A Canadian writer and Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa, Sylvie Frigon, is one of the guests taking part in an interactive creative writing workshop at Rimutaka Prison in Upper Hutt on 8 March.
Called Prison Voices, the workshop is part of the New Zealand Festival’s Writers and Readers Week. Sylvie will join fellow writers and prisoners from Rimutaka Prison in a workshop led by the Write Where You Are Collective.
Sylvie has been teaching criminology at the University of Ottawa since 1993. Currently on sabbatical, she is spending two months at the University of Victoria in Wellington as a visiting scholar in its Institute of Criminology.
Her main research areas are women in prison, and issues such as employment, self-mutilation and conjugal homicide. “In the past ten years, my research has focused more on the role of the arts in prison, particularly dance, creative writing, literature and theatre.
“For me, the arts can be used as a kaleidoscope to show the different angles, views and changes of the prison system.”
Exploring confinement through the arts
Since 2003, Sylvie has been teaching a class entitled “Gender, Confinement and Creativity”, which explores confinement in prisons and other institutions through the medium of the arts.
Three reasons motivate her to explore the role of the arts and creativity in prison:
- The arts give prisoners a voice to express their experience of life before, during and after incarceration
- They provide theoretical and practical ways to examine prisons and rehabilitation
- They offer innovative, different perspectives for criminology students.
Jacqui Moyes, Arts in Corrections Advisor for Arts Access Aotearoa, says international visitors like Sylvie are a reminder of the global effort of creative people to provide access to the arts for people who are incarcerated.
“Sylvie has an incredible body of work and it’s inspiring to hear about all the different projects she has collaborated on,” Jacqui says. “The issues around gender, confinement and creativity are close to my heart, so I am very excited to be able to create opportunities for our community to meet Sylvie and exchange ideas.”
Long record of achievements, publications and awards
Sylvie has a long record of achievements, publications and awards. However, she is particularly proud of the three novels she has written, and the response to them from the general public, women prisoners and their children.
Sylvie has no background in the arts but growing up, she says she always liked writing and won a provincial poetry competition as a high school student. She wanted to add to her academic writing and to debates around incarceration in a different way and so in 2003, she sat down to write a novel.
Although Sylvie is bilingual (French and English), she writes in French because that is her first language.
“I wanted to talk about women’s experience of incarceration through their emotions, not theory,” she explains. “I started writing and after ten pages my character, Juliet, was born.”
In 2006, Écorchées (translation: Scorched) was published. She later adapted it into a play with a professional playwright, which was performed in prison by her criminology and theatre students.
One day, she says, she would like to produce a play for, by and with prisoners.
She went on to write a children’s novel called Ariane et son secret (translation: Ariane and her secret) about a little girl's quest for her mother who is in prison. It was published in 2010. Its sequel novel, C’est où chez nous? (translation: Where is my home?) was a finalist in the Prix Espiègle 2017.
Inspired by two experiences
Sylvie’s interest in using the arts as a way to explore and illuminate what it’s like for women in prison was inspired by two experiences: writing her first novel and meeting Claire Jenny, choreographer and director of the Paris dance company Point Virgule, in 2004.
Claire has been running contemporary dance workshops in French prisons for 15 years. The three-hour workshops are usually held three days a week over a six-week period.
The two women worked together on a book about the experience of dance for women in prison. It was published in 2009.
“I interviewed the prisoners and also the dancers who took the classes,” Sylvie says. “It was very clear how much dance had helped them with their self-esteem and how they had reconnected with their damaged bodies.
“The research also showed how valuable it was for the dancers, who saw the women and prison in a new light.”
Sylvie says there isn’t a lot of research on incarcerated women and yet they are a growing minority in our prisons. “We know that 80% of them have histories of abuse and more than 70% are mothers, most of whom have sole responsibility for their children.
“Reaching women through the arts is a positive way for them to discuss their painful issues.”