The PEN Ten: An Interview with the 2021-2022 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellows
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing summer interns organized the meaningful—and often echoing—interview answers of the 2021-2022 Writing for Justice Fellows into a rich collective tapestry of advice on writing and activism. 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 »
1. What advice would you give to young writers looking to contribute to sociopolitical discourse?
CALEB GAYLE: If you have any itch, any desire, any urge to write at all, do it. Do it whenever you can. Do it when it feels inconvenient. On your phone. On your hand. On scratch paper. It’s actually in those intermittent, unexpected moments when your brain or heart finds the moment to think about the world around you, that perhaps the greatest writing can take hold. Lastly, I’d say that you’re capable of communicating your truth better than any one. Please remember that.
ELIZABETH FLOCK: Read, read, and read some more. We cannot meaningfully contribute to social and political discourse without deeply reading those who have come before us and have already done the work. We have so much to learn from them. Study the past, but also envision the future. So often, our staid mass media doesn’t take enough time to imagine or project what’s conceivable. Interview advocates, experts, and thought leaders about what’s possible, but more importantly talk to those who are vulnerable—people whose voices are often not heard. Then write about those possibilities to inform the present.
STARR DAVIS: A good writer is first, a good reader. Stay updated on what is going on, and continue to read to form strong thoughts and opinions. Knowledge is true power, don’t stop being a student of the craft.
LEONARD SCOVENS: Read deep young writers, pay attention, and tell your personal truth to contribute to sociopolitical discourse. Work out a unique way to say something that matters to people.
SARAH WANG: Use your own story and lived experience as an entry point. Whether or not your own story is explicit in your writing—it doesn’t have to be—it can help you hone in on what you have to say and be a driving force behind the specific issues you want to explore. Research is mesearch, as they say. I find that the people I know—whether they make figurative paintings, work in the ICU, are voting rights activists, develop chemical compounds used for mental health treatment, or write poetry—all do what they do for a very personal reason. Experiences in our lives form the way we see and understand the world, and also what is lacking or unjust in society. Understanding what you’re interested in and why can be the most valuable way to realize how we can contribute and what we have to offer from our unique subject positions.
JUAN MORENO HAINES: I’d advise young writers (before pen hits paper) to ground yourself in your community. Listen and seek the wisdom of elders and neighbors. Listening gives individuals who speak agency and lets them know they’re valued, which in turn makes them better citizens—ready to contribute to sociopolitical discourse in meaningful ways.
CLARICE THOMAS: My advice to young writers is do not be afraid to speak your truth. The sociopolitical discourse is set by those willing to share their experiences; therefore, you empower the pen. As a writer, you have the authority to shift the conversation. We need you to insert your voice where needed. Be willing to add your voice to the discourse with fearlessness, passion, and bold honesty.
CITLALI PIZARRO: One could say that I’m a young writer looking to contribute to sociopolitical discourse, so I’ll offer the thing I am constantly telling myself: Figure out who and what your story is serving—it’s serving something, even if inadvertently—not who and what will serve your story. I’ll also offer this: Write the story, even if no one wants to publish it.
“Read, read, and read some more. We cannot meaningfully contribute to social and political discourse without deeply reading those who have come before us and have already done the work. We have so much to learn from them. Study the past, but also envision the future.”
P.M. DUNNE: Get out your head and get in the mix. Gain some experience. Forget what you learned in college. Most professors and scholars are tragedy voyeurs or, at best, armchair activists—they’ll tell you the world’s screwed up without offering you a way to unscrew it. They’ll write about the past and present, but not the future. Why? Because they’re teachers, not visionaries. That’s your job.
To contribute something truly meaningful to the conversation, you must be willing to equip yourself with more than knowledge. You must be willing to get your pen dirty. Write with passion. Befriend an incarcerated person, learn how society formed that person, feel the connection you share with that person. Remember that “writing with authority” means more than using active voice—it means communicating with the full range of your humanity.
