Works In Progress
These novels have been informed by my volunteer work teaching writing and storytelling workshops with prisoners for 15 years, and by interviews with ex-prisoners, their families, and people who work with them.
I draw on my African American heritage to tell stories about how we pull light from darkness to renew and reinvent ourselves. I continue to be interested in the role of narrative in our lives and in the challenge of making art from loss. The narratives on which I was fed by my family, for whom stories and books were a kind of religion, gave me a sense of how words can expand and guide us. I carry the tales of many heroes of world literature with me, along with the story of my ancestor, who sneaked along rows of cotton in the night, teaching fellow slaves to read. To these I add my own stories about the ways in which my communities have struggled to make art from difficulty and meaning from narrative.
The effort to do this, to strive for rebirth and maintain one’s humanity while mired in the ultimate deprivation of incarceration, is a story not just for my people, but for everyone who breathes.
These lives matter. Don’t turn away.
“Pomegranate,” A Novel
Ranita Atwater is “getting short.” She has served six years at Oak Hills Correctional Center for drug possession and crimes related to her addiction, and she has been clean for three years, two months, and 23 days. Her kids are in foster care and she is getting out just in time to get them back, just months before she might lose them to adoption.
As Ranita takes leave of her prison world, with its sometime community of women; its regimented order; and the lover Maxine, who can conjure and tell the free, remembered things that keep them alive, she works to make a new story while claiming her old one. She grapples to reinvent herself as she returns to a world that has kept on turning without her, to stay clean and atone, and to rebuild her relationships with her children. She grapples with what her love for Maxine means for her free world life and her identity. As she claims the history that is housed within her pomegranate-like heart, she struggles with what is entailed in being patient and generous and awake, and with the prospect of choosing what might lie beyond mere survival.
“The Unlocked Room,” A Novel
A poet’s search for family takes her to prison. Sylvia Byrd is seeking the brother whose existence she discovered only months ago, just before her mother died. After finding out that he is incarcerated an hour away from her home in Boston, she grapples with the impulse to refuse the painful and disruptive truth of his existence. A Harvard-educated, black “success story,” she is reluctant to confront incarceration, the weight that pulls her people down, and to claim the story that now involves her, not from the neck up, but in a personal, undeniable way. What if the man she is seeking is just another locked up brother, unexceptional and bent on reaching down instead of up, and what if there is nothing special between them, in the end?
Alone in the world after her mother’s death, and unable to write for the first time in her life, she decides not to turn away. She begins volunteering to teach poetry at the prison to see if she can find her brother, and to determine how meaningful poetry is and whether it belongs to everyone.
As Sylvia searches for her brother, she begins to write letters to him that she does not yet send. In parallel with her letters, the novel reveals what life on the inside is like for the men in her poetry class. As a handful of men show up to the unlocked, common room for her class, Sylvia finds that each one has his own story of loss, despair, imagination and survival. The men are changed by the poetry she brings and by her investment in them, and she is changed, as well, as she pursues a score of unsettling questions. Will she find her brother? If she does find him, should she give him the letters she has written and disclose their kinship? What kind of man is he, and will he turn his life around? Will she find a way to write again?
Along with Sylvia, you will come to know a group of men who are serving time for various crimes at Oak Ridge, and you will meet Keisha, who is locked up at Oak Hills, the women’s prison down the road. The characters’ lives intersect through past ties, daily routine, rolling domino games through which they gather to socialize and philosophize, and Sylvia’s poetry class.
Vernon, whose story forms the skeleton of the novel, searches for a means to own his past and to imagine himself differently, while the other characters play increasingly important roles in his quest. Kelvin, haunted by generations of imprisoned and enslaved African Americans, cries out that he is more than his very worst thing, and Quake soldiers on in rage and pride, even as his sense of himself begins to shrink. Monroe recalls his past in shifting memories, but is too aged and out of touch to remember his crime, while Boo, who has only recently learned to read, lays claim to the alphabet, discovers a lifeline in poetry, and inspires Vernon to find new ways to navigate. Keisha, doing time for serving as her boyfriend Quake’s drug mule, tries to figure out whether to survive through kinship and join a constellation, as so many women prisoners do, or remain a solitary star.