Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Review: True Notebooks

Conflicting thoughts collide as I set to review Mark Salzman's nonfiction True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall.  Among those thoughts, two rise as the most pronounced--this is a book about finding our humanity and it is a love letter to writing.

Salzman leads a writer's group in the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall for some of the most violent criminals in the early stages of the system--most have committed murder and are waiting to be tried as adults.

Filled with the simultaneous journeys off all of the adolescents who moved through his workshop, True Notebooks also provides a glimpse of the good people serving as advocates behind the scenes.  Remarkably, all involved recognize the importance of writing of in our lives.

Just as I, as a reader, grow attached to what an inmate has learned to express he is soon gone--gone from the book.  Gone.  Gone from the juvenile hall.  Gone.  Gone into the prison system where all acknowledge that they fall back into their hardened ways by necessity--in order to survive where they are going, some facts are indisputable.

Yet, what is never lost is what the writing experience, albeit too brief, shows each of these young people their humanity--and the possibilities of their humanity.  Through their own words we read what they have been trained to believe, their regrets, fears, hopes, and dreams.

Rough-hewn elegance meets street poetry, the writing produced by these prisoners does elicits many questions about how societies in general handles violent criminals.  However, this isn't a book set on debating the state of the justice system--when someone asks Salzman wouldn't he be better served teaching writing to troubled youth before they become criminals who committed murder we are offered the same response as when he is repeatedly asked by the inmates why he continues to show up to workshop with them: everyone needs to find their own humanity.

Never about stopping crime, Salzman's efforts demonstrate the power of writing, the power of compassion, and the many slices of reality offered to him through the writing of the inmates: 

Someone who made a big difference in my life was my partner.  Well, I should say my ex-partner, hate.  Hate was always there for me at night when I was all alone and the air-conditioning was on too high in my room.  Hate would keep me warm.  I should say he was like my father 'cause for the seven years that my father was gone, hate taught me how to speak, hate taught me how to love, and eventually hate taught me how to hate.  My best friend, my mother, my father, hate was all that.  Hate helped me grow, or was dat wrong?  I asked myself this question one day when I was lookin' into a six-by-nine mirror in my cell.  I was wearing somebody else's clothes, underwear, and socks full of holes.  Hate had left me to duel with misery and pain.  Thanks, hate.

Initially, I picked this book up because it is about writing and memoir--and as I read I saw it through the lens of being a teacher--and now, as I write this review, I've come to understand it through the lens of being a human being.

Highly recommended for teachers and human beings.

No comments:

Post a Comment