Pendarvis Harshaw recently spent some time inside San Quentin showing inmates creative ways to tell their personal histories. He used OG Told Me, his own memoir, as an example. It reads like a graphic novel. Its photo gallery of Original Gangsters (OGs) includes quotes of streetwise advice.
Harshaw’s “turf,” East Oakland, serves as the backdrop.
Your turf was where you grew up. Some of us had parents or grandparents who actually owned the land. For others, that land was nothing more than where your mother’s Section Eight voucher was accepted. If you stayed there long enough, put in a lil’ work, and knew some OGs around the way, you could call that your hood. Funny how we claimed a hood in which the majority of us had no ownership.
Harshaw reflected on a number of questionable decisions he made as a youngster. However, his honesty encouraged compassion.
The inmates enrolled in Zoe Mullery’s Creative Writing Workshop listened to Harshaw’s advice, inspiring their writing juices to flow.
First he asked the men to lay their palms flat on a blank sheet of paper and sketch a picture of their hands.
“You have 90 seconds to write everything you have on your hands,” Harshaw said after they completed the sketch.
Several men, inspired by their ring fingers, wrote about aspects of marriage on that part of the hand, while others described family dynamics on their palms. One person wrote messages on his fingertips.
Next, Harshaw asked the men to write six-word stories:
Have no hero, make yourself one.
Doubt casts a shadow on dreams.
Kindness is a boomerang, fling it.
“I’ve done this exercise many times before, and I’ve never seen such artistic interpretations,” Harshaw said.
About five or six years ago, Harshaw visited San Quentin for the first time.
He remembered the Lower Yard jam-packed with men in blue walking around a dirt track, shirtless men on pull-up bars and a basketball game underway. Correctional officers posted at a guard shack kept a watchful eye on the placid scene — it wasn’t quite what Harshaw had expected.
“You would think the yard is a battlefield, but it’s not like ‘Oz,’” he said, referencing the famously violent prison TV show. “At San Quentin, you get to be human. You don’t have to conform to the rigidness of a maximum-security prison.”
The last chapter of OG Told Me brought out Harshaw’s thoughts about prison:
Prison only exists in the mind. No. Prison also exists in the heart. And the deepest darkest prison a man can be confined to is the regret of a love lost.
As he looked around the art studio where the creative writing class met, he commented, “If I didn’t know where I was, I would assume that I was in an art gallery in urban America. It looks like a loft in Brooklyn or New York. The portrait that jumps out is the one with the three-dimensional figure. There’s a lot going on in that painting — dark yet warm color,” he added, while reading, “Welcome to the Show,” a phrase that was painted onto the canvas. “There’s crazy detail. The heart’s bleeding on the outside.”
Harshaw currently teaches a creative writing class at the California Medical Facility, another prison in California.