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Participatory Emotion in Activist Prison Writing

“This is a lesson in style, not in participative emotion” Vladimir Nabokov said, giving a lecture on Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Even the most pathetic passages of the prison conditions were not emancipatory ethical tracts or polemical dirges eliciting an "participative emotion," pity. But shown as real texture, evocative features.  

 In case of arrest in DC as part of the Poor People's Campaign, I summon a temperature of support for childcare from friends during an after school playdate. Immediately I'm asked, admiringly, justifying "the lack of effect?" Prison is relaxing, presuming the subjectivity of becoming, the unfolding-self that becomes a self in relation with prisoners of conscience who have walked before you, a relation in Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death that ultimately refers to God. Yes, the Dakota Access Pipeline now chug-lops through sacred lands while Water Protector Jessica Reznicek  writes of "battling depression" and the "shock", prepares to tutor other inmates, pursue volunteering with PAWS, learning piano and enrolling in a college class. I told the friend of the advantage of structure, routine, but acknowledged the lack of control experienced--and she immediately asked what time we woke up. "At 5:30," I said and remembered the breakfast call didn't even stir some, who flopped back into their bunks after morning count, while the drowsy line of us in the Ancilla County corridor had little to look forward to in a tray of dry as sand-dollar biscuits and burnt grits (See my own prison writing here in 2011). The practice of prison writing can be less an act of moral persuasion and more one of observing. 

In 1981, Miné Okubu testified before the United States Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens at the New York City hearing. She presented a copy of her prison memoir, Citizen 13660 where she attested to the experience fueling her creativity: “It gave me the chance to study human beings from cradle to grave, when they were all reduced to one status.” She called the camps a “tragic episode” and that “some form of reparation and an apology are due to all those who were evacuated and interned.” As Art Historian Nicholas Lampert writes, “The critique came late. …Certainly Okubo was not engaged in the “resistance” in the camps if we define resistance through an activist perspective or organizing and directly challenging power.”

Below I post an excerpt from John Bach's 1974 prison journal, Short Time, written while incarcerated for a direct action at a Pratt & Whitney exhibition. Juxtaposing the dark humor of Bach's journal with Mansoor Adayfi's memoir of hazing a fellow Muslim brother in Guantánamo. Finally I include a section of A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines (1993) from a death row diary by his character Jefferson on the eve of his execution.

Briefly, I include a note written acknowledging the personal relationship with John Bach. Reflecting on his prison journal Short Time, I see he chose the direct organizing and direct confrontation in his 35-months of prison for protesting the Vietnam War, but emphasized to subsequent readers by publishing his descriptive account of his short time, that he was coming to terms with the engaged observation.   

Dear John,
Appreciated the reading of Moby Dick from inside prison. The house community in Hartford was The Whale--and you spoke of peace from the belly of the beast. What was involved in your choices writing with that reading?

In dramatic unfolding; your prison journal has shape--the way you start in the court, return to the street and bring us back inside through your protest activity, how you relate the previous experience in jail--utopian community, 

the sense of BOP segregating you as one of "Berrigan kids" following you to the medical wing.--How to ask--the tension of your art as it conveys, you are on your own, but a movement, a leader who makes sense of himself and his actions. The autonomy of the jail narrative could have led you into an idiosyncratic corner, yet you stayed on message=resisting. 

To the end, through the turmoil, the struggle to remain sane (keeping connection, making love not war) an agent of peace as you cajole white supremacists, witness murder, and escaped violence--a harrowing account.

“ALL RIGHT!! Guess where I am? Down the federal rabbit hole with a thunk, that’s where. But I’m on my feet and smiling the smile of Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch. The briar patch removed to Wonderland, that is, with hooka-smoking caterpillars, queens of hearts, tweedle-dees and tweedle-dums; syllogisms and tautologies; hatters and bureaucrats. Madness is afoot. Progressive penology has stormed through Danbury FCI (Federal Correctional [sic,sic,sic] Institution) the way Sherman marched through Georgia, leaving in  its swath not a square inch of floor uncarpeted nor wall unpaneled. I see limitless length of hair, a visiting room like the lobby of a Holiday Inn, coffee machines hither and yon. Nothing is real, of course, a whore’s transferel; which is to say we may have the glitter of a silk purse, but there’s the lingering smell of a sow’s ear—the overall effect comes out as gaudy manure.”


