Poet, playwright, and author Deborah Tobola is probably best known as the founder of the Poetic Justice Project—the country’s first theater company made up entirely of formerly incarcerated actors—but it’s her teaching career that earns the spotlight in her latest work, Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison. The book is set to be released through Amazon and other outlets on Tuesday, July 23, and a launch reception takes place in Solvang at the beginning of August.
The author recently opened up to the Sun about the memoir, which explores her time working at the California Men’s Colony—the same prison her father worked at as a guard decades before.
Sun: What can you tell readers about your new book, Hummingbird in Underworld, without giving too much away?
Tobola: Hummingbird in Underworld is about teaching creative writing and theater at the California Men’s Colony, as well as managing the Arts in Corrections program from 2000 to 2009. Readers get an inside view of prison, the complexities of the environment, and the challenges involved in producing art and mentoring other artists.
Sun: What were the most challenging aspects of your work during this time period? And what were the most rewarding?
Tobola: Teaching, mentoring students, and managing the Arts in Corrections program in prison has been the most rewarding—and challenging—work I have done in my lifetime. Rewarding: when students realize their gifts, grab onto hope for the future, and connect to other prisoners in a creative community that erases the divisions in their environment (especially racial divisions). Challenging: Read the book!
Sun: I understand the memoir jumps around to other time stamps in your life as well? And that your family had some history with the CMC decades before you started working there?
Tobola: The book also explores my own story, beginning with the night I was born in San Luis Obispo. My father, a decorated Marine who served in the Korean War, was attending Cal Poly on the GI Bill. He also got a job as a guard at CMC. When my mother went into labor, he and other guards were chasing an escaped convict, so he missed my birth (they caught the prisoner). So Hummingbird in Underworld alternated between my work in the prison and my own story. The prison story covers nine years. My story covers five decades—longer, if you count the stories about my immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents.
Sun: How long did it take to write this memoir, from start to finish? What was the writing process like?
Tobola: The writing process took a few years. I wrote one chapter at a time, let it “marinate” for a while, and then went on to the next. Many of my family stories I had committed to paper earlier. And luckily, I’ve kept a poetic narrative of my life since I began to write.
Sun: What advice would you give to aspiring writers, based on your own experiences?
Tobola: The advice I would give to aspiring writers is the same advice I give to my students. Read the best literature you can find. Write. Join a writing group. Go to open mics and share your work. Embrace your tribe of writers!
Feel free to embrace Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood at [email protected].