Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work


Maria is a member of Families for Justice as Healing.
Link to website & like on Facebook.
One of the main problems with self-published books is that they don't enjoy the promotional boost that can be provided by the big house publishers. If you don't know a book exists, you can't read it. Thanks to social media, this barrier has been somewhat diminished, but I imagine it is still an uphill battle to get into libraries and onto bedside tables when you strike out on your own.

I heard about Stinging for Their Suppers from my friend Dave who works at a college near another college where the book was produced. There was a flyer about a launch event which he copied down and emailed to me. I found the book's Facebook page and ordered a copy for $15.  The book took several months to arrive.

I learned about Upper Bunkies Unite when my mother sent me a newspaper article that mentioned Andrea C. James, the book's author. A google search of her name led me to her organization's website and the Amazon page selling her book. Two days later it was on my kitchen table.  I think Amazon Prime may be an evil force that ends commerce as we know it, but I kind of love it.

Both of these books are written and published by formerly incarcerated women and describe, among other things, their experiences with food and eating while in prison.  Stinging for Their Suppers is written by a collective of women who were incarcerated in California.  Upper Bunkies Unite is written by a Boston woman who was incarcerated in the federal system. The raw flow of these books and the font and design of the manuscripts remind the reader that these are self-published books and this is a good thing. What you see is what you get. If you want to learn about women's lived experience of incarceration, read these books.

Both books, especially James' Upper Bunkies Unite, serve as a point of contrast to Piper Kernan's now semi-famous Orange is the New Black which was published by Random House and promoted to the point that it became a made-for-TV miniseries. Upper Bunkies and Orange describe life in the same federal prison camp for women in Danbury, CT, and were written by college-educated middle-class women. However, while Kerman's book is infused with humor and is almost campy at times, James' tone is a combination of loving dismal outrage. This difference may be attributed to alternative perspectives due to race- James is African-American and Kerman is White - and/or socio-political upbringing.  Kerman describes herself as largely oblivious to prison issues prior to her own incarceration while James recounts an activist upbringing in Roxbury that allows her to write about her personal experience with a larger socio-political perspective.

Another difference is that Kerman does not have children and James had three children when she went to prison. Kerman openly acknowledges that not having children on the outside made her incarceration more manageable. James doesn't dwell on her own maternal separation, but her description of her peers' suffering, especially when news of a child's death arrives to the camp, are powerfully infused with a deep empathy and compassion that reflect her own standpoint.  James' narrative takes full responsibility for her crimes at every turn while begging the question, how much time is enough, especially when there are young people waiting for their mothers on the outside? Like her book, the photo included above, which comes from the website for her non-profit community group, Families for Justice as Healing, demands an answer to this pressing question.

The differences in these narratives may also come from the fact that James' book is self-published while Kerman's book is not. Kerman is the author of her book, a personal and brave account of her lived experience, but still one must wonder about the extent to which Random House's profit margin may have (re)shaped her story. How would Stinging and Upper Bunkies read if they had passed through countless editorial and marketing meetings? The difference between Mrs. Field's perfect mall-baked cookies and Vovo's Toll House creations, consistently burnt along the bottom and soggy in the middle. Both completely different delicious versions of the same recipe.