Bell Gayle Chevigny is another woman I met through my work with PEN America Center’s Prison Writing Program (PWP). She is also the editor of Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, an anthology of some of the best writing submitted to the PWP Awards over that period.
Bell, without an “e” – she’s no Southern Belle – served as the Chair of PWP during the time I volunteered. As the Chair, Bell was committed to writers writing from prison, above and beyond their writings. A glaring absence in the life of writers in prison, most of them self-taught, is professional and constructive feedback of their works. PWP would ultimately provide writing mentors to the men and women who won awards, received honorable mentions, or showed promise. I’m not sure if this began under Bell. Bell, though, I know, got PEN to do more in the way of advocacy for PWP winners, especially around parole. Bell also maintained contact with men and women in prisons across the country, even in the Death Penalty States. In Doing Time, there is a section on writers on death row. Writing from death row, your calendar marked with the day you are scheduled to be executed, must be the most daunting day on any calendar. (Writers, don’t complain about deadlines!) What would you do if you knew the exact date and time you would be put to death? I’ve read letters of people with the date of death on their calendars, and if they were writers, they wanted to write as much as they could until the Executioner showed up at the cell to take them away. Many would prefer to write their last words over a last meal, a meal that wouldn’t even be fully digested when they met death!
Bell, I also think, has a deep and profound respect for writers writing from prisons and jails, as well as the works they produce. I wrote elsewhere that I would often state, in the company of my PEN PWP colleagues, that as we spoke there was someone in an American prison laboring over what could become the next “Great American Novel.” For the most part, I don’t think this claim was taken seriously, in that there is some elitism in the literary world. I respond with Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.
A few years ago, Bell and I, and two others, including an English professor from Vassar College, presented at an American Studies Association Conference held in Connecticut. We were making the argument that “prison literature” is a subject worthy of study in the Academy. I told the story elsewhere how our panel was scheduled at the same time as Angela Davis’, which, of course, resulted in fewer attendees coming to our panel. What I didn’t tell, was our road trip to Connecticut.
Bell and I decided to share the driving on our trip to Connecticut. We drove her minivan. When we were halfway there, I took over the driving. We are on Interstate 95, and I’m driving as fast as I can, that is, the speed limit. Bell, as if she was reciting a poem with the refrain, “Drive faster! Drive faster!” kept saying that. I knew we were in no jeopardy of being late, and when I’m driving, I don’t need or listen to a copilot. I almost turned to Bell to tell her, “I’m driving while Black, and you have no idea what that means!” So, I listened to her siren song until it stopped, and the needle stayed at 65 mph, the speed limit, for the duration of the trip, and we arrived, safe and sound, without an incident.
I won’t say it felt like doing time riding with Bell, because I genuinely like her and her body of work, and her commitment to writers writing from prison!