Daniel Alarcon is a guide, leading us into rich, intimate places that remain in our memory long after he shares them. It isn’t only the beautifully written stories that he tells, or his truth that is to be found within them. It is his ability to listen to and to convey the humanity of the people in his stories that inspired my own connection to them
Lurigancho, Peru’s largest and most notorious prison, is now a place that I know something about. Daniel Alarcon invoked a sense of place through his description of how it feels to be there, through the stories of the prisoners making a life within Lurigancho. His sharing of how important Lurigancho was - and is - to him, made it important for me to understand why it is so. It made me listen, wanting to learn what was it about that prison that set him free to write again?
His polite, understated answers to our questions were carefully nuanced during his visit to our Oral History workshop. The emotional center of the evening came afterwards, as he shared his experience with us as a writer. He recounted how he had had to discard hundreds of written pages, and embark upon a physical journey that paralleled an inner journey. He shared that he was able to find again, what was essential within himself through listening to others. This is at the heart of the oral history encounter.
The delicacy of the meaning of the smell of loneliness was riveting. The sensory images that Alarcon creates insist that we understand what conjugal visits mean to a prisoner – as well as what they mean to those who do not receive them. It is the truth of the experience within the story: the reality of renting your cell out so that another prisoner may receive a conjugal visit and what the impact of that visit has, that smell, on you, as you return to your cell, is an example of how Alarcon guides us through intimate spaces that linger in our memory.
We witness the marriage of oral history and art through his work. The smell of loneliness is Lurigancho, as are murals of flags, and block 21 that was built by prisoners who were homeless within the prison walls and the democracy of Block 7. All of these are Lurigancho because the humanity of the prisoners is not confined by prison walls. Their humanity is contained inside of them. The title of his essay “All Politics is Local, Election Night in Peru’s Largest Prison” almost sounds tongue in cheek but there is no irony in the telling of this story. When he writes in the opening that “Whatever control the prison authorities have inside Lurigancho is nominal. They secure the gate to the prison, and little else.”
Lurigancho is Peru’s largest and most notorious prison. The ways in which Daniel Alarcon conjured up the resilience and the creativity of the prisoners, and how they construct a life out of a million small details, reminded me of the ways in which we can also find life in the smallest, most mundane or painful, memories and stories. In his telling of the role that Lurigancho played in his own life renders Lurigancho another character in a story. His relationship to Lurigancho is illustrated by a photo taken of him standing on a roof of one of the prison buildings. His clothes are casual, his hair blowing in the wind; in his hand, a writers notebook. He shares this photo with us, describing it as one of his favorites. We don’t see his face in the photo, we see what he is looking at: the prison concrete framed by the beautiful surrounding mountains. The contrast between the beauty of the Andes, the isolation of the prison and the conditions within are all conjured up by this photo. Daniel is a part of this landscape. He is by no means shaping it. It is shaping him.
As I reflect on his work, and the oral history process itself, I realize that he has also laid bare the power of narrators within an oral history project to change our lives. When we employ whatever craft we have at our disposal: podcasts, radio, fiction, poetry, etc., to create and to curate an experience for our audience, the resultant work reveals as much about ourselves as it does about our narrators. Lirugancho will remain in my memory as a metaphor for the power of our narrators to shape us, and I thank Daniel Alarcon for that gift.
Lynn Lewis comes to OHMA after a decade working with Picture the Homeless. In her oral history work, Lynn has focused on the stories of this organization, interviewing staff and members on their experiences.