PORTLAND AUTHOR Walidah Imarisha is on a fast track to stardom. It's unlikely she'll move to Los Angeles or have brunch with Carrie Brownstein anytime soon, though. Her own rising star is more akin to the African American tradition of the North Star—the pinpoint of light that guided the oppressed toward freedom.
One of Portland's most prominent activists, Imarisha frontlined several Black Lives Matter protests from 2014-2015. With support from the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project, she also spent months traveling the state to present her eye-opening curriculum Why Aren't There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History. In 2013 she released a collection of poetry, Scars/Stars, followed soon after by an anthology of radical science fiction, Octavia's Brood. Now, with hardly a pause, Imarisha's back on the scene with her fourth book, Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption, out this month from AK Press.
The act of genre busting—or "genrecide," as she calls it—is a core element of Imarisha's literary agenda. The stories in Octavia's Brood contain surprising amalgamations of science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary fiction, and radical politics, all put to good use in helping readers envision previously unimagined futures. True to form, Angels with Dirty Faces presents a new experiment in genrecide, this time in the somewhat more grounded yet spacious territory of creative nonfiction. As the subtitle suggests, Angels is organized into three distinct sections, each chronicling the past traumas, offenses, losses, and heartbreaks of an individual character. A three-part structure is nothing new, but Angels breaks ground by experimenting with a different subgenre—ranging from biography, memoir, and "true-crime"—in each separate section.
The spotlight opens on Kakamia, the author's adopted brother. With keen observations and nuanced characterization, Imarisha details Kakamia's long, complicated transformation from prison-hardened gangster to Buddhist meditator and professional artist. Indicted for conspiracy to murder in his youth, and nicknamed "Lumberjack" after beating a man with a two-by-four, he's also capable of great kindness, as when he invites a new, wheelchair-bound prisoner to share his cell. "He helped me out," the man explains. "Just little stuff, getting my shirt on when it would get stuck on the handrail, or in the evenings when I was getting tired and my arms were sore, pushing me back to the cell." This is Imarisha's central mission: to locate the humanity—as well as the culpability—in those we too easily deem "monsters." It also illustrates how families-of-choice can arise in the most brutal conditions. Even Kakamia and Imarisha are self-adopted as siblings—without official sanction from their families or the state—yet their connection is a source of warmth and humor in the fallen world of prison. This is biography, clearly, but with a novelistic scope and a poet's sensibilities.
The second section, "Walidah," veers into the realm of personal memoir, beginning with the author's childhood. The daughter of a white mother and an absentee father, she was moved between a series of overseas military bases before finally landing in the predominately white Springfield, Oregon. A self-described "flygirl in the buttermilk," she found solace and direction in the works of Howard Zinn and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal—whom she describes as her own North Star. With further guidance from death row inmate Hasan Shakur, she became a nascent "prison abolitionist." As the phrase suggests, prison abolitionists understand America's prison industrial complex as a covert reincarnation of slavery. In slavery-era Alabama, for example, the prison population was 99 percent white, but after abolition, that number increasingly skewed black. According to one of Angels' most disturbing statistics, there are now more incarcerated black men then there were enslaved during the height of slavery.
The "Walidah" section soon moves into more vulnerable personal material, as she recounts a sexual assault by a former boyfriend. The scene is rendered in painful detail, but utilized in service of a larger and crucial question: What, if any, alternative methods exist for holding perpetrators accountable? What do we do with rapists—those whom even far-left radicals find irredeemable? Instead of involving the police, Imarisha explored a fraught process of accountability (via a poorly organized nonprofit) with her former boyfriend, quickly realizing there are no easy solutions. As she also explains at various points in the book, the concept of prison abolition is not necessarily about tearing down or completely emptying penitentiaries, but recognizing and addressing social inequity as a causal factor in most crimes. "What would it look like," Imarisha asks, "to use the tens of billions of dollars spent on the prison system differently: for living wage jobs, for public education, for health care, for quality affordable housing, and more?"
The third, and perhaps most unexpected section chronicles the life of a white man named James McElroy, otherwise known as Mac. Before he died in prison while serving a 60-year sentence, Mac was a key member of the Westies, a notorious Hell's Kitchen gang with ties to the Gambino crime family. This is where Imarisha delves into the "true crime" genre—by gaining access (via her brother) to a legendarily vicious criminal who was reluctant to give interviews. She doesn't stint on the details, either. We learn how the Westies completely dismembered their victims' corpses and tossed them in the Hudson—a practice known as "the Houdini." If this material seems somewhat out of place, Imarisha is the first to admit that she herself is a "mass of contradictions": a political activist who also loves Star Trek; a prison abolitionist who has been obsessed, since childhood, with mobsters, gangsters, and criminals.
Mac's narrative proves engrossing—to the reader and to Imarisha herself, who finds herself charmed by this blue-eyed murderer. Charmed but not duped: At one point she inwardly recoils when Mac tries to anoint her as an honorary Westie. As she also writes, "When I tell people I am writing a book about the Irish mob, who worked with the mafia, they are fascinated, titillated. I tell them my Puerto Rican adopted brother is in prison for conspiracy to commit murder and they attempt to control looks of horror, sometimes disgust. And yet, while both were involved in heinous acts, Kakamia did not pull the trigger, while Mac did over and over again—for profit."
Her complicated feelings toward Mac add further dimension to the book's central inquiries. Is redemption possible for a man like him? Can a fundamentally racist and broken system be renewed? According to Imarisha, "That's something we all have to answer together, as communities. As a nation."
Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption
by Walidah Imarisha
Reading at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne,
Mon March 14, 7:30 pm, free
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