Prison Noir edited by Joyce Carol Oates
Akashic books have a large catalogue of Noir books set in a variety of cities around the world. This one is a little bit different. It is stories by convicts, from within prison. There are writing programs in various prisons but as the editor says in the introduction We discovered along the way, for example, that some institutions don’t allow prisoners to write, but in others they are allowed to write but not, perversely, about crime or prisons! She also notes that it was hard to spread the call for submissions within the prison service. However the stories that they managed to collect together are, on the whole, excellent. There are of course, as in most anthologies, ones that failed to hit the spot for me, but I read them all and was never bored, a sign of a good anthology.
The anthology is split into three parts - “ghosts in the machine”, “caged birds sing” & “I saw the whole thing, it was horrible” no explanations are given as to what divides these themes but you can guess from the titles. The stories are widely diverse in tone, POV, style, language, mood and theme and yet all are recognisably similar because of the setting. Many of the stories are lyrical, soulful and introspective, as you’d expect. Prison is painted as no soft touch luxury alternative to “real” punishment (except perhaps in 3 Block from Hell by Bryan K Palmer which is about a serial killer who kills inmates). My favourites in here are: The opening story, Shuffle by Christopher M Stephen which is a delightfully twisted tale of prison overcrowding; Milk and Tea by Linda Michelle Marquadat (one of only two women writers in the collection) and There will be seeds for next year< by Zeke Caliguri which is about an inmate who has tried and failed to commit suicide. Suicide is a common theme, as is mental illness, respect, truth and of course guilt are also common themes.
This is a powerful collection made more so by the simple, short bios of the contributors such as - Ali F Sareini – was born in Kharbit Selim (Valley of Peace) Lebanon. He left the Lebanese civil war in 1985, was a political prisoner in Berlin, joined the US Army’s 82nd Airborne division and holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Campbell University and Spring Arbor University. He has just completed his twenty fifth year of incarceration for second degree murder. His story, A message in the Breath of Allah is also one that sticks in your mind, as do many of them.
In the front of the book is a map of where the prisons are that the stories are set in and the introduction notes the fact that the United States incarcerates 2.2 million individuals, a far higher rate per capita than any other nation (On the same list with the USA as number 1, the UK is 104 and China is 127)
Overall – I’m not sure the stories count as “noir” by the strictest definition, but what they are is affecting, powerfully written and arresting literature. Well worth seeking out.