Deborah Jiang-Stein is a national speaker, writer, and mother, working to free more than her words. She is founder of The unPrison Project, an organization that exists to empower incarcerated women with practical life skills, critical thinking, and the opportunities to experience and sustain greater emotional and physical freedom from addiction and abuse.
In her memoir, Prison Baby, Jiang-Stein recalls the discovery at age eight that she had been adopted. Later, at the age of 12, Jiang-Stein learns of her prison birth. Young Deborah had lived in foster care from one to three years old, but spent her first year in prison, alongside her birth mother. Having grown up in a white family, she searches to make sense of the differences in her multiracial appearance and in her inner workings, and experiences a deep anguish that includes an “emotional lockdown” and silence. She craves adrenaline, rejects her parents and any positive expectations placed upon her. Jiang-Stein writes about her struggle as a prison-born girl.
Melissa Uchiyama and Deborah Jiang-Stein connected via email and discussed the role of memoir in literature, excavation of memory, and Jiang-Stein’s vision and hope for incarcerated women and their children.
Melissa Uchiyama: For whom was this book written? What has been surprising regarding readership?
Deborah Jiang-Stein: Prison Baby evolved out of my speaking engagements. When audiences embraced my story because of their own anguish about secrets and shame they’d held at one time or another, I began to see the universal message of self-acceptance, and how most people search to find ways to live with the past.
My publisher, Beacon Press, markets the book as a crossover YA memoir and I’ve been surprised by a few things I’ve heard from readers. For example, a parent wrote to let me know that she’s reading this book with her adopted son. Because Prison Baby is a story of mothers and a daughter, I was thrilled to know that the story also reaches boys and men. Men have approached me when I’ve spoken as the keynote speaker at conferences and shared how they’ve learned to face a secret in their lives after reading the book.
MU: How important is writing memoir when writers could use personal experiences in a number of genres, fictionalizing the story and simply shifting the voice and creating new characters?
DJS: My first publication was poetry when I got out of college and I still write and read poetry. I grew up hearing and reading poetry and it suited me well in my early writing, for exploring my internal world and interpreting my outer world.
My writing mentors encouraged me to write memoir instead of a novel because other people could strongly identify with a story of living with what we think is unlivable. In some ways, prison is the least of the themes in this book, among such issues as shame, secrecy, stigma, parenting children with challenges, the lies we tell ourselves, and brain development for those impacted by trauma.
Additionally, memoir is re-creating a story. It’s a second chance to relive from the first time around, more than just telling facts and changing names to protect the story. One way I was taught whether to approach my story as memoir or a fiction project was to ask myself a few questions: Am I comfortable or not relying on my memory? Is my inspiration for the story a small spark from life rather than a complete story arc?
MU: How do you write from a place of truth and still respect or be fair to the family members and real characters included in memoir?
DJS: As I worked on Prison Baby, I paid attention to my emotional truth, which no one else can experience. Our emotional truths are unique and individual and I don’t assign judgment to whether it’s “right” or not for anyone else. Any time I questioned myself about a memory, I reminded myself that no two people will recall the exact same event with the same memory. This freed me to move ahead with writing my story, my truth.
MU: I see the work of writing such memoir a courageous, life-giving act. How did you find your way when your very core was affected? How did you launch yourself back into the painful moments of your history?
DJS: Choosing what to include presented one challenge because it’s a big story set over several decades. I’m grateful to my editor, Gayatri Patnaik, and also freelance editors and mentors over the past years as I wrote the book, all of whom helped me piece the story together. For me the biggest challenge was digging deep into memories I’d packed away as my survival tool from trauma. Pulling up childhood and adolescent trauma to remember and then write took a lot of work and dozens of drafts. I meditate, even if for a short time. Music, exercise, and daydreaming all show up in my everyday routine, so I used all of these to help me write, reflect, and remember.
MU: Prison Baby moves at a fast pace. This book is a poignant, expertly crafted book, seamless and fluid. How did you consciously ground your readers in time?
DJS: Gayatri Patnaik helped with the timeline of where to begin. Together, we considered other starting points, but my discovery of the hidden letter that disclosed my prison birth seemed like the best way for the reader to learn about the discovery at the same time. However, I considered starting the book at the crisis when I was a young adult running drugs, and then moving into a flashback to show how I ended up in that crisis. But finding the hidden letter with the facts surrounding my birth in prison was a turning point in my life. I spiraled into confusion and self-destruction for years to come.
MU: Do you ever suggest that a writer not write events or details of family members?
DJS: These are personal choices every writer faces. I’m not a “tell-all” kind of person and I made choices about what and what not to write by asking myself how and why every piece served the story and how and why the reader needed to know. I didn’t write Prison Baby to purge family information or unburden family details. I don’t journal but I believe that’s one purpose of journaling, which is different from developing a book.
MU: What are your next steps for this book?
DJS: An audiobook recording of Prison Baby is in the planning stages, with incarcerated women as the voice talent. I’m really excited about this project. Several prisons have approved it, and at this point I’m working with studio production and also seeking funding for equipment and travel into the prisons to do the recording.
MU: What, if anything, is our responsibility as mothers, family, and citizens regarding inmates and those within the correctional system?
DJS: I believe it’s everyone’s duty to help repair the world and the world includes those people sitting in our prisons. This statement from Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails,” holds true for the United States of America. We need to pay attention. Incarceration in the U.S. is a public health problem, not a criminal problem. Our prisons and jails are asylums for those in poverty, for those with needs for drug and alcohol treatment, mental wellness resources, education, jobs, and housing. We can do better. We need to do better. Our website shares a few ways people can help.
MU: How can readers be a part of your current and future work?
DJS: Thank you for asking this question because the work of The unPrison Project depends on support and funding from individual donors, and support from other organizations. We’ve already worked in prisons in 12 states, but financing the demand for the 31 states and their prisons that have requested our program is foremost. That’s more than half the country! Our reach into those prisons, mostly women’s prisons that have invited our work, directly impacts over 32,000 prisoners with tools for building success into their futures. The website shares links for how readers can contribute and support our fundraising goal of $150,000 for 2015-2016.
Also, we count on volunteer advisors from various professions, and personally, I’m always turning to mentors and others who know what I don’t know. I welcome contact from readers in these capacities about fund development, volunteers, and advisors. Bring us into your state! I will personally speak at a public community event and at the same time deliver our work into the nearby state and/or federal prison.