ARON PINES: Make sure to take advice from those most impacted by sociopolitical issues.
2. Who is the most important voice writing about issues of mass incarceration and the justice system today—and why?
THOMAS: The most important voices writing about mass incarceration and the justice system today are those who have experienced it. The individuals and families who have navigated the system have a knowledge set different from those on the outside. Countless people have written narratives while in prison. We have stories from those exonerated after a wrongful conviction and others who reclaimed their lives after being released. I believe reform efforts have to honor a diversity of voices, including those with an incarcerated past. Also, understanding their experiences can help our society humanize those most severely impacted by the injustice of mass incarceration.
DUNNE: Who knows the messy details of “the struggle,” the gavel-crack, shackle-gnaw, and kennel-dirge better than those with firsthand experience? Such writers—perhaps more so than their civilian counterparts—portray complexity and combat stereotypes not just to sing of their own uniqueness but to articulate that of the voiceless, of those living with a heart full of unspoken trauma and unrealized dreams. They answer a calling not unlike that of the mortician: That is, they preserve the dead.
Civilian writers can do the same of course, but it’s difficult to imagine them doing so on their own. Unconvinced? The NPD BookScan proves the internet cannot replace the testament of those who’ve survived this hell.
“To contribute something truly meaningful to the conversation, you must be willing to equip yourself with more than knowledge. You must be willing to get your pen dirty. Write with passion. Befriend an incarcerated person, learn how society formed that person, feel the connection you share with that person.”
HAINES: It’s well-known that mass incarceration takes more from communities than just people—generations of wisdom are lost and wasted. Therefore, I believe the most important voice, when writing about mass incarceration and the justice system, are those directly impacted: incarcerated people, their families, and their communities. Giving incarcerated voices agency cultivates the wisdom that the public needs to improve systems.
FLOCK: There are so many voices, but I would have to say Mariame Kaba, who is somehow advocating, organizing, and writing deeply on racial, gender, and transformative justice all at the same time. She is a large part of the reason Americans can imagine a world without prisons today, and understand the concept of abolition.
PIZARRO: At the beginning of Mariame Kaba’s collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us, Naomi Murakawa writes, “Why be a star when you can make a constellation?” She goes on to celebrate the community of co-organizers contributing their knowledge and “practice of care, refusal, and collectivity” to the book. I worry from my limited experience in the writing industry that it cultivates a pressure to be—and worship—stars. I mean to say that I don’t think there is a single most important voice writing about mass incarceration—if there were, I hardly have the authority to decide whom that would be—and that the best writers, much like Kaba and Murakawa, are busy making constellations.
DAVIS: There are so many people to name, but I think anyone who speaks on issues of mass incarceration is important. Michelle Alexander is a very important voice to me, and someone I really appreciate for opening the eyes of so many Americans.
PINES: I don’t think there’s one person, rather a few: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, and Shaka Senghor, to name a few.
LEONARD SCOVENS: I admire how Michelle Alexander, one of the most important voices writing about mass incarceration today, pulled off her book The New Jim Crow. She gave us fresh language and a potent paradigm with which to explore and deconstruct the issue. Her book made mass incarceration a mainline rather than fringe issue.
“It’s well-known that mass incarceration takes more from communities than just people—generations of wisdom are lost and wasted. Therefore, I believe the most important voice, when writing about mass incarceration and the justice system, are those directly impacted: incarcerated people, their families, and their communities.”
—Juan Moreno Haines
GAYLE: In terms of strict reporting, I love A.C. Thompson at ProPublica. It seems like Thompson is bent on ornately depicting what we, as a society, would rather ignore. Though I can’t say writers like Reginald Dwayne Betts or Marlon Peterson strictly write about mass incarceration and/or the justice system, they’ve equipped us with so much rich vocabulary to access a rage against injustice we otherwise would struggle to have.
