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Tenacious: Art and Writing from Women in Prison. An interview with Vikki Law from New York, United States

Prisoner Support
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United States

Tenacious zine started in 2003 after Vikki Law was approached as an outside publisher and co-editor by women incarcerated in Oregon; they needed a self-determined forum for female prisoners' voices after the mainstream media kept ignoring their proposals. Vikki wrote a piece called "Incarcerated Women Create Their Own Media" for the feminist magazine, Off Our Backs, detailing this background, and recently published a book entitled Resistance Behind Bars from her involvement in prisoner support and incarcerated women's struggles. An interview with Vikki on the role that zines play in movements for social change, and the importance of striving for liberation for all in freedom, not equality for some in injustice.

Off Our Back article, ""Incarcerated Women Create Their Own Media",

Can you introduce yourself?

I just turned 32 years old. I was born and raised in Queens, one of the 5 boroughs of NYC. I now live in the city itself, in a rapidly-changing neighborhood called the Lower East Side. I’m the proud parent of a 8-year-old daughter named Siu Loong (which is Cantonese for “little dragon” since she was born in the Year of the Dragon). [Read Vikki's interview about zines, radical parenting, and how to support parents in your activist scene here]

Can you tell our readers about Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison ?

It’s a collection of articles, essays, poetry and art by formerly and currently incarcerated women across the United States. Their works cover subjects like the health care (or lack of health care) system, being HIV-positive inside prison, trying to get an education while in prison, sexual harassment by prison staff and general prison conditions, and giving up children for adoption - in the U.S., if a child is in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state automatically terminates the parent’s legal rights. Many women in prison have sentences far exceeding 15 months AND the majority of them were single parents before entering prison.

The idea for Tenacious actually came from several women incarcerated in Oregon. However, people inside prisons do not have access to printers, copy machines, massive amounts of postage and all the stuff that we zinesters on the outside may take for granted. So they approached me and asked if I would be the outside publisher. How could I say no? That was in 2003 and I’ve just finished Issue #16.

Can you tell us about the process of how the zine articles and drawings make it from the women in prison to yourself? Do they get censored by the prison authorities on the way out?

The women write (or, occasionally, type) their articles and mail them to me. Some women in federal prisons have access to e-mail and have been able to e-mail me their writings. E-mail seems to be more easily censored by the prison authorities - both women who have used this medium have reported that they have been told by staff members that they shouldn't be writing about such issues. In one case, the woman's e-mail access was taken away and she was threatened with being placed in the SHU (Special Housing Unit or solitary confinement). In the other case, the woman was threatened with having her furlough (a shortperiod of time - usually 36 to 48 hours that she can spend outside the prison with her
family) taken away. This is also true with snail mail, but I think that mailroom staff are a lot less likely to read each and every letter coming through (whereas with e-mail, a computer program can probably pull out words and phrases that might be seen as "threatening to the safety and security of the institution." (This is the actual phrasing that prisons use to justify banning reading material). In one case, in a state prison in Oregon, a woman was trying to send out a drawing that depicted a female prisoner who had obviously just been sexually assaulted. In the background of a drawing, one could see the back of a correctional officer (the euphemistic term for "prison guard" here in the United States) walking away. The mailroom confiscated the drawing and she received several visits from prison administrators about that drawing.

I have never heard of a prison administration encouraging the zine. One woman said that, when she was in the county jail, she would share the zine with one of the guards who liked it. In some cases, the prison has censored the zine. In Oregon, after I published an article about guards harassing a lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation,that particular issue was banned.

Obviously the zine has tremendous importance both for the women contributing, and in raising awareness of the issues to the readers outside. Has the zine been used in any way to challenge prison conditions,or to further advocate for the women? If it hasn't, do you think there isthe potential for this self-made media to achieve this?

In one instance, I know that an article by a woman incarcerated in Oregon inspired members of the (now-defunct) prisoner rights group Break the Chains! to organize a letter-writing campaign to the warden to stop the harassment against her. I can't recall any other instances in which something in the zine directly sparked outside activism/agitation. I think that there is definitely the potential for the zine to spark MORE advocacy/challenging of conditions.

What do you do alongside editing the zine?

I write about issues affecting incarcerated women and their acts of resistance and collective organizing to challenge these conditions. I correspond with roughly a dozen women incarcerated across the country. Often, they tell me stories of their lives, both past and present; sometimes they ask me to look up resources for them since prisoners do not have web access. I also send them news about the outside, often news of resistance (like the recent protests around the invasion of Gaza or the recent sex workers’ march in Washington, DC), or sometimes just more mainstream news that they don’t have access to because they are in solitary confinement. I’ve spent the past year working on a book about incarcerated women’s resistance and organizing, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, and now I suppose I’ll spend the next year organizing book events!

