Because Your Liberation Is Bound Up With Mine: Introducing the 2021 PEN America / L’Engle Rahman Mentorship Prize Recipients

By Susan Karwoska

Editor’s Note 

Amidst the political and social upheavals of the early 70s, when writers at the newly established Teachers & Writers Collaborative were working to transform the way creative writing was taught in New York City classrooms, our fellow literary organization, PEN America,  launched its Prison Writing Mentorship Program, linking established writers with writers inside the walls of U.S. prisons. The program was formed in response to the outrages brought to light by the 1971 Attica prison uprising. In the years since, as the US prison population has grown exponentially, the PEN program has expanded to more than three hundred PEN mentors working with incarcerated writers throughout the country. In this special feature T&W is pleased to recognize the important work of those involved with the PEN program, whose belief in the power and purpose of writing mirrors our own, and to introduce the winners of PEN America’s newly established L’Engle Rahman Award for Mentorship. 

In her book One Big Self, the poet C.D. Wright bears witness to the inmates she encountered on visits to several Louisiana State prisons. She writes, “If you can accept… that the ultimate goal should be to reunite the separated with the larger human enterprise, it might behoove us to see incarcerated people, among others, as they elect to be seen, in their larger selves.” For over four decades the writers in PEN America’s Prison Mentorship Program have worked to help incarcerated writers see and be seen as their “larger selves.” The program works “to advance the restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative possibilities of writing,” by providing the resources incarcerated writers need to have their work seen and their voices heard. Mentors in the PEN program commit to working with the writers they are paired with to provide guidance, editing, and notes on craft, and to connect them to a wider literary community. 

In 2020 PEN America began honoring the work of outstanding mentor-mentee pairs in the program with the PEN America/L’Engle Rahman Prize for Mentorship. The award is endowed by the family of the late Madeleine L’Engle, acclaimed author of A Wrinkle in Time and many other works and one of the first mentors in the PEN program. It is named for her and for the late scholar and writer Ahmad Rahman, a former Black Panther Party leader with whom she shared a ten-year correspondence while he was imprisoned as the result of an FBI sting operation. 

Despite significant differences in their ages and backgrounds, the 57-year-old author and the 25-year-old former Black Panther embarked on an intense, challenging, and mutually rewarding working relationship and friendship that had a lasting influence on both of them. After twenty-one years in prison, Rahman’s sentence was commuted in 1992. He went on to become a respected and much-admired associate professor of African and African American History at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He and L’Engle continued to correspond until the end of her life.

As you will see in their essays, the recipients of this year’s PEN America/L’Engle Rahman Prize for Mentorship, awarded to mentor-mentee pairs “who exhibit the spirit of the L’Engle-Rahman exchange,” each share a connection that echoes the strength, warmth, and artistic passion of the bond between L’Engle and Rahman. 

The 2021 Recipients of the PEN America / L’Engle Rahman Mentorship Award 

Amber Caron and Lyle May

Paula J. Lambert and Santonio Murff

Rachel Tracie and Daniel S. Throop

Amber Caron 

Lyle and I took a somewhat circuitous route to the PEN community. A few years ago, a mutual friend reached out to me to ask if I might help Lyle with his application for PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship. I wrote to Lyle and invited him to send me whatever materials he already had. His proposed project, “Carceral Crisis,” offered a first-hand account of the inadequate health care provided to an aging prison population. The writing was already strong, and the project had obvious urgency. Still, for months we traded drafts, in part because he proved an eager reviser, but also because the way we communicated was slow. When Lyle’s letters arrived—handwritten in pencil, on lined paper—I would type them up, provide feedback, and send the manuscript and my comments back through the mail. He’d make changes in pencil and send the manuscript back to me. In the end, we worked together on his materials for almost a year before submitting everything to PEN. As we waited for a response, Lyle sent other projects, and over time, our exchange broadened to include questions about what it means to be a writer. How to reach an audience when that audience is likely resistant to hearing from you. How to navigate a publishing industry, which is fast and digital and generally not set up to accommodate incarcerated writers. And how to build and sustain a writing community even when that writing community is far away—in Lyle’s case, one he cannot physically join.  

