“Code words to say what can’t be said”: James Hannaham Talks to a Writer in Solitary Confinement
Kwaneta Harris and James Hannaham on Queerness and the Silencing of the Incarcerated
James Hannaham’s most recent novel, Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta (2022), opens with Carlotta Mercedes, a Black, Latina trans woman, answering questions at a parole hearing that pulls no punches. A woman on the board asks condescending, “Are you the sort of person who carries a loaded weapon to a birthday party?” and Carlotta is required to have more self-control than most people can muster on a good day. She replies, “At the time, the record states that I was, ma’am, but since I’ve been inside I have done a great deal of work.”
Any other kind of answer will get her denied even though she is wrongly incarcerated, sentenced to the maximum time, raped and brutalized inside. In her head she says to herself, “In Bed-Stuy in them days, there almost wasn’t really no other type of person but one who was holding. Cause the other type was called dead.” The narrative is regularly interrupted by her inner monologue like this, not demarcated in the text, just simply written in her voice.
While there are details about her prison, the story largely focuses on Carlotta’s two days outside—after she’s granted parole and before she’s returned to prison—where she travels to her childhood home in Brooklyn. She hilariously recounts interactions with her self-proclaimed “progressive” Parole Officer who tries to act like her friend (“For what it’s worth, I’m one of the alphabet people too”) a condescending, blonde-haired sales lady at an exorbitantly priced shoe store (who Carlotta calls a “presumed Amanda”), and clerks at an upscale grocery store (“$3.99 for grapes you gon shit tomorrow?”). Walking around her childhood neighborhood, which is so transformed she gets lost repeatedly (“Can’t nothing be in the same place it used to was?”), can’t even diminish her.
I’ve been hearing Carlotta say, “What the shit is that?” constantly since I finished the novel—and it makes me smile every time. In fact, Carlotta’s joy—in the face of her body being caged and brutalized, her family ignoring and neglecting her, and the lack of even one other person in her life who truly sees her—permeates this narrative and makes what would otherwise be an incredibly somber story into one that will make you laugh out loud. Her joy at being alive isn’t predicated on her superiority over others but her compassion for them, which begins with her compassion for herself. It’s feminism in the sense of not bowing to mechanisms of domination but instead recognizing the power of care and love and first applying them to yourself.
Immediately when I read the book I thought of Kwaneta Harris who, despite being in her seventh consecutive year of solitary confinement in Texas is a constant source of joy and inspiration for me. I talk to Kwaneta about writing and books—she’s a writer and a reader—and I thought she’d love James’ novel so, I mailed it to her. She wrote back telling me how much she loved it. I sent her response to James who wrote me back and after a couple of email relays connected them directly.
What follows is their conversation about Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta and the resonance this work has with Kwaneta and the other women in her solitary block. The conversation is capacious. They discuss the idea of incarceration, representation in literature, carceral censorship, racism….It’s just a wonderful, honest, heartfelt engagement of minds as both think deeply about things. Like the novel, reading their engagement with each other made me happy, as I hope it does for you. We need more deep conversations in our culture. A lot more.
James Hannaham: Hi Kwaneta! Wonderful to be in touch. I’m really really incredibly excited to hear your enthusiastic response to the book! Carlotta got some good reviews, but I have to say yours was my favorite. In my devious little mind, I was always hoping that Carlotta would reach the people who have the most in common with her, and that y’all would vibe with her attitude, be inspired by her, and just get her in a way that nobody else out there could, and that the story would, at the very least, brighten your day.
To hear that you read it aloud to people in lockdown who responded in the way that they did, well, you made ME cry. I have never been as proud to reach an audience as I am to know you folx gagged on Carlotta!!!
Kwaneta Harris: James, thank you for writing Carlotta’s story. I want to ensure that you truly understand why this book was so eagerly received and had such a lasting impact. Ninety percent of the people in solitary with me are POC under twenty-five who transferred from youth prison at sixteen to adult solitary. Many were incarcerated in prepubescence. In the box, it’s constant degradation, insults, assaults, suicides and name calling. If every time you open your mouth, people make fun of your grammar, speech or accent, you learn to self-censor—muteness. Young women stop talking.
When I read your book aloud to them, it showed them they can have a voice. When all your life you’re told you’re stupid, dumb because of dyslexia or another way you learn differently. It’s powerful to hear stories like this. “Wait, look how he spelled this. He ain’t stupid. He’s a teacher!” I can hear (not see) the wheels turning, the self-worth awakening. I passed it around and those who are semi-literate, read it aloud for others in their pod. It returned last night with a few coffee stains and lots of margin notes and underlined words.If every time you open your mouth, people make fun of your grammar, speech or accent, you learn to self-censor—muteness. Young women stop talking.
