By Aly Tamboura
For many prisoners, Wednesday is just another humdrum day behind bars spent missing the free life and their loved ones. However, for a small group of men, Wednesday evenings mean packing into a cramped Arts in Corrections room where long-time mentor and writing instructor Zoe Mullery encourages them to craft and share stories.
“My experience in prison is the extreme circumstances, the under story of violence, anger, desperation, failure, shame, and oppression that pervades, provides a startling backdrop for the humor, thoughtfulness, respect, patience, and creativity I witness in my classroom,” says Mullery.
Since 1999, she has been entering the prison gates under the sponsorship of the William James Foundation, which is one of the last foundations supporting prison artists.
“I think that art, which in my case means writing, but is true to any form, is not only valuable and important for incarcerated men but for human beings in general,” says Mullery.
Mullery says she always wanted to be a writer since writing her first book, Willie the Whale, in second grade. As a child, she suffered from insomnia, staying awake in bed, writing stories in her head on a “mental note pad.”
As an adult, she lived in a cabin in the California woods with aspirations of crafting a novel. After four frustrating years, she enrolled in a Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State and graduated with a MFA in 1995.
Since graduating, Mullery has written many short stories, a few being published. In addition, she has written her first novel, which she frustratingly admits is stuck in its first draft because her life has become increasingly busy.
Mullery’s life changed in 2010 when she adopted her daughter and from her tireless commitment to raising funds to build a school in the African Country of South Sudan – a project she started after meeting, Michael Kuany, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan at the church she attends.
The Lost Boys (so named after the boys in the story of Peter Pan, who lost their parents and raised themselves) are a group of over 30,000 Sudanese boys who were displaced by war in the South of Sudan.
The boys walked hundreds of miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya to flee the violence. Along the way, as many as 16,000 perished from starvation, disease and being attacked by wild animals.
In 2007 Mullery traveled to South Sudan, which has been ravished by decades of civil war.
“Of course there were no schools, and the children told us frequently and passionately how much they wanted to go to school,” explained Mullery on her visit to Sudan “Young orphan boys slipped notes to us asking us to take then back to the U.S. so they could be educated and understand how to stop wars.”
The children’s pleas inspired a friend, Kuany, to build a school for the children of his home country. “He founded a non-profit organization called Rebuild Sudan (rebuildsudan.org) and asked me to be on the board,” says Mullery.
After six years the organization has raised over $170,000 and has the school half built.
“We still have quite a bit of money to raise,” says Mullery. “Perhaps another $120,000, but seeing the frame against the skyline has lifted the spirits of the community as well as those working towards the school’s completion.”
Several years ago, Mullery brought Lost Boy Kuany to visit her San Quentin Creative Writing Class, where he told the prisoners about his harrowing story of survival and triumph.
So inspiring was Kuany’s story, one of Mullery’s students, JulianGlenn “Luke” Padgett, wrote a fictional narrative set in war-torn Sudan, which was subsequently published in an anthology of short stories called Brothers in Pen created by the San Quentin Creative Writing Class.
Mullery has been helping undeserved writers publish their work for many years, including 15 anthologies at Delaney Street, a drug treatment program in San Francisco, two at Northern California Woman’s Facility in Stockton and six at San Quentin.
Currently the men in Mullery’s creative writing class are preparing for a public reading of their work. It will be held on July 13 in the Addiction Recovery Counseling building.
“What stories we live by, feed ourselves, create and give power to are essential to our identity and therefore our relationship to what our lives mean and what others’ lives mean to us,” says Mullery. “This is not special to prisoners. However, I do find it particularly poignant to engage stories with prisoners as prisoners are often people who have lived by stories which have hurt others and are often people who have been hurt by the stories others live out or believe about them.”
Creative Writing Class anthologies can be checked out at the San Quentin library or purchased at lulu.com/spotlight/northblockpress or at brothersinpen.wordpress.com.