On this last point, I encouraged Lyle to apply for the PEN Prison Writing Mentorship program. So much of what we do as writers is done when we are alone, revising the sentences, paragraphs, and pages with a certain kind of faith that if we do this enough it will reach an audience. Nothing can replace those hours; that is the work we must do as writers, and no one takes this responsibility more seriously than Lyle. Indeed, he is one of the most prolific writers I know. But no matter how solitary our work might be, we all still need trusted readers and mentors who believe in the power of language and understand the transformative potential of stories. This, among other things, is what I believed the PEN community could provide for Lyle and why I encouraged him to apply for the PEN’s mentorship program. I fully expected Lyle would ask the organizers to pair him with a non-fiction writer or journalist. (My primary genre is fiction.) Instead, he asked if we could keep working together, and the PEN community fully supported this exchange and has become an important resource for both of us. 

Lyle’s journalism spans a broad range of topics as they relate to the carceral state—health care, education, religion, law and politics—and his personal essays explore his experience of growing up on death row. In all of his writing he seeks to disrupt the common narrative about prisons and the people in them. His writing also reveals his unflagging commitment to his education. He is an avid reader; indeed, he’s already read most of the books I’ve recommended. In 2013, he earned his associate’s degree, and he is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree through correspondence courses at Ohio University. Last year, he received a scholarship from the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society, but this summer the state of North Carolina again blocked his access to higher education

I once asked Lyle when he started to write and how he developed as a writer. His answer was, writing letters from prison. It was only five years ago that the North Carolina Department of Corrections installed a phone on death row. By that point, Lyle had already been in prison for 17 years, so letters were the only way he could communicate with the world outside. With access to the phone now, Lyle regularly presents his work by 15-minute phone calls to colleges and universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill, Florida Southern College, University of Minnesota, Columbia University, New York University Public Interest Law Center, Ohio University, Duke University, Oxford University, among others. I asked him why it felt important to call into classes and engage students in this way. “Bryan Stevenson says we are all more than our worst mistakes,” Lyle wrote. “I do my best to remind students of this in different ways and challenge their understanding of prison by pulling back the curtain.”

Despite these accomplishments, Lyle, like all writers, still faces rejection. This past June, six months after he submitted his application to the Writing for Justice Fellowship, Caits Meissner wrote to say PEN received more than three hundred applications. Lyle had made it far in the process, but with only six fellowships awarded each year, he missed the final cut. Rejection, of course, is part of the process for any writer, and although this one felt to Lyle like a bit of a setback, I encouraged him to think of it as just the beginning of the conversation with the PEN community. “Keep the conversation going,” I said. What I meant was that he should apply for the Fellowship next year, submit to their annual writing contest, and seek out other partnerships with the organization. Ever the writer in search of a new angle, Lyle took my advice but made it his own: he nominated us for PEN’s L’Engle-Rahman prize for mentorship instead.

Lyle C. May 

PEN America’s L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship gives me an opportunity to praise Amber Caron, an essayist, fiction magazine editor, writing instructor at Utah State University, and my mentor.

Our journey began in 2019. Normally my friend Tara types, researches and submits my writing to publishers. When PEN announced its annual Writing for Justice Fellowship, I wanted to apply, but Tara knew I needed more help to complete the multi-part application. She put me in touch with her friend from grad school, Amber Caron.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. Prison does not promote trust or communication and between the stigma of a death sentence and snail mail, lasting relationships are rare. This is especially true in a professional sense. As a prison journalist, I’ve found it exceedingly difficult to be judged for my writing and article content before anything else. Regardless, I continue to challenge the narrative. Tara sent Amber my resume, a letter of recommendation from a UNC professor, and a recording of a speech I gave to his students.

Amber’s brief response noted the accomplishments, wished me luck on an upcoming publication, then said “Okay, hope all is well with you and looking forward to reading your draft.” Now that I had her attention, the burden of proof was on me.

The PEN fellowship application required a cover letter, project synopsis, author bio, resume, references, sample publications, project proposal, and work sample. My project idea came from growing up in prison and watching friends suffer as they struggled to get adequate medical care. The work sample began a narrative of those heart wrenching human costs.

While I developed the sample Amber sent information about PEN’s 2019 Fellows and Prison Writing Contest winners. She wanted me to analyze what made them the best and apply it to my writing.