We feel seen. I wish you could have seen the way their eyes lit up, when I read a few passages. Disbelief, shock then enlightenment. Last week, one woman said, “Brooklyn read that book to us two times—I didn’t know they made books like that.” Holding up your book as proof that our stories matter and they can be told in ways we understand. That, my friend—lifesaving. As one woman said, “If he woulda been my teacher, I mighta learned to like books.”
They all asked, “Where was he locked up?” I tried to tell them, “I don’t think he’s been incarcerated.”
One lady smacked her lips and said, “How he know all that then? He just probably shame. Tell him it’s OK. He among family with us. We won’t tell.”
I know you weren’t, but I want to know: How in the hell did you get such an accurate depiction?
Laughter is rare in prison, in solitary its nonexistent. I’ve lived beside people for years and had numerous conversations through the vent and never heard them laugh. It’s like, they forgot how.
We’ve started using “Dave” as a code word for the kinds of guards Carlotta encounters. In here, guards flirt, are voyeuristic, and sexually harass us. If we reject them, they will write us up for, “Attempting to establish an inappropriate relationship.” Their egos are so fragile. If we don’t feed their egos, they don’t feed us food. The girls are notorious for nicknames. This is a secret way we can communicate a warning. “Girl, watch out, He’s a Dave.”
I heard a guard asked his coworker, “What’s a Dave?” hahahah.
You asked for a little about me. I’m fifty-one, a mother of three, a former nurse. I’ve been incarcerated fifteen years as a criminalized survivor. I shot and killed my abuser and received a fifty-year sentence. I’ve been in solitary for seven and a half years.
One woman in here was locked up at ten years old, and she was just released. All she talked about was that she was going to do the same stuff as Carlotta, touching everything. When Carlotta and Doodle were talking and Carlotta realized, “I’m startin’ to axe myself ezzackly who wasn’t there for who?”
It really hit me because in solitary we didn’t have phone access but once every three months for five minutes. It was like that, up until March 2023. I spent a lot of time upset about my best friend abandoning me. Finally, we talked and I learned, she had really needed me and I wasn’t able to be there for her.
JH: I’m really thrilled and moved to hear you describe your relationship to the book! I could listen to you tell me what it has done for you and everybody around you all day long. Seriously. The book has been nominated for a bunch of awards, and got some great reviews, but this means more to me than that. It is the best possible reminder of why I do what I do that I have ever had.
I can’t exactly explain how, without actually being incarcerated myself, or being trans, or having had the same experiences as Carlotta, I was able to do what I did. I knew it would be really difficult (and I love making things difficult for myself for some reason), but I guess one of my superpowers is the ability to do deep research on various subjects, and stories about individuals who might otherwise remain statistics, and crunch all that data into characters and human stories based on my own intuition.
I’m not at all interested in using my own life as material. After sitting with the research for a long time and writing a few drafts, I also found early readers who could set me straight about anything that might have been “off.”
Creativity is a kind of sorcery, ultimately. You reach out with your mind and try to bring something into the world that you feel needs to be there. Empathy and storytelling are skills, too, and like any others, they require practice and a whole lot of very deep and careful thinking. Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, writing a novel requires a whole lot more skill than just jotting down what happened to you.
I’ve always had an active imagination, and I’ve been very lucky that no one in my life ever discouraged me from using it. Or if they did, I didn’t listen. I’m really conscious of what an advantage that has been, especially when I hear a story like yours, and it’s part of what makes me gravitate toward the material I do.
There’s a reasonable amount of survivor guilt that motivates me—like in a plane crash I would have to be in the exit row, helping people out—I feel I have a moral imperative to shed light on the lives of others, but to be clear, that urge comes from identifying with other people, not charity or pity. But to be fair, the people who survive a story are the ones who get to write about it. I like to remind myself sometimes that, as a descendant of enslaved Africans, I came from the people who made it. Which suggests a couple of related things to me: 1). We are literally survivors. 2.) We’re capable of putting up with a LOT of bs for a long-ss time and still getting through it, if not prospering.
The whole thing of writing, especially fiction, is to create a world using language alone. And what a thrill it was for me to realize, while writing this book, that there’s so much slang and cussing and sheer inventiveness, humor, and irony in all of the jargon that comes together in the carceral system. The way that everyone has their own way of talking: queer people, Black folks, incarcerated people, criminal justice lawyers, COs—it’s like a huge weather pattern of verbal expression (like the smoke in NY!). It changes constantly, it’s different from one prison to the next. I really wanted to put everyone in the middle of that ocean of jibba jabba, even though I knew I was risking losing some readers. (Well, actually some mfs who the book wasn’t for in the first place.)
So I’m truly beside myself to hear that “Dave” has become a slang term down there. I had no expectation that I would be able to affect the world of prison slang myself! But that is how it works, right? You have to have code words to say what can’t be said.
