Rachel Boccio has taught incarcerated adolescents in Cheshire, CT for the past thirteen years. She has a BA in English from the University of Delaware, an MA in Reading from Saint Joseph College (Hartford), and has recently graduated with honors from Trinity College (Hartford), with an MA in English. Rachel will be starting a doctoral program in English at the University of Rhode Island this fall.
All societies have a fundamental need for narrative; culture is literally formed through public discourse, i.e., the sharing of stories and ideas. Therefore, whose stories get told and how groups of individuals are represented in the texts that we teach must be a crucial element of debates concerning social justice and democracy.
I am reminded of the popular National Public Radio show called This American Life. This weekly broadcast features tales from across the nation – occasionally serious or poignant, more often witty and amusing. The theatrical and extemporaneous style of the show’s host, Ira Glass, has garnered This American Life the kind of attention (and Glass the kind of celebrity status) rarely experienced in public broadcasting. Even so, I wonder at an essential assumption the show seems to make. Is there, after all, an American life? As an avid listener, I can attest that the American life most often put on display through the broadcast is, by and large, white, middle class, literate, and self-reflective. In a similar way, the historical and cultural narratives taught repeatedly in public school classrooms reinforce particular attitudes, interpretations, belief systems, and life experiences; and thus act in constructing American society.
The emergence of multiculturalism in the 1990’s challenged teachers to overcome naive and flawed assumptions about the homogeneity of their student populations. Teachers were encouraged to acknowledge cultural, racial, economic, religious, and intellectual differences among their students and to draw upon these distinctions in ways that enriched the educational experiences of the entire class- no easy task to say the least. Nevertheless, teachers committed to this process (as I am) ultimately find that recognizing diverse perspectives, abilities, and personal and cultural trajectories is not enough to empower students who are suspicious of the very notion of democracy.
Real pedagogical change – the sort that has liberating potential- requires educators to reject their own fixed ideological perspectives, which are – like the attitudes of our students- dependent upon our personal histories and on our positions (geographic, economic, and political) in the world. Moreover, we must look carefully at the extent to which language and narrative privileges our lived experiences and belief systems.
Rebecca Gould is finishing her dissertation on Persian prison literature in Columbia University’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.
Prisons have nearly always been spaces of constraint, especially for writers. That freedom, coercion, imagination, and resistance are viscerally evoked in texts concerned with incarceration ranging from the eleventh to the twenty-first century, and in Russian, Italian, Persian, and countless other languages, suggests that there is a coherent genre of prison writing extending across world literature, albeit largely pertaining to the modern period.
As with slavery, first-hand accounts of prisons in antiquity are non-existent, records of medieval prisons are rare, while documentations of modern prisons abound. Is there a lesson to be gleaned here about the specific contours of modern political life? Or is the seeming paucity of premodern prison literature merely a consequence of our having chosen to define “prison” in terms of the contemporary institution familiar to us all but hidden from public view? If the modern writer is necessarily opposed to coercion from the state, then the prison may justly be claimed as literary modernity’s primary armature.
Sunil Sharma, Persian Poetry at the Indian Frontier: Mas’ud Sa’d Salman of Lahore.
Published in 2000 by an Indian publisher and recently translated into Persian, this is the first study in any language of the first prison poet in world literature, Mas’ud Sad Salman of Lahore (d. 1121). Sharma includes translations of the Lahore poet’s poems which vividly convey the poet’s daily life in prison. We read of his longing for his family, his nostalgia for his hometown of Lahore, of his sojourn through three different fortresses, of being chained to walls and discovering grey hairs on his head, and of reproaches directed by the poet to his patrons and jailors. No other book in English enables the reader to experience incarceration in the medieval world as intensely as this one.
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Megan Sweeney is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, with a joint appointment in English and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. She recently published Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons (UNC Press, 2010), and her articles about reading and prisons have appeared in Interrupted Life: The Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States, PMLA, American Literary History, Modern Fiction Studies, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Feminist Studies, and Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism.
Thugs and the Women Who Love Them may not be the sort of title that you would expect to encounter in a discussion of literature’s power to transform prisoners’ lives. Indeed, many academics and activists express concern about the kinds of books that have gained popularity in contemporary prisons. Whereas male prisoners at San Quentin circulated handwritten pages of The Communist Manifesto during the late 1960s, women prisoners currently circulate urban fiction such as Thugs and the Women Who Love Them, narratives of victimization by T. D. Jakes and Iyanla Vanzant, and Christian self-help books by televangelist Joyce Meyer.
Critics of these genres argue that urban fiction glorifies crime and offers reductive representations of African Americans, that narratives of victimization reify women as victims, and that self-help books erroneously posit individual transformation or religious faith as the solution to social and structural problems.
Although such concerns merit consideration, my research has heightened my awareness of the extent to which penal policies shape contemporary prisoners’ reading practices. Since the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s gave way to the retributive justice framework of the 1980s and beyond, prisoners’ opportunities for reading and education have steadily declined. Many prison libraries have been severely depleted or closed due to lack of funding, and the elimination of federal Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994 sparked dramatic cuts in all levels of educational programming in prisons. This decline in state and federal funding has been matched by an increase in the presence of evangelical Christian reading materials and educational programs in U.S. prisons.
Recent legal precedents have further diminished prisoners’ access to reading materials. In its 2006 decision Beard v. Banks, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it constitutional for a Pennsylvania prison to deny secular newspapers and magazines to prisoners in its long-term segregation unit, on the grounds that this denial serves as an “incentive[e] for inmate growth.” Despite the dissenting justices’ insistence that access to the full range of ideas is crucial for preserving one’s sense of humanity and citizenship, the majority opinion argues that such claims are moot when “dealing with especially difficult prisoners.”