Art You Engaged. / Are you engaged? is an emergency issue of The James Franco Review. Writers, editors, and artists around the country explored what it means for them to be politically or consciously engaged in their work and to also examine literature’s relationship to safety.
Our Words, Voices, and Souls
It was my feeling of safety which got me incarcerated. I made the assumption that I would be okay; I didn’t read up on the legal system, didn’t bother to pay for a lawyer. I hid from my situation until it consumed me. I can’t make that mistake again.
I was involved with a case so pitiful and sad that I assumed no court in the country could do anything but wash their hands of it. Instead I ended up in the Allegheny County Jail from May of 2010 till February of 2011. Yet, despite all of the obvious shortcomings an ex-con faces after jail (difficulties with housing, income/employment, parole and probation, travel), I’ve done okay. This is because I chose to write about it.
The other day a friend messaged me with a lead for a magazine. They said that they thought the mag might be a good fit for me and my work. Looking into it, the mag was seeking submissions from writers with experience in jail. At first I felt offended, and that’s a hard thing to do. I’ve been open about my past (I’ve written about my conviction for The Missouri Review website twice: here and here) but I didn’t want to be defined by it. I didn’t want to be ‘Mr. Prison’.
But then, the more I think about it, is that really so bad?
Since being released from jail I’ve worked closely with PEN American Center with their Prison Writing program. I’ve mentored several authors, all of whom try to keep in touch with me, even after our official mentorship period is over. One of the authors received an honorable mention for the PEN Prison Writing Award— something that meant as much to me as my winning second place for that award a year earlier. I’m currently helping an author—the first and, so far, only inmate to have his death sentence lifted by Texas governor Rick Perry—with poems for this year’s contest. Every time I feel I’ve escaped the shadow of the prison experience, I find myself running back towards it, and I’m proud. For once in my life I can say, without any doubt, that I’m helping people.
Many of my mentees say how close to the brink they were before discovering writing. All of them say it’s changed their lives. And with every new correspondence, I know we’ve improved one another’s in the same way— because the one thing truly taken away from you in jail is safety. Even after you get out, it never returns. Every failed job interview, every dirty look; every new social worker and mean-spirited PO… All of it forms a mass of distrust to fill the void where calm once lived.
So why should I have felt offended the other day? The truth is that I’ve tried to lift myself up from a stigma that I shouldn’t be ashamed of. I know I’m not a criminal, not a particularly fearsome or bad person. For me to say I don’t want to be ‘Mr. Prison’ is a slap in the face to all of the incredible human beings I’m come in contact with due to my prison experience. It would be a step away from inclusiveness to myself.
With no conventional means to survive, I’ve been forced into taking my writing seriously; this isn’t a hobby anymore, it’s all I have left. And while I hope that isn’t true for everyone I’ve corresponded with for the PEN program, it wouldn’t be anything to feel embarrassed of. In America, where the incarceration rates are so abysmal, I know that accepting these situations is the only way to grow from them. I will always be an ex-convict, but that doesn’t mean I cannot do great things. This is how literature must be to truly work: all classes and backgrounds should have the same means to express themselves as themselves. No one should put on authorly guises in an attempt to “look like a writer”. The days of persona are dead. We must put our fingers down to the keys. Our words, voices, and souls. How we were born, our upbringings and experiences… None of these things define who we are, but to deny any of that merely to fit in or be accepted is a lie. Whoever you feel you are, you must write as. I’ve seen too many people do what they thought was the right thing, writing what would be “publishable” or “sellable”. When a writer does this, they are truly selling themselves out.
I accept that I was in jail. I accept how those days shaped me. My characters are often poor, working class underdogs. They get stuck between bad options and they get fucked over, by themselves and by life itself. That’s what I do: I am not better than the circumstances that shaped me because they were nothing to be better than. They were real, they were me.
I was once told how the word “novel” comes from the idea of a novelty, of a unique perspective— something we can’t just get anywhere. We read because every voice has something new to reveal. The cruel joke, of course, is how often fresh, talented voices are snuffed out in the publishing world. This will change; this is changing. We must write in our own skin because somebody else is already writing in theirs, and ten hacks are copying them. To be extraordinary we must be us, no matter what that entails. As writers and editors, we must accept and embrace every story from every corner of human existence. I have met countless people who will never understand my experience, and I can’t control that— but I’m damn sure I’ll never allow anyone to discount or ignore it. From here on we must write, read, and celebrate writing as alive and as dangerous as we are.
It was my feeling of safety which got me incarcerated. That same feeling, soft and stale, cannot and will not imprison literature any longer. It’s time to break out.
Eric Boyd is working on his first collection of stories, “Brownfields”. His writing has appeared in, among others, The Offing, Guernica, Sixpenny, Bridge Eight, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. Stories of his were in the anthologies Prison Noir [Akashic Books] and Words Without Walls [Trinity University Press]. He is a winner of the PEN Prison Writing award (fiction, 2nd place) and Slice magazine’s Bridging the Gap award; he was also shortlisted by The Masters Review and was a semifinalist for the H.E. Francis award. Boyd is the editor of The Pittsburgh Anthology [Belt Publishing] and was the fiction editor for issue three of The James Franco Review.
To learn more about the PEN Prison Writing program mentioned in this piece, go here and find how you can help.
Image © Les Haines via Flickr Creative Commons.