Monday, March 7, 2016
He is from South Africa and usually writes about race warfare: literal warfare complete with grenades, riot gear, and pitch battles. He was there, in the thick of it, as a young man. He can't seem to shake it.
Now, for reasons I don't know, he is in an Arizona prison in a writing workshop. He wears thick, dark glasses. All the time. I can see his eyes behind the glasses, and they are sharp, intelligent.
Today he has brought in something different. He is reluctant to read and passes his draft to another inmate. This young guy reads a piece about longing. In it, stars hang from strings, memories are carried away by the wind, an embrace dissolves in crashing waves. The writing is full of sensual, closely observed nature, emotion, and loss.
It's a break from his usual work and reaches for something ineffable. He doesn't pound us with his steady appetite for staccato violence.
He waits, stock still, after the reading, and stares at me hard through his glasses. He is easily sixty years old, but looks every bit the hopeful eighth-grader waiting for the answer after asking for a dance.
The circle of men sits for a moment, quiet. Then they applaud in approval of the effort, the breakthrough into a new style, a new subject, a new genre.
Then the man in the dark glasses takes his turn to be quiet. He doesn't take any shit, but he is at a loss for praise.
I ask him what he wants to do with the piece, where he would like to take it.
"I want it to work," he says.
I ask him to read it again, this time for lines that set the course for the next draft, the first, tentative steps in another direction, an unknown future.