Monday, August 04, 2014

Bad Bitches with Criminal Records are the New Heroes with a Typewriter: “Orange is the New Black” & Russian Prison Literature

I always look this good when reading. Duh.

The title of both Piper Kerman’s memoir – Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison [2010] – and the Netflix original series refer to the difference between compulsory attire for inmates and a women’s fashion cliché, i.e. every season has its own “new black.” But for me the subtext of this title refers also to racial and gender difference, as the white-skinned and blonde-haired Piper become the unlikely jailhouse narrator in lieu of contemporary media’s representation of the common criminal as a man of color. This is true of American prisons and American prison narratives; yet I am no expert on American prisons or American prison narratives and therefore I cannot make a compare-and-contrast analysis of Orange is the New Black against the properties of the mainstream incarceration narrative in this country. Instead of venturing into unknown – and possibly unsteady – territory, I will make use of a corpus of texts I have already mastered: Russian prison literature. When it comes to prison literature (or any kind of camp literature for that matter) national or historical differences are not of crucial importance as the genre remains fairly recognizable no matter what decade or state the male narrator was incarcerated in. Rather than time and place, the adjective defining the narrator in the previous sentence – male – becomes the aspect of the text capable of framing and making the extraordinary experience meaningful. Prison literature is a male literary genre; this means that the corpus consists of narratives produced by men – male writers (and, sometimes by the female sidekick to a male writer, as in the case of Nadezhda Mandel’shtam and her memoir about her husband). Obviously this does not mean that prisons/camps etc. all over the world are solely populated by male inmates – a quick look at some statistics and a quick search on google will tell you that there are plenty of women behind bars. But the fact that a woman has been to prison and decides to write about it doesn’t mean that her written work will be included in the genre of prison literature. She can try hard – and it looks like Piper Kerman attempted to follow suit although she laments its futility early on in her memoir: “I had already read the books on Amazon about surviving prison, but they were written for men” (30). Piper feels this gendered anxiety, and following her lead we should ask ourselves: why wouldn’t a prison narrative by a female immediately become a part of the genre? The reason for this uncomfortable truth about what gets included and what is left outside is the six strict demands that the genre of prison literature presents to its texts:

1. The narrative must begin with the incarceration and end when the incarceration ends.

2. Narrative space must only include places of incarceration and/or exile.

3. The narrator must be a hero. The hero is per definition male.

4. The narrative must include categories of characters defined as “others” with whom the narrator does not engage, to whom he cannot relate, and whom he does not provide with a complex or dynamic representation: a person of another nationality, ethnicity, and/or gender must be presented to the reader as the Other.

5. The narrator must be either innocent or caught in an unjust socioeconomic or corrupt ideological system.

6. The narrator must avoid the ethical concept of guilt in relation to his own “crime” or acts.

Out of these six demands, number 3 is the most problematic for a woman writing about her experiences in prison. The narrator in prison literature must be a hero and to be a hero you have to be a man. Since the man is a hero, the following three demands on my list, number 4-6, not only define the essential qualities required of the male narrator to make him the quintessential hero but also explain why such a flawed “narrator as hero” has received very little of the scorching criticism he needs. Instead of lingering on abstractions, let’s take a look at my two favorite examples of authors who use this problematic “narrator as hero” in Russian prison literature: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov. And let’s compare them and their camp narratives with Piper Kerman and her “narrator as woman” (because she cannot produce a hero and the female version of it, “heroine,” smacks of unnecessary eroticism).

1. The narrative must begin with the incarceration and end when the incarceration ends.

Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov might eventually tell us what they did to get themselves incarcerated (Solzhenitsyn in the beginning of The Gulag Archipelago and Shalamov in a few of his little-known autobiographical sketches), but all of their “fictional” masterpieces eliminate this kind of superfluous information. Since the male narrator is innocent and/or a victim of the system, we don’t need to know, right? In Orange is the New Black, Kerman finds herself in prison in chapter 3 (!); at first I thought she was making an honest mistake and that she simply didn’t know that the genre demanded her to open along the lines of “Enter the Cell.” Then I understood that not only is the genre not available to her – which means she can do what the hell she wants – she attempts to destabilize what is implicit in this first demand,  which is that the inmate does not include the compassion felt for family and friends as they, as she says later, “do the time with us.” Kerman lingers on the hurt she caused those who love her both by her crimes and by being in prison several times throughout her memoir; perhaps because as a woman she was raised to view herself not as a lone wolf but as person embedded in relationships. Neither Shalamov nor Solzhenitsyn chronicle their perspective on the struggles of those they left behind – mothers, wives, daughters, etc. – because what is the worth of relating personal pain when one can produce a public performance instead?

