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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About Brothers In Pen

Brothers in Pen is the collective name of the Wednesday Night Creative Writing Class at San Quentin State Prison facilitated by Zoe Mullery.
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