I’ve just left a remarkable event entitled Prison Fictions, during which memoirist Erwin James, academic David Wilson, and novelist Gillian Slovo all shared their experiences and perspectives about imprisonment and writing. Riding my bike to the discussion at the Berrick Saul building on the University of York campus, I felt the sensation of freedom–the wind rushing past my jutting-out hair, the evening sky catching its breath after unrelenting rains throughout the day, and the old bike’s wheels taking the hills downward with self-appointed speed.
Ironic, though, considering the issue and the focus for the evening.
David Wilson began, talking to a packed theater about the need for more awareness about what happens within prisons. As a previous prison governor (the equivalent of a warden in the states), David shared passionately about why honest stories need to be told about what occurs behind prison walls, and that media needs to work to “provide some gray to the all-too often black and white of the tabloid media.”
Erwin James spoke second–a muscular man with a voice as unassuming as a child’s. A convicted murderer, James was sentenced to serve a life-imprisonment of 99 years, but was paroled after 20 years of that sentence. Four years before his parole, he began writing for The Guardian, and eventually wrote two books on his life in prison. An incredible kind of humility, dignity, and transformation bolstered every word James shared. His eyes met an audience leaning forward when he shared that, “I didn’t believe I’d been born bad, but I had behaved that way my whole life. In my cell, what I had was time to contemplate how I had become what I had become. I had the time to consider my dysfunction.”
James spoke powerfully about his transformation into a writer and a journalist, and how he came to see the human dignity each of us is born with, but often loses in a society that so consistently asserts punitive punishments. James commented that the most important factor for the rehabilitation of a prisoner is “to be able to focus on something positive about oneself.” He spoke powerfully about the need to rehabilitate prisoners–considering that so many who are released are repeat offenders.
Finally, novelist Gillian Slovo spoke. As a child of imprisoned white South African parents, Gillian experienced from a young age the pain of prison–watching her parents walk behind closed bars and hearing the shattering sound of slamming doors. Her mother, Ruth First, wrote the acclaimed memoir 117 Days, about her time in solitary confinement without trial in a South African prison for her affiliation with those fighting for justice. The author of 12 novels, including Red Dust which was made into a feature film starring Hillary Swank, Slovo shared deeply about the need for literature, stories, and writing to share the stories of those who are imprisoned. When I asked her about the power literature brings to the conversation regarding structures and systems that perpetuate the status quo, she responded, “Literature doesn’t tell people how to think, but it enables empathy to exist.”
Her line resonated deeply with me–especially as I considered the plethora of neo-conservative pundits how don’t offer anything by way of empathy, but mountains by way of judgment and blame. The absence of empathy in our political discourse, and in our portrayals in media, is a stark and egregious tragedy. Gillian continued, “The job of a writer is to reveal worlds that people may never have imagined.”
If there is a more beautiful intersection of literature and social justice, I don’t know what it is.
Originally published on 21 June 2012 on Luke’s blog, Intersections. Luke is a writer and teacher, his most recent book is entitled: A Call to Creativity. Writing, Reading, and Inspiring Students in an Age of Standardization.