“So generally…what did you guys think of the book?” Louise, a Book Club For Inmates volunteer, walked her eyes around the table. Who will be first out of the trenches this month? A prisoner named J leans in and empties his clip.
“It killed me. This is without exception the worst book I have ever read. It sucked. Exceptionally. Totally. Did I mention that I hated it?”
Prison is nothing if not a shrine to the predictable. After walking Big Yard circles for 24 consecutive years now, I can tell you that prisoners always walk counter-clockwise. Somewhere in lost antiquity, walking “against time” became part of our common book of prayer. So why should book club be any different? Like a gang of good Catholics (host to the left, whine to the right) each of us took mass on this month’s offering – Sophia Khan is Not Obliged, by first time British author Ayisha Malik.
“I never would have chosen this book.”
“I lived in London,” said one new volunteer. “And this is definitely not my cup of tea,” she added – without a hint of irony.
Cowansville Institution, a wee shrub of English in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, has played home to the Prison Brake Book Club for about 5 years now. And while we began a dialogue with Carol Finlay (the visionary behind Book Club for Inmates) several years ago, it took some time to graft Prison Brake to BCFI. Summer 2018 has finally brought out the fruits.
“I disagree,” said one particularly verbose villain. “I think this may be one of the more important books written in the 21st century. Especially in Europe.” Unanimous groans filled our star-chamber (the prison library), supplanting even the scent of jailhouse coffee and dust jackets. For me though, a hostile audience is only something different to look at, in a place where every day is the same old vista.
“Seriously. Think about it,” I railed on without invite. Sophia Khan is a young, cosmopolitan Muslim woman living in one of the most culturally complicated cities in Europe. She digs guys. She digs God. She wears a religious head covering because for her, the hijab is just as cool as the cross and rosary are to any Christian rapper. And it’s obvious that her creator, like most beginning writers, punches out fiction in a voice that could only be her own. I think Ayisha Malek wants the whole terrified world to know that Muslim believers are no different than them in any way – with perhaps the exception of cooler stretching mats. After 9/11, I can’t imagine a message more potent than that. Even if she was forced to deliver it in a romantic comedy.
If my rant sounded reflective, it was hardly spontaneous. As part of BCFI’s structure, our group had recently nominated me book club ambassador. Like any real world diplomat, the job is to keep folks talking (and reading). But if that sounds simple, don’t forget that here, the cultured socialites are in fact suspicious sociopaths and the fizzy-filled crystal has been swapped out for tepid prison tea. So the plan was to serve up controversy, like dark dollops of caviar. Now if I could only get a Twitter account…
“That’s bullshit. This chick basically ripped off Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Muslim-ized it,” thundered A. “There’s no way this is how Muslim women think and talk – especially in London. Too left wing. Totally unrealistic.” I note that Quebec-born A, a non-Muslim Caucasian who has never been to London, also does not possess a vagina. Tellingly, this fact in no way slows the concurring brays of my fellow WASP walruses.
Sixty-something London-born Helen raises her voice in revision. “Oh, I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I still hated the book. But I thought the parts about polygamy were interesting. I would have liked her to write more about that. Just think, you get a house, children if you want, and everything is paid for. And you don’t have to put out all the time. If he’s horny, you just tell him to go jump on a different wife that day. I think that would be great!” The only other female participant nods in vigorous assent.
“You know when you think about it, this chick has something in common with us,” added a fellow prisoner named C. “She is sick and tired of people judging her, condescending her, and blaming all their problems on her community. She just hates all the haters, and want people to see her for herself, instead of just another ‘rag-head’ Muslim.”
And with that homily delivered, the prison library took on an uncommon quiet. Even those ultra-sensitive to all things Islamic seemed to really chew on C’s words. Maybe that’s because joining a book club is about opening yourself to an experience you may never have otherwise chosen on your own; a book you never would have chosen, an author you would never have chosen, a discussion you would never have chosen. In that way I suppose a book club shares common ground with Islam, often described as a path of submission to something you may not exactly understand, but somehow makes you feel better about the universe. I think Sophia Khan might just agree.
- Written by an inmate at Cowansville Institution