A conversation with author Jason Trask (with David Daniel)

Back in December as part of our Literary Lowell series, we profiled local author David Daniel, author of the Alex Rasmussen detective series and a number of other books. Now it’s David’s turn to contribute a new author profile to the blog. He recently caught up with Jason Trask who now lives in Maine but who spent his childhood in Haverhill.

Jason’s latest book, The New Plantation: Lessons from Rikers Island which chronicles his experience teaching English to incarcerated teens will be published next month by Deerbrook Editions (and is available on Deerbrook’s website).

Here is David’s conversation with Jason:

Jason Trask

A Conversation with Jason Trask (and David Daniel)

Jason Trask spent two years in the army, stationed in Germany. Following his discharge, he earned a BA at the Columbia University School of General Studies in philosophy, and later an MA in creative writing at the City College of New York. I’m Not Muhammad, his novel about the extraordinary rendition of an Arab-American, was published by Red Wheelbarrow Books in 2011. Trask now writes full time at his home in the Western Foothills of Maine where he lives with his wife Eliza Beghe. Some of his childhood was spent in Haverhill. I caught up with him recently to talk about his book The New Plantation: Lessons from Rikers Island which will be published in June by Deerbrook Editions.

Daniel: The New Plantation, your account of your experiences as a teacher at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility is about to be published. You’re obviously mining a rich lode of autobiographical material here—what led you to decide on doing it as memoir, when the vast majority of your work to date has been fiction?

Trask: I actually thought the situations I describe in the book would lose their power if they were fictionalized. A lot happens in prisons and jails that seems unlikely to lay readers. I know that for me as a reader, unlikely events have more impact if they actually occurred. Not that it’s comparable to teaching on Rikers, but imagine how much less powerful Endurance would be if it had sprung from Alfred Lansing’s imagination. Who would believe that Shackleton and all of his crew would survive on Antarctica without adequate food and shelter? It’s so powerful because it happened. And, yeah, I know, I’m amping it up by pretending that TNP has the drama of a book like Endurance, but, hey, I’m promoting my book.

Another reason I didn’t fictionalize this material is that I’m pretty much a ‘write what you know’ guy, and the only thing I really knew first-hand about my students’ lives was in the classroom. It’s true that some of them told me about their home lives and their lives on the block, but I didn’t have a deep understanding of any of that. In fact, other than in the classroom, I really didn’t know much about their lives on Rikers. It’s not as if teachers were provided with full access to the island.

On the other hand, I saw evidence of what went on outside of class. Every few weeks, a new kid would come in wearing a brand new Fila sweatshirt and new Timberland boots. The next day he’d be wearing a torn tee-shirt and beat up shoes. Some other kid would be wearing the new kid’s clothes. A few days later, the kid who stole the clothes would come in with stitches across his face. That, by the way, was called getting “a buck fifty across the face,” meaning, 150 stitches.

I just wanted to add one more thing about what I said regarding ‘write what you know’: I made an exception with I’m Not Muhammad, which tackles several worlds I didn’t know, including Islam, the CIA, the attack on the World Trade Center, extraordinary rendition, etc. But I spent way too much time doing research—not something I enjoy. In fact, while I was writing it, I spent so much time surfing radical Islamic sites, I grew afraid that I’d end up on a terror watchlist.

Daniel: This book seems to be ideally suited for the present moment, when the topics of race, criminal justice reform, and the Black Lives Matter movement are very much part of the national conversation. Do you see your book adding to the discussion? What is your hope for it?

Trask:  Well, believe it or not, I have nothing to offer African Americans about race in America—and yes, that’s definitely an understatement. But I do feel I have something to say to white people on the topic. We don’t get it. NPR funded a poll showing that a majority of white people in this country believe they are discriminated against. What a riot. That’s one of the myths I attempt to deconstruct in this book. I had over 200 kids come through my classroom and only five of them were non-Hispanic whites. White people make up 62% of the population in America, and black people make up 13%. But our prisons and jails have more black people than white people. So, there’s definitely discrimination regarding white people in America: but it’s discrimination for, not against.

My hope is to make clear that a black person from the same socioeconomic background as a white person has a more difficult time getting through life. And, by the way, it’s not just white nationalists whose minds need to be opened on this topic. We progressives may be the worst offenders because we think we’re beyond all that.

