Okay, this is one remarkable woman. Deborah Jiang-Stein was born in prison, a fact kept secret from her for many years. Shaped by fear of her own story, desperate and furious, she blazed through her life, finally coming to terms with who she was--and who she could be. It's an astonishing book and I'm honored to host Deborah here. (And P.S. She's one hell of a roller-skater. Because of her, I now have a roller derby name, Attila the Honey. Need I say more?) Thank you so much, Deborah.
What sparked the writing of this book?
First, thank you Caroline for asking me on your blog. In the beginning, I wrote this material as a novel. A protagonist born in prison, on a dangerous and adventurous journey in search of her true self. The usual of three plots, with some crime and drugs added.
My then-agent found interest from two top tier editors who both engaged with me about how to better develop the manuscript. When I mentioned the story was based on my life, they suggested I write memoir, but I just wasn't interested. I felt cautious and anyway, I’d already backed away from a few screenwriters and producers who approached me around the same time. At the time, none of it felt right so I put the story of my life in a box.
I wasn't ready to make my story public, either, and also didn't even know the full story then. Still don’t. But in the beginning I knew just a few facts but not all. That was ten years ago.
I'd already published short stories in small literary magazines and fiction called me more than memoir so I worked on a manuscript of linked short stories I wanted to finish. (About to finish it now. ) I was also raising two young children then. Fast forward ten years, when I finally committed to memoir, it took all this time for me to pull a more universal meaning out of my story. All these years to know it's not really a prison or adoption story, but a wider tale about the ravages of secrecy, stigma, and shame.
From the beginning to publication, it’s been a long road of persistence: 56 publisher rejections and three hard workings agents. I did everything backwards, and even the road to publication. My gratitude swells for my editor Gayatri Patnaik at Beacon Press for picking up my book. This happened without an agent, a rare chance these days. I hope everyone persists in whatever they want.
So much of this amazing book is about identity: how we form our sense of our selves and how other people help form it, as well. It took incredible courage for you to change. Can you talk a bit about that?
The change happened out of necessity. I'm gutsy in my drive for survival, not always courageous in other areas. I'm driven by curiosity. Those together guided me around the corner towards transformation. I was on a path where I would've either killed someone else or myself. I was physically unhealthy, mentally imbalanced, and all around unwell. Dis-ease in every sense. I knew I needed help, knew I needed to invent myself anew. Something also sparked inside—I wondered if I had a greater purpose in life than the destruction I was causing as I moved from state to state.
In some ways I felt like a civilian non-CIA version of Jason Bourne in the Bourne Trilogy movies, only a female spin off and not as violent. His wildness and desperation, unable to outrun himself, and on the hunt for his memory and his true identity, this was my life as I grappled with the losses and trauma, stigma and mystery of my prison birth.
Nothing is stagnant in my life, not even my identity. Adoption is all about invention and reinvention, and in fact I think if we're lucky, any major loss drives us to invent ourselves. I am not just the woman born in prison. I am many things. In many ways I believe I'm still defining myself. Maybe we all are until our very end.
You felt a terrible stigma about being a prison baby, yet you longed for your birth mother. How were you able to deal with these two opposing needs?
Still, I haven't. I yearn for what I lost, the mother I lost, and yet I wouldn't be who I am today if we'd stayed together. I've resolved that sometimes we're presented with impossible choices and unbearable circumstances.
Women in prison, and men, are looked upon as second-class. So the stigma remains, I just don’t take it on.
Can you talk about why it took you two decades to tell your parents that you knew about your prison birth? What were you afraid might happen if you told? Or was it simply that you had shut down, that you didn’t want to talk about it.
Before I could tell anyone else and talk about my prison birth, especially speak to my parents about it, I needed to not feel so afraid of my own story. It scared me, who I was and where I came from. Not prison so much as the differentness, and even now that can still bug me sometimes but there's nothing I can do to change it. Now, though, I've stopped feeling scared of myself.
How therapeutic or traumatizing was the writing? What surprised you as you wrote, and how did you change during the writing?
What a wonderful question. The therapeutic influence happened for me before I could write the story, not during. I had to speak it first, just say the fact, "I was born in prison" and not feel like I would pass out from terror every time I said it. Because when I admitted it, I also had to say how much trauma and loss it caused, and how much pain I caused others as I battled through to accept myself, my family, and the truth of my story. I had to heal before I could write the story.
The process of writing was traumatic because it forced me to re-live some of the trauma, as well as recalling the illegal activities of my former life. Writing this book immersed me into real-time pain, not just the recollection of it.
I know from FB, what an extraordinary mother you are to your daughter, who is a magnificent young woman now in college. Given your background, did you have fears about being a parent. And did you consciously decide how you were going to raise her?
I've raised my children by instinct. Most of all I’ve wanted them aware of the basic values of self-honesty, kindness, and respect, and to live with eagerness, curiosity, and an open heart. I figure if day to day they live these, most everything else falls into place.
I don't envy my children with a mother from my background. Can you imagine?! A mother born in prison and a mother who almost ended up in prison—I've made sure they wouldn't wander into the darkness the way I did.
You also work with women in prison. Can you talk about what that’s like?
My work with women in prison is my passion, my duty, one of my loves. Ten years ago I was conducting writing and creativity workshops in a few women’s prisons, and after a while a warden suggested I speak to the total population.
Prison gyms fill with hundreds of folding chairs and I’m there with nothing but a hand-held mic and my story and a carrying a universe of hope I want to hand each of them face to face. I wasn’t born as a speaker but for sure I was born for this work in prisons.
While I haven’t been incarcerated, other than my infant year inside, I use story as a tool for social change. Each of the women I meet can do the same, use their story to mentor others. Most are in for nonviolent drug related charges, just like my prison mother.
What's obsessing you now? One thing: I'm obsessed about reaching all the prisons that have invited me for a One Read book club for Prison Baby. After the inmates read, they’ve asked me to present a workshop and speaking engagement.
Actually I am obsessed 28 times. I’ll reach 30,000 incarcerated women in total! My vision is to find ways to fund this work so I can reach each of these prisons within the next 18 months.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
What about roller-skating? You didn't ask me about roller-skating! You and I have discussed skating before, which I love. The freedom, the flying on wheels even though I like to skate slow, I love it all.
I've been invited to guest skate in a few derby bouts and hope this happens. Prison Baby on wheels.
All this to say that my story and book carry a weight of seriousness and one way I've survived and metabolized the pain is to live with some humor, play, and have fun. I’m not frivolous here. For some reason, as adults, true play stops. But I see it as a necessity, and the best nudge I know for creativity and transformation.
Plenty of research shows how the brain’s functions better with play, and that play also fosters learning and teaches perseverance and replenishes emotional wounds—key tools for overcoming hardship. This is how I’ve survived. I believe in balance, on skates and in life.