Wednesday, 18 March 2015
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
This was perhaps exacerbated because I'm uneasy with this book, and I'm uneasy with this book because I liked it more than I expected, and there's a part of me wondering if I missed something that should have bothered me. As it is, there is, but it's not to do with the book itself, it's with the publishing industry. So I've been going around in circles, trying to refrain from looking up other critical response to see whether or not I'm "right." I will probably do so after I've written this, but I do try to write reviews without being unduly influenced by others, so here goes.
It is, of course, and should be, troubling that the book that gets published, the book that hits the bestseller list, the book that spawns a TV series that everyone tells me I really should see, is written by an middle (or upper middle) class white woman. That her experiences in jail are somehow more notable because she's white, because she's middle class, because she "doesn't belong," which carries the weird insinuation that all the Black, Latina, poor women who are in jail do belong there. It's a fault, that these are the stories that the publishing industry thinks will sell, and that they're right, where there is not a similar audience for the voices of others within the penal system. Other women would have a harder time getting published, and certainly a harder time becoming the kind of sensation that this did.
But is that Piper Kerman's fault? It's a fault of the industry, it's a fault of book readers who go for the easy and don't seek out stories further afield, but is her story less legitimate because she was able to get it heard? Yes and no. Yes, absolutely she benefited from a world that was far more ready to hear her story than it would be if she had been poor and Black, or Latina. Or just about anything but what she is.
On the other hand, it can't help but be a little bit gratifying that this story did get told. And I ended up liking it quite a lot. Kerman seems cognizant of these issues, and she doesn't think it's fair. This isn't a story about how she was different from the women in there, or even a story of how she learned that we're all sisters under the skin. It is enough better than that that it stuck with me.
It is a story of the inhumanity of the penal system, even at the "minimum security" places people like to think of as country clubs. Of gross power imbalances and arbitrary rules. Of institutionalization and racism and grinding monotony. Of brief moments of relief, of the ability to cope under insane circumstances. Of how overt violence isn't necessary to change people.
I am glad she has called attention to it. Anyone who thinks any kind of incarceration is a lark should have a swift kick up the side of the head, and anyone who thinks we're doing an adequate job of reforming or rehabilitating anyone should read the chapter on the "re-entry" classes that were more about how to find a good roofer than how to find a basic apartment with a felony conviction. Kerman is also scathing on the impact of long-term imprisonment for non-violent offenses.
Getting tough on crime is an easy appeal for votes. Hell, the government in my country is running on that, despite the overall drop in the crime rate and no need for the huge new prisons they've been building. So often, these seem to come out of a lack of knowledge, and stubborn refusal to do first-hand research. People in prison make them uncomfortable. So they must deserve everything they get. This is unacceptable.
In the end, I liked this book. Kerman is sensitive to the issues I'd want her to be sensitive too. Now is the time for other voices telling their stories from less of an "outsider" perspective. And it's my responsibility, and yours, to seek them out.