Junot Diaz speaks from the past!

Yes, Junot Diaz came to visit our class… in 2011. He was amazing. He was inspiring. He talked about character triangulation, and Superman, and creating worlds. We were spellbound, as we were the first time he visited in 2009. Due to circumstances beyond all control, our visit with Junot was extremely short, maybe an hour or so… but it got FILMED. Junot wrote a foreword to our anthology, a proclamation, an affirmation, a strong and passionate vision. He read it out loud in front of us, on camera, beautiful.

And then began the work of trying to get that bit of recorded inspiration, either whole or in part, through the gates.

I must admit that I got discouraged somewhere along the way and stopped trying. But then someone in North Carolina heard about it and wanted to do a story on it, and kept asking me if there was any chance of getting a hold of the audio, or the video, or any part of it, so I started asking again. I started asking harder in September, and now, February 13, 2013, only a little over 2-1/2 years since Junot was with us, I have it! Or at least 12 minutes that Troy, our intrepid San Quentin filmmaker, was able to put together.

The first part is Junot sharing his perspective on stories. He calls Superman “America’s quintessential immigrant. He thinks he is human and then discovers he’s not… It’s a peculiar kind of American optimism, that someone would actually show up to your place, and he’s 5 mllion times stronger than you, but he would be very helpful and very kind. ” (At one point while talking about Superman he mentions this unknown story called John Carter that pre-dated the Superman story. Junot was telling us this in 2011, and then the huge John Carter movie came out in 2012.)

He gives some advice to the class: “You guys should look at each other’s pieces and circle the places where the person builds the world. That’s really what you’re about. Circle where the world gets built…” He talks about how people “don’t exist in our brain outside of relationships” and how we need to look for and describe the ways the relationships exist in triangles.

Right around 7:53 he starts reading the foreword. How is it that I never posted the foreword here?

Junot Díaz
Foreword to the anthology “Brothers in Pen: Six Cubic Feet”
One can understand why so many of us out in the world would rather not hear from the voices within our prison system.  After all, ours is a society that has still not sussed out a humane way to administer justice or to enable rehabilitation; as anyone who has had any involvement will tell you, our carceral system is by any estimation deeply flawed and at times impossibly cruel. Summoning the will, however, political or otherwise, for comprehensive reform is a Sisyphean struggle.  Many sectors rely on the prison system for incomes and electoral margins and these vested interests do not wish to see the current system changed.  And given the political climate, what politician would dare to broach the subject?
As for the public, well, the public in the main does not want to see the system change. For change first requires assessment and assessment would mean we would eventually have to listen to people that we have long grown used to not listening to.  We on the outside fear those voices, those behind-bar voices, not simply because they are the voices of criminals, because among these voices are men and women who have committed shocking crimes against our society. We fear those voices because of what they tell us about our nation and because of what they tell us about ourselves.  As a society we luxuriate in a belief that we are good—and this good can mask a perverse, unreasoning desire to punish, a fundamental lack of compassion when it comes to those behind bars.  By keeping the prison system as far away from us as possible, we can maintain the myth of our unvarnished goodness, without having to examine the reality of our almost medieval need to see others punished. We can play at being good without ever actually having to live up to those standards.
To heed the voices within our prison system, as a society, would mean that we would learn things about ourselves we would otherwise prefer to keep locked up. And in learning these things we would change not only our societal systems but our deepest selves.
It is perhaps too early to hope for such impossible things. Or as some would have it: perhaps it is too late. I still believe that despite all the ills of our species, one day the change will come, the change that will make us truly the good beings we claim to be: beings that do not fear voices from the margin, but who welcome them.
Until that impossible day comes, let these stories, these poems, these testimonies, these songs from behind bars, serve ever to remind us of the people we are locking up—men and women who are, for all that they have done and that has been done to them, our brothers and sisters. Let these writings serve ever to remind us of the distance we have yet to travel, as a society, as a race. Let these words keep us company; let them comfort us; let them guide us and teach us and warn us and scold us; let these words remind us of who we are and who we could be, until that astonishing day dawns when we are ready to take that first step out of darkness and into light.
Junot Díaz
March 1, 2011

I think that is enough said for now.

