In Our Own Words: Writing From Parchman Prison
On June 2nd, 2014, nine inmates of Parchman Prison completed the first creative writing program in any Mississippi prison. The designer and teacher of the course, Louis Bourgeois of Oxford, compiled a selection of their work for publication. In the brief introduction, he writes: “I can only say this: men who had never written before in their lives, ended up churning out 10-40 page narratives, at an amazing speed and quality. I will let the book speak for itself.” Bourgeois encourages us to interpret the work for ourselves, and the following paragraphs are a patchwork of initial reflections.
Each of the nine writers has a spare cover page captioned with their inmate number and a few sentences summarizing their reason for incarceration. For example, here is the second writer’s introduction: “Vincent Young was raised on a farm in New Albany, Mississippi. His father was an airplane mechanic and sometimes bare knuckles boxer. He is serving a life sentence for armed-robbery and aggravated assault” (21). This caption and the others are somewhat misleading. From Young’s, we begin to form at least three main assumptions about the content of his narrative: 1) it will be about where he grew up; 2) his family life will be described and likely focused on his father; 3) a depiction of the crime and/ or life in jail will conclude the narrative. After reading his narrative, the first two are roughly met; the third remains unexplained. The stories of their crimes and their perspectives on incarceration lurk behind every word that follows the cover page.
This form – a cover page followed by an inmate’s narrative – encourages empathetic thinking. Instead of crimes or penal injustice, we read of their childhood adventures, going to school for the first time, their Christmas festivities. Their stories use details that uncannily remind us of our own lives. Only when their childhood experiences stray from the norm do we begin to understand how or why they have ended up imprisoned. The details of abject poverty, of lizards crawling through a roof’s gaping hole, begin to form an alternative life-path, one that most of us who read this book have never known. Without bluntly telling us that poverty was a (or the) factor that brought them to prison, they show us a nebulous web of potential causes without making any specific arguments – it appears their entire lives, which are hauntingly similar to our own, were inevitably drawn into confinement.
As the captions show, the identities of these men can be stripped down to a few sentences by the penal system. To defy this, the writers use techniques that cannot easily be interpreted. Vincent Young’s narrative uses a pet pig, Legs, for symbolic effect. Legs acts and reacts in tandem with Young to the point that she is not an individual character, but a visible reflection of Young’s hidden emotional life. The innocence of the loving pet pig shows aspects of Young that his own character could not easily reveal or simply state. When Legs is abruptly separated from Vincent, she dies, and his narrative suddenly concludes. She adds a shimmering symbolic layer to his writing, which helps to evade easy interpretation of his life and moral worth.
Further, almost all the stories have temporal inconsistencies. While depicting a series of sequential events that occurred in the past, sentences freely move between the simple past and present tense. For a prescriptive grammarian, this may be maddening. However, it serves an artistic purpose. We sense the writer’s memory of an event overwhelms him and he periodically relives it. His current confinement and murky future make these temporal transitions not clunky but sorrowful.
A great deal could be said about this work – like the editorial presence – and my own reflections are a few initial thoughts. Overall, the collection is uncommonly and disturbingly intimate. It defies expectations and demands thoughtful engagement, but you’re left with a melancholy sense of indignation.
**Come hear Louis Bourgeois speak about this book and the new Prison Writes Initiative this Wednesday, March 4th, at LCOPL – lunch will be provided!**