In conjunction with the release of “Fire in the Lake,” the third annual volume of creative writing from NYU’s Prison Education Program, the editors answer questions from NYU Gallatin students.
From Wallkill to Washington Square
In August 2019, NYU PEP students published Fire in the Lake, the third annual volume of creative writing produced with support of the Gallatin Writing Program.
In celebration of its release, Confluence is publishing some of the editors’ responses to questions from a group of NYU Gallatin students.
Is there a story behind your name?
Aunray: Yeah, an awfully boring story. I have my father’s first name: Aunray. So, my family’s always called me by my middle name: Shaheed or “Sha” instead. That’s it, really.
Omar: My granddad gave me my name before he died. I never met my granddad. He died right before I was born. So my mom respected her dad’s wishes by naming me Omar, and here I am.
Andy: The story behind my name is a simple one. My mother took a liking to a neighbor’s child and blessed me with his name.
Tyler: My mom was debating between Devon and Tyler. Thank you, Mom, for doing the right thing and choosing Tyler.
What is your favorite food and why? What is one of your favorite memories associated with that food?
Aunray: White rice with yellow American cheese and sugar. Disgusting right? There’s no favorite memory attached to it. Anywhere I’m served white rice, I’ll melt American cheese in it and add sugar. Then people’ll look at me like a weirdo.
Omar: My favorite food is white rice and codfish salad. The salad contains avocado, onions, garlic, and bell, green, and red peppers. It’s so delicious. My favorite memory associated with this dish is, as a child, watching my mother prepare this meal one summer day. My mother always knew that I had an interest in learning how to cook. So she showed me how to make this Latino dish. Every time I hear someone mention this meal, I remember my mom.
Andy: As a child I was a picky eater and my mother had trouble finding thing to feed me. Until she gave me “moro de guandule con bistec encebollado,” a mixture of yellow rice with green chickpeas and steak sautéed with onion. This was one of the meals that was not a battle to get me eat, and I ask for seconds.
Tyler: Chicken parmesan is my favorite food. This is my favorite food because it’s a dish that my mom makes on special occasions, like birthdays and holidays.
Myke: I have a thing for cereal. There have been days, weeks, months during my incarceration when all I ate was cereal—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! I could happily eat cereal for the rest of my life. I suppose I associate it with a form of freedom. When I was a boy, I often wanted to come home from school to an adult-free world so I could go straight to the kitchen and find the biggest bowl in the cabinet to have myself a huge, deliciously liberating bowl of Apple Jacks or Honey Nut Cheerios before my mom came home.
What is the last good deed you witnessed?
Aunray: We have these facility counts where we’re expected to get up and open our doors while an officer walks the company and counts the inmates; then, when they’re finished, we’re supposed to close our doors. There’s always guys who sleep through it, but other guys step up to make sure their doors are opened and closed so they won’t get penalized. I always thought that was pretty decent.
Omar: People and society tend to depict prisoners as being negative, but I’ve witnessed someone give a person something to eat when they did not have anything. We are human beings who made a terrible choice that landed us in prison.
Andy: Believe it or not, I see good deeds every day in this place. The last one was a comrade who asked a guy that sleeps two cells away if he was hungry and gave him some food.
Tyler: The unity among men in prison.
What do you value the most about yourself?
Aunray: Hmm, that’s tough. I value most my capacity to understand and forgive.
Omar: I value the way prison has changed my perception on life. I also learned how to read body language. I appreciate the small things in life, like family. There is nothing like family. Prior to coming to prison, it was all about my friends, but my friends turned their backs on me once I landed myself in prison. It was all good when I had money and we were all partying. In my opinion, certain friends are like a dollar in your pocket once you spend it, they’re all gone.
Andy: The will power to forgive those who have hurt me or have done me wrong. To move on from the pain and live in peace with myself.
Tyler: My strong drive and will.
What’s your favorite part about being who you are?
Omar: My favorite part of being me is my generosity and honesty. People tend to get offended by how blunt I can be.
Andy: The fight in me to not be defined by people or the past mistakes. To let my actions, the way I live my life, and the people I service be the voice that speak of how I live my life for Christ.
Darion: The part in me that’s economically self-contained at this point of my life despite this ten year set-back; to not be forced to conform with a lot of societies norms, but have the resiliency to pivot and take advantage of the powerful network base I built to stay relevant as an entrepreneur, family man, and hip hop artist.
Tyler: My favorite part of being be is being me. My individuality and creativity is what expresses my humanity.
