Reading blogger JR's accounts of his experiences as prison educator, I somehow seem to have prison on the brain.
At least two Canadian novelists have been in jail--big time--but that did not stop them from gleaning top honours and awards for their writing.
Take the late Dan Bailey, grade-eight dropout and ex con.
That an ex-con (eight years for armed robbery) can enter the Canadian literary establishment, is a story well documented by the con himself whose Memories of Margaret made large ripples in the Can-lit movement some years ago.
Don Bailey was a personal friend of the brilliant Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence and some of his
comparisions to prison habitues and literary lions are pretty hard to beat.
To wit: Top Canadian writers and the jailhouse experience.
Bailey has just met a pudgy, folksy, but important author at the top of the Can-lit food chain.
"My mind began to drift, and I began to think about the rituals that took place when you arrived as a fish in the joint. The serious power freaks approached you like the three wise men bearing gifts. They promised to protect you, supply your with chocolate bars or chewing gum for the occasional blow job or anal sex. These guys needed sexual dominance to feel okay about themselves. They never perceived themselves as homosexuals. In fact, thley hated queers.
"The queens, wearing grotesque makeup, made their pitches, licking their lips lasciviously. They twitched their hips and competed madly to have the largest entourage of young men in their stable. They were openly gay and the more suitors they had, I guess the better they felt.
"Then there were the solid guys. No sex for them. Just tough, closed-mouthed walk int the yard for therest of their lives, kind of guys, but they were lonely for a partner. Someone who was in on a good beef, a bank robber or a safe cracker, who, when he got pinched, took the fall himself. Didn't squeal on anyone, though everybody knew other people wre involved. Solid . Someone you could talk a at a few years away with. Share some bullsh*t. Rationalize your life of crime and bestow their blossing on you. Make you feel okay about yourself, even though sometimes you felt like a zero.
"Lower down the pecking order we the skinners, the walking wonded, the junkies and the dealers. Everybody wanted something. I guess in the end what counted was that you ahad a visible position in the hierarchy. It was criticalc that you were someody to somebody, that somebody cared who your were because they either feared you or they liked you.
Don Bailey submitted his manuscripts to Robertt Weaver, Robert Fulford, John Robert Colombo, and eventually Margaret Laurence.
He was in.
When I was teaching college, I casually mentioned to a colleague that I had written a book, but was having a devil of a time getting it published.
Somehow, this other teacher was in the know.
"You wrote two good books.
"Your problem was that you didn't suck."
I didn't suck? You mean I didn't suck?
"Precisely, my friend, you who didn't know how the game is played.
"Look at Ms...........
You mean P..........?
"Have a good look. See? She has square-shaped lips.
"Comes from handling odd-shaped objects."
Well, I don't know.
I did meet the man recently. He had had a nervous breakdown, had become involved with a student and had had a divorce. Also a negative experience with his psychiatrist.
"So how are you doing?" he had asked.
"Got four books out and am holding my own."
He paused, and had a drink out of his flask.
"I haven't seen you for a long time, and now I've already seen too much of you. Goodbye."
I am practising on a big Allen wrench to affect square lips.
But I did somehow make it to the Globe and Mail, the literary page.
Would have hated to have gone the other way.
Would have tasted awful! :-)