“Kaiser’s essay describes his role as an incarcerated person working in the mental health ward of a state prison, and while he casts a wide net to talk about many of the incarcerated people in this part of the system, he ultimately narrows his focus.”   — Letter from Amber, Nov. 2019

I liked that she expected me to understand. Good writing is structured, but great writing flows naturally between points. Learn from the best to be the best. After three letters Amber suggested I register for the PEN mentorship program.

“It would be a good way to get regular feedback on your writing. And you could either join blind to get paired with someone new or if you were interested in receiving feedback from me, I could email them and see if they will set us up as a mentor/mentee.” — Letter from Amber, Dec. 2019

Amber treats me as an equal, a fellow writer who appreciates the craft. No superiority or condescension mars her letters. Never has she implied anything is beyond my reach. Professional instruction that comes in the form of a question “Don’t you think this paragraph is stronger at the beginning?” or basic guidance that leaves me wondering why I didn’t think of it sooner.

Serving as a prison journalist means effectively communicating the prison experience to an uninformed and often misguided public. Amber’s guidance came with curiosity that provided a teachable moment about prison health care.

“As you suggested, you might interview guys hired as caretakers and others who have witnessed negligent deaths because of inadequate medical attention. (For the record, I am fascinated by this term ‘care-taker’ in the context of prison health care. What is it? Who does it? How are they chosen? What are their responsibilities? What do they see and experience that other incarcerated people don’t see and experience?”

 — Letter from Amber, Jan. 2020

Beyond the fellowship application, Amber encouraged my other writing and public speaking events, sharing in my excitement and praising success. She usually found ways to tie it all back to my fellowship topic, maintaining focus on the ultimate prize. This became a critical tactic when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

COVID-19 brought the world to a screeching halt. Countries shuttered as the virus spread death. Congregate care facilities like nursing homes and prisons struggled the most. Unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, high comorbidity rates, and careless institutional policies caused preventable outbreaks and anguish. At Central Prison, my place of confinement since 1999, we watched the world unravel on the evening news.

Resisting the urge to panic with the daily COVID briefings was easier when I stayed busy. The 2020 PEN Fellowship was suspended, its future as uncertain as everything else. Rather than let me despair, Amber redirected my attention.

“Still no word from PEN about the 2020 application. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but I’ll keep trying to figure it out. My guess is they—like many other organizations—are just trying to figure out budget issues and event cancellations. I suspect they will have more information soon. If there isn’t—or if they cancel the fellowship program— we can talk about where else you might send the article.” 

— Letter from Amber, April 2020

Her letter reassured me. No matter what happened, Amber promised to help me develop the article on prison health care. Her determination and stability amidst such turmoil and uncertainty is more than I ever expected. Amber anticipated my need for support and not only met it, but advocated and sought other writing projects for me. 

“Hi Caits, I’m wondering if you’re taking submissions for Temperature Check: COVID-19 Behind Bars. I’m asking on behalf of Lyle May, a journalist and activist on North Carolina’s death row, who I’ve been working with through the PEN prison writing mentorship program. Lyle has a regular column in Scalawag Magazine. I know he’s working on several pieces about COVID-19 in prisons. If you would like to see any of that work, I can encourage him to send you something.” 

— Email from Amber to PEN Director of Prison and Justice Writing, May 2020

Regular access to a phone on North Carolina’s death row has made it easier to communicate and coordinate with Amber. Every other Monday we discuss application revisions, new writing projects or my impression of how I did on various university phone lectures. When I became overly critical of myself, Amber gently chided me. “You have to celebrate your accomplishments, Lyle. You’re being too hard on yourself.”

I’m not entirely sure what Amber gets out of mentoring me. I’m dependent on her advice, she types and edits my writing, researches publishing opportunities, networks with my other friends on the outside and has done so much to advance my writing that the relationship seems lopsided. I can only hope my eagerness to learn is in some way rewarding for her.

When a potential problem requires “rigorous critique”, my mentor enlightens. One time she sent me a copy of a speech that discussed the topic of authenticity in nonfiction writing.