“On New Year’s we could stay up late because there were no work details the following day. There was a good-natured Hispanic guy who stayed in the TV room during the midnight count, hooked on some bad movie. After the count cleared, some of his friends, with outsider help, moved his bed and locker into the darkened shower room and then equalized the spacing of the 20 or so beds in the row so as to make his entire existence disappear. A lot of guys had to be in on it, the whole dorm was aware of what was going on, and I think the hack sensed enough of the scene to stay away for a while.

“So eventually the guy calls it a day, gives up on the movie, and makes his way home down the aisle. And it works out perfectly; he walks back and forth, and back and forth, and checks that he’s in the right aisle; and everyone in the dorm is trying their best to hold back the snickers and titters.

Finally, there’s a spontaneous eruption of laughter, and eruption was what it was, almost a natural force like a volcano.

--John Bach, Short Time: A Season’s Prison Journal. Self-published, 1975. 34. 192-93.

Mansoor Adayfi's memoir (Hachette 2021) is in places beautiful, and, its treatment of brutality honest. The scene I chose to excerpt echoes the practical joke we saw in John Bach's experience. What emotion in prison writing here is anything but pity. Mansoor has chosen to tell us this is a joke, telling us because we are truly not in on the joke. As a reader, we need to be told that this humor is the product of the men's combat of their surviving the existential threat to their dignity of person.


“We asked the night shift block sergeant to tell one of our new brothers that the block rules said he had to give up all his clothes at 11 p.m. and sleep naked. It was a mean joke to show him what our lives had been like, but it was also our way of welcoming him to our block of the worst of the worst.

At 11 p.m., the guards went to this brother’s cage.

“Hey, man,” the guard said, “I need your clothes.”

‘What?” the brother cried out. We all heard him yelling.

“It’s for your own safety,” the guard said. “So you can’t kill yourself. It’s block rules, man.”

This brother panicked. He was used to the comforts of Camp 4. He called out to us for help.

“This is solitary confinement,” Hamzah called back. “It’s different from where you lived.”

We did this with several brothers. They always said the same things.

“I promise I won’t kill myself!” he begged.

“We’re sorry, brother,” we’d call back. “If we do that, we’re afraid they’ll take all our clothes.”

We let the guard take his shirt, flip-flops, towel, everything in his cell, and when the guard had taken everything, he said, “Please, I need your pants now.” This was the cruelest part of the joke. …Sometimes the brother would refuse again and ask for an Arabic interpreter and the watch commander. Some got angry and shouted and cursed at the guard. That’s what happened this night and we couldn't’ hold it in any longer. We started laughing.

The guard returned the new brother’s stuff. “These guys were just messing around with you,” he said.

"Animals!" this brother screamed at us. "You're all just a bunch of criminals and animals!"

That just made us laugh even more.

"Welcome, brother!" we called to him.

They couldn't stay mad at us for long. Soon there would be another new brother and they'd be in on the joke, too. ...Maybe our jokes allowed us to see the humanity each other's fears.

--Mansoor Adayfi, Don't Forget Us: Lost and Found at Guantánamo. New York: Hachette, 2021. 269-70.


Jefferson’s Diary “Lord have merce sweet jesus mr wigin where all them peple come from when you ax me if some chiren can com up here an speak to me i didn kno you was meanin all them chiren in yo clas an jus sitin ther on the flo all quite in they clean close lookin at me an i coud see som was scard o me but mos was brave an spoke an my little cosin estel even com up an kiss me on the jaw an i coudn hol it back no mo”

when i was a little boy i was a waterboy an rode the cart but now i got to be a man an set in a cher


don't kno if you can red this mr wigin my han shakin and i can yer my hart



Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Vintage, 1993. 226-234.



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