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Writing About Mass Incarceration Across Genres, Part II

Writers Tayari Jones and DaMaris B. Hill talk with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell in the second of two special episodes on the effects of mass incarceration on American communities and democracy. Jones, author of the New York Times bestseller An American Marriage, discusses the collateral effects of incarceration, the disproportionate financial burden on women, and allowing characters hope. Hill, a scholar and poet, talks about her forthcoming book A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing, the link between poverty and incarceration, inspiration found in historical figures, Assata Shakur, and the need to acknowledge others’ complex and multifaceted lives.


An American Marriage, Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones · Who Pays?: The True Cost of Incarceration on Families” by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design · Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, edited by Dave Eggers and Lola Vollen · Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond · The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander · A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing (2019), Visible Textures, The Fluid Boundaries of Suffrage and Jim Crow: Staking Claims in the American Heartland by DaMaris B. Hill · Colored Amazons by Kali N. Gross · Stewing” by DaMaris B. Hill · The comedy of Moms Mabley, Richard Pryor, and Redd Foxx · “This Granny Is a Gangster” by DaMaris B. Hill

From the Episode, Part 1 Tayari Jones on Family Support for Incarcerated Men

Tayari Jones: When you look at a wrongfully incarcerated man, I always say that they call it “wrongful incarceration” because it is wrong. In fiction, when you take the place where there’s a certain moral ambiguity, and you harass that, and in the case of this marriage, we have this young couple. They’re in a pretty good marriage, and he is in prison for something he did not do. But how does that then affect the marriage? What I came to really understand was, in order for their marriage to be mutually satisfying, each of them would have to be an extraordinary spouse, and what I realized was that mass incarceration makes it where ordinary people have to be extraordinary. That is so much to carry for either of them.

Whitney Terrell: I love the way that before the event that leads to Roy’s incarceration in the book, you talk about the background of their marriage and you plant seeds that are going to be problems or might be as they would have been if nothing had happened in their marriage. Was that there in the beginning or did you realize, I’ve got to plant these seeds early on so that I can use that stuff later in the book?

TJ: I like to write characters that feel like they live in a world not that they live in a book, and so I feel like characters who live in a book don’t have problems. I didn’t want to set them up symbolically like they were the perfect couple and then disaster struck. I wanted them to feel like an average couple, with average couple problems. He has a little bit of a wandering eye. She’s not sure she is even cut out to be a wife. They’ve only been married 18 months. I feel like a lot of times when characters have problems that are symbolic, like a black man wrongfully incarcerated for rape in America, that feels so symbolic, and when things start seeming overly symbolic people stop seeming real, and I needed to really ask myself, how does this injustice intersect with an ordinary love story?

V.V. Ganeshananthan: I thought one of the really nice ways that you did that was with the characters of Celestial’s and Roy’s parents, who are these continuous threads throughout the story. Watching their support for the young couple take different forms, different models of their marriages, and their different economic statuses, and that tight line through this story, and it proceeds Roy’s predicament. Then it also carries on much past it, and we see different stances there, too, and I love the characters of the parents. They’re so great.

TJ: Well, I also feel like the parents, they represent the voice a previous generation. All Roy’s life, his mother is fearful that her son will go to jail. She’s not fearful that her son will be a criminal, but she’s fearful that her son will go to jail or some other mishap will befall him just because he is a black boy who grew up to be a black man. This has completely shaped her parenting style. Celestial’s father supports Roy because Roy is . . . and he wasn’t even that crazy about Roy as a son-in-law in the beginning . . . but once Roy became an imprisoned person then he became symbolic of all the struggles of black manhood, and he wants his daughter to do her part to support her incarcerated husband.

I feel that a lot of the characters have a limited imagination in what support looks like. They can only see her supporting him. They want her to support him the way Penelope looks at Odysseus in the Odyssey, and that was written in 45 BC. So, how does a family go on after the husband is incarcerated? Is the answer that the wife should be kind of suspended in amber as a monument to his struggles? Or can she support him without sacrificing her dreams?

VVG: Right. There’s this model of martyrdom which I think gets valorized pretty quickly in a lot of different communities, in particular for women, and in between reading your book I was reading statistics about how mass incarceration affects families in the US, and I was thinking, you gesture at Roy’s experience of life in prison, but what it is like for Celestial to be alone? She’s still a wife but without her husband present, so she begins to ask, is she a wife? So, what is her experience? That takes for me, as I was reading the book, front and center.

