You start to get an idea of how Wally Lamb, the editor of Couldn't Keep It to Myself, feels about the authors in his anthology of incarcerated female writers simply from the book's subtitle: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters. The book's genesis was a writing workshop Lamb co-facilitated in a Connecticut prison, and the 11 writers whose work is showcased do give "testimonies," mostly harrowing ones. Their contributions bear witness to domestic violence, sexual abuse, addiction, and poverty. While these are the kinds of experiences you might expect to hear about from a group of women who have done or are still doing time in a maximum-security institution such as York Correctional, what you wouldn't necessarily expect is the charm and personality of many of their accounts.
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The various pieces, though edited by Lamb and sometimes uneven, almost always combine a verve and vivid intensity that's hard to resist. Each writer's voice and style is distinct, which is a relief because, as Lamb explains in the introduction, some pieces were merely tweaked by his editorial hand, while others were almost co-written by him. Whatever the degree of his involvement, the alchemy of his editing and the women's writing has produced some powerful work.
Lamb, of course, is the much-loved author of the novels She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True. His commitment to teaching and the real kinship he feels with the women whose work appears in Couldn't Keep It to Myself is evident in his own contribution to the book. In the opening piece, Lamb reveals his own development as a teacher, how from the age of 8 he knew he wanted to teach, and how he eventually came to feel called to work with the most difficult students—the burnouts, addicts, and "hard nuts."
CERTAIN SELECTIONS in the book drag and could have been shortened for more impact, but more frequently the pieces have a crackling urgency. Writing has clearly been a lifeline for these women who come from a range of racial and economic backgrounds.
Some pieces incorporate interesting narrative techniques. In "The True Face of Earth," Nancy Whiteley, stunned by the loss of her father's love, tells the story of a painful adolescence through a series of encounters with boys she sleeps with at the local airport. These encounters, woven throughout, punctuate and move the piece along with a sense of inevitability.
In "Hair Chronicles," different hairstyles mark the different periods of Tabatha Rowley's life. By the time she goes to prison, she sports "long bronze dreadlocks with honey blond highlights." And she writes vividly of earlier styles: "One time my brother Choo talked me into letting him style my hair. I was going for a one-side-long-one-side-short-like-Salt-n-Peppa style. Instead I got Elvis Presley sideburns and a receding hairline—the edge up from hell! Another time a girlfriend of mine introduced me to home perms, peroxide, and W-2 solution. Ever see a dark-skinned black girl with fried platinum hair?" Only after her incarceration does she give up the wild hairstyles and blond dye: "I had never realized how beautiful black looks on me."
Each piece begins with two pictures—a recent photo of the writer, as well as a childhood photo—and ends with a short section of facts about the writer's life, crime, sentence, and her current status (released, still incarcerated, or, in one case, deceased). The smiling photos at the beginning and the sobering counterpoint provided by the closing facts are good ways to bookend these selections.
No matter how you approach Couldn't Keep It to Myself, it's hard not to be moved by the writing and the lives of these women and in the end to feel, as Lamb does, a certain kinship with them. The book itself is a testament to the transformative power of writing.
It's also a bitter testament to the current state of our prisons. "We are a paradoxical nation, enormously charitable and stubbornly unforgiving," Lamb writes. "We have called into existence the prisons we wanted. I am less and less convinced they are the prisons we need."
Andrea Jeyaveeran works for the literary organization PEN American Center. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.