WANG: Rachel Louise Snyder is one writer who is doing great work. She writes about domestic violence and the role that abuse can play in the crimes women commit both in terms of “the insidious ways sexual and domestic violence alters one’s very neurology, behavior and sense of self” and how the carceral system can reinforce the cycle of abuse, punishing survivors. In the case of Lisa Montgomery, who was the first woman executed on death row in nearly seven decades, her defense attorneys did not enter into her trial comprehensive evidence of the sexual and physical abuse she had suffered since she was a child.
Snyder also wrote about Nicole Addimando, the first person to apply for resentencing consideration after the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act was passed into law in 2019. Addimando is one of the many women who killed her abuser in an act of self-defense. Another writer I have on my nightstand is Leigh Goodmark, who wrote Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence. These writers are addressing issues of violence against women and gender justice in the carceral context.
3. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
SCOVENS: The first book that had a profound impact on me was Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. I discovered it in high school, and while I didn’t understand what she was doing at the time, Shange’s breathtaking use of language, rhythm, and storytelling introduced me to the idea of art as a living act of love and resistance to oppression.
HAINES: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift had a profound impact on me by giving me an understanding on how satire is used to argue against inequality.
FLOCK: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a novel Carson McCullers wrote in her early twenties, had a profound impact on me in my teens. It’s about the misfits in our society and how to find beauty in an often cruel world. It informs so much of my work to this day about the spiritual isolation we all feel, those who are cast aside, and how to survive and move beyond that.
“Truth is not about right and wrong, but who has the authority to tell it. One thing I learned about proclaiming the truth is, people have to have ears to hear it. . . . Sharing our literary voices can help create spaces for experience and culture that shape our narratives. Each story I share has a narrative beginning founded in my understanding of experience. The relationships in my past, the people I know, and places I have been are integral to the integrity of my work.”
4. How does your writing navigate truth? What role does narrative play in how you shape the truth in your work?
THOMAS: Truth is not about right and wrong, but who has the authority to tell it. One thing I learned about proclaiming the truth is, people have to have ears to hear it. Unfamiliar stories, or versions of the truth, are often dismissed as a myth. Despite this challenge, I learned to not allow others to determine the truth for me. An African proverb warns, “Do not let the lion tell the giraffe’s story.” Sharing our literary voices can help create spaces for experience and culture that shape our narratives. Each story I share has a narrative beginning founded in my understanding of experience. The relationships in my past, the people I know, and places I have been are integral to the integrity of my work.
PIZARRO: I navigate truth, in large part, by listening to people speak theirs. I try to listen deeply to people’s truths and identify how those truths speak to larger ones. Usually, I set out to tell a story contextualizing personal narratives within the structures of oppression that create their conditions, hopefully centering the voices of people challenging these structures. I seek the truth about injustice by listening to and honoring the experiences of people working to create more just worlds.
Too often, reporting about crime and punishment serves to dehumanize incarcerated people, listing their crimes without interrogating the social structures that define and create “crime,” using the language of the state, and including the perspectives of state officials but not those of organizers fighting to end mass incarceration, surveillance, and policing. So I also navigate truth by not adopting the language of the state, not automatically accepting law as fact, and not relying on the perspectives of state officials—because aligning with the carceral system while reporting on it obscures the truth about its injustice.
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?
PINES: The biggest threat to free expression perhaps is the fear of opposing viewpoints. There have been times when my right to free expression has been challenged, namely in prison.
FLOCK: In America, it may come as no surprise that I see the biggest threat as the concept of fake news. We must not only dismiss the idea, but also rebuild trust with our readers and viewers brick by brick. In many countries outside of the United States, I see the biggest threat as the jailing and suppression of journalists’ voices. That largely does not exist in the United States, and we are lucky for it. We must fight fiercely to keep it that way here, and to protect journalists elsewhere.
