Tuesday 27 October 2009

Desert Islands and Prison Life : Two Posts in One…


The Event seemed to go very well. The room was full of interested people and Durham City Arts Director Alison Redshaw – vision in her clothes of many colours – had everything in hand. The Durham Book Festival has started with a bang and our event was one cracker of the evening.

Librarian Charlie Darby Villis talked eloquently about the potent and dynamic role of books and reading in prison life. In fact without his hard work this year none of this would have happened)

Avril Joy talked passionately about her commitment to the women and her deep understanding of the social and political dilemma of women in prison. Then she read from her ne novel Bad Girl. (She had read from it yesterday in prison and the women loved it).

Then Richard Walker Hardwick gave his take on teaching original writing to the men in a high security prison. He read from his novel, Kicked Out which emerged from his work in shelters and hostels for homeless young people. The way he catches the voice of his young protagonist is uncanny.

Then me! I mostly stuck to my proposed script (below) and read from Knives and The Woman Who Drew Buildings (Extracts below here…)

Then Derek Sanders, Head of Learning and Skills gave his views on the technology of literacy and learning provision inside Low Newton.

The highlight of the evening was the interlinking performance, by professional actresses Zoe Lambert and Libby Davison (directed by Tess Denman Cleaver), mostly sampling some of the excellent work in the book we produced inside The Self Revealed. Through these two actresses the voices of the women we were all talking about came eerily into this studio theatre in the middle of the city of Durham.

Afterwards there were some interesting questions – not excluding the question from one gentlemen about the ‘bad’ language used both in the women’s writing and our own. It was a very interesting question, though to debate this crucial issue of authenticity, self, mutual respect and the link between fact and fiction would have taken a whole other meeting…

Earlier: What I thought I would say at a talk given as part of a panel at the Gala Theatre at the Durham Book Festival 2009:

‘Being a writer in Residence in any prison is to walk and work on the margins of society and the esoteric margins within the prison environment. We are outsiders who can only achieve anything if empathise with the prisoners in an environment where over-empathising with prisoners can be seen as perverse.prison etc 006

We experience - as do permanent staff - the borderland between freedom and incarceration. The fact that we come through the gates at the end of the day does not obviate the fact that for six or more hours we have not been free to act intuitively; to speak off the top of our heads; to hug a person who has made us laugh; to swap gossip about our history, our homes, our lovers and our children.prison etc 005

In this environment we have to create a desert island of personal freedom and invite the people we meet – staff as well as prisoners – to join us there. The treasures on my island include great books to read and the opportunity to write out of one’s boots, to write hot, and write well. The nice thing is that all you need is a pen and a notebook and you can take them back to your pad.prison etc 004

I think that inside or outside prison everyone can learn how to write well, and will certainly write better if they write a lot, with a waiting audience and a willing collaborator in mind.

In my residency totalling five years ( a stretch of three and a stretch of two) there emerged hundreds of pieces of writing from a wide range of women, a selection of which survive in dozens of pamphlets and leaflets culminating in two books Why Am I Running? And The Self Revealed. prison etc 002 These are permanent records of what can seem an ephemeral sometimes unaccountable experience. Paradoxically this very free activity ticks many boxes in a box-ticking society.

During that time as well as the books we wrote a radio play. One woman, now safely back in China, wrote a short story that was broadcast by the BBC. One woman used her writing collection to illustrate her state of mind which helped to secure more appropriate sentencing. We participated in the international Changing Lives Through Literature Project. We invented the first Litfest Inside, where the women worked with seven published writers in fourteen days. We had two performances of women’s work to insiders and outsiders. We initiated a shadow Orange Project where women, read discussed and reviewed the shortlisted books for the Orange Prize. And so on.

The most wonderful thing was that for a few hours a day we could inhabit our Desert Island and remind ourselves of our unique humanity and remember we were citizens of the world…’

Extracts Read From Knives Short Story CollectionkNIVES 002

‘…So lets get back to this screaming of brakes. This noise of traffic in my ear. The lions roaring like people. The people growling like lions. And this girl! Her hand was digging in my shoulder. I could hardly see her through the haze, but she I knew from the very scent of her she was young. What was she saying? …

2 Extract from The Woman Who Drew Buildings: woman who drew 2 (2) 

‘… But prison had succeeded where Sam with all his cocky charm had failed. Inside prison, smoking tobacco was the least-worst thing you could do to numb the pain, to while away the time….Of course prison had been a shock, terrifying. But in the end it was not so hard as Adam first feared. The worst thing was being warehoused and moved around like an object, with no sovereignty over your body, your possessions, or your daily routines. The fear inside those places was not about what happened but about what might happen: that something bad might happen even when in the end it didn’t. Dark tales and myths about what had happened to others in this same place flew about the place like black moths. Being suspended in such uncertainty could twang the steadiest of nerves and in the end he learned that a smoke could steady the nerves…’


  1. Hi Wendy: Keep reading and writing! And please keep Changing Lives Through Literature in mind. My best to Avril, too. If you and your readers have a chance you might take a look at our blog: cltl.umassd.edu/blog. Keep the vision. Bob Waxler

  2. Hello Bob
    Wonderful to hear your voice. I have to say your name was mentioned at the event last Tuesday - we quoted the great work you are doing and how Changing Lives Through Literature was your inspiration. As you see here we have continued to keep the vision, even after these years.
    Will check out your blog. best regards wx



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