A life sentence in prison is life, that is, there is living to do in prison, even under a life sentence. Quntos KunQuest, in his novel, This Life, demonstrates that life goes on inside of prison. Since 1996, KunQuest has been living, and writing, in prison.
I have a long history and engagement with writing and writings from prison, with “prison literature.” For a number of years, I volunteered with the American affiliate of PEN International, the writers’ organization, PEN America, in its Prison Writing Program (PWP). As a poet, I sat on the subcommittee that judged poetry submissions from people in prisons and jails from across the nation for PEN’s annual Writing Awards contest. I, myself, have garnered seven PEN Awards, and four Honorable Mentions, in poetry, drama, and nonfiction.
Writers and aspiring writers in prison would submit their works to the writing contest. Aspiring writers often begin with poetry and soon, as John Steinbeck wrote, discover that it’s the most demanding form of writing, and move on to the short story, another demanding form of writing, and finally settle on the novel. Nonetheless, poetry was and continues to be the most submitted to category for PEN’s annual awards contest. Much is awful religious and love poetry.
In This Life, KunQuest is by terms poetic in his prose, though it is informed by Rap and Hip-Hop culture. (The book, itself, is divided into “Verses,” not “Parts.”) KunQuest is a “musician, rapper, visual artist and novelist.” Note that KunQuest is not described as a poet, which bears mentioning, because there is a fine distinction between a rapper and a poet.
As I read This Life, it struck me how music deeply informs Black culture, wherever Black people are, on the plantation, or in the penitentiary. KunQuest, born in 1976, the year America celebrated her 200th birthday, is deeply informed and formed by Rap. As one of the main characters, Lil Chris, KunQuest’s alter ego, or better yet, a composite sketch of young Black men, goes through the brutal prison rite of passage, one sees the evolution of his Rap, from signifying about life on the streets in the Game to a more elevated social commentary, looking at the streets and how they serve as a pipeline to prison, the ultimate social control mechanism. This social commentary critiques and deconstructs the prison-industrial complex and hyperincarceration (what we call “mass incarceration”), and the forces that led to the United States locking up more people in prison than any other nation in the world, and holding them for longer periods of time than any other nation in the world.
People writing from American prisons, from the very beginning of this uniquely American experiment, critiqued the prison system, as documented by James McGrath Morris in Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars. These critiques have made it to the Academy as well as PEN America. A number of years ago, my colleagues and I participated in an American Studies Association Conference panel we proposed, which was a presentation to argue “prison literature” into the canon of American literature. And I recall conversations with members of the PWP Committee, where I articulated that I believed there was a writer somewhere in prison in America who was laboring over what could be the next “Great American Novel.” I don’t think my fellow committee members were convinced of this, nor am I suggesting that This Life is that novel. But This Life must be added to the canon of “prison literature.” The author Rachel Kushner writes that “KunQuest has dreamed up, molded, hammered, and shaped a new mode of fiction: American, poetic, wonderfully free.”
From reading thousands of poems from prisons submitted to PEN’s annual writing contest, one would dig through a lot of rubbish, but would ultimately come across all kinds of jewels. I would hazard a guess that there are jewels among all the other categories, even more remarkable in that the overwhelming majority of people writing from prison have no formal training or education as writers. They have had to forge their craft in the fires of prison. In fact, as Jimmy Santiago Baca, award-winning poet and educator, writes in an essay, “Coming Into Language,” in PEN’s anthology, Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, edited by the late Bell Gale Chevigny, a former Chair of PWP, people in prisons who have taken up the pen have had to emerge from the darkness of illiteracy into the light of literacy.
In This Life, KunQuest illuminates a cast of characters – to name a few: Lil Chris, Gary Law, No Love, and Mansa Musa – as memorable as characters in the best of fiction, including one of my favorite characters, Edmond Dantes, from The Count of Monte Cristo. Though Alexandre Dumas’ novel is not thought of as a tale of crime and punishment, of reentry and reintegration, it is. It is also a coming-of-age story, in prison.
One of the tragedies of the American penal system, is that, as Norman Mailer discovered when he was researching and writing The Executioner’s Song, and wrote in his introduction of Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast:
There is a paradox at the core of penology, and from it derives the thousand ills and afflictions of the prison system. It is that not only the worst of the young are sent to prison, but the best – that is, the proudest, the bravest, the most daring, the most enterprising, and the most undefeated of the poor. There starts the horror.
Out of the horrors of the prison system, in spite of, not because of, these proud, brave, and daring men are forged, only to languish in prison for their natural lives or the best years of their lives, only to die shortly after their release.
Rise, one of the main characters in This Life, who is ultimately released through a successful petition to the courts, gives an orientation to the new arrivals at Angola State Penitentiary, a former plantation, nicknamed “The Farm,” in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, the setting for this story. He quotes Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, comparing God to a blacksmith. “We are the metal. The fires of the furnace are the trials of life…. The things we go through in life are what shapes us to become the people we are.”
What has shaped Quntos KunQuest? What has shaped This Life?
In reading This Life, one will encounter real life characters and leaders who could give master classes on Constitutional Law, Civics, and Philosophy. They are Lil Chris’ (KunQuest’s) mentors. Despite the prospect of living their lives and dying on The Farm, these characters find purpose, and become conscious of the “infinite potential…of… [a] constantly evolving lifespan.” As a society, we must redeem these lives. Any outstanding debts owed to society can be paid through their contributing their talents to society, not spending the rest of their lives in prison.
Thank you for sharing this information and your commitment to highlighting other talented writers.
LikeLiked by 1 person
The unexamined life is not worth living. Know thy self. Philosophical maximums that reconstruct the emerging spirit of a former broken humanity in the environment of extreme adversity. Marcus Aurelius sought virtue in his words, thoughts, and deeds, yet he had no peer and wrote his works to be destroyed after his death. They were saved.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Brother Eric, Thank you for this informative and thought provoking review! I will certainly read the book soon with your commentary in mind. I am struck by the author’s name and speculate about the story behind it. I too wondered about the things that shaped Quntos KunQuest’s life and work. What does this choice of name (assuming that is not his birth name) tell us about his identity? His life in prison? His determination not to be the victim of the prison’s attempt to conquer/conquest of incarcerated souls? KunQuest? My mind went in many directions as I read your review. Thank you~I will read it with great interest!
LikeLiked by 1 person