What do you hope can be accomplished through your DIY projects?
With Tenacious , I wanted to help give incarcerated women an outlet for their stories and experiences. At the time, I didn’t see any media devoted solely to their issues and experiences. I think it’s raised awareness among people who do prisoner support and prisoner rights work for men; women haven’t really been seen by many of these activists. At the same time, having it in zine format has also raised awareness among people in the zine community. I read a zine about a young woman’s choice to give her baby up for adoption; I’d printed a story of a young woman of roughly the same age who was arrested early during her pregnancy and wrestled with what would be best for her baby given that she was serving a long prison sentence. She finally decided upon adoption. I sent that copy of Tenacious to her (the woman on the outside who had given her baby up for adoption). She wrote me back and said that she’d been very moved, not only by the story of adoption but by all the stories in Tenacious. Before I’d sent her that zine, she had never really thought about prison issues, let alone the existence of women in prison.

What else do you love about zines? Are there any aspects you find challenging or limiting in the zine community?

I love the physicality of zines. I love the fact that you can hold them in your hands and that they come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and styles. I love that you can carry them along anywhere and pass them along. A couple of years ago, a friend returned from Argentina and pretty much came straight from the airport to the NYC Anarchist Bookfair where China (who does the zine The Future Generation ) and I were tabling our zines. She swooped in, gave me a hug and handed me some punk parenting zines from Buenos Aires! And those zines built connections between me and some political punk parents in Argentina, connections that I would never have made through other media like blogs (since my ability to read and write in Spanish isn’t great, I don’t seek out Spanish-language blogs and so, if the information and network was in that format, I never would have come across it).

I do get frustrated sometimes, not so much by the overwhelming whiteness of the zine scene (perhaps because I do not frequent things like zine readings and zine events), but by the unwillingness of a lot of white zinesters to address their racial biases or stereotyping in their zines. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of those particular zinesters and I’m not advocating that all zines have an element of deconstructing whiteness and racism in it, but c’mon! I thought the zine subculture was supposed to be more open to introspection and other voices, not replicating mainstream views (like all Puerto Ricans who own pitbulls breed them to be nasty fighting dogs). I find it hard to enjoy a zine after I come across one or two racial stereotypes in what might otherwise be an interesting read. I’m not sure how much of this irritation stems from my being a woman of color in a zine scene that is probably predominantly white (although truthfully, because I try not to put myself in subculture spaces that are predominantly white these days, I’m more than a bit insulated from that reality and everything that goes with it).

Do you consider feminist zines as part of a social movement? Do you think feminist zines can effect meaningful social and political change at large - or do they have significance mainly in individual lives?

That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about zines in that context before. I think that feminist zines are a good tool as part of social movements. For instance, even in the age of blogs and the widespread use of the Internet, there are populations of women who are cut out of the information loop. Incarcerated women are one such population. Zines and magazines can, to some limited extent, get into the prisons and raise awareness about issues and ideas that they may not have thought of otherwise. I’ve had women in their twenties ask me to send them information about feminism because they don’t know much about it or they have always seen it as a white, middle-class issue and since the majority of those in prison are not white, middle-class folks, they didn’t relate to these ideas or issues while on the outside. Women have also told me that they’ve shared the material I’ve sent them—about feminism, politics, ideas surrounding prison abolition and the question “what do we do if we don’t have prisons?”, etc.—with the other women around them. In some prisons, it’s sparked discussions among women about ideas around patriarchy, sexism, the necessity of speaking out, etc.

I’m not sure if, at this point, zines have the same potential to effect meaningful social and political change that they might have had years ago, before the explosion of on-line, instant information and a growing lack of interest in printed matter. At the same time, though, I wouldn’t discount the possibility altogether. In 1979, after the murders of several black women in Boston and indifference from both the police and black male leaders in the community, a black feminist group called the Combahee River Collective wrote and distributed a pamphlet called “Six Black Women: Why Did They Have to Die?” The pamphlet (which today we might see as more of a one-off zine, but back then the word didn’t exist and so all historical documentation refers to it as a pamphlet) analyzed the murders as a result of the racism and sexism that devalued black women’s lives. The pamphlet galvanized diverse groups, including women from the larger white feminist community and black church groups, to begin recognizing, discussing and working around the issue and continues to influence women of color-led groups and collectives working around violence against women issues today.

