Oates has gathered 15 stories written by inmates of correctional institutes across America for the anthology Prison Noir.
What can you tell me about the voices in this anthology?
The diverse voices of Prison Noir are fascinating in their individuality and in their often astonishing backgrounds. And all of their stories are indeed “stories”—in which things happen, often irrevocably. Readers will be surprised at the utter lack of self-pity, and the degree of mature awareness of guilt and responsibility. Even those who don’t repent of their crimes willingly acknowledge them, and seem to accept their fate as prisoners who, in many cases, will never be freed. It was interesting that virtually all of the submissions we received were substantial, some nearly novella-length. There was no literary “experimentation”—no stylistic exhibitionism—but rather documentary-like realism, yielding at times to a kind of melancholy mysticism.
What were some of the challenges you faced in assembling this volume?
We did indeed face “challenges” of several kinds. Primarily, we could not make contact with prisoners in facilities in which there were no writing workshops or writing classes, which automatically excluded the majority of prisoners. We also had much difficulty contacting female writers, and we would have liked to have received more submissions from African-Americans, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups over-represented in prison facilities in proportion to their numbers in the population.
What kind of world will readers get a glimpse of?
There is a “prison population” culture that is quite distinct from middle- and upper-middle-class culture. If you are educated, white, and reasonably well-to-do, you will probably not—ever—be incarcerated. You will probably not be stopped and frisked by patrolmen while walking in your own neighborhood, and you will probably not be stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike for “dwb”—that is, “driving while black.” If you are a wealthy white financier, you will very likely not ever be imprisoned, no matter the amount of money you may have accumulated illegally.
If the publication of Prison Noir could accomplish one thing, what would it be?
Serious fiction always breaks down the barriers between people—allows us to see, think, and feel as others do. We learn to sympathize with others unlike ourselves. We learn to feel pity—and terror. Even to recognize hopelessness is an illuminating experience. Women in particular will be astonished at the several stories by women here, of which one is particularly terrifying—and unforgettable.