As Us

A Space for Women of the World

Tria Andrews – A Reflection

The Role of Prison Writing in Adjusting Dominant Misunderstandings

When people learn that I teach English at San Quentin State Prison, I typically receive one of two responses. Either they want to know whether I am frightened to teach people who are incarcerated or they state that providing access to education for people who have previously made “bad” decisions seems like important work. I open with these replies to highlight the discrepancy between mainstream perceptions of people who are incarcerated and the social realities that they have survived.[1]

Given the frequent typecasting of people who are incarcerated, my primary goal in publishing this work is for these writers—whom I view as my colleagues—to represent themselves to audiences outside of the prison setting. This is perhaps especially meaningful for those writers who are serving life sentences or who have expressed concern that they will die in prison before they are eligible for parole. Some of these writers grapple with the question: what is the meaning of education for a person who is incarcerated for life?

Although technically the writers whose work I have edited for this issue are my “students,” I find this term troublesome. Many of my “students” are in fact my elders—in age and wisdom—who have had powerful life experiences far beyond my own. Much of what makes teaching at San Quentin so rewarding—at least for me—is learning from my colleagues.

To me, exposing power dynamics and working towards a more horizontal exchange of ideas is an important aspect of “decolonial love”—the theme of this As/Us issue—which publishes the writing of people who are incarcerated alongside those who are not. In order to begin a process of decolonial love, we must recognize how we have alienated and injured our human and non-human relatives and how our privilege is premised on the exclusion of others.

If “work is love made visible,”[2] as the saying goes, then decolonial work is an immensely difficult task given the sophistication of modern discourses and practices, which work to invisibilize structural oppression by holding individuals accountable for their supposedly “bad” decisions. How can decolonial work occur with/alongside prisons given that these institutions are designed to discipline and punish human beings by severely infringing upon their basic human rights?

Although during the time that As/Us was accepting submissions I was working on a weekly basis with many of the writers who are incarcerated at San Quentin, institutional rules required them to send their submissions through registered mail. Because of the difficulties communicating with the writers who are incarcerated, I did my best to keep thematic and stylistic edits to a minimum—unless the writer had specifically told me otherwise. I found editing especially challenging when I received a piece that I was less or not at all familiar with. While some writers submitted pieces that they had written for our class, others sent work I had not previously read. Almost all the writers presented their work as nonfiction.

There were other considerations in publishing these writers’ work. I had initially discussed with them the possibility of publishing their pieces as is—that is handwritten or typed on a typewriter to depict the material conditions under which writers who are incarcerated must create. My colleagues often have no other option than handwriting. Yet the majority of these writers preferred that their work appear typed on a computer, consistent with the conventions of most mainstream journals. To me, respecting their artistic vision was most important.

As the writing in this issue evidences, people who are incarcerated are not frightening nor have they necessarily made “bad” decisions. Conversely, the vast majority of people who are incarcerated have endured immense poverty, racism, and trauma. The essays in this issue demonstrate that people who are incarcerated are sometimes presented only with “bad” options. If this is the case, how can we reasonably expect people to make “good” decisions?

Racism is a prominent theme in these pieces. In “Judging,” writer James Vick ponders the racism that he experienced as a boy: “When I was a child growing up in the state of Mississippi, daily I was judged. I often wondered why people whose skin was a different shade than my own hated me so much.” In “The Best I Can Do,” Scott Lionel narrates how the social construction of race and racism first became apparent to him as a child. Lionel states, “Some of us had never thought about peoples’ color. We just thought about grown people and young people.”

In “Unconditional Love,” Sunny Nguyen details his family’s immense struggles both in Vietnam and the U.S. Nguyen explains that the frequent abuse he endures from his peers causes him to “adopt the values of the street” and “retaliate, figuring [he] was doing the right thing.”

Lorenzo Johnson’s “Stay awake for my Dreams” and Sandy Lockheart’s “Questions” illuminate the intersection of race, class, and violence. Johnson characterizes brutality as a product of systemic injustice and affirms Black men, which is important since mainstream narratives typically stereotype them as deviant:

Now I see why we have the banging and Killing mentality that is bringing extinction closer to the black man’s reality—if we can’t get to the heart of the problem then how we going to solve them? Well, I managed to “Stay awake for my Dreams.” My black brother, we got the minds of geniuses, the pride of lions, and the hearts of Kings.

In his poem, Lockheart critiques the structural neglect of underserved communities:

Can there be a reality of walking into my neighborhood to find I have nobody to hang out with because all young people overcame poverty and now have jobs at law firms, doctors’ offices, and political offices thanks to the fine help of our government who found time to share funds with the poor as opposed to just funding wars?

War and drugs—specifically Vietnam and heroin—are prominent themes in Billey Dooley’s “Walking into Darkness: A Soldier’s Story” and Mike Wolke’s “My Woodstock.” Dooley’s piece shows how heroin helped the protagonist to cope with the aftereffects of war and requests empathy for veterans, “People don’t know the pain and suffering that is inside soldiers who come home alone and strung out . . . When you see a vet on the streets, please lend a hand or an ear.”

While negative experiences are pervasive throughout these pieces, in “My Woodstock,” Wolke’s reminiscing leads to a benevolent blessing:

I’m an old man now, my life halfway down the hill, but I love my fellow man and am content within my soul. I wish I could share these things with you, but it doesn’t work that way. Maybe, with a little luck, you’ll find your own Woodstock. I wish you love and peace.

* * *

Despite the immense challenges these writers have experienced and continue to endure, their pieces so often demonstrate how deeply considerate they are of others. My hope is that as readers of their work and dreamers of decolonial love, we can practice the same care towards them. I believe that these pieces can play a role in adjusting dominant misunderstandings of who is incarcerated and why, which is an important step in garnering the public support necessary to abolish the institutions and structures that compromise basic human rights.

 

 

[1] I purposefully use the term “people who are incarcerated” rather than “inmates” or “prisoners” to combat pervasive typecasts that commonly dehumanize and/or romanticize these fellow human beings.

[2] Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet. New York: Random House, Inc., 1923.

 

 

Andrews_As Us Photo (1)Tria Andrews is a PhD Candidate in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley and a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at San Diego State University. In addition to writing her dissertation, Tria is currently completing a collection of poetry, titled, “Dead Center of the Heart.” This collection highlights the experiences of Native Americans and Filipinos as a result of U.S. colonial policies and their legacies. Tria has taught courses for Poetry for the People, Prison University Project, Sinte Gleska University, UC Berkeley, and the University of San Francisco. She is grateful to have received support and recognition from numerous sources for her critical, creative, and embodied work. In 2012, Tria was selected as a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow and Fulbright Scholar. In March 2014, Tria began studying dance under Jack Gray, a New Zealand Maori choreographer, dancer, and founder of Atamira, Maori Contemporary Dance Company. Tria has danced collaborative and solo pieces choreographed by Jack in performances at UC Berkeley and UC Riverside. These performances include Tria’s original spoken word and movement inspired by her decades of training in martial arts and yoga. In Summer 2014, Rulan Tangen, choreographer, dancer, and founder of Dancing Earth: Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations, selected Tria as a Global Cultural Ambassador Artist for the company.

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