I’m going to keep writing about myself (and that’s okay)

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The author Rivka Galchen recently had an essay published in the New Yorker titled “The Only Thing I Envy Men,” partially about the experience of finding women writers. She wrote about the many women-authored books she loved that had gone out of print. She wrote of women-authored horror books, crime fiction, and the works of women writers in genres that we do not associate with women writers. She wrote about writing about women writers, and what a stumbling, clownish task it can be. They become more “women” than “writers.”

Earlier this year, I wrote about my impostor syndrome with the hope that those who read this magazine could relate to it. I wrote about my mental health and persistent self-doubt because I believe it is feminist to tell one’s truth. But I also wrote about it because I am, and have always been a creative, attention-seeking person. When I was little, I would dance and sing in the margins of rooms, making a show of shyness but hoping others were watching. I grew up wanting to be both a princess and an artist. So, I wrote it to reach out to my fellow overextended women and fatigued feminists, but I also wrote it for the simple reason that I wanted to write about myself. I wanted to write about myself not from the shining place over the valley of repeated failure, but from the valley itself.

After I wrote it, however, I became self-conscious. I started to feel sort of like, oh, please. Like, enough already. I felt narcissistic. I felt like it wasn’t okay to go on about myself for the length of an essay because, I had a feeling that I was somehow contributing to negative stereotypes about millennials and about women writers and about internet feminists. I felt like I should give up wanting to be a writer and go apply my degree to something practical, with earning potential, like marketing. Kind of an extreme reaction to have to a blog post I wrote in about half an hour, but still. That’s how I felt.

But now, four weeks out from my college graduation, I’ve realized that what I’ve spent the last four years doing is, actually, actively encouraging other people, other women, to write about themselves. How many times have I sat across from a contributor at a coffee shop and discouraged them from turning in a bloodless manifesto instead of a story? How many times have I said things like “I need to see you in this piece”? Too many to count. I refer to the contributors whose work I edit as “my writers,” but I blush every time I tell someone that I’m a writer, because it sounds, in my voice, like this overfeminine, precious thing. It feels like saying “I’m a babysitter.”

But I know in my little princess-artist heart that writing is maybe the only thing I really want to do. And I want to write about myself, not because I want to represent the condition of women or even necessarily because it’s this feminist strategy of personal narration, but because I just do. And somehow, I don’t think it would present the same quandary were I not a woman; did I not feel on some uncontrollable molecular level that nobody wants to hear what I have to say.

But that is no way to go out into the world, and going out into the world is what I am doing. So I am trying to treat myself the way I would treat someone whose work I’m editing, or the way I would treat a little girl like the one I used to be. I am trying to be a woman writer so that the works of women writers are that much harder to lose. That’s what this blog post is about, in case you were wondering. There’s no moral of the story, just me, writing about myself. Because I want to. Because I can. And because, well, that’s the kind of thing I like to read.


Hannah Engler

Editor-in-Chief, What the F Magazine

What the F I’ve Been Reading

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Listed below are some of my favorite feminist reads (mostly novels and poetry collections), lovingly labeled so because of their exploration of intersecting identities, admiration for women, and ability to emotionally affect me.

