When a colleague of Jodie’s told us about this conference sponsored by the University of Havana, we recognized an excellent opportunity to promote Razor Wire Women and to engage in international conversations about incarcerated women. As it turned out, this was also the first opportunity we had to speak publicly about the book. What more auspicious occasion could we have hoped for than an international conference to launch a year of speaking engagements?
Since the theme of the Havana conference was rather broad—loosely translated as “Women in the Twenty-First Century”—we were the only presenters whose work touched on incarceration. We had adapted a good portion of the introduction of Razor Wire Women and combined it with an overview of the book. Our presentation basically provided a rundown of the pertinent statistics on women’s incarceration in the U.S., along with the reasons why we feel it’s so important to bring the voices of prisoners, activists, scholars, and artists into the same conversation. The audience for our panel consisted of about fifteen Cuban women—presumably scholars—who seemed both surprised and disconcerted by the content of our talk. As we spoke, several of the spectators wore truly horrified looks. This confused me as we talked, and I began to wonder if I was doing a bad job of translating myself into Spanish—something I’d decided to do off the cuff when I heard how much detail our appointed translator was losing as she restated Jodie’s opening remarks. We came to believe that translation was not the source of our audience’s apparent shock.
We learned that the Cuban government provides absolutely no statistics and very little information about its prisons or those held within them. Cubans do not even know how many prisons exist in their country, much less how many people are incarcerated on the island. International human rights organizations have been unable to attain even the most basic data about, much less access to, Cuban prisons, and discussion of incarceration among Cubans appears to be a taboo subject because people have so little information and so much fear.
Only one woman in the audience asked us a question after our presentation. She wanted to know the ages of girls in youth detention facilities in the U.S. Jodie responded to her question, and we took our seats. After our panel ended, two women who had heard our talk approached us in the hallway of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (Havana’s most luxurious hotel), where the conference was taking place. They asked us about the conditions women face in U.S. prisons, and as soon as we began to respond, they pulled out handheld voice recorders and taped our answers to their questions. The whole situation felt very strange, but we didn’t say anything that wasn’t already in our book. After they exhausted their questions, one woman thanked us and walked away without identifying herself. The other told us she was studying journalism at the University of Havana. We’ve since wondered if we appeared in any news reports at the university, but we have no way of finding out.
Our trip to Havana raised more questions for us than it did answers, but we are very grateful to have had the opportunity to speak about Razor Wire Women in a country where public conversations about women’s incarceration seldom take place. Being in a place where censorship is common and where a book like Razor Wire Women could not have been published reminded us of the urgency of the work that razor wire women are doing all over the globe. One of our book’s contributors, Ana Lucia Gelabert, was born in Cuba and now writes activist comics from inside a Texas prison. We dedicate this trip and our talk at this conference to her life and work.
This is just the beginning! Jodie recently spoke about the book on a radio show in California, and I gave a talk about the book at my home university (UNC Chapel Hill). We’ll speak on a panel with RWW contributor Sara Warner at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in Chicago in August, and later that same month we’ll be in Las Vegas promoting the book at the American Sociological Association conference and the Society for the Study of Social Problems conference. Check out the “Appearances” tab on this website for a full listing of all the places that you can find RWW contributors speaking about the book. We hope to see you in our travels!