“l once heard a nonfiction writer Peter Trachtenberg give a talk about the responsibility nonfiction writers have to signal to their readers how they should understand the information they are about to read. Trachtenberg’s talk was specifically about nonfiction writers who imagine details of an otherwise “true story”, which happens a lot and is totally fair game as long as the writer signals, they are doing this. I understand this isn’t what you’re doing. …But…can you signal to your readers how you received this information and perhaps comment on what it reveals about the way information is disseminated in prison?” —- Letter from Amber, May 2020

I reacted defensively to the reminder to cite my sources. On the phone I said, “The Trachtenberg essay raised my hackles a bit. It sounded like an accusation.” Amber pushed back, asking me to examine why I felt that way. What about the speech put me on defense? I ultimately concluded it was an ingrained response. A product of long-term incarceration and isolation — always expecting the doubt, the curse, the rejection, the abuse, and never the understanding ear. Amber reiterated her instruction then worked with me on a way to explain how information in prison is disseminated. Even in Amber’s critique she taught me to trust her.

It took some time but PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship re-opened. We completed my application and submitted it, both of us confident it’s in good shape. Time will tell. 

A mentor teaches, guides, encourages, and befriends his or her mentee with the hope it will lead to success. Such a mentor is consistent, humble, and dedicated. The best mentors instill confidence, trust, and tenacity in their mentees, cultivating their potential as writers and human beings. However, the greats inspire courage and excellence, then, when a challenge is met, they raise the bar with a simple question: what’s next?

Amber planted the answer when we discussed my plans for 2022. “You should consider the Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowship.” she said. “It’s perfect for you.” 

“Seriously?” I listened doubtfully as she described it.

“Yes. You have the network. Their fellowship is a natural next step if you win the PEN fellowship. Even if you don’t, the application is good practice.”

Though I’ve never seen Amber, I could hear the smile in her excitement. I tried to remind myself how much work it would take, what a long shot it would be. But Amber’s voice fertilized the idea until it grew, and after she finished, I believed. It’s why my mentor is the greatest.

 

Paula J. Lambert

When I first heard the news about this award, I was sitting in my car, thumbing through my phone while taking a break from errands. After more than a year of rarely leaving the house at all, what had once seemed a pretty normal afternoon now felt both adventurous and exhausting. I checked my texts, worked my way through a few emails, and found myself reading something I could scarcely believe was true. 

Years prior to that day, I’d worked with Santonio Murff through PEN America’s Prison Mentorship Program—and I so enjoyed it. I expected our correspondence would continue indefinitely. But a convergence of events changed my life and intentions entirely; I got sick, lost my job, moved to a new city, married, and became a stepmother, all in a very short span of time. The transition was difficult, and it took time to sort itself out. I was not able to continue with the program, but I never stopped thinking about the talented, sweet-natured man I’d worked with. At one point during our correspondence, he’d sent me a rose carefully made of paper, glue, and winding bits of thread; it’s been in a vase in the window of my home office since, a constant reminder of his shining enthusiasm, ambition, and humor. 

“My family and friends all call me ‘San,’” he’d told me early in our writing relationship, “and I’d be pleased if you’d do the same.” I let him know I also preferred “Paula” to “Ms. Lambert.” This helped our letters continue in a relaxed, friendly way, and his enthusiasm and good humor were unwavering throughout our correspondence. He expressed himself so openly that I always felt I could hear his voice as I read the letters; that in itself was indicative of his gift. Our trust in and fondness for one another increased as our work went on. It was exactly how the best of all relationships, professional and otherwise, unfold—with mutual admiration and respect.

It’s why I never forgot San, why I’d always hoped we’d one day find our way back to each other, if just to check in and say hello. I wanted to let him know I remembered him, that his work had impressed me, that I so hoped he was still writing. When I saw that he’d written in his cover letter, “With so many years having passed and the pandemic having claimed so many, I just pray that Paula is still here to read this praise,” I was deeply moved. I had had the same concern and hope for San—that after all this time and especially this last year, he was somehow okay. I’ve been aware of COVID’s devastating effect on our incarcerated population in Ohio and did some work with a program here called Healing Broken Circles, taking part in a video poetry program and donating several boxes of creative writing texts and literary journals that I hoped would make a difference to others like San working hard to process their own lives and stories. 

To learn that San was not just okay but actually doing so well—still thoughtful, ambitious, enthusiastic, and being recognized for his writing in such positive ways—was an enormous relief. That he expressed concern for my wellbeing was almost overwhelming. It took days for me to process it all, weeks, and in reviewing the correspondence that, yes, I’d saved after all this time, I realized his kindness and concern was testament to the person he’d always been, the sweetness I’d always seen.

