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“American Precariat” empowers the incarcerated

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

More than a hundred people crowded into the Hook and Ladder in Minneapolis Wednesday night to celebrate the launch of “American Precariat,” an anthology of essays edited by incarcerated writers.

The audience was filled with people who had justice on their minds: friends and family of those who are currently incarcerated, folks who were formerly incarcerated, legal advocates, and local authors who mentor writing groups in prisons across the state for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

“American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion” features essays by writers about “underdog” experiences (“Precariat” refers to a group of people who live in a precarious state, often involving financial and physical insecurity). Published by Coffee House Press, the book addresses class and caste systems in the United States.

A man in a simple white t-shirt stares into the camera.
Christopher Fausto Cabrera is a writer and one of the editors of "American Precariat." While still serving out a 26 year sentence, his work has been published in The New Yorker and Washington Post Magazine. (Photo by Emily Baxter as part of "Seen," a prison portrait and poetry project, for We Are All Criminals.)

One of the editors is Chris Cabrera, who is currently serving a 26-year prison sentence in Faribault. Cabrera says participating in the selection process was empowering.

“A lot of times in here, we feel invisible. Like we don’t matter. Honestly, I didn’t know I had a voice outside these four walls,” he said. “But now I do. I got to have a say in the process, and to me, that’s huge. And to now be seen as a professional and know that my voice means something… It’s been a gracious experience.”

Cabrera says his work with the MPWW has shifted his beliefs around what he is capable of, and how he defines himself.

“I want to be an example for others who made decisions like me that got us here, because we are more than what got us here. So many people have been exposed to work with my name on it. I didn’t even know something like this was possible for me.”

Man standing on stage in front of a microphone and a music stand, hold papers in his hand while talking to the audience.
Editor and writer Zeke Caliguiri hosted the book launch for "America Precariat" at the Hook and Ladder in Minneapolis on Wednesday, November 15, 2023. (Photo by CBJ reporter Jasmine McBride)

Zeke Caliguiri has an essay in the book, and served as one of its editors. Caliguiri got out of prison in the spring of 2022 after serving more than 20 years. He has spent his time in community talking about his experience and uplifting the voices of the incarcerated.

Caliguiri says after MPWW opened artist calls for “American Precariat,” he noticed something as simple as going through submissions was a shift in the power dynamic for folks in the facilities who are often deprived of choice. He says it’s important to remember that a person's value is not limited to their past decisions, but also includes their own beliefs regarding their present and future.

“I think of these things as triumphs that as a community we were able to do. I think what this project is, is further evidence that there really isn't a ceiling for this kind of work. That there is a vibrant, very strong, and substantial literary culture that lives within those facilities. So at the most genuine level, what this shows us is that, like, things don't stop us.”

The Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop was founded in 2011. MPWW is dedicated to challenging stereotypes about the incarcerated population, and to promoting rehabilitation and restorative justice through art. Founder Jennifer Bowen says in the world of publishing, as in so many places, the incarcerated deserve a seat at the table.

“Because they’re smart, they’re talented, and capable. And [this book] is a pretty loud reminder that they are here.”


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