It’s a small book, less than 40 pages long, but it gets at an important truth: everybody has a story to tell.
The book in question is Create: Words and Art from the WCC, a chapbook (something similar to a zine) written by inmates at the Women’s Correctional Centre in Headingley and published by the Manitoba Library Association’s Prison Libraries Committee.
Twelve incarcerated women submitted stories, poems and drawings for the book and the glossy paperback will be available to the public on Sunday at a launch party at the Good Will Social Club.
This project is a first for the committee, which provides volunteer library services and programming to jails across the province, but founder and chairwoman Kirsten Wurmann hopes it won’t be the last.
"This is volume 1, it says that right on the cover, we’re hoping to go in and get another volume printed next spring," she says.
Wurmann is the branch head at the Harvey Smith Library and started the Prison Library Committee at the Winnipeg Remand Centre in 2012. The program now has more than 45 volunteers and runs regular open libraries and book exchanges at the women’s and men’s prisons in Headingley and at The Pas Correctional Centre — none of which had library services before Wurmann stepped in.
"I think prison libraries in Manitoba are often overlooked as an integral part of corrections," she says. "Folks inside prisons, they haven’t given up their right to learn... and they haven’t forfeited their humanity either. Books help recognize a shared humanity and give them hope."
While there was a lot of literature going into prisons, the committee realized there wasn’t any writing coming back out. Creating a way for prisoners to express themselves seemed like a no-brainer, and the book idea was well-received by the prospective authors.
"There was really a lot of excitement at the possibility of actually becoming a published writer," Prison Libraries volunteer and University of Winnipeg Prof. Kathryn Ready says. "There aren’t necessarily a lot of opportunities to get your voice out there (as a prisoner)."
Last winter, Ready and fellow volunteer Hee-Jung Serenity Joo led a series of writing workshops in the jail designed to encourage submissions and calm anxieties.
"The goal was just to get people comfortable with writing and enjoy it and not fear expressing themselves," says Joo, a professor at the University of Manitoba.
“People think that the reason you are incarcerated is who you are. I think it’s important that the larger public see this part of their community as all the other identities that these people hold, as artists and poets and cooks and lovers and friends.” — volunteer Hee-Jung Serenity Joo
Some of what came out of those workshops made it into the final product, including a short story called The Biggest Lie by Holly Sullivan. The story is about self-sabotage and regret, but ends with the line "I finally believe I am good enough to deserve better."
While the stories in Create touch on different themes — from loss and friendship, to addiction and lust — they are all deeply personal. Looking through the book is almost like flipping through a diary. The original drafts, printed on loose-leaf and complete with margin doodles and stylized lettering, are included beside typed reprints.
Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the book also includes some humour. Rants and Raves of W.C.C. (Jailhouse Struggles), written by a trio of women, is a list of annoyances — like "that first awkward fart" in front of a new cellmate — that give an honest and relatable look at life on the inside.
For Joo, the power of this chapbook project is that it gives the women a chance to show who they are beyond the label of prisoner.
"People think that the reason you are incarcerated is who you are," she says. "I think it’s important that the larger public see this part of their community as all the other identities that these people hold, as artists and poets and cooks and lovers and friends."
The full version of Create will be available for purchase by donation at the launch party on Sunday, which begins at 1:30 p.m. and will include a feast and music by local songwriter Ila Barker.
The book will also be circulated around the Women’s Correctional Centre, but some content had to be removed because of safety concerns from the jail. This kind of censorship is nothing new for Wurmann.
"We know that we can’t always bring certain books inside," she says. "Prison policy is often at odds with the core values of librarianship and that’s sort of this line that we’ve had to walk.
"It was difficult to have to go back and republish the chapbook, but we’re just happy we’re able to do it and still get it into the jail."
Visit mla.mb.ca for event details.
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.