In his generous essay, San writes, “Paula felt that I had stories that were worthy of telling, that needed to be told.” We all need that—to tell our stories, to sort out our lives and experiences. It expands our lives and helps us grow, whatever our circumstances. It helps us to be brave, to keep moving forward, to hold on to hope and to the love I believe really does exist in this world, despite what can seem like so much evidence to the contrary. I’m so glad that PEN America is able to do the powerful work it does, that it brought San and I together for an experience that would prove to be so meaningful for us both, that it has paired so many mentors and mentees for their own important, valuable work. 

In one of his letters, when San asked if it were possible for me to help him find some statistics that would lend authority to a creative nonfiction piece he was working on, he said he looked forward to one day seeing our names in print together. That will now happen at last through the announcement of this year’s awards. I could not be more proud of San for initiating this process through his lovely essay, and I’m so pleased to accept, with him and through him, this PEN America / L’Engle Rahman Prize for Mentorship. 

Santonio D. Murff

Nothing and no one has so propelled me forward nor contributed greater to my growth and development as a writer and a human being as Caits Meissner, Robert Pollock, and the staff at the PEN Prison and Justice Writing Program. My first four years in administrative segregation, without so much as a window that I could see out of, was by far the darkest, most depressing years of my life. It was PEN and its staff that brought me the light, the distractions from my dire situation, and the hope for a more promising future that sustained my sanity and lifeline.

When the system sought to bury me alive and silence me forever, PEN provided me with much more than a voice and a positive outlet for my pain and creativity. They provided me with the literary tools necessary, through their free writing booklet, to organize and amplify that voice, my truths, more effectively. Even when I didn’t win a prize the first year that I entered the PEN writing competition, it was their encouraging and insightful feedback to my entries that led me to believe that I could win one day. That I could be a professional writer. A published, award-winning professional writer.

There are no words that could adequately describe the thrill, the bliss, the sense of accomplishment that I felt, while in that torturous concrete box, when I was notified my second year entering the PEN writing competition that I had proved the naysayers and dream-killers wrong. I’d proven PEN right. With only a barely functioning manual typewriter and a romantic/comedy that I longed to live out with my son’s mother, I’d won second place in the screenwriting category!

Today, as an award-winning novelist and a 7-Time PEN winner, who’s had one of my plays performed at The People’s Forum in Manhattan by the phenomenal Mahogany L. Browne–it brings me great pleasure to be given the opportunity to acknowledge the people who have given so generously of their time and themselves to push me toward the many successes that I have wrestled from the jaws of this potential stealing, dreams dashing beast known as the system.

The PEN America/L’Engle Rahman Prize for Mentorship, nominating the PEN America Mentors who have contributed to my joyous journey immediately brought Professor Paula Lambert to my mind and a big smile to my face. More than a mentor, Paula embraced me as a friend and a fellow writer. She never made me feel or communicated with me as if I was less than or judged, and I sincerely appreciate that to this day.

Over a decade ago, when PEN blessed my life with her presence, I was too young and immature to fully appreciate how Paula totally opened up her life, her past, and her passions to me. Having been sequestered in a box for years, deprived of affection, any camaraderie, or even natural conversation with others–I was more than moved, I was overwhelmed by her compassion, her honesty, compliments, humor, and humanity. Paula made me want to prove myself worthy of her time, tutelage, and trust.

One of the things I remember and appreciate most about Paula and her critiques is how she could make me laugh in spite of my situation.

“San, what you are doing with your wordplay is called alliteration,” she explained. “I thought it was brilliant the first few lines. By the third paragraph of the page, I was like, ‘Hmm…more alliteration. ‘ By the last paragraph though, I was like, ‘Enough already! Just stop it!’”

Her words tickle me to this day. Back then, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to rhyme or have alliteration in every line of a piece, no matter the genre or seriousness of the subject matter. With grace, style, and humor Paula taught me otherwise.

“I’m not sure there is a such thing as deafening silence,” she said on another occasion, subtly teaching me the power of simplicity. Silence can speak volumes when expertly placed in a narrative or dialogue.

I loved how Paula would utilize my own works and trust me with hers to teach me how to recreate moments and moods in my life, to make readers feel, and to always show and not tell. I wrote from the heart of my experiences as did she, so we quickly got to know each other, to trust each other, to question each other, and to openly and honestly share with each other.

