Danielle Evans, acclaimed author of the short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, sat down with the members of one of our book clubs at the DC Jail for a wide-ranging discussion on writing, voice, perspective, fiction, and more.

Free Minds conducts book clubs on two units at the DC Jail, the education unit and the young adult unit (ages 18-25). The members of the education unit read and discussed the book Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self in anticipation of the session with Danielle Evans, who also teaches writing in addition to her career as a fiction writer.

The book club members had many questions for Danielle Evans, about specific stories in the book as well as questions about her career and choices as a writer, and craft questions about the literary arts.

Free Minds members also shared poetry that they had written inspired by her book.

Negative Loss 2 Positive Gain
By Marius

Lost at a very young age to the streets
Today I find myself in the prison industry
In spite of being lost for so long
I didn’t let my loss completely destroy my dignity
My loss has transcended me from negative to positive
You my loss made me who I am today
I thank my loss because you help me see the light
That I am shining in today
I cherish you from the moment you took me
From negative to positive
I don’t ever want you to bring me down again
Because it’s painful
I respect you my loss

Danielle Evans then led the group in a creative assignment to write a brief poem or work of prose telling a story from their childhood in two parts: first, in present tense, from their perspective as a child, and second, in past tense, from their current perspective.

The book club members shared writing about growing up without their parents, about being placed in foster care, about witnessing violence as a child, and more.

Innocence Lost
By Leonard

When I was about 6 or 8 years old, I used to go spend the weekend with my father who stayed in a room no bigger than a jail cell.  It consisted of a full-size bed and a black and white television that only had a few channels.

This particular weekend, I was watching television and my dad asked me to look out the window for a second while he took care of something, so I did. It seemed like I was looking out that window forever, not really paying attention to anything but the big rats running throughout the back alley, wondering what my father was doing behind me.  As I turned around without his permission, my father’s head was down, his chin resting on his chest, eyes closed, his shirt sleeve was rolled up his arm, a black leather belt was tied around his upper arm.  A syringe filled with his own blood dangled from his vein.  His eyes opened slowly, one after the other with a dreamy look of consciousness.  In a slurred, soft whisper, he asked me to turn back around.  I did, continuing to look out the window again at all those rats.

When I think back to that day, I believe deep down I knew what my father was doing behind me as I looked out that window. I knew at a very young age that my father was a drug user. No one ever told me directly. I just knew somehow.

Not till many later years did I understand what a drug addiction was. Watching my father struggle to stay clean of drugs made me realize that a drug addiction is a disease no different from cancer.  A disease that needs constant treatment like any other.  The reality is that some people get cured and some won’t. Despite my Pops’ daily battle to stay clean, my love and respect for him never wavered. Watching his struggle is the reason why drugs aren’t a plague in my life today.

Later, Danielle shared the impact of the visit on her: “I went to visit a book club at the DC Jail today, and talked for a while, and then got to listen to the men in the group have a really smart, lively conversation about the actions of the characters in the story. I talked, as I am wont to do, about interiority, and someone read me back a passage in the book that spoke to him, and we did some writing about memory…I got to see how much the book club mattered to people—how much story mattered and being heard mattered and how much it mattered that people who could show up did. I don’t have a thesis here, just a reminder I needed.”

We were joined as well by representatives from the Public Welfare Foundation, leaders in the criminal justice sector, and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. This session was made possible through a partnership with PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools. Thank you to PEN/Faulkner, Public Welfare Foundation, and the DC Department of Corrections for making this session possible.

Danielle Evans outside the DC Jail with staff from Free Minds, PEN/Faulkner, and Public Welfare Foundation

Danielle Evans (center) outside the DC Jail with representatives from Free Minds, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and the Public Welfare Foundation

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