A colorful baby boy’s room. A quiet fishing lake. A tight-knit urban neighborhood. A woman’s steady arms. A lively street in NYC.
These are the places where the inmates of ACJ want to be. Places they want to remember, places they choose to re-create. As each man reads his piece to the class, I start wondering if they’ve ever shared these places with anyone else, if they’ve ever let anyone into this positive space in their heads. Does the judge in their trial see these places in their eyes? Do the security guards feel them when they walk down the hall? Are they even the places each inmate sees when he looks into the mirror?
This week our lesson plan focuses on sense of place. I want the students to really think about their surroundings, to see the power that place can have in writing. We talk about sense of place, and about how to evoke different landscapes and environments. Minds wander to hometowns and vacation spots, to summer nights in the streets, to where water meets land, and land meets mountain.
I know very little about each inmate—where they’re from, what place they grew up in, where they spend their summers—and I have assumptions going into this lesson. I choose to read excerpts from writers Janisse Ray and Nick Flynn. Ray’s excerpt exemplifies her complex and lyrical language, her intimacy with writing about the natural world, descriptions of large lands and forests. Flynn’s excerpt displays his solid, rhythmic writing that evokes the nitty-gritty of Boston streets and homeless shelters. Both excellent. Both different. Both good examples of creating a sense of place. But all along I think they’ll respond most to Flynn.
The men each read a paragraph of Ray, slowing down their pace to grasp her language, trying hard to convey her voice. They tell me afterwards that it was difficult to read, and in some places hard to follow, but they want to talk more about her words, her syntax, her creative voice. Then we read Flynn. His writing is easier to read out loud and easier to follow the first time through. And although they really like him, they want to read more Ray. About the Georgian land, the junkyard she grew up in, the wide, open sky full of deep blues and stars. I see them challenged by her language, see them thrive off her choice of word structure and punctuation, see them find solace in descriptions of vast land and empty forests, skies that stretch forever.
Once I really think about it, it seems obvious that they might respond to nature writing like Ray’s. Day in and day out, they sit in small cells, surrounded by painted concrete and dirty bathrooms, constant chatter and unattractive light. Ray’s words take them outside of the jail, to see and feel an openness and freedom, a way of life without boundaries. But what really intrigues them is that it is a place of unfamiliarity. And just as they, pleasantly surprised, find something special in a world of unfamiliarity, I realize that so have I.