I appreciated her candor when she shared one of her essays about the guilt she felt at the fear that gripped her when she once found herself in an impoverished African American neighborhood after the sun set. Again, she had me laughing, as I assured her that no guilt was warranted. I grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks and the same fear crept up on me if nightfall caught me anywhere outside of the projects I was raised in.

“Your fears were reasonable not racist. Poverty breeds desperate people and crime–no matter the ethnicity of the community,” I shared my intimate experiences with such communities.

Her opening up about how confused and disturbed she was the first time she heard her ex-husband use the N-word with his friends, pried open the vault for me to reveal my own interracial traumas growing up in a home that was ripe with domestic violence and the emotional abuse from my white stepfather. I doubt Paula has a clue to how much it meant to me to have her not only teach me how to put meat on the bones of my characters, but to have her trust me when society and the system had deemed me untrustworthy.

She extended a hand to pick me up when the world seemed determined to keep me down. She came into my life and made me feel alive again when so many had left me for dead. When so many had written me off as a loser and failure, she was determined to empower me to win and succeed. Though I declined the offer, she volunteered to help me get another typewriter when mine was on its last legs. She taught me that there are some genuinely good people in the world who will help you if you want to help yourself. Paula planted in me a desire, now realized, to want to be one of those people.

Some of my last words to Paula were ‘I love you.’ How could I not. Paula felt that I had stories that were worthy of telling, that needed to be told. She opened up her world to me for me to tell them, allowing me to write her at her university after the three mandatory exchanges were over and offering to create a dialogue between some of her students and me. In my burgeoning years as a writer, PEN and Paula believed in me, and that led to my believing in myself.

Today, as an educated and rehabilitated man of God, a prolific writer with publications and awards for my poetry, fiction, nonfiction, stage and screenplays; having published an award-winning novel, now living on the minimum security dorms, acting as a Texas Inmate and Families Association Ambassador, and doing all I can to uplift my fellow man–l pray that Paula is alive to receive this award and KNOW how much greater a writer and man I became due to her investment of time, compassion, trust, expertise, and faith in me.

Professor Paula Lambert is exactly what our great nation needs more of: great people who unselfishly reach out to teach and inspire others to manifest that greatness that resides inside us all.

Thank you, Paula.

Santonio’s next book Apologies From Within is an anthology of memoirs from rehabilitated incarcerated people, most of whom he mentors.

Rachel Tracie

When you have the pleasure of reading Daniel’s writing, you will encounter a writer passionate about the capacity for each human being to change and grow; an advocate fiercely committed to prison reform, and a man untiring in his pursuit of creating spaces where others can thrive.

I was introduced to Daniel through his writing—a play entitled, The War Within. When I read Daniel’s play, I was immediately struck by its theatricality, thematic focus, and keen sense of dialogue and character. I also felt an instant connection to Daniel as the play seemed to put forward in style and content so much that I value in theatrical writing—movement as a powerful form of dialogue, the embodiment of abstract ideas and the importance of choice and change. I didn’t know at the time that Daniel was already a published author (his wonderful account of the Norfolk Prison debate team, which he rebuilt, is part of The Marshall Project’s “Life Inside” series and his essay on the efficacy of developing a national prison debate league is published in the anthology What We Know, published out by The New Press). What I did know, was that I had encountered a formidable writer and I was very much looking forward to beginning our collaboration.

Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Daniel more as a person and as a writer. His current memoir project, Changing the Locks: An Experiential Blueprint for Effective Prison Reform, reflects some of what I found so engaging in his play—vividly drawn characters, snappy dialogue and elegant description. What is also evident is Daniel’s passion, wit, earnestness, creativity and purpose. When I asked what he was hoping to achieve in writing this memoir, he responded: “I’d like to write a character-driven story which profiles the redemptive potential and humanizes the incarcerated. Self-actualization through education is a key feature here and serves as a continuation of my earlier effort.” 

He also mentioned two of his debate brothers and the tragedy that befell them, “It’s important to me that they are both immortalized for their redemptive triumphs over the infamy of their worst deeds.” 

As he wrote to incorporate these ideas, I saw how Daniel was able to weave together a story with key observations and research on prison reform. His writing does not become didactic or closed, but rather, he incorporates a level of openness which provides space for conversation and response. This has impacted my own writing significantly. To hold your own ideas with humility and openness is something I strive to do and see modelled in Daniel’s writing again and again. Every letter I receive from Daniel is like a masterclass in writing. I find myself working to carefully craft my words to bring myself up to his level. This to me, is the mark of a great writer —they make you want to be better.