Thanks to Junot for caring, and to to Troy for putting the video together, and to Rend for wanting to see it, and to Rose for getting Junot to visit…
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Brothers in Pen on the radio

Kyung Jin Lee

KALW reporter Kyung Jin Lee recording Watani Stiner during the Q&A portion of the reading

On July 25, a radio story about the Brothers in Pen public reading was broadcast on KALW radio, 91.7 fm. It featured Noble Butler’s piece “I Am,” which resonated especially strongly as it referenced the Trayvon Martin case and the verdict came out that same evening. The show is archived and you can listen to it at http://www.kalw.org/post/brothers-pen-creative-writing-san-quentin. You can also hear some of the Q&A discussion on whether prison is helpful for people to turn their lives around.

Thanks to KALW for all the attention given to prison issues and for giving prisoners access to being heard.

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San Quentin Literary Voices Have Spoken


Around forty or fifty guests from outside the walls arrived Saturday, July 13, 2013 to listen and interact with twenty-five writers–the Brothers in Pen.

As always, the contact between the Inside Ones and the Outside Ones was stimulating and rewarding to both. For the Brothers in Pen, to have the respect of an attentive and open-minded audience listening to their work–some of it light-hearted, some of it intensely personal–was very satisfying. For the guests, to be face to face with criminals who are also fathers and dreamers and thinkers and passionate, concerned inhabitants of the very same world evoked strong fellow feeling and some confusion–hopefully the kind that leads to greater ability to embrace complexity and paradox.

Lovely photos of the day were taken by photographer Peter Merts, and KALW radio is doing a story that will air Thursday, July 25 between 5 and 5:40 pm on 91.7 fm.

The readings for the day are being collected into a small book. Watch this site for a link to download it. Sometime in the next year we will begin our next full-size anthology…



Here is the text of Noble Butler’s story which will be featured on the radio spot on the 25th. More stories soon.

I Am…

(An excerpt of a larger story)


N. “Noble” Butler


                  Shots rang out, echoing through his head. He struggled to wrap his head around what was going on, where he was and what was happening to him. It was night, that’s all he knew for sure. And, that it was cold…


            …”Dearly beloved,” the preacher begins. “We are gathered here today, NOT to mourn, but rather to celebrate the life of…” His rich, baritone voice is somber, but its old school, southern Baptist cadence is beckoning. A heartsick, sorrowful wail rises up from the front of the sanctuary, reminding some in attendance of a wounded animal.

He continues: “We didn’t have to be gathered here today, under these circumstances. OH NO! We should be here celebrating good times, commemorating blessed events. But, instead, we must be that village that comes together and lend our strength our strength to a grieving mother and father, and lay to rest one of our own children…”


            …It wasn’t supposed to be this way. All he was doing was heading home from the store after getting a snack. He didn’t realize that in between the time that he left out the front door, to the time that he started back, that the laws had changed to state it was a capital offense to be young, Black and to wear a hoodie in that neighborhood. Or, that the people who lived there had been given posse comitatus status to carry out the punishment on sight…


            … “This child was LOVED!” The preacher blasted at full volume. By now, he had raised the congregation to a fevered pitch. Some would say the Holy Ghost has come and laid Hands on folks up in here! There are even episodes of laughter in between the tears as funny anecdotes are shared: “Do you remember that one time when…?” “Girl, there was this other time he…” “Chile, I can think of the time she…”

But, even in the midst of these lighter moment, it is impossible to forget that this congregation is missing one of its members, that one of the most important stars in this constellation has fallen from the sky. Occasionally, someone will steal a clandestine glance towards the gleaming treasure chest resting at the foot of the alter up front, and be reminded of it contents; the totality of one woman’s most precious prize, the fulfillment of a man’s bloodline. And somewhere in the back if their minds, they will swear they could hear the heart wrenching bleat of that wounded animal…


            …She was just hanging out with her girls kickin’ it at the park, enjoying a mild February evening. Her friends never tired of her stories about her trip to D.C. or performing for the president.

                  And, not just any president: the first Black President, AND he from Chicago, at that. She reminds them that the inauguration was also in the same year as the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. She connects them to a rich history, reminds them they are more than just some South Side projects, infuses them with dreams of tomorrow…

                  …Until chaos erupts at the other end of the park, and a metallic wasp, moving faster than the speed of sound and with no concern for who it stings, strays from it’s intended path, and, instead bites her once, giving her sleep, but stealing away those dreams…


                  …It was just after midnight, January 1st, New Year’s Day! The world held promise for him as his friends rode the BART back home to the Fruitvale line.

                  At 21, life was just beginning to open up for him. He chatted with his friends and watched the world pass by out his window as he pondered at all the possibilities the new year would bring him.