Myke: The openness of my imagination. It’s a mental playfulness juxtaposed to my sober disposition. It frees me to engage and work with a diversity of outlooks, which I would be unable to do if my mind were as closed as my demeanor in public settings. I’m always turning people, places, and things into animals, elements, flowers, or planets to deepen how I see them. It’s a source of great comfort, because I hate the feeling of being locked into one perspective; life seems to lose its appeal when I’m incapable of pivoting my angle of vision. It makes being human unpoetic.
What (or who) couldn’t you live without?
Aunray: I couldn’t live without . . . my hands. If I were unable to produce creative expression—to write, to draw, to shape—I would quite literally die, especially under these (ahem) circumstances.
Omar: I cannot live without my parents and my only child Paris Destiny. I love my parents and my daughter a lot. They’re the reason why I managed to get through more than a decade in prison. Holding on to those memories that I will one day return back to my family.
Andy: I will have to say my faith in Jesus Christ. That is the center of who I am and what has given me the will to live life another way. To face my fears, insecurities, mistakes, and the lies I believe of myself to find who I am. That whatever I do in life, to do it in love.
Tyler: My children. They give me the strength to accomplish my goals so I can make them proud.
Myke: I can’t imagine life without music. I remember feeling inconsolably wretched, at the beginning of my incarceration, when I couldn’t afford to buy a cassette player. To not hear or interact with music for so long made my body feel bloodless. Since relishing in having one, I’ve developed a strong taste for instrumental music. It’s the soul of what I’m striving to build.
What is it like to experience the change of seasons while incarcerated? Do you have a favorite time of year? Least favorite? Why?
Omar: It’s terrible experiencing the different seasons in prison. For one, the lack of heat and hot water in this prison makes seasons difficult to enjoy, especially winter. I cannot take a hot shower in the winter, so I’m obligated to taking cold showers. It’s a bit depressing when you’re speaking to family, everyone seems to be having fun. I do not have a favorite time of the year. Majority of the holidays celebrated in America derived from Euro-centric history. My least favorite time of the year is Thanksgiving. I enjoy eating all the different foods but hate celebrating the slaughtering of the pilgrims. We have a habit of celebrating negative holidays in America and turning them into something good.
Andy: The change of seasons is something I enjoy because it show me that my day to being free is close by. Now my favorite time of the year is Christmas for two reason. One it’s the time of year that I celebrate the birth of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It’s also the time were I have the best memories of my family being together and I plan to do this again soon. The less favorite time of the year for me is around the being of spring because it went the tragic accident that took my friend David life happened.
Darion: You’re looking at a man who did 39 consecutive summer seasons of a two-week family vacation trips to Disney World in Florida before my incarceration; to see nine season change from behind this wall has been life changing, I formed a system, that my seasons are base around sports seasons basketball, football, and baseball every championship another season down; these last two seasons I had to say the N.Y.U. semesters, they help a great deal to bring this season changing countdown in. Of course not making Disney World, but the fall is my least favorite season because I don’t get to go to Asheville, N.C. to see the foliage of the mountains I miss that orange color.
Tyler: I like the warmer months of the year because time flies by. Winter drags on and is always gloomy. Keeping the mind busy is the key to success when you’re doing a bid.
What smell reminds you of home?
Aunray: The smell of urine and weed smoke reminds me of all the elevators in my neighborhood. So uh, yeah, I’d say that the smell of public bathrooms make me homesick.
Omar: The smell of chocolate cake with fudge on the top.
Andy: The smell of warm coffee in the morning takes me back to the place I call home.
Tyler: The smell of fresh-cut grass reminds me of home. I say this because I live in Upstate New York, and it reminds me of being in the country.
Darion: I would have to say the pine trees in my backyard; all year round, that tree kicks off a smell that forms nostalgia of memories I have had in this house it’s the pine trees.
If someone asked you to describe New York to them, what would you say? What would you start with? What does the city look like, feel like, smell like, sound like, taste like? What is your relationship to the city?
