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 Rend Smith from Prison Poetry Workshop found out 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?
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.
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…