Another thing I hope to add to the conversation is that incarcerated kids may do horrendous things, but that’s not who they are. Their actions make sense if you look at the world the way they see it. They grew up in a racist society. That was clear to them from the beginning. When they watch TV, when they go to a film, they get the picture. Incarcerated kids are exceptionally bright. Learning survival skills at an early age does that to you.

But this book is not only about race relations, though that is among the main focuses. It’s also about education and the importance of the relationship between teacher and student and the impact that has on the quality of a kid’s education.

Daniel: Why do you call your memoir The New Plantation?

Trask: My first day on Rikers, as I passed a group of adult inmates, they watched me and made kissing sounds. I’m sure I looked afraid, it being my first day. Nearly all of them were black or Hispanic. As I passed the last man in line, he said, “Well, if it’s not a member of the Caucasian persuasion coming to watch the neeegroes work the fields.” And then he added, “Welcome to the new plantation, Mister.”

Well, over time, I began to realize what he meant. I’d guess that close to two thirds of my students were African Americans, close to a third were Hispanic, there were a few Asians and, as I said, five white kids. And my classroom fit the trend. And by the way, I guess everyone knows by now that we have more prisoners in America than any other country in the world. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, even our state with the lowest incarceration rates—Massachusetts—has higher rates than all but nine countries. And these are places like El Salvador, Cuba, and Rwanda. And most of our inmates are African Americans. So, sure, Jim Crow is technically over, but on average, black people are given sentences that are almost twenty percent longer than those of white people for the same exact crimes. Using a word like “plantation,” that conjures up memories of the Old South, is definitely appropriate.

Daniel: Your short stories and your novels (excluding I’m Not Muhammad) have a strong autobiographical element. You tend to use a close first person POV, write about characters who resemble you, and whose experiences often parallel your own. What makes your work “fiction”?

Trask: In terms of my fiction, it’s like this: I was raised in a very religious home and lying was taken seriously. The attitude was: when you lie, you distort the other person’s view of reality. To this day, it’s difficult for me to tell an actual lie. And I don’t mean to imply that I’m honest. The way I see it, before people can be honest, they have to be capable of lying and choose not to. That’s not the case with me.

The thing about writing fiction is that it gives me a legitimate license to lie. I can’t tell you how liberating it feels for me to play with reality in a story. So, yeah, that’s why I tend to write fiction. And I write autobiographical stories because, like I said, I’m a “write what you know” kind of guy.

That said, all writing is fiction. For one, no two eyewitnesses remember complicated events the same way. But I do distinguish between writing that attempts to describe events accurately and writing that does not. And in The New Plantation, I am describing my experiences as I remember them.

Daniel: Talk about your writing habits and methods.

Trask: I used to write at my desk in our dining room. I have a huge computer monitor in there that I can fit three pages on at once. But now I write on my laptop in the living room. I put it on a wooden TV tray and I use an external keyboard on a lap desk. I zoom the text up to 250% because I like to keep a certain distance from the screen so I don’t get lost in there. I like to maintain a connection with both worlds while I’m writing—the world in my head and the world outside my head.

I never know what I’m doing when I’m writing. This feeling lasts all the way through the first draft. After that, the tension usually lifts, but not always. I edit as I’m writing. For me they’re part of the same process. My internal editor and I are friends. We’re a team. We don’t get published very often, but we like working together, and that’s gotta count for something.

Each day when I start, I read from the beginning to where I’m working. If it’s a novel, after I get 50 pages or so into the thing, I limit the reading to two or three chapters before the chapter I’m working on. This helps me maintain continuity, helps me keep the entire story in mind. And I always read it aloud, which helps with the rhythm of the prose.

Daniel: You’ve been seriously involved with sitting meditation for a long time. I think of other writers who have been meditators—Salinger, poet W. S. Merwin, and Peter Matthiessen come to mind. How does this practice influence or manifest itself in your work?

Trask: The main thing meditating does for me is keep me a bit more grounded than I used to be. It helps me remember that I have a body and not just a head. I used to always be on an emotional roller coaster. Probably by now, being older, I’d be fine without meditation, but I’m afraid to see. So yeah, it’s pretty clear that I meditate for the wrong reason—fear. I do feel meditating has cleared away some of the clutter. I can concentrate better now. And it has helped cut away at my ego, but not enough.

Daniel: What are you working on currently?

Trask: I’ve been working on a collection of short stories. I wrote some of them years ago and some are newer. I have written stories about people whose lives have nothing to do with mine, but this particular collection is a series of autobiographical pieces, that together work something like a novel.

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