friend. The poems spoke to my grief in such a profound and constructive way, never too directly and never too obviously. To me, this book serves as a prime example of writing’s ability to transform something awful into something beautiful.
Crusade for Justice by Ida B. Wells. This is her autobiography, and while it’s a dense read, it illuminates the groundbreaking work she did amidst unimaginably difficult barriers and dangers to herself. She is truly the heroic pioneer in the act of writing for justice.
As a Native American thriller writer, I was heavily influenced by the author Louis Owens, who was one of the few Native writers to work in crime fiction. His novel, The Sharpest Sight, is an overlooked masterpiece, both a murder mystery and a meditation on mixed-race identity. Although many non-Native writers have written books with indigenous characters and settings, relatively few Native writers have published in this genre, although I should mention Stephen Graham Jones’s All the Beautiful Sinners, also one of my favorites. The resistance on the part of indigenous writers to this genre is surprising, because crime fiction, and especially crime noir, can artistically reveal the breakdown and destabilization of the societal order in the Native world. Indigenous people know all too well that wrongdoers are not always caught and justice is not always served. In my novel Winter Counts, I provide an homage to Owens and also the noir writer Jim Thompson.
—David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Victor Serge’s Men in Prison. This is easily my favorite prison memoir, because it shows that the intellect can be insulated from the trepanning god awfulness of this world. Resistance is not only possible, it’s a moral necessity. It’s almost a crime that Serge is virtually unknown today, because his analysis of the Russian Revolution and how it went off the rails is probably the best in existence.
—Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
10. If you could require the current administration to read any book, what would it be?
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. This young adult novel tells an American immigrant’s story from the perspective of a child. When we are exposed to and consider the individual lives affected by government and politics, it changes perspective. There is always a human cost in immigration policy.
Shit. I don’t know. I don’t want to overstate what books can do. And, honestly, I tend to think art is a thing that is political, mainly in its honesty, in its failure to offer easy tropes for understanding the world. I guess, I resist giving an answer because I don’t want to put it on any writer to be responsible for shaking this thing.
—Reginald Dwayne Betts
I would encourage the current administration to read James Baldwin’s “White Man’s Guilt,” originally published in Ebony in 1965. In this short piece, Baldwin argues that white people in the present are caught underneath the weight of our history and by our guilt, our denial of the real oppressiveness of white history, a history in which we are the perpetrators of genocide, exploitation, and expropriation; yet, one which we represent to ourselves as though we are the natural and inevitable inheritors of power and progress. Baldwin argues that white fear of “the other” (racialized, oppressed, colonized people) is actually displaced fear of the white self.
Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn. This book is powerful and a perfect representation of how racism, poverty, substance abuse, and the prison system intersect. It also is an easy and enjoyable read for those with no knowledge of how multiple oppressions hurt individuals and communities.
I’d demand that they read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It’s an education on the invention of whiteness, which is apt since there seems nothing more important to the current administration than protecting and advancing the white race.
—Mitchell S. Jackson
James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name. Really, any collection of his writings would suffice, but this one holds some particular force for me. Baldwin carried a faith and clarity in his vision of America that has the ability to transcend the polemics of today’s politics just as much as those of his own era.
—Justin Rovillos Monson
I would ask that they start with the Constitution, followed by anything by Hannah Arendt.
I would require them to read all 4,200 pages of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. That ought to keep them busy for a few years.
Without a doubt, I’d make this administration read In the Courts of the Conqueror: The Ten Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided by Walter R. Echo-Hawk. This book details the legal doctrines that were used to systematically steal Native American lands, criminalize indigenous spirituality, and justify the violation of nearly every treaty ever made with Native Americans. An administration that likes to trumpet notions of the “rule of law” to rationalize its policies should be aware of the thousands of egregious violations by the United States of settled statutes and treaties, and how these broken laws contributed to the genocide of Native peoples.
—David Heska Wanbli Weiden
I feel like this might be a trick question, because I don’t think this is an administration that one could “require” to read much of anything outside of the daily hagiographic agitprop being manufactured by their side of the Trumpenkulturkampf. If I could forcibly lock Trump’s cabinet officials into a room and refuse to let them out until they’d read a book—or something by E.O. Wilson, maybe his Consilience or Half-Earth. These people need to be confronted with the existence of scientific fact and the damage their assault on reality has caused to the planet. Given these are not men with any scientific education, they are going to need a mediator that is simultaneously kind, possessed of an authoritative intellect, and comfortable speaking in a conservative idiom.
If they refused this honor, my back-up would be a special copy of The Art of the Deal, one with all the pages laced with long-duration, high-absorbance relative of sodium amytal. How much would you like to wager that not even the pundits at Fox Noise could spin Rudy Giuliani on truth serum?
—Thomas Bartlett Whitaker