“Too often, reporting about crime and punishment serves to dehumanize incarcerated people, listing their crimes without interrogating the social structures that define and create ‘crime,’ using the language of the state, and including the perspectives of state officials. . . . So I also navigate truth by not adopting the language of the state, not automatically accepting law as fact, and not relying on the perspectives of state officials—because aligning with the carceral system while reporting on it obscures the truth about its injustice.”
6. How can writers affect resistance movements?
HAINES: Writers can affect resistance movements by working on projects that intentionally connect people to unfamiliar experiences. Composing plots that discuss why people rebel against the status quo and inequality feeds the life blood of democracies—and if done with a tinge of empathy, strengthens resistance movements.
SCOVENS: Writers can inform and empower resistance movements by providing a language and narrative that clarifies complex matters and connects people through shared experience, art, and ideology.
PIZARRO: I think that resistance movements can (and do) affect writers more often than the other way around. Resistance movements of all kinds shape our notions of what is possible for ourselves and the world around us, by framing our memories of the past, understandings of the present, and visions for the future. It follows that they frame the stories we tell, whether we’re conscious of it or not. I hope to make conscious and deliberate choices, then. I believe in writing stories that center the experiences of people resisting oppression. As a journalist, I aim to reinforce and synthesize rhetorically the work of those who are actively envisioning and creating better, more just worlds.
7. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
PINES: The most daring thing I put into words was my personal life experience. I’ve written love letters that I wish I could take back!
GAYLE: I told the story about how I was ostracized and made fun of at school—often taunted as a gorilla, a beast, and a nigger. Placing that on paper brought back painful memories that I thought I had processed, but clearly had not.
DAVIS: When I was younger, I wrote a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) essay about my mother’s drug addiction. I did not know at the time that I was not supposed to put that into an essay, especially an essay that was assigned to me at school. Children’s Services got involved, and my teachers were very concerned about me revealing this in my essay. However, the essay went on to win the national competition. My mother was a bit embarrassed, but she was also proud. So I do not regret writing about it.
“Writers can inform and empower resistance movements by providing a language and narrative that clarifies complex matters and connects people through shared experience, art, and ideology.”
8. How does your identity shape your writing? How does the history of where you are from shape your identity, and in turn, your writing?
PINES: I’m not quite sure. I try to be very honest.
WANG: Identity is always in flux for me. I come from a family of refugees from Mainland China who escaped communism in the late ’40s. They had to leave everything behind. These generations—my grandparents’ and parents’—don’t like to tell stories about the lives they lived while fleeing Japanese occupation and then Mao, the difficulties of immigrating to the United States. For them, these aren’t stories of triumph but survival. I’ve had to piece together where I’m from and who I am in the context of this particular history. Along the way, I’ve had to fill in gaps. I’m also continually discovering new information that casts the past in a different shadow. All this serves my writing by way of complicating it, which I believe is a good thing.
DAVIS: James Baldwin once said that we write for the people who belong to us. I belong to Black women. I write for this group. I carry the cross for this group. I carry the burdens that this group carries. And even in its vastness, I think my writing has a way of returning to this identity. I am always bending to the will of the assignment. Everything, even in its slightness, centers around getting our stories told.
9. What does your writing process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
FLOCK: This is the process: 1) I read deeply first, then 2) report the hell out of a story, acting like a hoarder in gathering every piece of information I can, then 3) ruthlessly organize all the information, then 4) get into a mind space to write, using music and movies and immersing myself in any related subject matter, writing for hours without any internet or phone access, then 5) rewrite and chisel down until I have a statue that looks as I imagined it could, but better.
DUNNE: You want to know the secret of my success, the key to unlocking one’s hidden potential? I’ll tell you: Every day, I sit in front of a computer screen, drinking coffee and questioning my decision to be a writer!
On a serious note, I think it’s important for a writer—or any artist—to have a notebook and a routine, something akin to my ”two by two rule” (i.e., two hours of productivity followed by two hours of cultural consumption/relaxation). Inspiration, I’d argue, occurs in the interim, the ”psychic tension,” of intent and chance. You simply increase their frequency to increase the possibility of an inspirational event. It’s like having the Muses on speed dial.
