Jim.henderson / CC BY-SA

 February 21, 2020; Asian American Writers’ Workshop

“Tonight, surrounded by the walls of a prison, there is a traveler who is hugging his sorrow”

Withering Life, by Chu Ngoc Tu Nguyen

These words from Chu Ngoc Tu Nguyen, a 48-year-old Vietnamese poet who has been incarcerated in Michigan since 1999, appear in the third and latest portfolio in the series A World Without Cages, a collection of incarceration literature published by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW), a nonprofit based in New York City. AAWW aims to provide “an alternative literary arts space at the intersection of migration, race, and social justice.” Founded in 1991, AAWW has several programs that support Asian American authors and their rich diversity of narratives—in life as well as in literature.

Among the organization’s strategies, and the one that gets to the heart of its work with people who are incarcerated, is “taking stories from the margins and pushing them to the center.” As reported in the magazine’s newsletter, the newest portfolio contains contributions from seven writers and includes essays, poetry, and a comic. Three of the five works were developed through the AAWW Witness Program, which paired writer fellows with incarcerated writers for months-long exchanges and also exposed the fellows to many aspects of the justice system and its challenges. (For more about the Witness Program, see this article.)

A World Without Cages evolved from AAWW’s 2018 partnership with NYC Books Through Bars to collect books to send to those in prison. Philadelphia-based Books Through Bars has been doing the work of collecting and sending books to incarcerated individuals since 1990; the organization currently provides more than 2,000 books each month to prisoners in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. This all-volunteer nonprofit also has published three volumes of letters in the form of “zines” from people in prisons, under the title of “Hear Me Out.”

Of course, writing workshops for incarcerated individuals are not new. The nonprofit PEN America launched its Prison Writing Program in 1971. This national program offers a free handbook for writers in prison, sponsors an annual prison writing contest, and has as many as 250 writer-mentors working with incarcerated writers. One of the most famous examples of writing by people in prison is the San Quentin News, a paper written and published by inmates of San Quentin that has been published since 1940. It is distributed to over 35 California prisons each month.

Individual writers, writing teachers, and local writing groups often volunteer to work with people in prisons. The Prisons Foundation publishes (online, with free access), books by inmates and returning citizens. The American Prison Writing Archive is a digital collection of nonfiction writing by incarcerated individuals as well as prison employees and volunteers. These and other programs are described on the website of the Prisoner Activist Resource Center.

On one hand, it is troubling that so many people are incarcerated that a new literary genre has been spawned; on the other, it can only be hoped that their stories—and poems and essays and comics—might help to advance social justice causes and lead to better polices, laws, and conditions regarding the incarceration of human beings and their return to life as citizens.—Eileen Cunniffe