From the John Jay College of Criminal Justice comes the new J Journal: a strange and delightful hybrid of literary, creative writing on crime, criminal justice, law, and law enforcement published by the college’s English department. The inaugural issue contains a fair amount of poetry in addition to the expected prose—which, alas, is not classified, making it difficult at times to distinguish between short stories and creative nonfiction.*
One of the standouts in the issue is Jason Trask’s “New Plantation,” a frank recollection of teaching writing to high school students on Rikers Island. In his first week, Trask tries to earn cred by doing a lesson on the origins of profanity, an attention-grabbing routine that opens with writing FUCK, then INTERCOURSE on the board:
I picked up the chalk again and wrote “INTERCOURSE.” I waited. “You guys know this word?”
“Intercourse,” a couple of them said.
“Right. Now is that a bad word?” I asked.
“It mean ‘fuck.’ ”
“Well then, why isn’t it a bad word too if it means the same things as ‘fuck.’ ”
. . . They sat there waiting for me to tell them. I looked around at them. “You’ve got two words that mean the same thing. How does it happen that one of them is a bad word and one of them is a good word?
I waited, but no one said anything. I returned to the board and wrote, “SHIT.”
But this is no Dangerous Minds Part II. Trask pulls off no mind-boggling feats of academic resurrection; for every success he recounts a perfectly human blundering or insecurity. It’s a good story, and perhaps a nonfiction one, if Trask’s contributor bio, which cites an early 90s stint teaching at Rikers, can be considered as evidence.
* I often grumble about this decision to not classify prose, which is shared by many publications in the Utne Reader library, but truth be told, I’m torn. There’s a rigid part of me that just wants a piece of writing plopped down in the appropriate category. But then I have to admit: It’s the hybrids of the writing world that most excite me. What’s more interesting: What actually happened—or how someone remembers it? Is that any less of a true story? Or consider David Carr’s new “memoir,” Night of the Gun, a fully-reported account of his life. Perhaps this band of magazines and journals that refuse to identify their prose are doing all of us a favor, kicking us out of literary ruts.