Do you see yourself as part of a “DIY” or “Third Wave Feminism” movement today?
At this point, not really. I definitely wouldn’t call myself an “anti-feminist,” but I think that the term “feminism” still seems pretty loaded with white, middle class values (at least here in the u.s.) that I don’t feel all that comfortable using that term for myself, esp. as a woman of color who does not aspire to anything resembling middle class. I understand that there are women like bell hooks and Gloria Anzuldua who identify as part of Third Wave feminism, but recent conflicts between feminist organizations that are primarily white and women of color (both individuals and groups), such as the recent nastiness between the editors of Seal Press (a u.s. feminist publishing house) and women of color bloggers who called them out on publishing a racist cartoon on the cover of one of their books about feminism, have made me even more reluctant to see myself as part of a movement that includes women like that who refuse to acknowledge, let alone challenge, their own ingrained racism and racist practices.

What are the most pressing issues for you in daily life?

In daily life as opposed to broader, over-arching goals? Survival, getting through the day as a parent and a woman of color and someone actively involved in social change work and organizations (and trying not to burn myself out) …Well, not just getting through the day and basic survival (as in food, working to pay the bills, etc.) but also getting through the day in ways that are also meaningful and nourishing to me…When I have time to read a book or go outside and photograph something new and interesting or work on one of my projects, that is a good day. When I spend the entire day doing mindless wage-work and don’t have any time for ME, that is a bad, soul-sucking day. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. How do you think society might be re-thought and transformed to be a safer, more equitable place for women, grrrls, transgender and queer folks?

Wow, that’s a fairly broad question. I think one of the things that is long overdue is that people have to acknowledge how society is still a patriarchy that puts down women in all different ways. Even people in so-called progressive movements refuse to see how this plays out, whether it be in body image or standards of beauty or woman-unfriendly practices like doubting women (or grrrls or trans or queer folks) when they say that they’ve been sexually assaulted or not holding known sexual assailants accountable or at least making them unwelcome in the spaces that we have created (be they temporary spaces, like one-off music shows someplace, or more permanent places like our community centers). Just because it’s the 21st century *should* mean that these forms of gender oppression have faded into obscurity, but they haven’t and I think that people need to acknowledge that and work towards abolishing these things. If I have to explain to someone how x, y and z still occur and oppress women and that person refuses to get it and argues back with me about how the “patriarchy” doesn’t exist and it’s all in my head, well, what does that say about our ability to rethink, let along transform, the world into a safer, better place for those who aren’t at the top of the power structure?

I also think that we have to avoid these equality traps that end up making things harder for us. From what I understand, in the 1970s, childcare and access to safe and affordable childcare was considered a feminist issue. Somehow, in the 1980s, this got dropped and feminism was re-interpreted to be that women could be just as cutthroat and ruthless as men in capitalist societies. How is that safer or better for women, grrrls, trans and queer people and even men who don’t fit into the dominant perception of what a man should be? We have to realize that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Here’s an example of an equality law that ended up with terrible repercussions for women at the lowest rung of the power ladder: In the u.s., the 1964 Civil Rights legislation mandated equal opportunity for employment, including the right for women to work in male prisons (of which there were and still are many more than women's prisons). Conversely, men were (and still are) allowed to work in women's prisons, leading, in some states, to rampant sexual abuse of women in prison by male staff members. So passing legislation that made gender irrelevant to employment benefited women who had previously been barred from working in male prisons but also opened the door for men to be placed in roles of absolute power and access in women’s prisons. And the number of instances of male staff members sexually harassing, abusing and assaulting incarcerated women is alarmingly high. Obviously, this move towards equality did not make society safer for women, grrrls, trans or queer folks.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be looking for equality for all people. I was at the Zapatista Womyn’s Encuentro last December (2007) and spent hours listening to the Zapatista women talk about their lives before and after joining the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional or Zapatista National Liberation Army). Before, girls weren’t allowed to go to school and many weren’t even taught Spanish, but kept monolingual (for many indigenous in Chiapas, Mexico, Spanish is their second language) so that they were easier to control. Many had no say over whom they married or how many children they had. If they worked for a landowner, they were subject to sexual abuse. To be born female was to be born without rights. Many of the older women who spoke still cannot read or write; they were never given the opportunity to learn. But in the Zapatista communities now, both boys AND girls have the right to go to school and to learn. There were two 9-year-old girls who got up and spoke about the fact that now they have the right to play (girls often weren’t even allowed out of the house to play! They were supposed to follow their mothers and help them with chores from when they woke to when they went to sleep) and to go to school. They spoke before an auditorium of thousands of people and their words moved everyone.

I’m telling you this little side story to illustrate that I’m not against fighting for equality, but we have to be careful to look at what kind of equality we’re asking for. Are we asking for the right to be equally oppressive/oppressed or are we looking for liberation?

Thanks so much for this interview! Readers, please support this project by buying Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women from an independent book seller or info shop (or anywhere really).

Vikki Law
Affiliated organisation: 
Books Through Bars--NYC, /// ABC No Rio,
Red Chidgey & Elke Zobl
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