In 1983, Ann Hansen was arrested along with four friends. It wasn't mischief, drinking, or other youthful antics that led to the arrest though - Hansen and her companions comprised a radical group called Direct Action, whose activism included igniting dynamite at a facility that manufactured American cruise missiles. Although no one was killed in the blast and the group posted and phoned in warnings, Hansen received a life sentence. Ironically, part of her activism had previously been aimed at the prison industrial complex and mistreatment of prisoners - now she was experiencing just what she had rallied against, but from the inside.
After more than seven long years in prison and more than twenty on parole, Hansen wrote Taking the Rap: Women Doing Time for Society’s Crimes (Between the Lines Books). In the book, she relates powerful stories of women caught in a biased system, including poor and racialized women. Hansen explores issues around mental health, abuse, racism, and poverty as they intersect with women's imprisonment, questioning the value of punishing women whose lives are lived out in systems rigged against them.
Today we welcome Ann to Open Book to speak about her inspiring, difficult, essential stories of the prison industrial complex in Canada. She tells us about presenting her stories neutrally to allow readers to form their own opinions of what she experienced and witnessed, what it is like to tackle a book project that was 15 years in the making and draws on 30 years of her life, and the books that she describes as "free master classes".
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
My new book, Taking the Rap: Women Doing Time for Society’s Crime has been in the making since I was first arrested in January 1983, as a member of an urban guerrilla group, Direct Action. I was eventually given a life sentence which I served in the Prison for Women (P4W) in Kingston. I realized the first time I walked into a prison that someday I would write about my experiences.
Readers may assume that my book will be just a vehicle for force-feeding them my ideological views. However, I have tried to present a mirror that will reflect my prison reality as objectively as possible in order to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about what life is like behind the walls. Everyone’s subjective experience of reality is shaped by their values, prejudices, history and emotions, like a pair of coloured sunglasses will taint the landscape. Rather than trying to ignore this phenomenon, I give the reader my sunglasses in the introduction, so they will be aware of the values and political views that have shaped my experience of reality.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
There wasn’t so much a question but rather a motive behind the book. My strength would be in writing a memoir about my prison experiences as opposed to a fictional story or a political analysis. I served seven years of a life sentence in P4W before being released on parole. Then in 2006 and 2012 I had my parole briefly suspended. If you like lemonade, these brief suspensions gave me a rare opportunity to witness first-hand the changes in the Canadian women’s prison system; from one women’s federal prison for the whole of Canada to a US-style prison industrial complex. Since my prison experiences spanned a 30-year period, I decided to take the reader into the prisons with me through a memoir consisting of a series of short stories in which I embrace Farley Mowat’s philosophy of “not letting the facts get in the way of the truth.”
Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
This book is the culmination of roughly 15 years of writing, spawning 3 complete drafts which, thanks to some excellent editors, eventually became this finished book. I started off writing a fiction because I didn’t want to include other prisoners’ stories. However, as a fiction the book lost its authenticity and therefore it’s strength in revealing what life is really like behind the prison walls. So, I decided to write a true story, but I would change the names and physical characteristics of the other prisoners. I found that my experiences did not always conform to politically correct stereotypes of prisoners, guards, wardens, or even myself. It was a challenge to stay true to my experiences no matter how much they veered off the path of romantic stereotypes or political correctness. I knew that many radical readers would want to hear about the inherently evil guards and the revolutionary wrapped in prisoner’s clothing just waiting to be liberated. I was also aware that people with conventional views would not want to see the blood on their own hands from holding up a political economic system that blames and punishes the victims of our society’s injustices.
I also had to discard large sections of my original manuscript as our collective consciousness revealed a growing awareness of how damaging revelations of other peoples’ stories could be, particularly when those people are from completely different racial backgrounds and have a completely different historical experience than the author. My original manuscript included stories that were intended to enlighten the reader regarding Indigenous history and Indigenous women’s prison experiences. I soon realized that as a white person, I was not only incapable of doing this, but it was simply wrong. The only people that could honestly tell the story of Indigenous or black women in prison were Indigenous or black women in prison. At times in my book, I do recount my first-person direct experiences with Indigenous or black women, but this is very different than trying to tell their stories through my white privileged imagination.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I need peace and quiet to write, so I am limited by my lifestyle to only writing from 6am until 8am six days a week. After 8am the phone starts ringing, and people start arriving. I live on a small farm with horses, chickens, a dog, a cat, and a friend who needs medical assistance, so I have a lot of dependents. I have tried to write for longer periods and at other times during the day or night, but it is impossible.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I have discovered that the best way to write a manuscript is without self-censorship. This is a very liberating experience and allows writers the freedom to say whatever pops into their head without the repressive influence of that imaginary critical audience hovering over their shoulders. After the first draft, I begin to read the manuscript with an eye towards how my work will affect the rest of the world and begin deleting things that are inappropriate. Another technique I use to avoid writer’s block is to remind myself only to focus on completing one small piece of the puzzle at a time, rather than letting my imagination contemplate the enormity of the whole project. It’s the same technique commonly used to fight the paralysis and terror that accompany thinking about cooking a Thanksgiving turkey dinner for your entire family or building a deck from scratch on the back of your house. The best advice on writer’s block can be found in Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
A really great book will have a long life even after it is finished and gathering dust on your bed stand. It will make you laugh or cry throughout your day and be an inspiration for making a better world. The first books that had an impact on my life were Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf and People of the Deer. As an adult, I have read Alice Monroe’s short stories over and over again. They are free master classes in both writing and story-telling technique.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am consumed with all the tasks involved in publishing a new book, and have no time or energy left-over to begin another one.
Ann Hansen served seven years of a life sentence in federal prisons. She is a prison abolition activist and author of Direct Action: Memoirs of an Urban Guerrilla.