  1. White Teeth by Zadie Smith: What I liked about this book was its in-depth look into multiple characters’ minds through different generations. I personally felt like this book had a lot of feminist relevancy because of its exploration into multiple cultures and how they intertwine. Because it focuses on two families and is set in a modern-ish London (the book was published in 2001), readers get to see the perspectives of many different characters who are unique in their personalities, thoughts, and experiences. White Teeth is one of my favorites because Zadie Smith so excellently weaves the families together without anything feeling like a convenient artifice.
  2. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine: This book is a series of poems, often in prose style, that focus on the different kinds of racial aggressions experienced by black Americans. Often accompanied by startling images and pieces of art, the poems highlight the omnipresence of racism in everyday situations. Its attention to race is particularly important because of its emphasis on the need for intersectionality. The line that sticks out to me the most is “Because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying.”
  3. Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates: I just really like this book because it’s centered around a bunch of badass teens weaponizing their femininity in order to be independent in the 1950’s. I thought the relationships between the women in this book and how they work together to be a new kind of family was powerful, even though many problems occur because of it.
  4. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: This book is one of my absolute favorites. As a heartbreaking portrait of a family struck by tragedy, it tells the story of a Chinese American family whose oldest daughter has just been found drowned in the local lake. The way in which Ng writes allows her to flawlessly switch perspectives, detailing the family’s history and each character’s struggle with their multipole identities.
  5. Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson: This is a hybrid poetry/prose/diary book that explores the murder of the author’s aunt in 1969 Ann Arbor. While the topic is a brutal one, the feeling that pervades the book is one of important woman-ness and the love between women and family members.
  6. A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar: This is another amazing book that explores sexuality, religion, and the intersection of identity. It’s a great “coming of age story” that follows Nidali, who is born to an Egyptian-Greek mother and Palestinian father, as she moves from Kuwait to Egypt to America and discovers herself along the way. While it has some heavy topics spread throughout, its tone is lighthearted, which is a combination that makes it difficult to put down.
  7. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf: A classic feminist manifesto. Goodreads describes the essay as “noted in its argument for both a literal and figural space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by patriarchy.” Originally published in 1929, it discusses how women have been systematically excluded from writing spaces because they were denied the same educational exposure as men.
  8. Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter by J. Nozipo Maraire: This novel, written in the form of letters, feels steeped in the love between a mother and daughter across time. The chapters focus on different things ranging from gender inequality to colonialism and Zimbabwean freedom fighters to relationships within the family. The author is able to weave present-written letters with stories of the past and wrap them up as small lessons or anecdotes that are still relevant even though this book was written over twenty years ago.

Miranda Hency

Blog Editor, What the F Magazine

1973

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Quite frequently, I wear a white t-shirt with the year 1973 plastered across the chest in dark blue font. When I take it off, I put it back on its hanger: on our living room wall. In late August, my wide-eyed roommates looked at each other—and all the blank walls—after we fully moved into our first apartment. We covered the walls in Mod-Podge style of any and all things “women.” A perk of being twenty-one is that you can get away with taping your favorite shirt to the wall and calling it art. And art it became. The wall—the shirt—became integral parts of my last year.

Mostly, people confuse the shirt as tour merchandise from an English indie pop band. “I think you’re thinking of the 1975. But hey—good band,” I lie—they’re mediocre—but in situations like this my default is to appease. I would usually let the mistake slide entirely, but this shirt deserves more than the gender roles that somewhere along the way I internalized. This shirt demands recognition, it settles for nothing less than unapologetic.

I’ve had the shirt since last April. I bought it for 35 dollars on prinkshop.com. The shirt highlights “1973” because this is the year of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. These are the facts and figures behind the shirt. And while they are important, these details, like any other historic event and capitalist product, are also in part problematic.  The act of buying a semi-expensive shirt that supports women’s rights is marketplace feminism; it is trendy, it is commodified, and it screams privilege. I attempted to justify this with the fact that Prinkshop makes all of its clothing in the United States and 30% of the shirt’s profits went to the National Institute for Reproductive Health, but nonetheless this may still make me a Bad Feminist.*

While Roe v. Wade was an important step in the right direction for reproductive justice, it by no means championed women’s rights. Although at different points in the decision it was highlighted that a woman has the right to choose, the Court made sure to emphasize that the primary right that was being reserved in this decision was that of the physician to practice freely. In claiming that the unconstitutionality lay in states’ attempts to block doctors from performing abortions, rather than states’ attempts to block women from having abortions, the Court shied away from the larger issue that is the right of women to be the sole controller of their own bodies.