So, I’m quoting some statistics from 2015. These are from Forward Together and the Ella Baker Center For Human Rights: about one in every four women and two of five black women are related to someone who is incarcerated, and in 63 percent of cases, family members on the outside were responsible for the cost associated with conviction and trial and court-related costs. And 83 percent of the family members are women, and there’s this part in the book where Celestial is going to put money on the books for Roy. Celestial has a business of her own. How is she going to realize that dream? There are some references to the men of this community having this dream of “sitting their women down”—meaning that the women would not have to work. And Celestial’s story is very different.

TJ: Celestial financially supports Roy while he is in prison. In this novel, she is a woman of some means because her father is an inventor and has a very profitable patent. But more commonly, working class women are supporting men who are in prison.

From the Episode, Part 2 DaMaris B. Hill on the Rising Number of Incarcerated Women

Whitney Terrell: In this two-episode discussion we’ve been having on mass incarceration in America, the incarceration of black women—and, more generally, the ways black women are bound in American society—is something we really haven’t talked about yet. And yet, you point out, citing The Sentencing Project, between 1984 and 2014 the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700 percent. How did you arrive at this subject?

DaMaris B. Hill: Well, back when I was attending the University of Kansas for my PhD, I began to study the long histories of black women in the United States. And I started thinking a lot about what it means to be confined. That general curiosity and questioning led me to think about women and incarceration, and it was there that I learned about these statistics—I actually think the statistics specifically for black women are slightly higher. It might be something like 814 percent.

WT: Increase in that same time period, you mean?

DBH: In the same time period. Also, I started to think about it because of some of the things that happened during my black girlhood experience on the East Coast. I guess I came of age in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and during that time, there was a rise in addiction related to the crack epidemic. And as a result in the following years, not only did many people I know go to jail but many women that I looked up to in the community found themselves victims of drug abuse—and as a result found themselves trying to struggle against poverty and, you know, ultimately ended up incarcerated—some of them did. And so the combination of my curiosity and the personal experience really inspired me to look very deeply at the issue of incarceration within the United States, and it forces me to question why two million children in the United States have at least one incarcerated parent. I think it was something, when I began the research, like 80 percent of the women that are incarcerated make less than $20,000 a year.

WT: Wow.

DBH: . . . And supporting families on that low of an income. So I think, one: it’s really a financial issue. But I also believe that this, the mass incarceration rate, is akin to another form of servitude that we have embedded within American history. And for that reason, I’m also questioning the profit margin associated with mass incarceration.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: I mean the diction you’re using—it sounds like you’re choosing it very carefully to say “victims,” “drug abuse” . . .

DBH: Yes.

VVG: And I’m reminded of a recent conversation about the opioid epidemic and the ways in which people are paying attention to that and to white victims of drug abuse—that diction was so different when we were talking about other drug epidemics. And we’re talking about the link between poverty and incarceration, which has come up in some of our earlier conversations, and the powerful history of incarceration in the United States and the way that it seems like in so many cases people are incarcerated almost as a punishment for poverty.

DBH: Exactly.

VVG: . . . Which is so upsetting to me. The book is dedicated to your ancestors. You talk about the importance of honoring ancestors in the African American tradition, and you’ve written poems addressed to famous historical figures like Lucille Clifton or Eartha Kitt. But you also focus on lesser-known historical figures like Annie Cutler, Alice Clifton, or Ida Howard. I’m wondering what it was about their lives that spoke to you and made you connect their lives to the present, made you want to write poetry about them.

DBH: So in 2009, I picked up a book: Colored Amazons by Dr. Kali N. Gross—who’s an anthropologist now at Rutgers University. And it was a case study about Eastern [State] Penitentiary in Philadelphia. I believe the years that she looks to are between 1910 and, I think, 1950. I’m sorry—1890 to 1910, I believe. I began reading the book. You know, as you write you should always be reading, I say, twice as many hours as you’re writing. Right? So that’s my practice.

WT: Do you hear that, students?

DBH: [laughs] So I was reading the book. And even though it was a historical text and a social-science text, the case studies and the bits of archival testimony from these black women within the court system was so moving that I began writing poems about them the minute I finished the book.


This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcriptions by Erin Saxon and Kevin Kotur.

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