By Carolyn Quimby | @CarolynQuimby, @WornBookSmell
Since the season two premiere last Friday, the internet has been aflutter with all things Orange is the New Black. Having just finished the second season yesterday, I figured it was the perfect time to finally review Piper Kerman’s memoir, which shares the same name.
Like many people, I was brought to Kerman’s memoir through the Netflix original series. It was a book I may never have discovered otherwise, but I’m glad I did. What I will say is that the book is very much imprinted on the show (well, the first season anyway). However, like every other adaptation in history, there are similarities and differences, and it was in those differences that I found myself drawn to Kerman’s voice.
Sometimes the show can get too campy and gruesome and hardcore compared to the book. The over-the-top violence and sexuality is great for television, but Kerman’s memoir is softer and less outlandish, but still interesting.
(Major and minor spoilers ahead)
1. The transparent forward
Memoir can be a slippery genre in terms of truth and the real, which is one of the reasons why I love it. Let’s face it: when an author writes a memoir, they are writing a memoir of everyone they interact with — for better or worse. Writing your own story is one thing, but writing someone else’s is another — it’s an ethical boundary that every nonfiction writer has grappled with; a line they constantly flirt with.
Similar to Cheryl Strayed’s intensely transparent and honest forward in Wild, Kerman is upfront about the details and anecdotes she’s altered. She not only changed names, but distinguishing features and details, to protect the prisoners she encountered while locked up. In fact, only two women kept their real names because Kerman had been granted their permission.
It might be a personal quirk, but I really love when writers are upfront about their craft (especially in nonfiction).
2. Kerman is (fairly) self-aware
Book Piper is so much more attuned to her privilege than TV show Piper. There were countless times in the memoir when she talks about how much more fortunate and well-off she was compared to the other prisoners. Not only did she have friends and family willing to travel hours to visit her, but she also had their financial support.
The idea of Piper’s “library” as a status symbol was a lovely, yet sad, detail. As someone who grew up extremely middle class, it seemed absurd that having too many books could make you the envy of a prison. Disposable income was a foreign concept to so many of the prisoners, and Kerman was able to convey that (as well as her upper-crust education) through her “library” anecdotes.
Unlike the show, which dramatizes Piper and Larry’s relationship to the point of annoyance, Book Larry is likeable and supportive. They are not without their struggles. The loneliness and yearning and missing is still there, but they manage to get through it. Despite the stress Piper’s past put on their relationships, it was nice that she still had a person who she could call home.
4. Stereotypes and not being PC
Like everything, there were problematic parts of the book. Kerman calls one inmate “dyky” and another group “Eminem-lettes” aka “white trash.” While she recognizes her privilege, she relies on tired and frankly offensive stereotypes to flesh out characters. There are so many ways to make these women come alive, and to rely on their appearance or assumptions is careless writing.
This is one way the book pales to the show. The show has created an ensemble full of incredible, flawed, beautifully-broken women, and the book has almost none of that — or very few of note. Yes, I understand this is Kerman’s memoir, but she was impacted by these women and to give them anything other than three-dimensional representation is unfair.
Overall, I enjoyed Orange is the New Black. It was a quick and light read (weirdly enough), so I read (and listened to) it in between novels. I had never read a “prison novel” before and it was nice to read one from a woman’s perspective. The book, while limited in scope (the protagonist is a white, middle-class, highly-educated white woman), is still one that illuminates a part of our society that is usually silenced and ignored.
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Did you read Orange is the New Black? What did you think? What is the last memoir you read?