Roe v. Wade is not the landmark case that it is commonly remembered as. But that is not to dismiss the case entirely. Even with this knowledge, I still feel comforted by the shirt against my chest. The shirt has become detached from its Supreme Court legacy as it has begun to pave its own. It has become a symbol of empowerment for me. The shirt came just days before I left for an immersive literature and hiking program in the New England woods. I thought there would be something romantic about wearing it as I climbed my first mountain. As I inched my way up Mount Major, I looked down to remember the bodies who had gone through more struggle than what my own was feeling in that moment. I came out of the woods to a world I was not ready to face. As the election drew closer, I pulled the shirt closer and closer. I wore the shirt as I went to the polls; without a bra, in high-waisted mom jeans. I waited in line with my best friend for two hours to cast our votes for what we hoped would be the first woman president. I made her take a picture of me with my 1973 paraphernalia and first “I voted” sticker. This photo pains me as I scroll by it in my camera roll, but something urges me to keep it. It hits me each time with a peculiar transcendental feeling that my future daughter may one day appreciate it. I wore it as I anxiously did homework that election night as the results moved closer and closer towards Donald Trump. And I was still in the shirt as I got back in my bed at 3am when the election was all but over. Although clothed, I felt quite naked. Maybe even nude. Raw. I FaceTimed my sister; to which on a screen, from 3,000 miles away I saw the same puffy eyes, red nose, and 1973 Prinkshop shirt. Seeing her face pop up on the screen, in that shirt, instantly sent my emotions to overload.

In a way, the shirt feels haunted by this night. Instead of 1973, sometimes I see November 9th, 2016. I wear the shirt as the man running this country threatens to repeal Roe v. Wade, and I am forced to remember that the current political climate seeks to reverse this Supreme Court decision, not criticize its conservatism. I for the first time feel more connected to 1973. To the legacy that paved the way for me to not have to worry as intently about my reproductive rights. I wore the shirt at the Ann Arbor Women’s March and thought of the women who marched before me, who fought for 1973. I feel motivated to look towards the future and make 2018 a year that young women want to wear on their chests as they continue the fight towards equality.

This wouldn’t all fit on a shirt. And so for now, 1973 is enough. And maybe that is exactly the genius behind the shirt. To provoke questions, to force engagement, to open up points of criticism, and to provide a stark reminder that we are in desperate need of a new year to represent women’s rights.


*You can similarly find this book by Roxane Gay taped onto the wall right next to the 1973 shirt. I wish I was semi-kidding, but as the image above proves, I am not.


Natalie Brennan

Assistant Editor, What the F Magazine

Looking “Nice”

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I look in the mirror every morning and my mind immediately jumps to criticism. My stomach isn’t flat enough, I look bloated, my booty isn’t big enough, my boobs got smaller, why does my face look like that, and on and on and on.

I spend hours every week at the gym, mostly because exercise is my way of relieving stress and because when I don’t go, I feel sluggish and unfocused. But while I’m there, regardless of my healthy intentions, there’s always that nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me I need it in order to look good.

I eat plenty at meals, never hesitating to go for that second cookie or another bowl of pasta. I love food. Like really love it. I will eat anything you put in front of me, especially if the food falls in the dessert category. But every time I eat, regardless of how much, I always take a quick look in the mirror afterwards, lifting up my shirt to see how far my stomach sticks out, to see if I still look “small enough.”

I recently started wearing crop tops. I bought a few several years ago, and they sat in my drawer for months at a time, until I would take one out, try it on, look in the mirror, and then take it off and put it back in the drawer. It took a lot of courage to actually wear one in real life. I now put one on, think I look great, but as the night goes on I start to wonder if I really do look okay, or if everyone passing me is looking at my stomach and wondering how I could dare to go out dressed like that.

***

My best friend and I talk about body image all the time. We are both feminists who hate when women are judged for their bodies, we don’t hesitate to compliment women we see in public, we love looking at pictures of confident women with all body types, and we both believe that every woman should feel beautiful in her own skin, regardless of how she “compares” to societal beauty standards. And yet we both have a mental prototype of how we “should” look, and we often discuss how we just want to look “nice” and “healthy.”

But what does that mean? What is “nice”? Does having a personal standard for how I believe my body should look make me a bad feminist? Does it mean I’m shaming other women, even if that’s not my intention?

Societal beauty standards really got me fucked up. Instead of caring about my own opinion, I find myself entirely focused on what others think of me. As a heterosexual woman, I do care about the opinion of men, but I have realized that I care about the opinion of other women even more. I want them to think I’m pretty and to think I look great, and to view me the same way I view the confident women I see every day.

