Jean-Pierre Bellemare is a troublemaker. I’m not so sure he wants to be. But then, neither could I swear that he doesn’t. Like every incarcerated writer I’ve ever met, J.P. is a complicated piece of the prison puzzle. Inside one human organism dwells the ability to love, kill, laugh at tragedy, sob at beauty, hold the door politely for a prickly prison guard, or stick a gun in the face of an innocent bank teller. That a man who has breached more barbed-wire barriers than a Mexican day-labourer, would rather die than litter (or spit on the pavement), doesn’t even crack the ironic top-ten on this guy. Maybe that’s why his readers can’t get enough.
J.P.’s writing reminds me of a dinner I was at a few years ago, where a Christian minister from Johannesburg was invited to bless the meal. It was one of those time-stamped moments in life that always comes back in slow motion. First he looked around the room, surveying his audience. They were all there – men, women, freed men and slaves – a handful of retirees, and those still grinding the mill stone at forty hours a week. Then there were the prisoners. The man of God dropped his chin and raised his voice.
“Thank you Father for blessing us with all these here tonight, that we may see you through the eyes of another.”
It was the most life-altering prison sentence I’ve ever heard – one that will walk with me to my grave. And it just may explain the cosmic comedy behind Bellemare again being honoured as one of Canada’s top french-writing magazine columnists. But while this year’s accolade marks the second tip of the hat that the Quebec print news industry has offered my unquenchable convict comrade in the past four years, the award is also a nod to Reflet de Société – the magazine J.P. writes for. Rather than inking reruns of rumours from the A.P. ticker, or agenda-heavy Op-Eds masquerading as news, the magazine scours la belle Province in search of those dark horse writers already living on the front edge of local issues. Doing so allows Reflet readers to see every angle – through the eyes of another – of what matters most in Quebec society. And it’s a privilege for which readers are willing to pay. At a time when Canadian print news is taking a worse beating than Greek bonds, subscriptions – and online page views – at Reflet de Société are up. This year the magazine came second only to L’Actualite (French Canada’s version of MacLean’s) in an awards list of the provinces best periodicals. And running convict columns from the clink didn’t hurt that finish at all.
But when it comes to perusing jailhouse prose, bottom lines have never been the honey that lures the bare and naked reader. That draw belongs to the bizarre room-with-a point of view that only the caged life can offer. This week I listened to a provincial hospice director (thirty years in the business) talk about the experience of dying. He said that for those surfing an electric gurney in his last-chance motel, pain is never the worst part of the ride. It’s always the loss of control. That’s what scares us – and hurts – the most. It’s also why nobody nailed it better than Dostoevsky, when he called prison “The House of the Dead.” Besides a life-time membership in the Church of Scientology, where else could a physically healthy human being experience the same all-inclusive loss of control that counting calendars in a state-sponsored lockup delivers? The Curious George in most of us wants to know if it hurts – and wonder is a fallen forest of prisoner pencils might provide an answer. And so the dead write.
Yet, for those of us who burn that pencil at both ends, writing does a much greater service than simply feeding an audience who can’t look away from car wrecks. This week I launched my very first book – Bend Over & Show Your Lobster – into the current of the mighty Amazon.com. A collection of my first eighteen months of professional writing, Lobster is a chronicle about control – about a man reclaiming his thoughts, his voice, himself. If you’ve never been there, the terror of losing that self can hardly be imagined. And if you’ve never found your way back, the ecstasy is inconceivable. But it can be described. Readers count on it.
Yesterday I asked J.P. what comes next. After twenty-six years of striped skullcaps, September signals a change of hats for him – release to Montreal.
“On day one, I’m going to marry the first girl that says yes. Well, for the day anyhow. Then I’m going to eat some incredible food. After that I think I’ll write a short play about the joy of breasts. Montreal has many incredible breasts. The world must know.”
And therein lies the undressed truth of all prison writing. Whether you’re the spicy scribe or the spellbound reader, there will be many peaks and valleys. The trick is to take in the view.