From Drugs to Launching a Prize-Winning Book

Love of Writing Unlocks Success

Curtis Dawkins. Photograph published by nytimes.com

While he was addicted to drugs, Curtis Dawkins killed a man in a botched robbery. Now he serves a life sentence in Michigan without the possibility of parole. But, before he committed his crime, Curtis Dawkins earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. From his first day in jail, Dawkins wrote stories.

Scribner is a well-respected publishing firm. After 12 years of incarceration, in summer of 2016, Curtis Dawkins received a letter from Scribner. They wanted to publish his first collection of short stories and offered him $150,000. In the summer of 2017, The Graybar Hotel was published. Dawkins was praised as a gifted stylist whose work revealed the often-overlooked lives of people in prison. Sandra Newman reviewing the book in The Guardian, says “Dawkins has a genius for bringing characters to life and making mundane situations compelling, if only because they feel so real. Throughout, it’s the tiny details that keep us invested; a prisoner missing life outside remembers how “when I would mow my yard, my dog followed close behind me, and when I would stop, he’d run into the back of my legs.” (Online review, published Friday, Septem-ber 8, 2017). Dawkins set aside the money he earned for the education of his three children.

Aspen Words Literary Prize awarded The Graybar Hotel the 2018 Aspen Literary Prize. In an inter-view, Dawkins was asked why he wrote the book. “To save my life,” he said. He told that he began repeat-ing the first line in the story, “County,” the day he entered county jail. The first line kept repeating in his mind until he wrote it down. He wanted to share these stories like someone wants to share a message in a bottle thrown into the sea. I’m not dead. I still have worth. Dawkins feels that prison life is largely misrepresented in order to entertain the public. He thinks fiction is the only hope to tell what it‘s really like. He shares all this in an interview that appears with the announcement of his prize.

Dawkins is surrounded by people who each want a hand in his earnings. The Michigan Attorney General heard about Dawkins’ success and wants him to use it to pay for his incarceration. Michigan’s Department of Treasury seeks 90% of Dawkins’ assets including proceeds from payment for publications, royalties and any money his family puts in his prison account. They estimate the cost of his imprisonment since 2005 at $372,000.

Dawkins defended himself in a hearing in Kalamazoo. He said that Michigan law contains a provision stating that the court must consider “any legal and moral obligation” that he has to support children or a spouse.

The criminal justice system is set up to restore and make whole those impacted by crime through punishment, revenge, and greed directed at “criminals.” It’s a false promise. It does not work. If Michigan attaches all Dawkins earnings, who wins? What is the benefit? Taking Dawkins’ earnings doesn’t heal the grief of his victim’s family.

Top read more by Aikya, click here.

Aikya Param is a licensed minister, a visual artist, and writer.

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