Prison Noir with Joyce Carol Oates


From Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo to Piper Kerman's Orange is the New Black, tales of jailbirds and their confines have long captivated readers.  Prison Noir, due out in September, is the latest in the award-winning Noir series from Brooklyn-based independent publisher Akashic Books.  This anthology, dedicated to prison literature, includes work by fifteen current and former inmates. One story is published posthumously: the author, William Van Poyck, was executed last June for the 1987 murder of a guard during a failed prison break.  Three of the contributors have been recognized for their achievements by the PEN Prison Writing Program. All the stories, set within jailhouse walls, explore anguish, lunacy, and sometimes, a desire for redemption.  Others offer an unsettling and unvarnished look at life in the clink. Akashic Books received almost one hundred submissions for the anthology.  Interestingly, most of the writing came from convicts in the Michigan penitentiary system, which supports various inmate writing programs. None other than literary luminary Joyce Carol Oates curated the collection and wrote the introduction.

Oates is no stranger to the gritty horror found in Prison Noir, having explored the depths and intricacies of modern life throughout her lauded career. Recipient of the National Medal of  Humanities and the National Book Award, she has spent a lifetime writing about the mythic pursuit of the American dream. For equally as long, she has encouraged others to share their thoughts on paper.  Oates believes firmly that writing is essential to maintaining one's humanity, and provides opportunities for people to cultivate their written voice. In addition to teaching creative writing at Princeton University,  Oates has led writing various workshops in prisons across America, including California's oldest state prison, San Quentin. 

As Oates writes in the book's preface, "We may feel revulsion for some of the acts described in these stories, but we are likely to feel a startled, even stunned sympathy for the perpetrators."  It would certainly be difficult to say that these stories are enjoyable to read. They aren't. The stories are not poorly written, but some are searingly violent and difficult to get through. (Linda Michelle Marquardt's "Milk and Tea" is particularly horrific in its description of a sadistic husband whose acts push his wife to commit murder.) Still, they offer a view of a secluded world that 2.2 million Americans call home. Perhaps most importantly, the book gives inmates a voice: their own. 

Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and published by Akashic Books, is 260 pages and will be available on September 2nd for $26.95 in hardcover, $15.95 in paperback, and in e-format for $9.99.  

credit: Charles Gross