my version - their version
In 2013, I spent a week at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola. The photographer Deborah Luster and I were on assignment to document The Life of Jesus Christ, a passion play that was being performed by men incarcerated there as well as by a group of women incarcerated at the nearby prison in St. Gabriel. Luster and I both have a parent who was murdered—both murders were contract killings in Phoenix, Arizona—and I expected to write about this fact and something redemptive about the Christ story as depicted by these actors, many of whom were serving life sent ences for violent crimes. But over the course of that week of long, unsupervised conversations, I began to feel I had more in common with some of the incarcerated people I spoke to than I did with many people I knew in the free world. Despite our other differences, we all had firsthand knowledge of violent crime and its consequences. Many of them were philosophically and spiritually inclined in ways I identified with.
Quntos KunQuest was part of the sound crew for the play and also wrote some music for it. He had zero desire to talk to me at first, but once we started talking it became clear to both of us that we have the same brain shape. KunQuest wanted to write stadium songs, he told me that first day, songs for a huge crowd, which he likened to building an outfit around a pair of shoes or a necklace, a simple central concept as the focal point of a larger composition. Eventually, we started talking about books. He had been reading Machiavelli’s The Prince, and he believed that most people don’t appreciate its depths; they just rush toward the superficial points without appreciating the nuances or the development. And, as KunQuest said, “What you do small, you do large.”
KunQuest and I started corresponding by mail—the same method we used to conduct this interview. At some point, I mentioned I was trying to write a novel about a man ser ving life at Angola, and he told me he had written a novel like that himself. The manuscript was handwritten in ballpoint pen (KunQuest had transcribed a new copy of the novel for me, all 343 pages of it), and it arrived in my mailbox in November of 2015, almost twenty years into his sentence. The action centered around the relationship between Lil Chris, a new arrival, and Rise, who has been in prison for many years, their story interspersed with vivid set pieces describing daily life at Angola, written in many registers, from the African American slang of the dialogue to the rich mix of formal and colloquial English of the narration to rap lyrics. It was dramatic, elegant, and funny—funny in a way only possible for someone who in real life has maintained his sense of humor and joie de vivre two and a half decades into a life sentence for a $300 carjacking. Six years later, KunQuest’s debut novel, This Life, is finally going out into the wider world.
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It would be easy to skim the back cover of “This Life,” the vital, inventive new novel by Quntos (pronounced “QUAN-tuss”) KunQuest, glean the fact that the author has, for the past twenty-five years, been incarcerated at Angola prison, in Louisiana, for a carjacking committed when he was nineteen, and presume that the book belongs to the genre of prison literature predominantly concerned with exposing to the world outside the horrors of the one within. There is a significant nonfiction tradition of these books. Piri Thomas’s “Down These Mean Streets” and “Seven Long Times” dealt with how incarceration effaces the humanity of its subjects. Sanyika Shakur’s “Monster,” which recounted his years as a Los Angeles Crip and his multiple stints in prison, graphically described routine violence and sexual assaults in the system. And Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange Is the New Black,” illustrated the material and moral costs of the war on drugs.
That Angola—a facility that began as a slave plantation—was the setting for another recent book, Albert Woodfox’s “Solitary,” a sprawling memoir of the decades Woodfox spent in solitary confinement, is even more ballast for suspicions about what “This Life” has in store. But part of what makes the book memorable is the fact that KunQuest—perhaps because he’s working in a fictional mode—is concerned with a wholly different and more subtle set of questions. “Once you’ve been in the fire for so long . . . you get used to the heat,” he told me recently, when we spoke by phone. “Once you get used to the heat, you start living, man.”
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