Questioning Audiences:
Reading and Writing in Prisons

‘Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my
simple true judgement?’
Much Ado about Nothing, 1.1.158-9

Benedick’s query, to the love-stricken Claudio, is a warning – don’t ask the question, if you don’t want to hear the answer. He’s about to belittle Hero, the object of Claudio’s affections. Yet Benedict’s ‘honesty’ is artifice and his answer begs another question – why is he so cynical about love?

Questions and answers are similarly tainted in prison. There are no more honest questions or ‘simple true judgements’ available in the jail than there are in Shakespeare’s Messina. Prisoners do not experience questioning as an enquiry into the truth but as an attempt to catch them out, to trap, punish, convict and incarcerate them. Once in prison, questions and answers are loaded with implications – this time for parole and freedom. Questioning is, for prisoners, something to be suspicious of, something to guard against. It’s important to get one’s story straight, to have answers prepared, to practice artifice.

Reading literature is about asking questions, but without prejudging the answers. It’s about asking questions and coming up with more than one answer. It’s about asking questions that lead to more questions. Creative writing can be a way to propose answers to questions. It is a way to keep stories complex. Reading literature in prisons concerns the reconstruction of a questioning self, of the self as an active audience.

Raymond Carver’s short story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home,’ in theme and structure, is the kind of text that demands an active audience. About ordinary people getting into trouble and not quite understanding why, it helps prisoners to ask themselves questions about their own troubles. The story, in its two versions (the long original and the shortened version, reduced by Carver under the influence of his editor, Gordon Lish), plus the film version Jindabyne, offer prisoners some juicy moral dilemmas through which to filter their own experience and judgements. What would they do if, like the main character, Stuart, and his three friends, they discovered the body of a murdered woman while on a fishing trip? Would they too carry on fishing and report their discovery later? How would they deal with the local community’s moral outrage at such a choice? How would they cope with a furious wife?

The two versions of Carver’s story, offer different answers. One builds towards marital reconciliation, the other closes on violence and recrimination, pity and remorse. Nothing is resolved. We do not find answers from reading Carver, but we learn how to ask questions: How can we live honestly? How can we listen to each other? What kinds of change are possible? How can we live with the impossibility of change?

Carver’s story shows us a character who, like many prisoners, needs to learn something – empathy. The story is about the consequences of Stuart’s failure to imagine how his actions affect other lives. His lack of awareness of his audience has left him stranded, isolated – unable to understand other people, unable to relate. The story reveals Stuart’s attempt to battle his way out of isolation – by asking questions, by becoming an audience. Carver’s characters ask 67 questions in (the longer versions of) ‘So Much Water So Close to Home.’ Questions that reveal confusion and misunderstanding. Questions – ‘do you hear?’ ‘don’t you see?’ – which seek to bridge the gap between people. We read Carver not because he teaches us how to be better writers, or better human beings, but because he identifies our needs – the questions we need to ask and why we need to ask them.

Like Stuart in the story, who asks ‘what’d I do?’ having questions is not a comfortable place to be. It reveals ignorance. But Stuart and Claire take their fair share of questions; they’re both in the dark. So when students in a reading group ask questions, they ask the teacher, each other, themselves. In the process they reframe the familiar, humiliating power relationship between the questioner and the respondent. In reading, it’s the questioner who has power. A good question can take us to the heart of the story. Whereas prisoners are used to being the respondent, in reading they learn to be an active audience. They develop a quality of attention that is curious, and careful; they learn how to formulate accurate open-ended enquiries.

Building their skills as an audience is crucial for prisoners. One could argue that their reconstruction as an active audience is integral to their rehabilitation. So, awareness of the consequences of their actions; of the victim’s suffering, the plight of families of victims, the impact of their crime on communities all grow from an awareness of their audience.

Prisoners are watched all the time. They are unwilling performers to an avid audience of prison officers, governors, social workers, psychologists, even teachers. They’re watched to see if they’re breaking any prison rules, to see if they’re behaving themselves, to see if they’re expressing appropriate or acceptably docile emotions – remorse, sorrow, self-dislike. They’re watched to see if they’re developing any unacceptable feelings – resentment, anger, hatred. They’re watched for signs of change – the good kind, the kind of change that transforms them into law-abiding citizens and the bad kind, that sees them harden into eternal criminals.

Prisons, for all they are shut off from the real world, for all their seeming invisibility, are strangely public places. Performance, for prisoners, is a constant, painful state of existence in front of an audience wishing to monitor, judge and expose. The constant watching drives prisoners’ true nature (the good and the bad) underground. No one is as they seem. They learn how to not be themselves, how to pretend.

Under this strangely public gaze, literature calls for a different kind of audience, one that ask questions. Prisoners can reclaim the role of the questioner and for a different purpose. Not to judge or condemn, but to understand, make sense, even to assert a position.

If reading is about asking questions, is writing about providing answers? Prisoners long to be able to explain themselves, to families and to themselves. To find the answer to the dilemma – how did I get here? Writing offers multiple, possible answers. It understands that as questions can be difficult and complex so can answers. Poetry, in particular, is written with an audience in mind – the loved ones, husbands, wives, partners, sons and daughters left behind. Poems can acknowledge the pain of separation, the disappointment of letting people down, the broken hearts. Yet poems are not just private tokens of apology or longing, they are produced as gifts for birthdays and Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, often in the form of a scroll.

Scrolls do not offer an ‘answer’ in terms of a confession or act of self analysis. They are partial in both senses of the word – incomplete and biased explanations. Sentimental, derivative and clichéd, they are not ‘literature.’ They may be inadequate answers, but they are, for many prisoners, the starting point in a conversation. Writing builds an awareness of a different kind of audience. Not the vigilant, scrutinising prison audience, but the audience they will all return to – their community.

STIR magazine, a cross-prisons creative arts publication, was established in 2012 to publish a selection of prisoners’ writings and visual art and to provide prisoners with a different kind of audience. The name was chosen by prisoners for its dual meaning: a slang term for prison and as the verb to disturb, move or set in motion. STIR sought to create a public audience for prisoners’ creative work. It also sought to engage prisoners with each other, through their writing and art work, in a different, more reflective way. It is run by a group of long-term prisoners, who established the magazine’s identity, choose the theme for each issue, select work to be published and offer feedback to the unsuccessful.

Prisoners become active audiences by asking questions. The passive audience does not challenge, interpret or ask questions. Prisoners join reading and writing classes well-used to being a scrutinised ‘text.’ They are used to being asked questions, not to asking them. They are used to being watched, not to watching, to being read, not to reading. To having their experiences, lives and personalities written about, not to defining or describing their own selves.

STIR can aim to achieve two things in this regard – through its editorial team it can become an active, questioning audience for the writers and artists submitting their work. It can investigate the nature of ‘true honest judgement.’ To its readers it should offer the kind of creative work that demands an active audience; one that questions; probes, responds. Above all, it will be a success if it encourages enquiry, if it risks asking the questions to which there may only be complex answers demanding yet more questions.

First published in Scottish Justice Matters 2:1 March 2014


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