In From the Iron House: Imprisonment in First Nations Writing, Deena Rymhs identifies continuities between the residential school and the prison, offering ways of reading 'the carceral'-that is, the different ways that incarceration is constituted and articulated in contemporary Aboriginal literature. Addressing the work of writers like Tomson Highway and Basil Johnston along with that of lesser-known authors writing in prison serials and underground publications, this book emphasizes the literary and political strategies these authors use to resist the containment of their institutions. The first part of the book considers a diverse sample of writing from prison serials, prisoners' anthologies, and individual autobiographies, including Stolen Life by Rudy Wiebe and Yvonne Johnson, to show how these works serve as second hearings for their authors-an opportunity to respond to the law's authority over their personal and public identities while making a plea to a wider audience. The second part looks at residential school narratives and shows how the authors construct identities for themselves in ways that defy the institution's control. The interactions between these two bodies of writing-residential school accounts and prison narratives-invite recognition of the ways that guilt is colonially constructed and how these authors use their writing to distance themselves from that guilt. Offering new ways of reading Native writing, From the Iron House is a pioneering study of prison literature in Canada and situates its readings within international criticism of prison writing. Contributing to genre studies and theoretical understandings of life writing, and covering a variety of social topics, this work will be relevant to readers interested in indigenous studies, Canadian cultural studies, postcolonial studies, auto/biography studies, law, and public policy.
Deena Rymhs is an assistant professor of English at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. She has published essays on Canadian literature with a focus on indigenous authors and narratives of incarceration.
PART ONE Genre in the Institutional Setting of the Prison
Prison literature occupies a curious, one might even say paradoxical, place in a society's philosophical and literary imagination. In his introduction to The Time Gatherers, a collection of prisoners' writing, Hugh MacLennan summarizes the attraction of prison writing for non-incarcerated readers: "If other readers are like myself, they will find some pages here which will make them see things they never saw before" (4). With its putative ability to make visible what is hidden from public view-to approximate the world of an abject other-the writing of incarcerated subjects represents that part of the social body that has been denied, the "excess" that has been cast aside. It would be a simplification, however, to regard prison literature as a mere sore on the social body. Many leaders, influential thinkers, and celebrated artists were at one point incarcerated: Moses, Jesus, Bunyan, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Wilde, Gramsci, Gandhi, Billie Holiday, and Nelson Mandela are but a diverse few. Indeed, the prison experience is an archetypal one of both heroes and outcasts. Poet, critic, and former prisoner Michael Hogan makes a further argument that the prison is a metaphor for society itself, a microcosm of the benevolent state's absolute albeit often unperceivable control of its citizens. "Barely discernible to the person who is not on parole and has no criminal record," this power, Hogan notes, is most intelligible to the prisoner, whose unique vantage point allows him to see the world differently, often with a "jaundiced" eye (89-90).
A long-standing site of writing, the prison also produces authors who may not otherwise have been moved to write. More than a place of defeat and submission, the prison may be seen as a place of learning, where a nascent consciousness is born in the prisoner, often in defiant resistance to the institution containing him/her. Consider the following lines written by an Aboriginal female prisoner, Elaine Antone:
[.] my mind
A devious, fool proof scheme
Keys can't lock away my thoughts.
Key pushers, keys turn in their locks
Reform me!! (n.p.)
The speaker continues by addressing the prison administration: "Reform me as I grow from 17 to 18 to 19, to 20, / A child, my age 18, you say, "belongs in school" (n.p.).
"Has it ever once occurred to you," she asks, "That, that is exactly where I am!" "In here I learn the con games, sad games, / Yes, within this prison . I learn ." (n.p.). Leonard Peltier echoes Antone's characterization of the prison when he remarks that "prison's the only university, the only finishing school many young Indian brothers ever see" (67). Part of this "schooling" is criminal, as the speaker of the above poem implies; it involves learning how to "slip and slide," as it is called in prison lingo-that is, to survive the games of the prison. Along with this admission of deviance, however, is an insistence on a type of enlightenment that occurs in this place. A 1976 issue of Tightwire, a magazine published from Kingston's Prison for Women, features a cartoon of a female prisoner in a meeting with "A.D. Ministration." The administrator's balloon reads: "Yes 001, we are prepared to acknowledge that since you've been here you've won the Nobel Peace Prize, found a cure for cancer, solved the riddle of the universe, [.] solved the problem of world starvation, developed a non-polluting fuel, invented an anti-gravity device, developed an interplanetary communications system, and instituted a revolutionary method where by [sic] the deaf can hear, the blind can see and the dumb can speak . But we still think that you are devious, manipulative, and a threat to society!" ("Cartoon" 41).
