Reading short stories in prison
I’d like to present a paper on my experience with the short story at Arohata prison. For 8 years (in early 2000) once a week, on a Thursday morning, I had the privilege of spending time in the library at Arohata Women’s prison, running an informal book group and latterly a writing group.
The women given clearance to participate were usually classified as low risk, and could be short-term or long-term inmates. Their crimes varied and mostly I tried not to enquire, choosing to see the women as readers, not offenders. But there were murderers, young and old, in our midst. Due to the constantly changing conditions in a prison and the availability of books, we chose to read short stories. When I started this volunteer work, I was a recent convert to reading New Zealand Literature, somewhat of an evangelist almost. I was reading some of these stories for the first time in the company of these women.
My own childhood, like many of the women I spent time with, was rich in hand-me-down stories, anecdotes, doggerel, but not ‘literature’ with a capital L. My journey as a reader was enhanced by sharing these stories with fresh ears, fresh ideas, novel and insightful opinions often more interesting than the lectures I had recently attended as a late-life university student. I’d like to share some of the stories and their impact, on me and on the inmates. The recognition that a good short story can cross the social, cultural and economic divide. That a good writer leaves room for the reader.