2. Narrative space must only include places of incarceration and/or exile.

By being remote and only populated by force, basically all of Kolyma is incarcerated space – although sometimes Shalamov includes another space, his hometown of Vologda. We don’t know why, it makes us the naïve readers of prison literature confused, but we accept it because one short story can be the exception that confirms the rule. Solzhenitsyn makes it a little bit easier when he decides that not only do the camps of the Soviet Gulag compromise an archipelago throughout the country, but – spoiler alert! – all of USSR is a big concentration camp. By creating and/or employing the topoi of the Small Zone (the camp) and the Big Zone (the country) in their narratives, Russian writers on the twentieth-century prison experience always obey demand number 2. Although the for-profit prison complex of the United States is in some ways a lot worse and more dehumanizing than the Gulag [don’t quote me on that as I haven’t served time in either], Kerman cannot generalize in similar terms because as a white, middle-class, educated woman she is not only complicit in the system – she knows it too. Neither Solzhenitsyn nor Shalamov understand (or want to make it seem like they don’t understand) that they were complicit in the system that incarcerated them; they float freely as individual actors filled with humility and the potentiality for good deeds. Instead of limiting her narrative to only behind barbed wire, Kerman includes other spaces where she was before and after. Instead of a socioeconomic or ideological feature of their epoch, as in Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, the prison of Kerman is a geographical reality – once on the map, always on the map.

3. The narrator must be a hero. The hero is per definition male.

The standard definition of “hero” is: “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov present themselves through their narrators as obvious heroes and their texts anticipate admiration and/or idealization as they both write in aspiration of being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature because they’ve been courageous and noble. The male author produces a hero who resembles himself and whom we are not allowed to question because anything that is questionable about him remains unrepresentable. Even if a prison literature text were to construct an “anti-hero,” it would still be a hero because everything else in the genre functions to justify him and his actions. To summarize: even if you’re a bad guy, the system is worse and the fact that you survived it and lived to tell the tale makes you a hero. Congratulations. In this regard it makes sense to compare the hero not with Kerman’s representation of herself in the memoir but with the representation of Piper in the Netflix series. In the beginning we might have believed what popular culture could tell us about such good girls as Piper appears to be – that is, white, middle-class, educated, young women – in prison, namely, that they must somehow be innocent or fooled by evil people and/or forces. But as the show continues, Piper’s character develops; and in the final episode of season 1, when Piper beats up another inmate in such a rage that we fear for the inmate’s life, we are left with an uncomfortable idea: is Piper perhaps a bad person? Although we all want to love Piper as the “heroine” she was supposed to be in the beginning, we cannot shake the problematic notion of her not being a good person throughout season 2. But what if we accepted the fact that Piper is ruder, meaner, nastier and – most importantly – more guilty than many of the other criminals in the prison? What if we were to allow Piper to be someone else instead of a female imitation of the clichéd hero in prison literature? Would it be so terrible if Piper were to be a Bad Bitch with a Criminal Record, and not an Innocent Blondie with Lesbian Inclinations? In the end of Kerman’s memoir, she sees herself as a “seasoned inmate” when she encounters a newbie – and there’s something powerful in claiming that definition for yourself. Thus Kerman becomes the narrator who was never the hero of her own narrative; instead, she constructs something of a prison Bildungsroman as Evgenia Ginzburg did before her in Into the Whirlwind yet her transformation transcends the religious master plot of the latter: Piper goes from newbie to experienced prisoner.

4. The narrative must include categories of characters defined as “others” with whom the narrator does not engage, to whom he cannot relate, and whom he does not provide with a complex or dynamic representation: a person of another nationality, ethnicity and/or gender must be presented to the reader as the Other.

