‘Stanville’ by Rachel Kushner

Kushner offers us a bifocal view of a female prison. The first perspective is given by Gordon Hauser, a creative writing teacher at the Stanville facility. The secondary viewpoint comes from Romy L. Hall, a female inmate. It documents the naivety of the well-intentioned and how they feel they somehow irrevocably transform those who encounter them. I’ve seen it a lot in my previous work, and used to cringe when I heard writers who occasionally teach in prisons speak of how ‘powerful’ or ‘vital’ the creative work of prisoners is. They take on the role of a host there to discover the validity of the prisoner’s existence, as if it couldn’t be activated until this alchemical teacher-student exchange. I’ve occupied the position of a non-security staff member in a prison, which is a liminal zone where you carry keys but spend your time emphasising your exceptionalism with both your body and your voice. Depending on the individual circumstances of the prisoner, they usually don’t occupy a materially rich existence. The only thing they truly own are the stories that happened to them before prison and how they choose to tell them. It’s common to receive redacted biographies and to be told versions of the truth. A prisoner once told me that he was convicted of motor offences, when he was serving a sentence for rape. But it was true: he had also committed driving offences. Orientation of the truth is not something that happens to other people and Kushner expertly presents us with two characters that struggle with this navigation. She paraphrases Nietzsche towards the story’s conclusion, to highlight our varying capacities for verity: “The strength of a person’s spirit would then be measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.”

In The New Yorker, 2018