                  But, promises and possibilities would forever remain unfulfilled. When it can time to explain, 5-0 said he couldn’t tell the difference between the weight of a taser and a glock, something any twelve year old kid in the hood could tell you . But, it’s alright, though, ‘cause he was sorry…


            …”But, is sorry enough?!” the preacher asks, imploring the crowd. The mother, no longer able to suffer in silence, howls out in pure agony at the question, letting that be her answer.

“Hell naw!” someone yells and leaps to his feet, turns and storms out the church. Others turn to look and follow.

Soon, the whole congregation is in the streets. One by one, residents of the neighborhood, all colors and creeds, opens their doors and joins the gathering and growing crowd. They created a mighty procession, a sea of people, deeper than any ocean formed since time began, and pressed forward.

They arrive at the gravesite and the sea parts, allowing the mother to come forward with the treasure chest containing her most precious prize, and they lowered it, returning it to the earth and God that which is His.



And, as the first clumps of dirt began to fill the hole, a chant rises up. Soon, it is echoing through the crowd…






I AM … you…


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San Quentin Literary Voices


October 13, 2012               photo by Peter Merts

A reading of works of fiction and memoir by the “Brothers in Pen” Creative Writing Class at San Quentin State Prison

July 13, 2013

This is a group of serious writers who meet weekly to share, listen, critique and discuss their own and others’ works of fiction and memoir. The class has produced four anthologies in the “Brothers in Pen” series. Each member of the class will read a 5-minute piece—either an excerpt from a story, novel or memoir he is working on, or a piece written specifically for this reading.
These readings never fail to be moving and thought-provoking and often stereotype-busting in both directions.

Watch this space for news of this event!

For more info, contact brothersinpen@yahoo.com

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Late report: San Quentin Public Reading, October 13, 2012

As usual, this reporter is quite tardy in posting news of our most recent Public Reading of the San Quentin Wednesday Night Creative Writing Class on October 13. Though our audience was small, the attentive interest given to what each writer shared was significant.

An article in the San Quentin News will be out shortly and I will update then.

Meanwhile, click here for some lovely photos of the event by photographer Peter Merts.

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Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons

Paths of Discovery is a new book collaboration by Larry Brewster and Peter Merts. Larry is a professor, author, and former dean who wrote a crucial and much-quoted article evaluating Arts-in-Corrections in 1983 and then a follow-up article in 2010. The book includes interviews with inmate-artists and ex-cons who participated in these prison arts programs. Larry’s compassionate and insightful attention to the issues of prisoners has been a great benefit to prisoners and society.

Peter, a fine art and documentary photographer, has generously given his time and talents for many years to the documentation of the work and creative process of inmate artists, as well as beautiful portraits of the artists themselves. In so doing he has provided some respect and legitimacy for this art and its creators and allowed their work to be shared much more broadly. Peter’s prison photos as well as his other gorgeous photography can be seen at www.petermerts.com.  (and photos specifically of the Creative Writing class can be found here, here, here, and here.)

Both Larry and Peter have been wonderful friends and supporters of our Creative Writing class over the years.

This gorgeous book is available through CreateSpace at https://www.createspace.com/3916681.

Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons tells the story in words and pictures of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women who found their own voices through self-examination and the discipline of an artistic process. The California Arts-in-Corrections program brought together inmate artists and artist-teachers to explore the world of fine art in its many forms; along the way, countless inmates discovered untapped skills, sensitivities, and the rewards of self-discipline.

Artistic ability is respected inside prison walls. Arts-in-Corrections empowered men and women to take control of their lives through creative expression in the visual arts, poetry, music and other fine arts. The mission of Arts-in-Corrections was to provide inmates with the highest quality instruction, delivered by successful, working artists – many of whom became role models and mentors to the inmates. The program was established in 1980 and sadly ended in 2010 – a victim of the state’s budget crisis. The program was proven to have significantly reduced institutional tension, violence and recidivism. By travelling with their teachers down paths of discovery, inmate artists were enabled to retain their humanity while doing time. Many of them learned to serve something more valuable than their sentences.

The photographs in this book show many of the inmate artists at work, and their finished products. Through interviews and poetry you will hear in their own voices how prison arts programming helped them transcend their prisoner ID numbers and identify as artists. This book documents the existence – inside the razor wire and bleak walls of prison – of some talented and sensitive artists who have found new paths of discovery through the artistic process.


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New story posted: “The Unexpected”

Check out the latest short story by San Quentin Creative Writing student Ivan Skrblinski, “The Unexpected.” Ivan (aka Juan Haines) has written a very short piece worthy of a close read. Check it out!

Unexpected, The • Haines

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