Examining the Precariat

Examining the Precariat

Eye on the Indies:
A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor

American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion, edited by Zeke Caligiuri et al., introduction by Eula Biss (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, November 14, 2023; 320 pp.; ISBN 9781566896955; $19.95 paperback).

“The sea is the pitiless social darkness into which the penal system casts those it has condemned, an unfathomable waste of misery. The human soul, lost in those depths, may become a corpse. Who shall revive it?”
—Victor Hugo,
Les Misérables

Cover design by Mary Austin Speaker

American Precariat answers Victor Hugo’s question by showing how words can revive the human soul lost in the depths of the penal system. Here are fifteen essays by a mixture of writers such as Valeria Luiselli, Steve Almond, Lauren Markham, and Michael Torres addressing diverse topics of precarity: student loan debt, trans youth homelessness, or delivery driving as gig work. The underlying thread tying them all together is an examination of the silence around class.

What powers that theme is a conversation following each piece as the imprisoned discuss ideas in the essays with their teachers and mentors at the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW). Jennifer Bowen, MPWW’s founder and artistic director, includes “A Note on Conversations.” The collective of incarcerated writers, many of them award winning, coedited the volume.

In his Foreword, Zeke Caligiuri explains why that’s important: “It matters that this is a volume edited by the imprisoned, because the history of class hasn’t always been written by the powerful, but they have always been its editors.” He emphasizes the need to confront “the socioeconomic circumstances that created the problems in the first place.”

Nine of the essays previously appeared in such venues as Tin House, Mother Jones, Orion Magazine, Gawkes, and Freeman’s.

Eula Biss in her Introduction establishes the historical lexicon from which the word precariat sprang forth and found its way into the book’s title. A mashup of two words, precarious and proletariat, gave rise to the term from British labor economist Guy Standing’s 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Advanced societies in such places as Europe, Japan, and the USA are experiencing effects of the emerging precariat as the social order becomes unstable, insecure, and shaky.

English author and artist Mervyn Peake wrote of contrasts between the poor and the wealthy. Titus Groan, the first novel in his Gormenghast series, tells of the burning of the library at Gormenghast castle. Peake employs the dictionary as a prison metaphor in that book: “We are all imprisoned by the dictionary. We choose out of that vast, paper-walled prison our convicts, the little black printed words, when in truth we need fresh sounds to utter, new enfranchised noises which would produce a new effect.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Spanish author of the Gothic mystery La sombra del viento (translated to English as The Shadow of the Wind by Lucia Graves), wrote: “There are worse prisons than words.”

Zeke Caligiuri
Photo by Justin Terrell

Caligiuri in his Foreword to American Precariat seems to agree with both Peake and Zafon: “If you take the books and culture out of these places, you have a zoo,” he writes. “Language is the building block of creation. For me, in prison, it was the biggest thing. Words were the only thing connecting me with the world, with my family, and with my community.”

PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program calls the freedom to write in US prisons “a critical free expression issue of our time.” Not only does it “enrich the broader literary community,” PEN states, but it also raises public consciousness about “implications of mass incarceration” across society while at the same time developing “justice-involved literary talent.”

The program Send Musicians to Prison based in Nashville, Tennessee, also reaches out by playing mainly in maximum security prisons around the country. Established in 2009, the organization’s motto is: “Sharing hope, healing, and restoration with the imprisoned…through music.” The group’s condensed slogan gets right to the point, and ties in with the prison writing book’s approach: “More hope, more love.”

Defy Ventures is another program assisting the imprisoned through building communities. Quan Huynh, executive director of the Southern California chapter, has a background similar to Caliguiri’s. Huynh, too, rebuilt his life through words in writing the book Sparrow in the Razor Wire: Finding Freedom from Within While Serving a Life Sentence (2020).

Eula Biss

Language can definitely change the lives of people serving prison sentences ranging from twelve years to life. In one conversation about teaching empathy in American Precariat, an imprisoned man named David states: “I think maybe incarceration is its own education.” One of the most thought-provoking discussions in that book follows an essay by Steve Almond titled “The View from Mount Failure.” There David observes: “Reading causes you to have empathy toward other people.”

Slowly the American Precariat group bonds over shared words on paper that construct a community of expression.  Chris wonders: “Whose responsibility is another’s precarity?” As readers, we see these individuals begin to shoulder that onus for themselves.

And therein emerges the power of writing as catharsis for groups behind walls. American Precarity offers a clear window through which the world may witness their transformation.

Editor Ezekiel (Zeke) Caligiuri, convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated robbery as a teenager in South Minneapolis, received a thirty-five-year prison sentence. He was released in 2022 and voted for the first time ever in November 2023 at age forty-six under Minnesota’s new Restore the Vote Law. He works with the Minnesota Justice Research Center.

Caligiuri cofounded the inmate-created Stillwater Prison Writing Collective in 2011 under the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

His memoir, This Is Where I Amcame out in 2016 from the University of Minnesota Press. He has won awards from the PEN Prison Writing Contest in fiction and poetry. His work appears in Prison Noir edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Caligiuri is coauthor of a chapter in the nonfiction book From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline edited by Priya Parmar, Anthony J. Nocella II, and David Stovall. He also contributed to From the Inside Out: Letters to Young Men and Other Writings published through the Student Press Initiative of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Eula Biss, who wrote the Introduction, is the author of four bestselling nonfiction books: Having and Being Had (2020; Best Book of the Year: Time and NPR),On Immunity: An Inoculation (2014), Notes from No Man’s Land (2009; National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, 2010), andThe Balloonists (2002). Her essays and poems appear widely, and her work has been translated into a dozen languages. Biss has been the recipient of many fellowships.

She taught writing in a number of venues (including fifteen years at Northwestern University) after studying at Hampshire College and earning an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. In 2006 Biss cofounded Essay Press with Stephen Cope and Catherine Taylor, an independent small press “dedicated to publishing artful, innovative, and culturally relevant prose.”

Publisher: Coffee House Press

Coffee House in Minneapolis is a nonprofit independent press founded in 1984 by Allan Kornblum. Chris Fishbach, who began as a letterpress intern there in 1995, succeeded Kornblum as publisher in 2011. He remained until 2020, when he became a literary agent in Minneapolis. Anitra Budd served in that position from 2021—2022. Linda Ewing is the interim executive director during a nationwide search for the next executive director and publisher. Jeremy M. Davies began as executive editor in 2023.

Creating new spaces in which audiences and artists can interact is the CHP mission, as well as “inspiring readers and enriching communities by expanding the definition of what literature is, what it can do, and who it belongs to.” The press seeks to demonstrate a “vision for the future of literature through innovative off-the-page programming that broadens and deepens literature’s relevance to the world.” Coffee House values include excellence, inclusivity, collaboration, discovery, and generosity.

Submission information may be found on the website, where open reading period dates are posted.  The CHP internship program is currently on hiatus. Consortium Books distributes Coffee House publications.

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