Many writers treat inspiration as something outside themselves, as something they must wait for, not realizing it resides in the midst of their daily affairs and interactions. Need inspiration? Read the canon. It’s full of authors who wrote about. . . life. If that doesn’t work, just write a story from the perspective of an ”uninspired” author.
“I come from a family of refugees from Mainland China who escaped communism in the late ’40s. They had to leave everything behind. . . . For them, these aren’t stories of triumph but survival. I’ve had to piece together where I’m from and who I am in the context of this particular history.”
GAYLE: Writing is really difficult (understatement of the decade). I think that I try to only pick pieces that I’d write about for free without any motivation. Because between working full time elsewhere, writing a book, and trying to sleep every now and then, I need to ensure the content I’m generating inspires me. But practically, I usually get up at 4 or 5am when I can, and I try to write until it’s time to start my work day. It’s the only time that I know it is protected. It’s either super early in the morning or incredibly late at night.
THOMAS: As a nonfiction writer, the truth can be overwhelming. I constantly attend to my health and mental wellness while writing. I take regular breaks to rest, which can look different. Sometimes I journal, sit outside, take a walk, or exercise. Other times, I watch a movie, read, or take a nap. The important thing is that I step away.
When I feel unmotivated, I remember the people whose stories I share or the lives I hope to inspire. Once, I was writing a narrative based on interviews I conducted, and I told the young man I interviewed that I was struggling to write his story. My exact words were, “Do you know how hard it is to write your story?” He gave me a dismissive laugh and said, “You have the easy part. Do you know how hard it was to live it?” His words became my compass. When I want to give up, when I feel entitled to complain, I remember his statement. I push through. I remember to keep my health first, but I keep going and focus on the lives I hope to impact with my writing.
10. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
DUNNE: László Krasznahorkai. He’s a genius. War & War and The World Goes On are post-postmodernist masterpieces. If we ever met, I’d ask him how he builds universes out of dust particles, how he creates so much out of so little. I imagine he’d light a cigarette, mumble something incoherent. I’d probably nod, knowing that his antiwords, like the seed syllables in a mantra, would resonate only once I was ready for them. Then we’d sip our drinks, stare at each other in bemused silence. Then I’d ask why.
WANG: My grandfather, Yen Ping Tseng (曾燕萍), who wrote many books on the human condition, psychology, and philosophy. When I was young, he never talked to me about being a writer, and certainly not about the subjects he explored in his books. When he died, nearly all his books—the thousands he collected and the dozens he’d written—were thrown out. My family thought they were a nuisance. Ten of the books he’d written were saved and live on my bookshelf. They are written in Chinese, a language I cannot read. I’d like to meet him now and tell him that I’ve become a writer too, and not only that, but also someone who understands and lives life through a psychoanalytic lens. Somehow, our lives have converged in disparate points in history. I would talk to him about everything in his books: love, war, dreams.
Starr Davis is a poet and essayist whose work has been featured in multiple literary venues such as The Kenyon Review, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, The Rumpus, So to Speak, and Transition Magazine. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The City College of New York and a BA in journalism and creative writing from The University of Akron. She tutors marginalized groups of young African American female writers for the nonprofit organization Seeds of Fortune. She is the creative nonfiction editor for TriQuarterly. Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
P.M. Dunne’s life attests to the transformative power of art. His writings have been anthologized by PEN America, performed at the PEN World Voices Festival and Brooklyn Book Festival, as well as published by The Operating System, SIZL, Blue Unicorn, and The Awakenings Review. Upon his release, he plans on earning his MFA, working as an editor, shopping a gazillion manuscripts, holding creative writing workshops, and founding a literary journal for prisoners. Read his work at PEN.org or see it performed on YouTube. Email him via JPay (#11A0671).