Some prisoners view their potential to contribute to society from prison as significant, though misunderstood. While such talents may be wasted by the idleness of serving prison time, there is an opportunity for self-discovery and creative output within this space. Writing is part of this introspective process. "'Who am I? Why do I do these things?'" asks Gregory McMaster, an incarcerated writer serving a life sentence at Collins Bay. "Try as they might," he writes, "there is not a single correctional program that can supply the answers to these questions. The truth lays buried deep within us and writing is the tool we use to peel away the layers" (46).
Writing is not the only recourse to healing. Some Aboriginal prisoners, Yvonne Johnson for example, reconnect with their cultural origins and spiritual traditions while in prison. The emergence of Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood groups was instrumental in developing an active political voice within Canadian prisons, one that saw the prisoner increasingly in ideological terms. These groups, along with Native-run prison publications dating back to the 1960s, demonstrate an active engagement with social and political movements outside the prison walls.
These examples lend support to the view that the vectors of influence between the prison and outside society are two-way. Prison discourse and thinking permeate outside language and thought in ways that are often indiscernible. Joseph Bruchac makes a similar case when he defends the significance of prison poetry and points out that the "majority society is continually absorbing (in small doses) words and phrases which originate in the constantly changing body of prison slang" ("Breaking Out" 287). Bruchac's point that prison lexicon infiltrates outside discourses serves as evidence that the discursive developments within the prison are not bound by their walls.
Prison literature is, by its very site of creation, polemical: it defies the disciplinary structures that attempt to suppress it. Many of the texts emerging from prisons challenge the taxonomy and definition of literature as they have been established in the West. Writing by Aboriginal inmates is doubly marginalized, fighting off presumptions of who can write, grappling with the erasure that the law has exacted and that the literary establishment has aided and abetted. With this insurgent body of prison writing, the question is not simply "how the incarcerated imagination has become part of Western ideas and literature" (Davies 7) but how these "out-law" texts speak back, reinscribing rather than reifying the generic codes that underpin Western literary traditions. How do these authors enable genre to speak against a silence that judicial and legal institutions have forced upon them? What new critical vocabularies do these texts generate, and how can academic study address this literature in a way that accentuates rather than neutralizes its political statements?
The first half of this book takes up these questions in relation to a diverse sample of writing from prison. Two underlying considerations follow this analysis. The first relates to the discursive character of these texts-that is, how these authors use and rework received forms. A second focus is how the social context of the prison imprints itself on this writing. I will look, then, at the discursive strategies engaged by the writers while also exploring these texts as windows into a local culture.
My discussion begins with an examination of Leonard Peltier's Prison Writings. Probably the most widely known Native person serving prison time, Peltier is a spectral figure in much of the writing by Aboriginal inmates. Yet his text does not focus on the evolving life of the individual subject. Peltier disavows any sense of himself as exceptional or exemplary. "You must understand . I am ordinary. Painfully ordinary," Peltier tells us, having just pronounced that "all of my people are suffering, so I'm in no way special in that regard" (9). He identifies himself as part of a collective body; thus, his incarceration stands in for the ideological, systemic, and physical oppression of Aboriginal people. He reflects on the intersection between his experience and those of indigenous people on this continent: "My own personal story can't be told, even in this abbreviated version, without going back long before my own birth on September 12, 1944, back to 1890 and to 1876 and to 1868 and to 1851 and, yes, all the way back through all the other calamitous dates in the relations between red men and white" (50). His story collapses into a larger history to reveal a notion of self that is in metonymic relation to that of an entire people. "I'm a small part of a much larger story," he insists. "My autobiography is the story of my people [.] My life has meaning only in relation to them" (43). Peltier's personal testimony is what Brian Swann terms "historic witness," a type of writing "that grows out of a past that is very much a present" (xvii).1
Some key differences, however, set Peltier apart from the other authors in this discussion. Peltier was already an activist when he was arrested. He did not depend on going to prison to know himself as Native; in fact, he went to prison because of his commitment to a political and cultural cause. Peltier's emergence in Prison Writings as a voice for his people is a subject position we also see at the end of James Tyman's autobiography. However, Tyman's imprisonment lacks the political and collective significance of Peltier's. Peltier declares himself wrongfully imprisoned, and...