Monday, May 3, 2010

The Light Seen in a Prison Cell

Edit: Link fixed!

I recently read this article by Samantha Miller about writers who have gone to prison on account of their writing.

I think about this sometimes. What is it to stand by your work? What is it to write something worth standing by? It is easy, I think, for many of us to forget the importance of words, to forget their power. We love telling stories, we get them published or hope to do so, we think of a career… and yet there’s something more. It is with words we shape the world. A revolution is always spoken and written before it is acted. The words shape the struggle.

The writers mentioned in the article wrote against oppression, wrote in the face of it. The truths they understood were more important. The words were worth the risk, the sacrifice. Perhaps we will not all be in that situation, where our words mean so much.
But it’s important to remember the transformative power of words. These writers were feared for the truth they offered, for the convincingness of their words.

We, too, want to make someone feel, to make someone think. Or perhaps just make someone happy. The power of this is important, the movement from the abstractness of the page to the all too real reader. A connection.

I wonder how many of us would stand by our work in the face of such sacrifice? Prison, confinement, an end of freedom…

Yet it’s strange. I’m drawn to ideas of imprisonment, to stories about this. Perhaps there is something in the act of writing itself that draws a parallel, the sense of solitude and isolation. A writer has to create their own walls. They have to hold themselves inside, to think, to write, to find a story and its proper expression. It is a voluntary imprisonment, of course, and the food and accommodations are better. But there’s something about that idea of solitude, about the box of a prison, that draws me in.

Prison is a crucible. Some sacrifice and accept the risk of imprisonment, while others are imprisoned and find it is this crucible that comes to shape their conscience. I’m currently reading a novel by Chester Himes, The Big Gold Dream. He was a black American writer who grew up poor and in difficult times. In the 20s he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery. In prison he started to write. He had his first story published from there, in 1934. In 1936 he got out after eight years behind bars. And yet he’d found a path. Did the solitude of that cell push him this way?

He wrote. Literary novels. Protest novels about the culture of America, about racism and prejudice. Brutal and burning and probing stories, full of a terrible honesty. He couldn’t stay in America, leaving to live abroad, always searching for a place where he would be treated as a man. And yet he came back in his writing. He wrote crime novels, too, gritty detective novels featuring his detective team of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, searching through old time Harlem. These books burn a little too, and yet in the light of that fire there is truth and honesty. A world peeled back.

In a cell, perhaps, you can reflect back. On experience, on the world you’ve known. And yet that is really just a way of facing yourself. I’m fascinated with this experience. I have a literary novel I’ve been writing (lost somewhere in the midst of ongoing revisions) about a woman who is kidnapped and placed in a cell.

I think I’m drawn to the sense of containment. A world bound down to its smallest form, its most minimal existence. Trapped with yourself. The story cannot help but operate inside the character, turning their souls inside out for inspection.

And isn’t that what we do? We sit down. We tap the keys. Alone. Alone we turn our souls inside out for inspection.


Matthew Rush said...

Very true, thanks for sharing Ink.

Some of my favorite books have been written by men behind bars like Trotsky and Mandela. Let's not forget that Hitler was in prison when he wrote Mein Kampf though.

Ink said...

True, Matt. I often think that prison makes bad men worse. Though that might be another issue. Prison reform, anyone? :) But I really think it's simply hard to escape yourself in confinement. And when you confront yourself, what is the response? Some will transform, will find expression, like Chester Himes. Some will push everything outward, like Hitler. He was the master of blame, of shifted responsibility.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

My son, Dark Omen, just wrote a report on man's inhumanity in prisons. He's in 5th grade, so mom kept the source materials at an age appropriate level, but there were many lightbulbs going off in his head as he read and thought and wrote about the prison experience, and what constituted acceptable imprisonment, and inhumane imprisonment.

Writing was definitely turning that little boy inside out that day.

As a public official, I know very well the power of words. Simple words, containing truth, will resonate in a way that all the flowery bloviating in the world cannot. I give frequent thanks that I live in a country where I'll never have to go to jail for my words. And I wish the people who get up in a twist about book banning (in the U.S.) would turn their focus to supporting writers in countries where the cost of their words can be so very high.

Mira said...

This is a huge struggle for me. I've dealt with and am dealing with this issue. I've personally faced consequences for speaking out. On the blogs. At work. In my life.

I grapple with this. When is it worth it? When is it better to use diplomacy, and when is it better to write or speak truth clearly?

Prison, execution, torture those can be the dramatic end results. But there are lots of little choices along the way. There are other consequences for writing truth. Missing out on priviledge, burning a bridge, losing an important connection, losing friends, being mocked, being attacked, being held up as a standard of stupidity, being the object of intense peer pressure, being ostracized.

It starts small. In daily choices.

And it's not black or white. Speaking out may not always be the best choice. Is there a way to communicate without alienating? It can be very hard to know.

