Introducing The Uncaged Interview Series by the hilarious, smart and brilliant writer, Meg Pokrass! (That's her photo just above this block of copy.) Meg is the author of Damn Sure Right, the director of Fictionaut Five Author Interview Series, the senior associate editor of BLIP Magazine, and the associate Producer of the film From Ghost Town to Havana. Meg has advanced degrees in mischief and a curiosity the cat can only dream of having, and I'm thrilled to have her doing interviews on my blog.
Her first is on the incredible Deborah Jiang Stein, pictured at the top of this post, and the author of “Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus, ” who talks with Meg about mentors, roller-skating, pretentious people, and teaching in prisons… Thank you, Meg, and thank you Deborah for this great interview.
MP: Deborah, you are such a dynamic and creative writer... You inspire many of us, which leads me to ask you this: Have you had a mentor/mentors over the years?
DJS: Other than my own persistence, vision, hard work, and whatever innate skills, mentors continue to influence my work more than anything. As a writer I've only had one mentor and she's always chosen to remain private about this but I'm willing and open and hope I'll meet other writer/mentors.
MP: And others... life-mentors?
DJS: Beyond writing, I've been mentored since I was a little girl. An English teacher, a chemistry teacher, several business women and men, several formerly incarcerated women and men, all people who counseled, believed, hoped for and with me. Advisers like angels who expect nothing in return other than I do my best, improve myself and my work.
I pass on to others whatever I learn.
MP: Can you tell us what you have done and do when you feel silent or blocked? What you use to get things going again? We all have those times...
DJS: I use my body. Move, something anything athletic - jump on my mini trampoline, jump rope, roller skate, walk, sort and organize "stuff," chew gum - I keep dozens of packs around at all times, pace, drink water, tea, chew more gum, lay on the floor and stretch. All in no specific order.
Sometimes stillness helps. Empty my mind and see if the wind blows in there. That's the hardest for me, to empty in stillness, so I work at this just for the challenge.
MP: What inspires you?
DJS: Athletes inspire me, not necessarily professionals but just any athlete who trains and trains and trains. I’m inspired by single focused discipline. And by people who’re compassionate and kind.
Children and infants in the midst of health crisis also inspire me for their capacity and will to live.
MP: Teaching in prisons must be interesting in this way, seeing life at its most confined... a world you were born inside...
DJS: In my day-to-day life, I'm inspired most of all when I'm inside prisons and look in the eyes of hundreds of women who've faced unimaginable pain and loss and still show up to hope. I'm tired of the word Hope but it's the best I have for what I see, and want to nurture, in the eyes of so many inside.
MP: Deborah, talk about an activity which you loved as a child, and which has remained with you into adulthood…
DJS: I skated as a girl and always started out on the porch then skated down our front steps bump thump as if each time would be different. But not.
My knees showed the proof, along with a pencil lead scar on one knee from an accidental poke-shallow stab, then a gray mossy scar on the other knee from falling in a cemetery. My forehead split open from a fall on granite stairs in the hospital once when I was around 5 and now the scar sits like a teeny scoop into the center of my forehead. If I'd thought ahead about careers I'd have gone to stunt school.
MP: And you skate now? Do you worry about falling?
DJS: It's like anything else, focus on what might go wrong and probably that would happen. I just think about the fun and freedom.
Skating as an adult feels the same as when we were kids -- free and fun. I don't think about falling so I don't.
MP: Name 3 human qualities which bug you…
DJS: Elitism, self-importance, and pretension. They give me a sour taste in the roof of my mouth.
MP: The opposite of skating is interacting with pretensions, self-important people.
DJS: Yes. It's enough to make me want to retreat from the interwebs, where we carry on much of our daily relations. I’m part of it too, I suppose, the look-at-me syndrome, and my instinct is to pull back and get in check.
MP: You grew up with academics and creatives…
DJS: As a shy, mute, scared girl, I grew up mingling in the middle of my parents' cocktails parties of professors, artists, musicians, writers, poets (not that poets aren't writers but, you know...), painters, scientists. You get the idea.
Since I didn't talk, I observed and scanned interactions like a kiddie spy in the middle of it all. Something I can't quite pin down but I'll just say it. We're not any better than anyone else just because we're creative. Or because we’re academic or literary or awarded, or cleverish or impressed with our own impressions. We’re just not.
Maybe that's one reason I'm drawn to work in prisons. No fooling anyone there. Can't be anything but authentic.
MP: Many good artists are insecure about their work. Sensitive people carry the burden of insecurity with them, generally speaking.
DJS: I have insecurities. Lots of them. About people, most of all, and about my work, writing, talking. You name it, I've probably been insecure about it. I can get scared of myself, too. Boo!! I mean scared enough I'll get nauseous.
MP: The positive aspects of this are…
DJS: I think insecurity can drive creative power. At least, I use it that way, to do my best, to climb new heights, to accomplish what I think I can never do.
I used to have periods of muteness. I'd cry if someone looked at me. Now I work as a speaker and rooms full of people stare at me. It's not much better than when I was a kid but I refuse to let insecurity whip me to a pulp.
MP: Please talk a bit about the speaking you do in prisons with inmates and creativity.
DJS: First, it's a miracle I'm not locked up myself, considering my past.
Speaking in prisons is a little like going to a hometown for me since I was born in one. I love connecting with incarcerated women and girls because I get to offer what I’ve learned the hard way. We can talk about re-writing our stories, about loss, love, bouncing back, judgment from others, lots of other topics. I never know what we’ll discuss from prison to prison.
It goes like this. Usually I join the women in a prison gym or in the yard with as many as are permitted, hundreds, usually. After I introduce myself I go into an improv of sorts about just plain living and life skills. Since I’ve made a lifestyle change myself, I talk about what works for me and what doesn’t work, ideas to navigate the world with a “tattered” background.
Most women in prison have been abused, and also sentenced for drug related crimes. Drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness are now treated as criminal justice issues rather than a public health concern.
I'm a radical advocate for education as one means to help prevent incarceration. Education opens up our world. Education, drug rehab, and mental health care will reduce incarceration. I’ll do my PSA here. We have 150,000 women behind bars, most for nonviolent drug related crimes. The rate of incarceration for women has increased by 800% over the last ten years. Makes me squirm to know this.
I'm working on numbers. In total, so far I've faced thousands of women and girls across the country, and have another 100,000+ ahead of me. Even if 1% of those I meet continue with education, that's increasing the odds of more free women and girls.
Hopefully with an education, when they get out, which the majority do, their odds of substantial employment and mental wellness will go up, with more resources available.
I believe in freedom of body, mind, and spirit. Which brings me back to things like roller skating, the feeling of freedom. I love music too, because it frees the spirit, and the beach. I feel freest near water.
Added to speaking in prisons, I'm working on a program with inmate mothers who have either lost their children to foster care, or who are in the process of losing their kids. Which is many many of them. This is part of my story, so we connect on these details.
They get to see an example of positive outcome -- that's me. We more often hear the failed cases of foster care and adoption. Not that mine was easy, because it wasn't. Mothers in prison and their children swim in grief, loss, trauma, helplessness, anger, loss of power.
I'm no therapist and don't want to be, nor a legal advisor.
There's power in the naming the truth. Most haven't had a trustworthy safe resource to "just be" and face their situations with something creative like writing, or improv theater. Creativity releases the spirit and mind, even behind bars, a kind of freedom.
Deborah Jiang Stein is a writer and public speaker who devotes her work to women, men, and children in the margins of society. She founded the nonprofit The unPrison Project to serve women and girls in prison and their under-age children. Author of EVEN TOUGH GIRLS WEAR TUTUS: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison.