Of narrative neglect and the most forgotten of writers – towards publishing an anthology of women’s prison writing

Whitecross, R (2023) Of narrative neglect and the most forgotten of writers – towards publishing an anthology of women’s prison writing. In: Narrative Matters 2023 - Instrumental Narratives: Narrative Studies and the Storytelling Boom, 15 - 17 June 2023, Tampere University, Tampere, Finland.

Official URL: https://events.tuni.fi/narrativematters2023/


Closed worlds by default, prisons are “prone to secrecy and hard for outsiders to penetrate” (Aitken, 2022, 478). Despite their “public” status, they are viewed as sealed spaces beyond the comprehension of those on the outside, hiding and obscuring those who work and live inside them (Lawston, 2011, 1). Consequently, bridges between the “inside” and the “outside” become important for any conception of prison and its effects (Westall, 2021, p. 1). Prison writing is one such bridge (Westall, 2021, 1). When McAdams (2001, p. 114) writes that “stories live in culture” and that they become the mirror of the culture within which they are forged, I am struck by Scheffler’s (2002, p. xxix) observation that “as a group, and to a large extent as individuals, women prison authors are among the most forgotten writers”. This resonates with the observation that in any given society stories compete for acceptance on the one hand and dominance on the other, “because life stories echo gender and class constructions in society reflecting the prevailing hegemonic patterns in cultural, economic and political contexts” (McAdams, 2001, p. 114). Within the wider social context, the stories as narratives of lived experience written by women in prison, “carry personal and cultural meaning” whilst “their telling has social consequences” (Narayan, 2012, 8). Carlen and Tchaikovsky (1996, p. 211) argued that to keep the “endemic secrecy” of the carceral machine in check, its inner workings should be opened up to the public gaze, in particular to monitor its tendencies to revert from progressive to regressive practices in the context of women’s imprisonment. Yet, Scheffler (1984, p. 65; 2002, p. xv) writes of the negligible attention paid to women’s prison literature as a literary tradition because it almost always plays “a relatively minor role” within the general context of prison writing – marginal texts further lost within the “marginal literature of the prison”. Considering this narrative neglect, Penal Reform International (Pope and Sa-ardyen, 2021, 2) observe that “When people in prison are forgotten, neglected and exploited, the impact on individuals and on broader society can be disastrous”, precisely because “problems with prisons often reflect wider societal problems”. We find that the mediated and socially constructed representations of incarcerated women fail to contextualise the complexity of their lived experiences within social systems where economic, racial, gender and class discrimination are contributing factors to their disproportionate incarceration as marginalized, non-violent and often vulnerable women (Lawston, 2011, 3 - 4). In this paper, I reflect on how a pivotal fieldwork moment brought this conceptual moment to life and inspired publishing How Bleak is the Crow’s Nest – An anthology of women’s prison writing, as a method of reminding society that incarcerated women exist (Scheffler, 2002, p. xxi).

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Divisions: School of Sciences
Date Deposited: 22 Dec 2023 13:01
Last Modified: 22 Dec 2023 13:01
URI / Page ID: https://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/id/eprint/15979
Request a change to this item or report an issue Request a change to this item or report an issue
Update item (repository staff only) Update item (repository staff only)