Darion: I would say me and New York City have a lengthy history, over forty-one years., many layers. Walk with me and experience Darion Alls (A.K.A. TOXIC!) and the Big Apple: Early ’80s hopping the train from Newark, NJ, to hang out. 42nd Street–Times Square to breakdance battles, we were known as “Pitch Fork Crew/Ground Control.” My first car, an Audi 5000. My first taste of NYC nightlife: The Roxy Club, Roof Top up in the Polo Grounds of Harlem, Union Square, and Latin Quarters; from ’91 till 2001, the legendary TUNNEL on Sundays with Funkmaster Flex. Having my Jaguar or big Caddy truck out there FULL-BLAST—NYC moments. Just to be parked in front of the club windows up the aroma of marijuana and 5500 watts blasting from my vehicle, priceless memories. So classic the TUNNEL, so classic. Now, throughout this time, I kept the traditions my parents had with me and the city, the season tickets to Madison Square Garden for the Knicks games and the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and passed these rituals along to my children. I’m a big sports fan, so for years you could find me hanging out at the NBA store—all levels, and you could say ESPN Zone was my second home. Can’t forget Yankee Stadium; I keep some tickets (nosebleed seats though). I got incarcerated before the new stadium and did not get to experience that steakhouse—or, I haven’t yet. However, my taste buds have explored the many cuisines the city has to offer—Broadway Grill, Tavern on the Green, and Sparks, to name a few. In ’96 I turned one of my apartments uptown on Broadway into a makeshift office (a lot of candles). When it comes to the cultural diversity of New York City, me as an African American, entrepreneur, and now NYU student, I take the position of a cosmopolitan type of individual who has dwelled with everyone, from the bottom feeders to the elite socialites; my line of work has exposed me to people from all walks of life, and has locked me into the greatest city on the planet, New York City.
Omar: New York is like no other place in the world. New Yorkers are very prideful and hard critics about everything, including their sports teams. New Yorkers love you when you’re winning and hate you when you’re losing. I love the fact that New York is a melting pot for all cultures. The city has been under a makeover. There is a big bandage over the whole New York to stop it from bleeding and it’s called, “gentrification.” it places people who can’t afford to live in the city out of their comfort zone; though it seems to appear radiant, elegant, and vibrant, the reality is there are a lot of issues that are being swept under the rug. Violence, drugs, gangs, and poverty have plagued the urban community for too damn long. The opioid epidemic has New York in a frenzy now that it is in rural America. The urban community had heroin in its neighborhoods for years and no one even cared about us. The painful cornucopia and marvelous hammock has caused New York to feel, smell, sound, and taste authentic but it is distasteful how our “leaders” (politicians) neglected and failed the citizens, though New Yorkers do so much with so little. I’m a first generation Puerto Rican and my DNA is embedded into this city. Through my writings is how I voice my concerns.
Andy: What would you start with? It a city like no another that is always on top speed. It’s the place of my birth. The heart of New York is the city because it’s like an amusement park of the world and the melting pot of culture as well experience. It can be the place where you feel alive as well as the place you could call hell. If it had a taste, it would be like a Sour Patch candy were it can bitter, sweet, or both. New York will always be part of who I am.
Tyler: I live in upstate New York.
Who do you trust the most? Why?
Aunray: I trust my mother the most. She’s just a SOLID ass, outgoing ass, honest ass, dependable ass person.
Omar: I trust my mother the most. I trust her with my life. She knows things that not too many people know and she has never told anyone. it’s pretty hard to trust people.
Andy: The answer is my cousin Vianka. We have a deep connection, and it is very easy for me to open up to her. We have a similar point of view, and when we don’t, she will give of me her vision. She will set me straight or give me another side of situation. She keeps all secrets and believes I am a new man.
Tyler: My family, because no matter what we have done to each other, we love each other unconditionally.
When have you sacrificed something for someone else’s happiness, and it made you happier?
Aunray: Hmm, this is tough, too. When my son first was born I’d sacrifice all the time, like I’d only have enough money to feed him and his sister and their mom. I wouldn’t necessarily say it made me any happier because I’d be starving, but I was glad they weren’t.
Omar: I had a car that I owned and my sister was in dire need of it, more than I was, so I decided to give her the car. I just used mass transportation to get to work. At the end, she was happy and I was happier.
Andy: I sacrificed going to trial a second time on this case. I am in prison for trying to give some closure to my friend’s family and mine so I could move on. To do this gave me peace and the words that give me a new way of life—when David’s mother said that whatever happened that night, she forgives me because of Jesus Christ.
Darion: It would have to be 2014, five years into doing this bid, my daughter Gabby was looking at colleges but did not apply for any scholarships. Her mind was set on going to the University of Georgia, so, being the General that I am, reaching info my savings I squirreled away to come home to in 2019, paid for Gabby’s full college ride. Now nothing could be more satisfying to come home to one of mines to be in the University of Georgia’s graduating class of 2019. Not only was it an investment, but it shaped how I see myself as an individual; this sacrifice changed a whole family, which is priceless to me.
Tyler: When I took charge for the mother of my children, even though she didn’t take her opportunity for a second chance to better herself. It made me happy because it made me realize the kind of person I am. This sacrifice has opened up positive opportunities for me to better myself. Now I finally know what I want to do in life. A short two years is a small price to pay for enlightenment.
