Monthly Archives: April 2015

These are Hard Times for Dreamers — Writing from Rikers Island


These are Hard Times for Dreamers, Writing from Rikers Island

Edited by Deborah Clearman

NY Writers Coalition Press, 2015

58 pages

The NY Writers Coalition (NYWC) has been leading creative writing workshops for women in the Rose M. Singer Center (Rosie’s) on Rikers Island since 2010. This year they published a new chapbook of writing from the workshop called, These are Hard Times for Dreamers. I attended a reading at Rosie’s this week along with NYWC staff, workshop leaders and other supporters of the NYWC.

I led a creative writing workshop at the Bedford Hills correctional facility a few years back, so this was not my first time “inside.” But entering a space surrounded by rolls of razor wire remains a bit of a shock. As does the moment when they ask you to step into a small space bounded by two metal doors and after stepping in to that small space (this time with 20 people), both doors shut before they open the door on the other side. It’s like the package window at the post office, but for humans.

But the facility was brighter and cheerier than I had expected, given all the recent press, with windows running along the tops of the walls and a big open yard for the women to exercise in. And all the officers we encountered were friendly and welcoming

The reading was in an auditorium in the Programs Corridor and we gathered with about 25 of the inmates, and a few officers, for the event. Eight women read and it was moving to hear their poems and stories about childhood, motherhood, divorce, favorite foods and what it is like to be incarcerated. Two of the women had work published in the book and others read new pieces they had created recently. The work was honest and open. Some of the pieces were hopeful, noting the power of love and how love can’t be taken from a women, even when she is incarcerated. Others were less so, noting the dark matter that the world is made of. Together the works created a collage of lived experiences, of what comes before, during and after their time at Rikers.

After the reading, the women who had work published in the book signed the books for us and spoke about how important writing was to them. One woman said to me, “I have always been a writer. I never thought I would get my writing published.”

Writing is an act of hope and the work in These are Hard Times for Dreamers is both hopeful and brave. The collection was edited by Deborah Clearman, a volunteer who leads the workshop for NYWC at Rosie’s. On May 7th, as part of the PEN World Voices Festival, Deborah will be on a panel of prison writing mentors and formerly incarcerated writers talking about their experiences working together.


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Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson


Just Mercy

By Bryan Stevenson

Spiegel & Grau, 2014

336 pages

Just Mercy is one of my favorite books so far this year. Part-memoir, part-social commentary, Stevenson tells the story of his law career, founding the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, AL, while also recounting the many hard cases he has worked on with the EJI since 1989.

I’m possibly hard wired for this book. My late father, David Baldus, was a death penalty researcher, working in the same community as Stevenson. I was brought up hearing about men on death row, mainly black men, who were sentenced to death for killing white people, men whose sentences were harsher than those given to black men who killed other blacks. My ear is open to Stevenson’s story, but I believe this book has universal appeal. Stevenson is a fluid writer and he tells such a powerful story—of all the injustices poor, mainly black, people face in our legal system. He takes on death cases proving the innocence of wrongly convicted men and mitigating the sentences of others. At the center of the book is the story of Walter McMillian a man who claimed he was wrongly convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Stevenson also writes about his work to reduce excessive juvenile sentences—kids who are given life in prison for rape or robbery at 12 or 14. Winner of a MacArthur Award for his work, he is a champion of the under-represented.

I was given a copy of this book by a friend and before I read it my sister and husband had also devoured it, each of us reading the book in less than a week. For anyone interested in legal justice, Just Mercy is a must read.

Stevenson is the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a law professor at NYU.


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Never too Young to Write or too Old to Debut

I recently started working as the Interim Program Manager at the New York Writers Coalition (NYWC), a non-profit that teaches creative writing to underserved populations in New York City. We partner with local NGOs, libraries, hospitals, and other organizations to run weekly volunteer-led creative writing workshops, believing that everyone has a voice and a story to tell.

NYWC has a video series called, Writing is Good for Everyone, and the first video features a 14-year old young woman who took our Novel Writing for Kids workshop at the Bay Ridge branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Watch Bridin McCann talk about her world and what she got from the workshop. I love the idea of teens writing novels–no one is ever too young to start writing.

And as I have written before, no one is never too old to debut as a novelist. I took heart in the article, “Six novelists who didn’t publish until they were 40,” that ran earlier this month in the The Telegraph. Did you know that Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder are among others who didn’t publish a book until they were in their 40s? Even Toni Morrison didn’t publish her debut until she was 39.

We are never too young to write or too old to debut. Any writers you admire who you know started after 40?


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The Residue Years, by Mitchell S. Jackson


The Residue Years

By Mitchell S. Jackson

Bloomsbury Press, 2013

342 pages

Set in NE Portland, Oregon in the 1990s, The Residue Years tells the story of Shawn Thomas (“Champ”), a college student, and his mother Grace, a recovering crack addict. Just out of rehab, Grace is trying to rebuild her life, and get custody of her youngest sons, Canaan and KJ, Shawn’s half-brothers. Shawn is in his senior year of college, doing well in school, while making a living dealing drugs. Told in alternating chapters the book tells the story of Grace’s attempt to stay clean and Shawn’s dream to reunite his family.

Mitchell’s writing is poetic and original, and the story is deeply anthropological, making me feel like I was stepping back in time with Champ and Grace to a period when NE Portland was overrun with crack houses, and kids like Champ learned on live on his own as his mom disappeared on drug binges and visits to rehab. I felt very close to Grace who strives to be a good mother, despite her addiction, and attempts to stay clean in a world where her best friends are addicts. Meanwhile Champ struggles between two identities: the drug dealer with amble access to girls and sex and the college student with his live-in girlfriend and his desire to go to grad school. There is a sense of doom for both Grace and Champ throughout the entire book, as if they are set up to never escape the drugs in their city, no matter what street they turn down. This is a powerful and gripping story, which now reads like historical fiction, given how much Portland has changed in the past 20 years.

Jackson grew up in Portland and now lives in Brooklyn. This book was nominated for numerous awards when it came out in 2013.


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The 2015 PEN/Hemingway Award

The PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction is “given for a novel or book of short stories by an American author who has not previously published a book of fiction.” I have found they choose unique books and this year is no different. Of the winner and two finalists, I had only heard of one of the books before.

This year’s award goes to Arna Bontemps Hemenway for his debut collection of short stories, Elegy on Kinderklavier which explores the effect of war on different people’s lives

The finalists are two novelists:

  • Kim Fu, For Today I Am a Boy, a coming of age story about a transgender boy, set in Canada
  • Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life, a love story between a traumatized veteran and a Chinese Muslim immigrant. Lish is the son of inveterate editor Gordon Lish.

All of the books look like interesting reads. And it is exciting to see books that take on challenging topics  winning awards.

And speaking of challenging topics, next week I review Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years, a book about an African-American family in the 90s crack epidemic in Portland, OR.

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