A CONVERSATION BETWEEN RAHSAAN THOMAS & EMILE DEWEAVER
Rahsaan Thomas: How did you come up with Prison Renaissance?
Emile DeWeaver: Bryan Stevenson gave a talk for the Prison University Project and said people looking for solutions need to get proximate with the people most affected by those problems. I’m passionate about prison reform, so I started thinking: How can I become more proximate to people who support mass incarceration, people who fear me? At the same time, something else was going on; I started to see how my writing created proximity between me and editors, between me and readers. I remember someone read Identity in front of me and cried.
It was a moment of connection that shifted and tugged at me during Stevenson’s talk, but I didn’t understand its importance until that day I read your essay. You, Rahsaan, wrote about a renaissance among artists happening in prison, and it hit me. That’s what we need to present to the world, this prison renaissance, this rebirth of humanity and re-connection with healthy, progressive roles in society.
Thomas: You were originally sentenced to 67 years to life for murder and attempted murder, committed when you were 18. This year California passed Senate Bill 261 which may give you a second chance soon, but how did you stay motivated when you thought you were never going home?
DeWeaver: I couldn’t accept that I was never going home, so I didn’t. I didn’t know how I was going to make it home to my daughter, but I knew the only way it could happen was if I was prepared. So I spent the better part of 20 years changing my life and my perspective, not because I think I can somehow earn the right to go home, but because if I ever experience that moment of grace, I need to be ready.
A lot of people thought I was in denial. And in truth it was partly denial, but it was also faith in human potential. And solace because even if I died in prison, at least I’d die a good man. That was as important for me as freedom … I feel the need to be precise when talking about my criminal history, so I want to state this clearly: I don’t think my transformation counterbalances my crimes. Murder is horrible; it’s a vacuum that can’t be filled. I carry that. And I’m able to do that partially because of the strength I draw from the fact that I’ve become a different man.
Thomas: I feel like you draw strength from writing, too.
DeWeaver: Yeah, absolutely.
Thomas: How did you become a writer?
DeWeaver: I’ve always had the talent. In elementary school, I wrote a story where it seems like a serial killer is stalking through a house, but it turns out to be a cat. I wrote it because I was acting out against my teacher, but she ruined my plan by liking it. [laughs] Over the years, I wrote on and off, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was on trial for murder.
It’s complicated. There are a lot of reasons why the lowest moment in my life turned me into a writer. So first, trying to process and cope with murdering somebody as an 18-year-old kid with little family support, I was writing just to survive. It was the only thing I knew how to do that gave me bearing in the world.
Second, my daughter was born while I stood trial, and I began to see the world through her eyes. I saw me through her eyes, and I couldn’t bear the fact that she would grow up and one day someone would ask her, “What does your dad do for a living?” There was nothing I could do to save her from that stigma because I couldn’t take back a lifetime of bad decisions. So the next best thing was to at least give her something to be proud of. If I could give her nothing else, I could show her that no matter how low you’ve fallen, you’re never too low to climb back up. If she internalizes that, I can live with all the ways I’ve failed her as a father.
There’s a third reason [I became a writer], but it doesn’t mean anything next to that.
Thomas: Fair enough. If I remember correctly, you were writing fantasy stories when I met you in Zoe’s creative writing class [in San Quentin State Prison]. Then you read “Superman,” a story about a disabled, gay, Arab man who sets himself on fire. What sparked the 180 degree change in direction for your writing?
DeWeaver: Chance. I read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. I loved fantasy, and I was stubborn about writing anything else. But when I read Diaz, it felt clear that here is a great writer who loves fantasy as I do, and even though he wasn’t writing fantasy, be found a way to incorporate that love.
He showed me a new way to write, and then came our first public reading for creative writing. I struggled with a horror story about the end of the world where a man in his wheelchair is stuck in his house with a monster in another room. The themes were powerlessness and isolation. The story kept getting longer, too long for a five minute read, so I stripped away everything that wasn’t essential to isolation and powerlessness. What remained was the first line of “Superman.”
Thomas: And “Superman” was the first story you published?
DeWeaver: Yeah. The Lascaux Review published it in 2014 and the editors there changed my life. They saw something in me that I only hoped was there.
Thomas: I’ve noticed the stories you’ve written that have resonated the most with the public – and me – are the ones about your life. How did you turn from fiction and fantasy to reality and why do you think it has been more impactful?
DeWeaver: I wouldn’t say I turned from fantasy to reality because writing fantasy didn’t produce something less authentic than my biographical work. When you write something you’re passionate about, you’re writing about your life. The difference is that with fantasy, I explore humanity in a broad sense in order to better understand myself. With nonfiction, I explore my own life in order to understand humanity. Two ends of the same project.
Thomas: For me, it’s hard to be vulnerable in nonfiction because you’re exposing your weaknesses for the world to judge. Isn’t it easier to write freely in fiction?