It’s difficult not to have an opinion on the way I look, and although I truly believe that all body types are beautiful, I am still extremely uncomfortable with the idea of my body looking certain ways. I’m constantly torn between “she looks great” and “I could never look like that.”

I envy women who are comfortable with their appearance and who have pushed past the constant judgment from men and other women to prove that every woman is beautiful. Size and shape don’t matter, what matters is self-love, but for me, that level of self-love has been very hard to attain. That doesn’t mean I don’t try, but so far in my life, criticisms have beat compliments the majority of the time.

***

Since I started spending my time with more feminists, of all body types, races, and ages, I have entered into more discussions about body image, and I’ve seen more and more examples of women who love themselves without any hesitation. I have a strong group of friends who compliment me and make sure I know that when it comes to my body, my own opinion is the only one that matters.

It may not seem like it, but I really have come a long way. When I look in the mirror, I tell myself I look good, even if I don’t believe it right away. I exercise to be healthy, and am starting to discover how strong my body can be. I allow myself skip days, and cheat days, and although I try to be healthy, I know that I really will be okay if I eat a couple extra cookies. I have started wearing what I want to, and it’s easy to forget about my insecurities when I’m with my friends.


Katie Slajus

Volunteer Coordinator, What the F Magazine

Art by Amanda Donovan, Graphic Design, What the F Magazine

On Activism, Allyhood, and Trump

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Early last year, photos of my good friend’s birthday party were posted on Facebookone that I had to miss, as I had been sick. Wanting to fully indulge my feelings of #FOMO and a reprieve from discrete math homework, I clicked through them. One photo had a comment. My friend had said something to the effect of, “Omg, why are my eyes so Asian in all these pictures?”

My heartbeat quickened. I reread her words again and again.

(For what it’s worth: what I heard, what I understood, from her words was that Asian eyes are and have been seen as undesirable. Intentionally or notand I do not believe she intended to hurt me, but nonethelessshe drew on a history of upholding whiteness as the single barometer for beauty, a barometer that I myself learned to use early on. I have hated my eyes for awhilemono-lidded, without so much as a single crease, framed by short and sparse eyelashes. I am still unlearning this hatred. I know what the expectations are. And even as I know that these expectations come from a place of exclusion and xenophobia, I also know all the ways I fail to meet them.)

So, I went back to discrete math. I kept losing my train of thought, though, and thinking back to my friend’s words. I returned to the comment periodically, to see if anyone had responded. A couple iterations into this exercise, it dawned on me that it might be up to me to say something. It seemed important that someone acknowledge the comment, the harmful message of it.

My heart raced again as I flipped through various responses in my head. I worried about coming off as angry, as irrational, as hostile, as being that person. Eventually I settled on something exceedingly simple: “there’s nothing wrong with asian eyes :-).”

I sent it with the constricted feeling in my chest that occurs every time I send a risky text.

My comment received support in the form of ‘likes’ from various friends; relief flooded through me. A conversation occurred, my friend deleted her comment. But I also wondered: why hadn’t anyone else spoken up? I brought up the comment with another friend and she responded, “Yeah, it was terrible, I didn’t even want to think about it.” I was struck with how it had been hard, impossible, for me not to think about it. And yet my own first reaction, too, was to try to ignore iteven in a situation like this, with the lowest of stakes, where the only action I really took was saying something.

Look: this is not about trauma. This is not about moral superiority. This is not about creating villains. But allyhood is more than agreeing that oppression is bad; it requires action.

***

I thought about this again after November 8th.

Wellfirst, I cried on and off for about a week, thinking about the little girls who had just seen misogyny prevail, the bigots who had just had seen their racism and xenophobia affirmed. And then I thought about myself. In all likelihood, I will basically be “fine” under a Trump Administration (unless the nuclear codes are used, or we become an increasingly authoritarian state, or the healthcare industry collapses, in which case most all of us will not be fine) (also, you know, global warming). Yes, I identify as a woman of color, but I am cisgender and heterosexual, among other privileges: a culture that insists I am somehow a “model minority,” an education at this very university, a relatively securely middle-class family.

