• Gail Wilson Kenna

What’s Moby Dick Got to Do with Chance and Circumstance?

Believe me when I say I did not go to Caracas in 1991, with the idea of spending four years in Venezuelan prisons. Nor can I explain why in October of that year, I impulsively asked the U.S. Embassy vice-consul if I could go with him to a prison. Yet I do know this impulse came from the two C’s. At age five my parents took me to a frontier prison in Yuma, Arizona. The experience stayed with me: the smell & sight of dirt floors, rusted bars on open-to-the-air crevices in adobe cells, and my awareness from age three to five of Arizona’s dry summer heat & cold winters. Then, by age ten, I’d discovered Dorothy Dix, who in the 1800s fought for prison reform and humane treatment of the mentally ill.

Decades later, I drove daily past the California State Mental prison that housed Charles Manson and Sirhan-Sirhan. A good friend taught philosophy classes there. Smartest students I ever taught, Barry often said A decade later in Malaysia from 1987-1990, I became aware of Pudu prison in Kuala Lumpur. I passed it on my way home from teaching for Indiana University. Outside Pudu prison I often saw long lines of women. Family members, I learned, had to bring food to prisoners. I also learned that those arrested for drug possession in Malaysia were hanged. At one point the U.S. Embassy sought reading material for an American awaiting trial on this charge. I responded and took books to the embassy for him. Then in Caracas, I learned there were over 30 North Americans convicted for drug offenses in Venezuelan prisons. I thought these men and women might need donations of magazines and books, too. Thus began an existential rotation in my life, from one orbit into another, aware wordlessly that I had been given a chance for something strange and valuable by doing “prison” work. In time, words came to me, and by 2000, while living in Bogota, I was awarded a grant to print and distribute the first edition of Beyond the Wall.

Lady Justice, depicted on the cover of the 2020 second edition, is my last image from Reten La Planta in August of 1995, when I and my family left Caracas.

What does any of this have to do with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick?

After moving from Lima, Peru, to the Northern Neck of Virginia in 2004, I had no intention of returning to prisons. But one day a voice seized me, and I began writing. But who was this imprisoned man writing from Reten La Planta in Caracas to his 16 year-old daughter in Falls Church, Virginia? One of the U.S. prisoners was an attorney and had contributed a chapter to Beyond the Wall. But the character speaking to me was not this attorney. My fictional character, Nate, makes one request of the female vice-consul during a U.S. Embassy visit. He asks Jan (a fictional character) for a copy of Moby Dick. Could it not be said that drug addiction is a form of monomania like Ahab’s? In prison, literature and language and memory are as essential to Nate’s survival as food, of which there is never enough to nourish his 49 year-old body in a Venezuelan prison in Caracas.

The voice kept pestering me. This is lunacy, I would tell myself. Why are you writing this epistolary novel between a father and his daughter, who are bound by their love of language and each other? Lucinda is a junior in a private Catholic high school for girls in D.C., studying American literature, as juniors do, reading Hawthorne and Melville, among other writers. I thought I would never finish this novel, and even taught a Herman Melville course to force myself to complete Long Night’s Journey into Day. (That’s an inverted title from Eugene O’Neill’s famous play.)

Recently, a friend from Napa, sent me a cover for the novel. This amazing artist drew Lady Justice and designed the second edition of Beyond the Wall in 2020.

I also asked another Californian to read the novel. She’s an old friend from seventh grade, was a judge in a California court before retirement, and some of her time on the bench included drug courts. The other day she sent me this photo from an art gallery in Portland, Oregon.

I also asked a Virginia physician-writer to read the novel, as did my mentor, Wayne. The comments of all four readers encouraged me. Yet the odds of a literary agent are about as good as a lame horse winning the Derby. No matter. What astounds me the more I age are life’s existential rotations and the two C’s.

Two weeks earlier, I quoted a statement from a book by Dr. Robert Coles. Here are the words again: “The mind’s fate is, after all, a person’s fate. We are drawn along by our private visions, but beyond them stretch almost infinitely for each of us, the vast and compelling mysteries of Chance and Circumstance.”

Next week: What writer could be more relevant for our times than George Orwell? My class on him begins September 15th.

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