What I admire so much about Daniel is that despite daily facing the frustrations of the prison system, and the many delays that occur when communicating through correspondence particularly in this time of pandemic, he remains positive, encouraging and, he continues to write. He writes with wit and elegance. He writes with clarity and humor. He writes with hope and empathy. He writes every day. He is indeed a “termite for change,” as he refers to himself. I love this metaphor because it illuminates Daniel’s passion so clearly. Daniel’s forthcoming memoir, both experiential and future-focused is just a part of his continued work to eat away at outmoded, unjust and inhumane practices, while laying the groundwork for change. I am so honored to share this award with Daniel and grateful to PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Mentorship Program for placing us together and giving me the opportunity to both mentor and be mentored.

Daniel Throop

Contemporary American prisons function as social slaughterhouses wherein community ties and human identities are systematically chopped into mincemeat. After 18 years of carving, I’ve looked on in helpless terror as the tear-cooled saws of state sanctioned severance have whittled my support system down to lean strips of thinly sliced bacon. The wet whirring of these toothy blades plays incessantly, like a sadly looped soundtrack for the painful isolation of relational genocide taking place within correctional butcher shops across the nation. Clammy concrete floors are slick with the entrails of crudely eviscerated humanity and walls grow ever thicker stuffed high with the remains of decomposing relationships. Compassionate suturing is required to counteract this carnage and PEN America mentors are courageously wading through the social detritus. to stop the bleeding. 

My favorite aphorism on the subject of human interconnectivity hails from the Aboriginal Activists Group; “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.” Rachel Tracie personifies this collaborative credo better than most by actively honoring reciprocal evolution over basic reclamation. An examination of her own words affirms the spirit of egalitarianism fusing us together: “Daniel, I want to let you know how much what you have to say matters to me personally, and to all those potential readers out there. I am very much looking forward to learning a great deal from you and about you in this process. I raise a pen to our collaboration!” With a few inclusive strokes of her pen Rachel has overwritten years of dehumanization.

As a visionary writer, creator, and theatre professor, Rachel is uniquely equipped to traverse the dramacidal hellscape in which my societal exile oozes onward like a sucking chest wound. After all, drama united us, literally and figuratively, during the cruel summer of Covid. PEN America paired us up because my first foray into playwrighting, “The War Within,” was awarded the Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Drama. In her introductory letter Rachel explains how “It was so great to read your work as immediately the style and content of your piece resonated strongly with things that I value in my own work–theatricality and movement; personification of emotion and the importance of choice and change.” 

Once I got to read her book, “Christina Reid’s Theatre of Memory and Identity,” the admiration became very mutual. Her talent is obvious, but what I found to be more striking than a disgruntled bowlers union was Rachel’s noble motivation for choosing to illuminate this particular person. “My book may be a little bit of dry reading but it was the culmination of many years of research into a playwright who I felt was underrepresented” she writes. To the contrary, read that sentence wetly as Rachel’s empathetic words applied a warm compress to my own tattered feelings of devaluation. In that beautiful moment our social contract was emblazoned – with mutuality.

If encouragement could be measured in kilograms Rachel would be an Escobar-level distributor of the stuff. We’re currently working together on my memoir and she’s proven to be indefatigably invested in the project’s success. Thanks to the PEN America Prison Writing Program, Rachel and I have combined to become unlikely co-conspirators of change seeking to combat desolation with creativity, detachment with connectivity, and limitations with transcendence. For all these reasons, and more, I am honored to nominate my friend and ally for Mentor/Human Being of the Year. Rachel Tracie is a first ballot Hall of Famer in both categories.

Read Next: Because Your Liberation Is Bound Up With Mine: Reflections from Mentors with PEN’s Prison Writing Program

Susan Karwoska is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship in Fiction; a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace residency for emerging artists; and residencies at the Ucross Foundation and at Cummington Community of the Arts. From 2005-2014 she was the editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine and currently serves on its editorial board. She is also on the board of the New York Writers Coalition, and has served on NYFA’s artist advisory board. She writes and edits for a variety of publications and organizations, works as a writer-in-the-schools, and lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is at work on a novel.



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