I have written about how Solzhenitsyn portrays women elsewhere on this blog; but when it comes to also other kinds of difference he is not an easy author to swallow. Yet the “Other” in Solzhenitsyn’s narratives does not have to be a person of another nationality, ethnicity, or even gender – it is enough for the person to be of another generation (he dislikes old people) or of a different political orientation (he dislikes basically everyone but communists most of all) for Solzhenitsyn to find it difficult to relate to him (it is never a “her” because being a woman excludes one from even being represented on such a detailed level in the narrative). Shalamov cannot engage with criminal convicts; he cannot relate to their experience or their situation and as a defense he makes them his Other par excellence. Shalamov is a bit better with representing women than Solzhenitsyn – unless they are female criminal convicts which makes them really the lowest of human beings – but I suspect that is because he only includes them in his narratives on the off chance that he encountered any in his all-male prisons/camps. Even though Soviet prisons/camps housed prisoners from different ethnicities and nationalities who spoke different languages and had different experiences than the Russians, Russian prison literature is almost only written by white, middle-class, educated men. Sometimes this kind of man is also Jewish, but that is rare; their main religion, whether practiced or not, is Orthodox Christianity. Although this hero makes up the majority of narrators in prison literature, it does not mean that his experience is anything but marginal in the large scope of things. The fact is that the majority of prisoners in Russian camps were NOT white, middle-class, educated men. We tend to forget this when we read Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov and perceive their stories as general representations of how things were. That is not the case; rather, they are both privileged individuals trying to make their elitist point of view pass as the story of “our common pain and our shared shame.” Since she is not a man, Kerman is already an Other to herself; and instead of making her marginal perspective stand for the collective’s experience, she includes other convicts whose ethnicity and nationality become irrelevant as she opts for telling stories and representing not other Others but persons.

5. The narrator must be either innocent or caught in an unjust socioeconomic or corrupt ideological system.

None of these three authors – Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Kerman – killed anyone. They were not murders. They did not rob banks. They did not kidnap children. Their criminal actions were only criminal to the extent that they were considered as such by the state in which they lived. Obviously many innocent people were incarcerated, even executed, in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn wrote about his personal opinions in letters to a friend; not really a “crime,” right? Shalamov was part of the political opposition and distributed forbidden pamphlets; now isn’t that kind of a “crime”? Of course in retrospect we consider this opposition to be the “good guys” and the pamphlet in question to contain the “truth,” but should we assume that everything was as clear-cut at the time? We can excuse Shalamov’s actions because historically he was justified, but does that mean that we should overlook the fact that he consciously committed a crime? An uncomfortable truth to swallow when dealing with such a hero, I know. And is Kerman’s “crime” – carrying a bag of drug money across the Atlantic – really so bad that it warrants her spending fifteen months in prison? Even though her punishment exceeds her crime, Kerman owns her past and owns her own definition of herself as not innocent. She points to the “war on drugs” as her narrative’s equivalent of an “unjust socioeconomic system” but she still sees herself as an individual who acted freely within that system. The system may be bad, but Kerman is not blameless.

6. The narrator must avoid the ethical concept of guilt in relation to his own “crime” or acts.

Already Dostoevsky noted that the convicts in Omsk of the mid-nineteenth-century did not display any guilt about their crimes. Prison literature is not about repentance – at least not repentance in any legal sense of the word. The only repentance that can take place in prison literature is religious or spiritual. And that kind of guilt is existential, and seldom tied to a misdemeanor.

In conclusion I would like to say that when I first suggested to my husband that we start watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix, he was not excited about the prospect of watching only women and their stories. After a few episodes he was the one who begged for another episode – until we ended up watching three one-hour episodes per evening. It was tough but it was worth it.

4 comments:

Carol said...

This comment does not have to do with your latest post, but I wanted to say it here, anyway. Synchronicity! While I was doing some research for a paper I am writing on Faulkner's "The Sound and The Fury," I happened upon Leona Toker's "Eloquent Reticence: Withholding Information in Fictional Narrative." When I Googled her, I discovered that she is a Shalamov scholar, and that reminded me of you! ;-)
Hope you are feeling well.
Carol

Rebecka Lindberg said...

Interesting article! I couldn't find enough motivation to continue watching Orange is the new Black myself (Piper annoyed me too much), but I like the comparative perspective with Russian literature :) And I am all to familiar with this aspect: "...when I first suggested to my husband that we start watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix, he was not excited about the prospect of watching only women and their stories." Men's stories are universal, women's stories are just that - women's!

Michael McIntyre said...

You write, "Prison literature is a male literary genre; this means that the corpus consists of narratives produced by men – male writers" and "The narrator must be a hero. The hero is per definition male." But what about Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya? She spent 12 years in the Soviet gulag, her memoirs consist of 12 notebooks with 680 illustrations. Does her work not count as prison literature and is she not a hero? Perhaps there is some disqualifying attribute of which I am unaware - I know next to nothing about the genre as compared to your knowledge. But I have read the first half of the (admittedly rough) English translation of her memoirs online (http://www.gulag.su/album/index.php?eng=1&page=1&list=1&foto=1) and I would not hesitate to say that she was heroic.

Kusin Renée said...

Bra skrivet! Och tack för inspiration till läsning, varje gång jag läser ut en bok så känner jag mig helt vilsen tills jag hittar nästa. (Det är alltså Piper Kerman jag tänker läsa, nördar inte så hårt på ryssarna som du gör :P)

Kram Renée