The thing that really gets me is how we assume that whatever bad things happen to people in prison are part of the punishment, the presumption that just being incarcerated (whether or not they actually committed a crime) strips people inside of their humanity, how the notion of rehabilitation is totally off the table, and how utterly normalized the cruelty is. It says some terrible things about our country that we really ought to face and change.
Keep on keepin’ on.
KH: I just received this message!! Hi James, I’m sorry for such a delayed response. I’ve been at war with the prison bureaucrats for my reporting and withholding communication/correspondence is their retaliation. I can’t even “write” certain words in e-message communications.
They think it will stop me? They ain’t know? I have the blood of resistance coursing through my veins. It touches my heart that incarcerated people–society’s human detritus—have opinions that mean more to you than the awards.The thing that really gets me is how we assume that whatever bad things happen to people in prison are part of the punishment, the presumption that just being incarcerated (whether or not they actually committed a crime) strips people inside of their humanity.
It’s funny, we talk about the book like it’s a memoir, instead of fiction. I wish you could be a fly on the wall as the others discuss the book. One example of an explanation: “That’s her on the cover. She hired this guy (you) to write her life because he been to prison, but don’t tell nobody, because ain’t nobody gonna read stuff from no prisoner.” I never correct them.
Have you ever considered teaching writing in prisons? Whether a correspondence course for people in solitary confinement or a packet with writing exercises and prompts? A lot of people have trauma related to school, but it would be so great for someone to help us realize we all have stories inside us.
Sorcery indeed. How does one exercise their sorcery muscles?
JH: Obviously, I don’t consider the incarcerated society’s human detritus. Not while the criminal justice system is the way it is. I usually feel like I could easily be where you are, whether I committed a crime or not, and only dumb luck, cleverness, and an instinct for self-preservation have kept that from happening.
There are a bunch of prominent African American writers who have struggled through the prison system, including Reginald Dwayne Betts and Mitchell S. Jackson, and they are far from detritus. They never were detritus. To some degree we’re responsible for our actions, but we’re all playing a pinball game we didn’t invent.
I think of the Central Park Five. Context alone is how they got caught up in that mess. I also think about Jean Genet, and the fact that laws can be unjust products of a particular time and place. How could I not consider that as a queer African American? Blackness and homosexuality have both been criminalized in various ways for a very long time. The law has been used to shame, entrap, and enslave us for so long, so why should we trust the legal system?
The current Supreme Court seems determined to deny rights to as many marginalized people as it can. Detritus? Hardly. As rich white lady and brilliant author Edith Wharton said, “A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.” I always remember that quote incorrectly as, “We can measure our society by who it destroys,” possibly because American frivolity is not that frivolous to people who belong to the servant class that it demands.
And one of the things that truly burns me up is when I think of how much we have lost, how many brilliant people have had their lives crushed because this society devalued their gender, color, sexuality, ableness, or whatever other random factor. What stupidity. Even if you committed a crime and were convicted of it, why does anyone think that gives them the right to cancel your humanity and heap all kinds of abuse on you?
We’re very forgiving of the rage of victims who want an eye for an eye. But how does that make society any better than the criminals? I would be incredibly angry if someone I love was assaulted or murdered, but I’d like to think that it wouldn’t make me mistake revenge and brutality for justice.
The gang is sort of right about the book, you know. It’s supposed to sound like Carlotta’s telling her story to Professor Brown and he’s writing it down while she corrects him and then she gradually takes over the narrative. So, there’s no pressing need to correct them, LOL!
KH: Society overall believes we are human detritus. We know YOU don’t believe that, but it justifies our mistreatment. I think the book got in because the mailroom person mistakenly assumed it’s making fun of LGBTQAI people. I watched the mailroom lady pick up Carlotta from a stack, look at the front and flip it over. Thank God, your picture isn’t on the back, outer sleeve.
She saw what she wanted to see: anti LGBTQAI. That kind of book is never censored, whether it’s irreligious or political ideology. As long as the message is LGBTQAI is wrong, Satanic, pedophiliac, unpatriotic, it will be allowed! This is the same lady who denied James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, calling it “gay smut.”
In Texas solitary confinement, we are allowed one hour of Fox news only, while in the rec cage. My tablet only has Evangelical Christian movies available. The preachers who visit weekly only preach messages of condemnation and damnation for LGBTQAI people. In fact, I just finished listening to one five minutes ago finish with: “You think this is hot? Hell is hotter! This building temperature is 118° unless you repent from the abomination of homosexuality, you will go to Hell!”Reading books like Carlotta I hope will dispel the myths that contribute to suicidal ideation.
