Featured Fem | Meet Sarah Yaw

SarahYawHiResSarah Yaw’s novel You Are Free To Go (Engine Books, 2014) won the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize and the 2015 CNY Book Award for fiction; her short work has appeared in Salt Hill. Sarah received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is associate professor and coordinator of Cayuga Advantage at Cayuga Community College.


Fem: What drew you to fiction?

Sarah Yaw: I was a musician who’d lost her music and needed an artistic outlet to satisfy the parts of me music once satisfied. In college, I was a women’s studies minor and landed in a women writers course at SUNY Albany. I didn’t know I wanted to write fiction. I’d even forgotten that I’d shown early promise in school. Later, I remembered shutting down the desire to write because I thought only men wrote—sounds simplistic and stupid, but that limiting belief wormed its way in and stayed there until it was forcibly dislodged by that women writers class. For our final paper, we could write a literary analysis or a creative piece in the voice of one of the authors we’d read that semester. I’d read Colette for the first time in that class and she blew my doors off. So I attempted to write pieces in her voice and a whole new world opened up for me. I was a senior, so that was disorienting. Eventually, I found my way to graduate school where I learned the writing tools I’d missed out on in my undergraduate education.

F: Tell us about your novel, You Are Free To Go.

SY: In You Are Free To Go, Moses and Jorge will never leave the maximum security prison. Outside the prison walls, Gina, Shell, and Ellen will never escape its influence, or the way it tethers them to one another. When Jorge dies in his cell, lives within and beyond the prison walls are upended, testing the boundaries we all draw to keep the good in, the hurtful out. You Are Free To Go is about prisons with walls and the kind we build within ourselves.

F: What was your motivation for writing it?

SY: I grew up in a town with a maximum security prison at its heart. As an 8-year-old, I received collect calls from prisoners attempting to connect with the outside world, and throughout my childhood, I’d see prisoners in transport vans looking out at the world trying to consume everything, even me. This intersection was haunting. It was also forbidden. There was an implied hush about the prison, and we weren’t encouraged to ask questions about how it affected the lives of the people living in the town. When I was 28, I moved home again. I was going through a divorce and completing my MFA thesis. I was writing with a view of the prison and it kept showing up in my stories. In those stories, I was exploring love and female friendship. In college, I had read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish,” and the structure of a panoptic prison as a metaphor for social control stuck with me for years. In a panoptic prison, the cells are built so the prisoners can’t see when they’re being watched. In theory, the inmates police themselves, internalizing the surveillance. I kept returning to this idea in my room writing those stories. Of course, I was really trying to figure out how I had made such a mess of my life. I was smart, even intellectual, and yet I had submitted subconsciously to the belief that you are as worthy as the man you’re married to, and that hadn’t worked out well for me. I really hope young women are smarter now and have stopped that. Anyway, I was piecing together who I was when I began writing You Are Free To Go. Eventually I realized the prison that kept appearing in my fiction represented the forces outside of myself that dominated my own sense of value. I didn’t feel at all free, then, and a prison felt like the perfect metaphor.

F: In what ways is your novel a feminist text?

SY: The prison metaphor is obvious, but I think the most important thread in the novel for me is the story of Gina, Shell, and Ellen, three characters who sacrifice their deep connection to each other because they are seeking success in love and marriage. In You Are Free To Go, these “free” characters are imprisoned, and they only step toward freedom when they begin in very small ways to ask Who am I? and What do I want? That’s when the shackles come off.

F: How extensive was your research for a project like this?

SY: My favorite question. I needed to decide early on if I was going to seek New York State Department of Corrections approval to gain access to the local prison. I chose not to because I’d have to submit the book for approval. That sounds very professional, but the truth is, I didn’t actually know if I could pull off writing a novel, let alone one set in prison. I mean, who was I? So I chose to research by sneaking around town, which turned out to be the best way to research this book. I wanted to tell two stories: the story of a prisoner inside, and the story of the people living in the prison’s shadow. I work at the community college in town, and many of my students work inside and shared lots of details—Lila, the woman who runs the mailroom, is based on a student. My colleagues were also great help. One day a woman I work with said, “You need to come to my church knitting group.” I didn’t know why, but I agreed. Many of the most accurate details about prison life came from that knitting group. They told me about their decades of experience running lines in Industry or serving as secretary to the warden. These women were the perfect people to shed light on the forbidden intersection between inside and outside. At the end of our night together, they said, “It was nice to meet you. Good luck with your book. Don’t ever mention any of our names.” They were terrific. Finally, a criminal justice professor invited me to join her class on a tour of the prison, and I went inside as a student. It was great. I wanted just enough information to lend verisimilitude to the text, and I got it. It was never my intent to write an accurate portrayal of the prison in my town, or the State system. Rather, I was in search of truth about what it means to be free, both on the inside and the outside. We’re all doing life sentences, to some degree, aren’t we?

F: Which do you find more challenging to write, novels or short stories? Why?

SY: Ah! Short stories scare the life out of me. The great Christine Schutt once told me a novel is like a house, you bring the reader through and show them all the closets, open all the drawers. Short stories, you take the reader into the closet and shut the light off. I haven’t tried to write one in over a decade. I’m claustrophobic. That might have something to do with it. Also, novels take so long. At least mine do. I am the person they’re talking about when they’re trying to solve the problem of work-life balance. I work full-time, I have 6 year-old twins, and I am a writer. I work on one project at a time, mostly in stolen moments. When new story ideas surface they end up intertwining with others and become novels—my second is nearing completion, a third awaits in the wings.

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