So, I thought about allyhooda privilege in itself. I thought about my own tendencies to wait and see what happens rather than immediately push for action, my own instincts of being aggressively non-confrontational. I have slipped up with my words, I have made non-constructive and sloppy arguments, and then I have all too often been silent.

Activism is not any more necessary now than it was before the inauguration of our new president; things were far from perfect then, too. But for some, the past election has certainly put a spotlight on the necessity of activism. Though the arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, this bending does not happen passively. The fact is, in the meantime, injustice continuesnot everything ends up “just fine” for everyone.

***

I saw Junot Díaz last week; he spoke about his own activism and art and politics. During the question and answer session, two (honestly, two, this happened twice) white cishet boys asked him how they, carrying the privilege of being white and being men, could help dismantle oppression. Díaz’s answers had two main themes: looking inward at what you yourself must unlearn, and vigilance. Our education system rarely equips us with the tools to examine our own internalized misogyny, heteronormativity, racism, all the ways we ourselves are oppressors. And it is so easy to regress. It is all too easy to ignore a problem which does not impact you. I was especially struck when Díaz said, “You don’t transcend hegemonic narratives—you manage them.” (The point about backsliding was made painfully clear by an old white man, who asked Díaz why the left was so “obsessed” with race, who insisted white supremacy was clearly “a fantasy,” who felt it necessary to defend this with the claim that he had “fought for civil rights” in the 60s.)

In the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, someone recently said, “Love is a lifetime of decisions.” I believe activism, too, is about a lifetime of decisions. Deciding to constantly, systematically confront your own biases, learn from others, invest in others. Deciding to examine the impacts of your (in)actions, deciding to take action.

I have been thinking about what actions I can takemust takebeyond sharing articles on Facebook (although I personally believe I have excellent taste in articles). I am putting thought into how the sign I brought to Women’s March on Lansing, with the slogan “MY PUSSY, MY CHOICE,” was not inclusive of all women. Inspired by the Parks and Recreation episode where Leslie Knope picks up her phone and says, “Dear Congress, it’s Leslie again,” I have put my elected representatives in my phonebook (Mike Bishop, WYA). I plan to devote more time to volunteering for political campaigns, not just in 2020, but in 2018, in 2017. I look forward to reading widely and deeply, having conversations which make me uncomfortable, listening to voices which have been marginalized, showing up for people whose oppressions may be different from my own, speaking out.

***

Here are a few tweets, podcasts, and articles that I have found helpful in thinking about intersectionality, activism, choices, and optimism:

@KHandozo, “Low arrest numbers aren’t proof that the women’s marches were virtuous. They’re proof of a different mode of policing.” (Thread)

@KandyLanae, “There are white Mizzou alumni all down my timeline at marches across the country who stayed silent about racism on their own campus.”

@nikkealexis, “Where.The.Fuck.Have Y’all. Been?…It takes white women feeling personally scared to turn out these crowds…Remember…you came late.”

The Ezra Klein Show, Ta-Nehisi Coates: “There’s not gonna be a happy ending to this story”

Call Your Girlfriend, #72: Giving and Gifting

Fresh Air, How The Systemic Segregation Of Schools Is Maintained By ‘Individual Choices’

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “My President Was Black,” The Atlantic

Vann R. Newkirk II, “Sometimes There Are More Important Goals Than Civility,” The Atlantic

“The only form of productive debate that people of color can engage in, it seems, is the gentle persuasion of white people who may or may not hold retrograde views. That advice is of course probably most appealing to white Americans, for whom the social cost of being called racist may loom larger than the effects of racism itself.”

Toni Morrison, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” The Nation


Erica Liao

Art Director, What the F Magazine

“Orange is the New Black” Author’s Talk Falls Short

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In case you were wondering, I can confidently report that Orange is the New Black is still the new black. I thought that because of the supbar third season of OITNB, that the crowd at Piper Kerman’s (i.e. “Piper Chapman”) talk last Tuesday (10/13) in Rackham auditorium would be moderately light. However, tons of OINTB fans and Piper enthusiasts alike filled the foyer of Rackham as the anxiously awaited Piper Kerman–the woman, the myth and legend.