This brainwashing is lethal. I have witnessed countless suicides of my young LGBTQAI neighbors. My last neighbor who read Carlotta was trafficked by her mother at twelve. Her mother committed suicide two months ago. Against my advice, this woman asked the preacher to pray for her mother with her. He refused and told her, “Your mother is in Hell and if you continue sexual deviancy, you will join her.” That night, she attempted suicide and was transferred to psych center.
Reading books like Carlotta I hope will dispel the myths that contribute to suicidal ideation. Trouble is, most of them are banned. You constantly remind the reader of Carlotta’s humanity.
JH: Hello Again, Pen Pal. I’m interested in the idea that Carlotta slipped through because the censors thought it was making fun of LGBTQI people based on the cover. Do they think there is a genre of books making fun of LGBT people? Huh? Because even if there was such a genre, it would still increase LGBT visibility, so the plan would likely backfire.
Since anything bad that happens to you is part of your punishment, society couldn’t care less. As Carlotta put it, “Like my suffering is fucking entertainment for your stupid ass?” I mean, that is such a mirror to the true nature of our society. How truly greedy, merciless, and bloodthirsty we can be. Of course, there’s still something absurdly funny to me about how Hollywood sucks the blood of people to make entertainment. Stay cool!
KH: I’ve witnessed seven suicides. All under twenty-five, POC, LGBTQAI with single digit year sentence. I think reading books that showed them, they are not alone, destined for Hell or a freak of nature, would’ve saved their lives. The censorship is all at the discretion of the mailroom staff. If a book has a rainbow flag they will deny it.
I’ve seen a rise in social rules dictating who can and can’t tell stories. Did you think about this when writing? Did you ask yourself, “Can I—Should I write this story that I haven’t personally experienced? Is it appropriate to make Carlotta’s trauma funny? Will people take offense?” If so, how did you navigate it all? What advice do you give your students facing those challenges?
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the belief that certain stories should solely be told by one group. In actuality, it should be challenging to tell stories you aren’t familiar with because of the depth of research required and unlearning certain biases we all have.
I’m glad you wrote this book despite those challenges. In the Black community, we joke to cope. We laugh to keep from crying. A sort of gallows humor that extends to the carceral community. I have sat in prison day rooms at tables bonding with criminalized survivors by one-upping each other’s abuse stories. It was hilarious to us, but cringe worthy for those eavesdropping.
I asked the others, “What should be next for Carlotta?”
A chorus of responses: “Frenzy will get out and marry her!”
“She’s going to be a reality star!”
“Catch Dave at Walmart and beat him down!”
“Tom go to jail and see how it feels to be alone!”
“Ibe will come out as gay, too!”
They asked me. I said, “I want Carlotta to be happy.” Our hopes, plans, dreams for Carlotta reflect our own.
JH: Do people buy what Fox News is selling? One of my hopes for humanity, frankly, is that the message that gets sent out isn’t always just received and accepted. There is hopefully a natural kind of resistance—at least in some people. That’s one reason I love to see ads get defaced in the subway; it demonstrates that people are involved in a critique, a dialogue, we’re not just rolling over and taking it. We’re slapping back in whatever small ways we can.
As someone who belongs to more than one marginalized group, I know that when it comes to popular culture, we always know the difference between being respected and seen, and being exploited and insulted. *Immediately.* You could watch five minutes of some dumb show about prison and be like, “This is bull.” I could watch a show about Black queer men and do the same.If you take away the ability of fiction writers to imagine the lives of other people, there. is. literally. nothing. left.
So my goal with the book was to make something *good,* and I defined good as something that someone like you would enjoy. Something that would be funny to someone like you because you recognized your life and your way of moving through the world in it. Something that could potentially increase visibility for some Black/Blatine/Nuyorquine/trans actors somewhere down the line, and that could be helpful in advocating for more humane treatment of all of us.
Carlotta’s trauma isn’t funny; her *attitude* toward it is. The way she *spins* it is funny. And in that way she remains in control of her life. I did ask myself that question about whether I should write a story about things I have not personally experienced, but the thing is, the novel is a social art form. If you take away the ability of fiction writers to imagine the lives of other people, there. is. literally. nothing. left. You’d have a memoir. But you have to write about other people conscientiously, especially the further away they are from you.
And like all art, it can be done well, or it can be done badly. You might be afraid to cross lines that you shouldn’t, but if you do it well, then you did it well, and people have to give it up to you. And Carlotta said to me, *Honey, you could tell my story. Just don’t f*ck it up!* That’s why I defined good the way I did. And for you to let me know that you it worked for you is like, well, bullseye. I could not be more grateful. Detritus. Ha! You’ve made me the happiest author in the world!
James Hannaham is an award-winning novelist and PEN America Trustee. His novel Delicious Foods won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book. His third novel, Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, is a Kirkus Best Book of 2022, an LA Times Book Prize Finalist, and also a New York Times Notable Book. John Irving, writing in the Times Book Review, called it “wondrous.”