Has your concept of dreams and dreaming changed in your lifetime?
Omar: Absolutely. My dreams and dreaming has changed and it’s due to learning about my own history. I decided to become an activist. I am naturally a fighter. I’ve been fighting my whole life. Fighting for my freedom, my sanity, my dignity, my integrity, and my life. I would like to fight for marginalized communities who are deprived of certain liberties because of the injustices, discrimination, and oppression that Latina’s and African Americans face in this oppressive country.
Andy: Yes, as a young child I dreamed of being a lot of things like a veterinarian, as a teenage I dream to be a revolutionary and this point in my life I dream about how to change life with love and to be a voice against injustice.
Tyler: No, I have always been a day dreamer, always lost in my head.
Where do you typically spend time reading, writing, studying, and working? Is there particular “study spot” that you feel attached to and, if so, how did you find it (trial and error, stumbled upon, etc.)? What is it about that spot that keeps you coming back – is it simply a matter of convenience/timing? Does it have better lighting or less noise than other spots? Or does the spot have some sort of special meaning to you?
Omar: I like to spend time in my cell, when it comes to being self-educated. if learning doesn’t take place in the class room with a professor, it takes place in my cell. I wouldn’t say I’m attached to that particular spot(s) since I do not want to become complacent with this environment. Prison staff are doing everything in their power to make people comfortable with being incarcerated. Tablets, wooden doors to your cell instead of steel gates, banquets etc. Subconsciously, people end up depending on this institution for stability and forget about the hardship they’ve experience being behind these walls. People are not coming to prison like they used to.
Andy: My spot is the NYU lab area in this place because it were I find likeminded people who are doing things to stay out prison politics. It’s peaceful place most of the time. I get away from the yard and the housing area. This helps me a lot, as I am a people person, and every wish to stop by to chill with me. This is where we go to type our paper.
Tyler: It depends on the nature of the work I’m doing. If I need peace and quiet, my cell is my domain. But if I need to bounce off some ideas, I like the computer lab, where I can bounce the ideas off my fellow classmates.
What made you want to study through the PEP program? What types of things are you studying and why?
Omar: Witnessing how it changed the lives of the some of the guys I’ve known from the streets. How professors helped me change the ways I reflected on certain topics and issues with material they gave us to read. Critical analysis, critical theory, and how education can change the ways students encounter problems. Some of my family members are not as fortunate to earn a college education. I had to come to prison for this enlightenment. There are a variety of different things we study here, but I love history.
Andy: I want to give myself a great chance to live a different life and educate is the way I found. I just want to open up my point of view and be a voice for second chance. I want to do what I was told I will never be able to do.
Tyler: The reasons behind my incarceration are the reasons for me deciding to join PEP. I made a promise to myself to make the most of my time.
Myke: I’ve always struggled with a crippling sense of internal poverty throughout my incarceration. I think this stems from how impoverished I feel living at a distance from everything I love. Nevertheless, experiencing this emptiness ate away a lot of the waste that accrued in my heart over the years of pretending I was someone I’m not. To my surprise, this erosion left me with a fertile sense of self and awareness. With this I’ve come to PEP, aspiring first to absorb the culture and discipline of a Liberal Arts education—to expand this internal force. Then to ascend and use the skills I’ve developed to create a better life. For me, the rebuilding process begins with PEP!
I’m organizing my studies around specific learning experiences to arouse and develop my talent in challenging but interesting ways. Apart from this, I look forward to studying anything that’s going to heighten my awareness and supply me with opportunities to explore fresh points of view. In my past life, I lived within a madness of isolated decisions; I couldn’t see past momentary gains. When I realized that I suffer the most when I see the least, I made writing my only focal point of interest. For me, writing is equal to seeing, seeing through the eyes of a pen. So training under the pressure and guidance of testing, provocative courses could improve my chances of becoming an effective writer.
What’s the best thing you’ve read or learned this semester?
Omar: In the histories of the Caribbean, creolization was indeed the inevitable result of the initial violent clash among the Indians who lived in such places as Quisqueya, Xaymaca, Borinquen, and Cuba; the ensuing mixing of the languages, religions, music, and food was indeed positive and admirable. Sadly, this creolization has not defeated the absurd, repugnant, and above, insulting attitude that is an affront to the pride and dignity of the African heritage of our Caribbean cultures. Western ideology has tainted the perceptions and minds of people. Our people, culture, heritage, and lm1guage are as significant as any other culture.