In terms of prison - that may be why unhappiness can be such a boon to writers. Unhappiness can create it's own prison. Because I agree, Bryan, alone time and focus are essential to the writer's mind.

Susan, I'm going to have to disagree with you about something, which is book banning. That's really where it starts. It doesn't take much for things to turn on a dime. McCarthyism, a whole decade of oppression, for example. The more freedom we gain, the more we need to safeguard it.

Wow, Bryan, I could go on for pages. You picked a topic close to my heart - thanks for the chance to pontificate. :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Mira I know I'm in the minority of writers in my opinions about book "banning" (because books aren't "banned" in the U.S.), but that doesn't keep me from speaking my mind about it. Even if I get some heat for it. Oh, the irony! :)

Mira said...

Susan - I'm cool with our disagreeing on this one. :)

Although I'm not completely clear on your stance, actually. Are you saying it's not a problem because people have access to books elsewhere?

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Mira I'm writing a guest post about this soon, so it's been rumbling around in my mind (more than usual).

But here's my thinking, in brief:

The vast majority of "banned" books are books that parents have raised concerns about content for children (usually in YA books) and don't want those books in the teen section of the public library, or the school library, or in the classrooms. No one gets excited about adult books, and no one tries to "ban" them (in the U.S. --> see China and Iran for true book banning).

The thing that the public library, the school library and the classrooms all have in common? They all have kids, and they are all taxpayer funded. I believe that institutions supported by taxpayers should reflect the values of the community they serve (which may be different in different places), and if the community is outraged about a book, then the library et. al. should consider moving it to the adult section, where no one will care. Meanwhile, if kids/adults want the book, they are free to go to B&N and buy it (because it's available, because it's not really banned).

Savvy authors often comment that they like having their books "banned" ... because it increases sales. This is because they are not truly banned - they simply aren't available (maybe - most objections are unsuccessful) at taxpayer expense.

Mira said...

Susan, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

And in the spirit of this post, I applaud your willingness to be non-PC. That can take some chuzpah! You go! :)

On the other hand, we do disagree dramatically - maybe I'll wait for your guest post (will it be here?) to discuss it at length, but I will say a quick couple of things - first I think public institutions should be controlled by voters, not taxpayers. Otherwise, you leave out a number of unemployed and disabled people. Also, I want to point out that the poor do not always have the option of buying books, and are limited to libraries. But I guess my main argument is that parents should only have the right to control what their children read, not what other people's children read - not even if the vote is 99-1. Oh, and, most important, I think that public institutions should be guided by constitutional values, not community values. That protects a number of rights, not the least of which are freedom of speech and separation of church and state.

Okay, that about sums it up, without going on too much of a diatribe. :)

hope we're not coopting your thread too much, Bryan.

On the other hand, see what you started??? :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Mira Thanks for sharing your ideas! And whether you're PC or non-PC depends on who you hang with. :)

I'll let you know when I guest post over at and you can come debate me over there. :)

Ink said...

Hey, co-opt away! That's why I started this blog, to have interesting discussions on writing and other ephemera.

As for me, I don't mind librarians choosing or not choosing certain books. That's the job. They can't choose everything. I do have a bit of a problem with certain cases, where someone complains about a book and it's taken completely out of circulation. That book has been paid for by taxpayers, and if one of those taxpayers wants to take that book out that should be their right. Someone else's complaints shouldn't affect that.

However I'm fine with some books requiring parental permission to withdraw. We do this for lots of things, and if the parents are fine with it the kid can still withdraw the book. And if the parents aren't fine with it then they shouldn't be reading that book.

Is it obvious I'm a protective Daddy? :)

I certainly don't like removing books, though. I'm not even American and I like your Amendment. :) I always liked the idea that Free Speech is difficult. It's easy to except Free Speech when people are saying things you agree with. More of a challenge to accept it when they are saying something that you'd spend your whole life fighting against. Accept and support their right to say it... but argue against their point with all your heart.

Good debate!

Mira said...

Susan, good point about the PC. :)

Bryan, I like what you said. I like the idea of parental permission to take out certain books, while still keeping the books available. That seems to address both concerns. Nice suggestion!

Empty Refrigerator said...

Interesting post - and follow up discussion.

Theresa Milstein said...

Beautifully written.

I never think as my novels as the type to cause controversy or endanger my freedom. There are many who have knowingly written words they knew could land them behind bars, but they did it anyway. I respect those people. Would I be able to do the same? Probably not.

You are right, words are powerful.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Mira @Ink My guest post is up on ReadingTeen, if you're interested:

The "Banning" of YA books

Mira said...

Cool, Susan. I checked it out - nicely written article.

It's true we still don't agree, though. I think we have a differing perspective on constitutionality. And representative democracy and tyranny of the majority.

But I'm not going over there to debate it out! :) I've got papers due and finals in a couple weeks.

But maybe sometime in the future, we can dig in.

Congrats on a good article. :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Mira Thanks for reading! And happy to discuss/debate any time. :)