Having read Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (and by read I mean having listened to the audiobook), I went into Kerman’s talk with high hopes. The book, a poignant collection of one woman’s personal experiences within the prison system, explores complex social, political, racial and emotional issues. And while the Netflix series can go off the rails a bit, it does an adequate job bringing these issues to light as well. It would seem,then, that Piper Kerman’s speech would cover these important issues.She could have chosen to relate her speech to the issues of race plaguing the nation and how that has a unique representation in prisons. She could have related her experience in the Danbury Correctional facility to the overcrowding happening at Women’s Huron Valley, a prison only 25 miles from where Kerman stood that day. Piper Kerman had the fucking buffet of social issues to talk about and instead produced a brief and shallow synopsis of her story and the prison system.

Kerman opened her talk by relaying the basics of her story. Granted, from listening to the audiobook multiple times, I had every minute of this intro memorized, but still it was quite amazing to have the real person telling it 10 feet away from me. Kerman explained her lesbian affair (with euphemisms, of course) that led her into the world of drugs and eventually forced her into carrying a bag of drug money from Chicago to Switzerland. Kerman told us that she was from Boston, the offspring of two teachers and a graduate of Smith College. When referencing Smith she called it “the first women’s institution she would be held at.” On the surface the joke is funny. I’ll admit it, I laughed. But come on, Piper, you’re really going to compare college to prison? From what I read of the book–of all the abuses and human rights violations that happen in prison–it seems demeaning to the experiences of prisoners to compare them to my pampered life as a college student. Look, I know you were just trying to lighten the talk with a joke but strike one, Kerman. Strike one.

Strike two, came at about one hour into her talk. Piper began speaking at 5:10 P.M., and she did not bring up the word “race” until 6:01 pm (yes, I did indeed record these numbers). She spoke about race and class together, with a powerpoint slide that had an image of an two hands of different races embracing in cultural connectivity. Because of course, right? Kerman stopped talking about race and changed the slide at 6:07 P.M. Six minutes. She dedicated a mere six minutes to talking about race. I’ve read (read: listened) to her book. She intimately and beautifully talks about race and the way it shaped her prison time. She breaks down her assumptions about her new friends and the racial stereotypes that used to occupy space in her brain. Instead Kerman only mentioned race once more when she compared “ConAir”–prison flight transit–to “modern day slave ships.” At that moment Kerman threw out a powerful image and didn’t give any more evidence to back it up. From reading her book, I know about the shackling of prisoners tightly for hours at a time, how one is often refused access to a bathroom, and how food service is seen as a luxury, not a necessity. I have read how prisoners are treated like the cattle of the Bureau of Prisons, unwanted extra baggage of the federal government. I encourage you to read her book, or others like it. The prison system in the United States is atrocious. Incarcerated people are the victims of a broken system that collects every bias and corruption imaginable. As a public figure, Piper Kerman literally has the stage to make change. In this talk, someone I had admired for a clever delivery of a revolutionary topic gave a puff piece covering just enough, yet barely anything at all.

Don’t get me wrong Kerman’s talk was enjoyable. She made other jokes that were funny and showed us pictures of her and the ‘real’ Larry which, let’s face it, every Netflix binge watcher wanted to see. She filled her hour well, kept a good pace, and delivered decent material, but she didn’t do anything meaningful. So while enjoyable, it was not at all impactful. That was strike three for me. I left the talk excited that I was in the same room as someone who has met Laverne Cox, but I was not moved in any way. When I put down her book (paused the recording), when I walked away uncomfortable, festering with ideas about what we do with the incarcerated. I walked away from her talk, however, unfulfilled.

For those of you who wanted more than Kerman gave and haven’t read the book, I urge you to read it. Or even better, buy the audiobook–you won’t regret it. For those of you who can’t commit to the book, stick to the show. However, do this for me: watch it with a skeptical eye. Parse every representation, understand that Piper Chapman the character may not exist, but the system of Litchfield does. Remember that what we are using as entertainment is actually someone’s reality. One thing Kerman said at her talk that I agreed with is that the show is making people think and talk about prisons. So please, keep reading, keep watching, keep thinking, and keep talking.


Rebecca Langsam

What the F Campus Coordinator