Andy: The best thing I was history. The history of the Caribbean and how it connect to my roots. The racism that is in my Dominican culture against the Haitian. I have to be a voice against this discrimination in the mind of my family first. I also learned about people make history but are hidden from us. This reading and class discussion show me the great crime to humanely is not doing something the face of injustice. Writing can be my as you see my first poem thank to Allyson.
Tyler: Grammar and punctuation.
Who is your best friend and what makes them your best friend?
Omar: I wouldn’t say best friend, he’s more like my family. His name is Johnny Cannon. He’s an older African American man with Cherokee Indian roots. I’ve been in prison with him for the past ten years. He is the person I go to for advice and laughter. He is originally from Arkansas but he has family in Syracuse, NY. Johnny has served his country while doing a few tours in the United States Army. I’m very appreciative to have someone like him around, for he has years of Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, plus he is a fellow brother-in-Christ.
Andy: I would have never thought that my mother would be my best friend. She has been in my life in good and bad. She know want I need a friend and want be mom. She is all the good in me.
What kind of person do you think of when you think of an NYU student? Where does this idea come from?
Omar: When I think of a person attending NYU, I think of an upper-class echelon kind of person who comes from a rich family and has been living under white privilege their whole life, skating past life while people of color suffer through injustices. I do not know too many people from the hood attending an institution like NYU. The culture is gradually changing since it has been diversifying with other ethnicities, which is a blessing.
Andy: This idea comes from experience with privileged people and what I saw on television. College students look down on people of my neighborhood and that are in prison. The biggest worry as a child was their grades and living up to their parents’ expectations. They are the people who will end up making rules and laws that will control our life but not even know what it is to walk in our shoes. This has changed with my experience as part of NYU PEP and met students who helped me learn about computers.
Tyler: Creative, imaginative, and hardworking. It comes from experience and observations from time with my fellow classmates.
What’s one thing you want people to know about you?
Omar: I appear to seem as a very serious person but I have a sense of humor and I love to laugh.
Andy: I am a God fearing man, who will not be define by my mistake or what people say about be. That fine good in everything that come my way.
Tyler: I would like people to know that I’m a truly humble and generous person.
Myke: I think it’s important for people to know I’m a marathoner, not a sprinter. I understand that progress is not something that happens overnight but a process that culminates over time, despite setbacks. Though being this way is not always pleasant, it generates a sense of vision in me, and a willingness to tough things out, to see them through, which is central to who I am.
If you could pass on one of your physical traits and one of your personality traits to one of your future children, which would you choose?
Omar: How to be “resilient.” Resilience: An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. No matter the curve balls life throws you make something happen. Play ball.
Andy: The physical trait I wish pass on to my children is the shape of my eye and my thick eyelashes. The shape of my eyes give me an Ancient Egypt look, and my eyelashes do too. People tell me how beautiful they are and desire them. Then it also make my race a mystery to another. My personality trait I would like to pass on is to look at a situation as a glass that is half full, not half empty. The will to work as a team brings the best out of people.
Tyler: My tallness to a boy. My blue eyes to a girl.
What would a perfect world sound like?
Omar: We’re living in a free society where the truth becomes treason. Democracy is a myth. My perfect world would not include discrimination, injustices, oppression, biases, prejudices, sexism, classism, violence, drugs, poverty, homelessness, hunger, crime, gangs, or racism. We would all be treated equally no matter your sex, race, class, creed, or ethnicities, and education would be free for all.
Andy: A perfect world for me is a world where people will work out there different together and will always try to see the other pain first to understand one another.
Tyler: Mutual and sympathetic understanding.
What does it mean to live a good life?
Omar: The ultimate altruistic act of service I’ve committed myself to doing in prison is helping and giving back to people who are less fortunate any chance I get. In my community, the elderly are mistreated, and the youth are dying, either by gun violence or drugs. I remember when we used to help our elderly, not anymore. We need more leaders in our communities that experienced the realness of life and that will be willing to help change the mentality of the people in our community through education so we can unite the people.
Andy: It’s a life where you have touch at least one person in a way that will benefit the world as we know it.
Tyler: Live a life comfortable and surrounded by loved ones. All the money in the world doesn’t mean nothing if you don’t have no one to share it with.
Darion: To acquire economical and mental wealth so that your living situation changes; and to make sure you leave a financial legacy that can withstand the test of time to be able to take care of your Great-Grand-Children.
Myke: To have dreamed and failed and dreamed again; to have tussled in life; to have triumphed despite defeats; to have moved a heart, a community, a nation; to have left a life, a society, a world better than how you found it; to have been faithful to your vision; to have been patient in the course of its fruition; to have shared; to have given; to have loved, even when love was unrequited. That is what it means to live the good life.