DeWeaver: Sure it is, but I feel like its important as an incarcerated writer, especially, to expose myself. There’s a lot of social reasons for this – we’ve talked about proximity before – but right now, I’m talking strictly from a professional standpoint. I don’t have traditional credentials; I can’t tour bookstores to promote my work. What I do have is my voice. Incarceration is like being at the bottom of a well, and stripping bare on the page is my way of shouting real loud.
Thomas: You’ve had poems, personal essays, and short stories published. What’s your favorite art form?
DeWeaver: Poetry. If feels like the closest thing to me. When I write fiction, it’s an arduous process to come up with something worth writing. It’s another journey executing the idea well. Writing about myself is a little easier in that I already have the story material, I just figure out how to relate it. But poetry’s another animal. When I pen verse, I just explode. It’s powerful and sex-good, and I don’t know where it comes from.
Thomas: What do you hope to accomplish through your art?
DeWeaver: I want to connect with people. And reveal new ways to see the world.
Thomas: New ways to see the world?
DeWeaver: Yeah. I guess I’m thinking about a public conversation between President Obama and novelist Marilynne Robinson. Obama sees a correlation between the decline of the novel and the decline of empathy in our culture. When I’m revealing new worlds, I’m trying to increase empathy in our culture. [smiles] Batman fights crime and corruption with tech; my super power is empathy.
Thomas: [laughs] So you’re officially coming out as a superhero?
DeWeaver: I’m Poetman. Hear me read.
Thomas: Okay, what real life heroes inspire you?
DeWeaver: Nelson Mandela. He knew that the way to affect lasting change could never be through division and could only be sustained through unity – even if that unity was with one’s enemies. So he knew how to look at the big picture. His pride, his pain, his struggle – nothing was more important than the good he wanted and that was peace.
Thomas: What about literary heroes? Who influences you?
DeWeaver: Khalil Gibran, he’s an Arab poet. He writes about divinity in beauty and love, human connection, the hells and heavens we create. He’s a humanist – though I don’t know he’d describe himself as such. I have a lot of influences: Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Junot Diaz, Tolkien. Surprisingly, the Old Testament heavily informs my style.
Thomas: [laughs] That is surprising. You’re an atheist right?
DeWeaver: I am. I’ve never been religious, but my family was, and I used to love the mythology in biblical stories. Samson with the donkey’s jaw, laying down a Philistine army. Moses – Prince of Egypt, leading his people to the Promised Land. Esther, who would become Queen. These stories sparked my love for mythology.
Thomas: You talked about your daughter earlier. Can we talk about parenting from prison? What’s that been like for you?
DeWeaver: [pause] Being a parent serving life in prison is to know that you have failed before you’ve even started. You still have to do all the right you can in their lives, but you know – I know that even if my child got cancer and I gave her the cure, I have failed.
Being a parent here is knowing I don’t know the person I love most. It’s the strangest thing I’ve experienced: as much as she loves me, she doesn’t know me either. It’s hell.
Thomas: But your daughter is doing well, she’s in college, right? What have you done to contribute to her success?
DeWeaver: “Contribute to her success” … those are strong words. I wouldn’t frame it like that. What I do is write to her. Every year since her birth, I’ve sent her something for her birthday. I drew portraits of us for her because for most of my incarceration, that’s all I’ve had, materially, to give her.
Thomas: She’s an artist, too, so your portraits inspired something in her.
DeWeaver: I like to think that. She does manga and anime, commission work. She’s in college learning to design video games. Basically, she’s awesome.
Thomas: Let’s shift topics. I want to throw you under the bus a little. It’s almost election time, and a lot of female volunteers are excited about Hillary becoming president. I’ve heard you call yourself a feminist; but you’re not happy about the first woman president.
DeWeaver: My problem with Hillary is she’s touted as a step forward for feminism, and I don’t see it. By and large, the inequalities that exist are because of the paradigm that it’s a rich, white man’s world. Women like Hillary and Condoleezza Rice have succeeded by becoming the functional equivalent of rich, white men. While that doesn’t make them bad people, it’s not a step forward for feminism.
If the problem were tanks driving around, leveling our communities, the problem wouldn’t be solved by letting women drive them instead of men. Yes, one goal of feminism is to reduce oppression, but sometimes it feels like we’re satisfied with achieving equal opportunities to oppress. Angela Davis talks about that.
Thomas: Last question. Did you just namedrop Angela Davis, hoping Hillary supporters won’t tear you a new one?
Emile DeWeaver is a 2015 Pushcart nominee with creative work in a dozen publications, including The Lascaux Review, Frigg, Punchnel’s, and The Rumpus. You can find his work on his website and by visiting his monthly column “Good Behavior” at Easy Street.
He is a co-founder of Prison Renaissance.
Rahsaan Thomas grew up in New York City, but he writes from a cell in California. He’s a staff writer for San Quentin News and the co-author of Uncaged Stories. He has also been published in The Marshall Project, Missouri Review’s Literature on Lockdown, Life of the Law, The Beat Within, & Brothers in Pen’s 2014 & 2015 anthologies.
At age 45, he became a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and a co-founder of Prison Renaissance.