James Hannaham: The Author Using Literature To Challenge The American Prison System
The press blurb on James Hannaham’s latest book Didn’t Nobody Give A Shit What Happened To Carlotta claims that this is ‘the raucous, irreverent, and heart-wrenching story of a transgender woman’. Hannaham, however, talking from his home in New York, says it’s also about Brooklyn – Fort Greene specifically.
It is significant, reveals 54-year-old Hannaham, because it is the neighbourhood his paternal grandmother fled to following the murder of a family member many decades ago in South Carolina. “I only learned this a year or two ago. My great uncle was lynched. They had to get out.” The generations that followed made Fort Greene their home and so, explains Hannaham, “I have half a century of watching Fort Greene change from a poor, dangerous, Black neighbourhood to a rather wealthy, mostly white fancy place.”
In order to tell the story of Fort Greene’s transformation, the writer wondered, “What kind of character could walk through this place and be astonished and moved by everything that’s changed?” While pondering that question, he imagined a transgender woman from a Colombian-American family. She made an appearance in his head, shed light on his concerns and informed him that she would be the star of his book. “I said, ‘OK, Carlotta, show me what you got.’” Carlotta Mercedes, the protagonist who has just been released after spending 20 years incarcerated in a men’s prison, became the perfect narrator to describe a place that is no longer what it once was.
The book, says Hannaham – akin to his award-winning 2015 novel Delicious Foods, which deals with the topic of human trafficking – was an opportunity to discuss intricate social problems in American society: the excessive incarceration of Black people, the hell LGBTQIA+ members endure behind bars, and how ill-equipped jails are to protect them. As a Black gay man, it is an issue he feels strongly about. Trans people, the writer points out, “have it the worst in these situations. And it seems like whatever happens in prison is fine because it’s more of the punishment. There’s something so insidious and immoral about that.” While the character Carlotta Mercedes – a name inspired by the actress Mercedes Agnes Carlotta McCambridge – and her story are fictional, the book also includes non-fiction readings about “the prison system and America’s obsession with incarcerating people… Things are changing a little bit, but it’s not enough and it’s not fast enough. It’s just horrifying.”
Still, Didn’t Nobody Give A Shit What Happened To Carlotta – a book that took him eight years to complete – is recreated with humour. And slang. Which many may find challenging at first. But the writer reveals this was intentional. He wanted readers to feel, initially at least, like outsiders. “That was a big part of the point for me,” says Hannaham with a smile. “When [you] start reading the book, it’s intriguing, but a little alienating to find that there’s all this slang. But then, gradually, you start to undo it… you start to learn it, you start to understand how it works; you start to know what things mean. And, eventually, you become a part of that world.”
James Hannaham could have written an easy read. He just didn’t feel like it. “I want to overestimate people’s intelligence.”
Diana Durán is a Colombian journalist reporting on human rights issues, drug trafficking and justice affairs and is a Washington Post reporter for the Andean Region