Elizabeth Flock is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker with a focus on gender and justice. Her features and investigations have appeared on PBS NewsHour, in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and many other publications. Her work is often investigative, immersive, and long-term. She is the author of The Heart is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai (Harper, 2018), a book about marriage and social change in India. Flock is currently working on her second book Conversations with Athena: When Women Fight Back, covering women who defend themselves and their communities, and the repercussions they face. She lives in Los Angeles County. Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Caleb Gayle writes about the impact of history on race and identity. A recipient of a New America Fellowship and Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award, Gayle completed his undergraduate studies at The University of Oklahoma as a Truman Scholar and his graduate studies at Oxford University as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar. He also completed his MBA and MPP at Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School. Currently, Gayle is the CEO of the National Conference on Citizenship.
Juan Moreno Haines is a journalist incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison; senior editor at the award-winning San Quentin News; and member of the Society of Professional Journalists, where he was awarded its Silver Heart Award in 2017 for being “a voice for the voiceless.” Haines’s work has appeared in Solitary Watch, The Guardian, The Appeal, Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, Above the Law, UCLA Law Review, Life of the Law, The Oakland Post, California Prison Focus, LA Progressive, CalMatters, Witness LA, and Street Spirit. In 2020, Haines was awarded the PEN Prison Writing Contest’s Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Fiction.
Aron Pines is a returning citizen, part of the NJ Step/Mountainview Rutgers alumni who graduated cum laude in August 2020 with a BA in English and creative writing. He was incarcerated and ushered into the oppressive carceral system at 17 years old, where he was waived and tried as an adult offender. With grace, fortitude, and resilience, he represented himself in the court of law as a pro se defendant and was acquitted of the charges levied against him. Since his release, he has immersed himself in the fight against mass incarceration and prison reform, becoming a staunch proponent of juvenile justice. He has spoken at several conventions about mass incarceration, as well as prison-induced trauma. He currently works as a reentry and public health service provider, helping marginalized communities gain social, educational, and medical equity. Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Citlali Pizarro is an independent journalist from California. She has covered community organizing against the state’s carceral system. Her work has been published in Current Affairs and Shadowproof as the publication’s second Marvel Cooke Fellow. Pizarro graduated from Swarthmore College in 2020, where she was editor-in-chief of Voices; an associate at the Women’s Resource Center; and a member of Students for Transformative Justice, Prison Abolition, and Restoration (STAR). In addition to being a journalist, Pizarro is a playwright and poet. She is honored to be a 2021-2022 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow. Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Leonard Scovens is an incarcerated award-winning author, restorative justice activist, and educator. His memoir, Wildflowers in the Median, has been translated into Portuguese and French and adapted into plays performed in America and Europe. The nonprofit he co-founded, Achieve Higher Ground, donates his second book, The Manual: Holistic Justice & the Path to Higher Ground, to prisoners incarcerated across America. His appearances in the documentaries Human, Another Justice, and The Other Way have inspired viewers across the world.
Clarice Thomas was born and raised in Grand Rapids, MI. She received a Bachelor of Arts in history and political science and a Master of Education from Grand Valley State University. In 2018, Thomas earned a Ph.D. in teaching and learning from Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA. Thomas is a former adult education instructor and continues to work in the education field as a college instructor and researcher. Her academic scholarship focuses on the school-to-prison nexus and teacher education. Her work has been published in numerous journals and presented at international, national, and regional conferences. Thomas uses research to center the voices of individuals who have experienced incarceration. She facilitates workshops and professional development sessions that create a space to address inequity and injustice in minoritized communities. Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Sarah Wang has written for the London Review of Books, American Short Fiction, BOMB, The New Republic, n+1, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She is a Tin House Scholar; a runner-up of a Nelson Algren prize for fiction; and a former fellow at The Center for Fiction, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Witness Program, and Kundiman’s Mentorship Lab. Twitter @sarah_wwang. Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan