So most of us know someone who is, has been, or working their way to be locked up, locked down, or just part of the biggest business in America -- prisons.
Then I found a novel that humanizes the prison industrial complex. UPSTATE, by Kalisha Buckhanon. Kalisha is a smart, down-to-earth, and talented writer originally from the Chicago area who now teaches and writes in New York City.
Her book answers the question -- can love survive the test of time, separation, and prison? In UPSTATE, Harlem teenagers, Antonio and Natasha, find their relationship in trouble when he is sent to prison for killing his father, a crime he may or may not have committed. Will Natasha stand by her man? Will Antonio get justice in a society that imprisons black and brown men at alarming rates?
I recently had the chance to talk with the author, about her novel, reading, the hip hop generation, and why Antonio and Natasha are such compelling characters.
Kalisha, what was your inspiration for writing UPSTATE?
Several personal and social factors contributed to me being inspired to write this book. Every black person that I know has family members or friends who are incarcerated. The little black boys that I've taught, who are beautiful and marvelous and creative now, but may somehow have all of that ripped out of them by the time they reach Antonio's age, were at the forefront of my mind. I was inspired by the fact that black women have been tremendously affected by the prison industrial complex not only as victims, but also in a way that has not been explored; they must "hold it down" alone while trying to maintain relationships with the fathers, brothers, boyfriends and sons who are locked up.
What is it about prison that makes it a rich setting for storytelling?
One place that black men and boys often find refuge to express their sensitive, emotional and intellectual sides is with their women. This becomes especially important when they are incarcerated and letters become their only means of communication with the outside world. There are a lot of men out there who won't write to save their lives when they are on the outside, but once they become locked up, they become very, very prolific! They find themselves saying and expressing things that they would never have had they been on the outside living up to societal expectations of who they should be.
In an age of hip hop stars, multimedia, video games, and gadgets, and the lack of reading by young people, how does UPSTATE speak to the concerns of the hip hop generation?
Kids just aren't reading any more, and that's a fact. As a teacher, I couldn't get kids to read to save my life! In school, I was the consummate nerd because English was always my favorite subject because I loved to read; most people couldn't relate. Both Natasha and Antonio were able to achieve insight into their lives and situations through reading and reflecting on several books, which I mentioned and chose with care for the book. Reading is life-changing for both characters. I hope young people pick up on that.
What would you hope young people, and readers in general, would get from reading UPSTATE? How are Antonio and Natasha inspiring?
Both of them are goal-oriented, meaning even through they have endured tragedy they think ahead to the future and plan out the best ways to improve their situations. Inside, Antonio thinks about getting his GED, upping his bench press numbers, working, saving money, what he's going to do on the outside. Natasha thinks about preventing pregnancy, applying to educational programs, taking her SAT, moving to a better neighborhood, buying a house, going to college. That's how I thought when I was young, and that's truly how I made it out and beyond many people I left behind. I love Antonio and Natasha so much because they represent the complete and total innocence of childhood, and I hope that they are inspiring on that level for people of all ages.