News and Interviews

Simon Rolston Examines the Complex History and "Fraught Literary Territory" of Prison Life Writing

author_simon rolston

Prison life writing—personal nonfiction written by imprisoned people—can be considered a unique genre under the larger umbrella of memoir. Complex, politically and emotionally charged, and at times controversial, memoirs written by inmates, especially in the notorious American prison system, contain a lot to unpack through lenses of race, class, and psychology. 

Enter Simon Rolston, whose Prison Life Writing: Conversion and the Literary Roots of the U.S. Prison System (Wilfrid Laurier University Press) delves into the complexities of the genre. Combining literary, historical, and political research and insight, Rolston examines recurring trends in prison life writing and takes readers on a fascinating journey to unpack these trends—and the exceptions. He creates something that is essential reading in both the literary and political sense, showing how institutional racism, social power imbalances, trauma, and more inform prison memoirs. 

We're excited to welcome Simon to Open Book today as part of our True Story nonfiction series. He tells us about his own short jail stay that originally piqued his interest in the subject of prison writing, the unexpected differences he observed in prison life writing by men compared to the same genre written by women, and the timely and interesting writing projects he's got coming up next. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?

Simon Rolston:

My book is about U.S. prison life writing—the autobiographies, memoirs, and letters of incarcerated people. I trace my interest in the subject to my late teens when I was incarcerated at Santa Barbara County Jail for several days because I had an altercation with a police officer. Being locked up in a U.S. jail was an experience that remained with me. I was especially struck by the stories that I heard from other incarcerated men—stories they told each other about their lives. Years later, I wanted to write about the U.S. prison system and especially the life narratives of incarcerated people in part because of what I’d heard from imprisoned men at Santa Barbara County.


Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?


When I was researching prison life writing, I realized that most autobiographies and memoirs by imprisoned people followed a conversion narrative structure that basically looked like this: they used to be one kind of person (criminal, uneducated, or apolitical, for example) but transformed themselves into a very different kind of person (a poet, a revolutionary, an activist, or an entrepreneur, for example).

I remember standing in the UBC library reading an imprisoned person’s autobiography when it suddenly occurred to me that this story—changing someone from one way of being to another—was essentially the project of the prison system. What made the first penitentiaries different from earlier forms of punishment was the notion that incarceration could change someone’s behaviour, even their identity, and this rehabilitative project, while rarely implemented effectively in actual prison systems, has nevertheless been at the ideological core of the prison system since its inception. And this raised some interesting questions for me: Why were prisoners, including prisoners presumed to be militantly resistant to the prison system, writing about their lives in terms eerily like the rehabilitative project of the U.S. prison system? Was there some unconscious ideological work happening here?

These questions were key to my research, and they uncovered the fraught literary territory of prison life writing as a genre, including how it relates to issues of race, law, aesthetics, the nature of resistance, and the relationship between literature and social control. However, late in my work I encountered another important question that shifted the scope of my project to address issues of gender and sexuality in important ways: Why did incarcerated women rarely ever use the conversion narrative in their life writings while the vast majority of imprisoned men did?


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I need variety. Sometimes I work from home or at my office, but I like to work in multiple locations. That said, I focus best when writing in coffee shops. There’s something about the bustle of people and the ambient noise that helps me concentrate and makes the writing experience pleasurable for me.

Predictably, then, I like (need?) coffee. When writing, I drink more espresso than my body can handle, and so I burn out after a few hours, usually around lunch since I write best in the morning.


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?


Over the years, I’ve learned that discouragement is part of the writing process. It inevitably happens at some point with each project, and I try to see it as a sign that I need to speak with other people about my work: Colleagues, friends, therapists, pets.

Admittedly, at least twice, I tried to quit writing this book. And each time it was talking about my research that reignited my interest in it and helped me overcome whatever psychological impediment of the moment was making it hard for me to return to my laptop and resume writing.

Other things that helped me conquer discouragement (at least temporarily): exercise, time away from writing—and, let’s be honest, wine.


What are you working on now?


I’m exploring several different projects. Currently, I’m writing an article about Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing that looks at Black agricultural practices as forms of resistance, belonging, and healing and considers the role of the southern plantation-style prison within the pastoral tradition. I’ve also recently completed a magazine article about trans people’s experiences in the Canadian prison system, which sheds light on looming changes to Corrections Canada’s policy regarding incarcerated trans people and sketches how trans people like Synthia Kavanagh and Katherine Johnson have fought since the seventies for trans rights behind bars. And I’m at work on another magazine article about anti-Black racism in the Canadian prison system. The article about trans rights and anti-Black racism are non-academic and more journalistic, which is a new direction for me.


Simon Rolston specializes in American literature. His work has been published in journals like American Studies, Critical Survey, and MELUS, and his article, “Shame and the Ex-Convict,” was awarded the Canadian Association of American Studies’ Ernest Redekop prize for 2018. He teaches at Langara College, in British Columbia.

Buy the Book

Prison Life Writing: Conversion and the Literary Roots of the US Prison System

Prison Life Writing is the first full-length study of one of the most controversial genres in American literature. By exploring the complicated relationship between life writing and institutional power, this book reveals the overlooked aesthetic innovations of incarcerated people and the surprising literary roots of the U. S. prison system.

Simon Rolston observes that the autobiographical work of incarcerated people is based on a conversion narrative, a story arc that underpins the concept of prison rehabilitation and that sometimes serves the interests of the prison system, rather than those on the inside. Yet many imprisoned people rework the conversion narrative the way they repurpose other objects in prison. Like a radio motor retooled into a tattoo gun, the conversion narrative has been redefined by some authors for subversive purposes, including questioning the ostensible emancipatory role of prison writing, critiquing white supremacy, and broadly reimagining autobiographical discourse.

An interdisciplinary work that brings life writing scholarship into conversation with prison studies and law and literature studies, Prison Life Writing theorizes how life writing works in prison, explains literature’s complicated entanglements with institutional power, and demonstrates the political and aesthetic innovations of one of America’s most fascinating literary genres.