Monday, June 27, 2016

The Truth Exposed! Writing Behind Bars: Introducing the Women of San Benito County Jail

“Read this book! The strongest, bravest, and most brutally honest thoughts, feelings, and emotions ever put into writing by some of the most powerful, beautiful, and intelligent women locked behind walls.”
––From the cover of Ecstasy of the Streets: Agony of these Walls

An incarcerated person is someone whose shame has already been partially revealed. The public can look upon the inmate and draw all sorts of conclusions without knowing very much beyond the surface story of arrest.

The writers in Ecstasy of the Streets: Agony of these Walls have done their best to write their way through to a deeper understanding for themselves and their readers too. It isn’t always easy to say what one means, and the work in this semester’s collection walks the line between revelation and concealment as well as any I know.

The writer’s dilemma is that on some level we understand a reader wants authenticity (or at least its very good facsimile). We like to think we can recognize a piece of writing that represents a writer at her most authentic. It’s in the fresh way she uses language, the super specificity of her nouns, the way she exposes thoughts usually hidden from our curious and gleeful gaze. Whereas, the words a writer uses when masked, sound just like everything that’s already been written, and there’s no real risk to the writer in restating them once again.

Writers who are also incarcerated know their incarceration means they are among the most fetishized writers working. Who isn’t curious, at least a little, about women and men behind bars? Does one write toward these fetishistic conceptions or away from them? Does one try to appear authentic? Or does one simply try and tell the truth, a largely impossible challenge given how complicated truth can be and how vital hiding can seem to survival? This is the dilemma of any writer, somehow doubly amplified in jail. 

Rarely has one felt so vulnerable or had so many reasons to hide than as when one is in the state’s legal custody, though in any given lifetime only some of us end up experiencing the state's undeniable weight. Mostly you have to be poor.

Working with the writers in Hollister’s jail––located in one of the most impoverished counties in California––reveals a truth about the United States. Here addiction or mental illness combined with poverty leads to incarceration, and at the seed off all three there is often trauma.

Indeed, Center’s for DiseaseControl studies prove it. Childhood experiences of neglect, abuse, and violence often lead to adulthoods filled with poor health, addiction, and incarceration. In one sense then, we jail people for being traumatized as children.

By apparent, and tragic, and comic coincidence, what readers are most willing to engage in is a piece of writing infused with conflict, conflict promising to resolve its own tensions before the reader’s eyes with a balancing of surprise, truth, and inevitability. When writing from actual events the writer needs to appear unmasked and vulnerable. For this reason, and if the writer is willing, trauma can become a creative asset, for what is trauma if not conflict?

There is an implicit promise in the act of writing––what we bring to the page at last stands outside us. It may bring about connection with others, and holds the possibility of uplifting losses and pain. It’s as if what we put it on the page, may also put be put to rest.

On the other hand, it can also seem that shining light on our conflicts might destroy something essential in us, as if secrets were strengths, a feeling often underlined by fear that, anyway, our talents won’t match our truths.

Perhaps that is why there is so much tenderness in the jail classroom. The kindness students express toward each other sometimes leaves me in awe. They usually greet even the most marginalized among us with warmth and understanding.

By contrast, I often feel overwhelmed and frightened by people who lack resources necessary for survival or otherwise seem out of control in someway––the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill.

The women of San Benito County Jail, however, make compassion look easy, and not only easy but also necessary. The well of tenderness they draw from seems somehow fundamental to survival itself––all of it––yours and mine included.

The work in Ecstasy of the Streets, Agony of these Walls contains their wise and caring words. Some of them returned to workshop, week after week. Others passed through before being released or sent to other facilities for longer stays, so the writing included in this book represents the work of people in transition in nearly every way. I hope within it, you find something to soothe whatever conflicts life has presented you.

To read the book, click here: Ecstasy of the Streets, Agony of these Walls (Writing from the Women of E & F Pod  Spring 2016)

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