Sometimes the most important books don’t get enough attention. Such was the case last year with Reuben Jonathan Miller’s Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration, which highlights how people are continually punished after being released from prison. This is the crux where protagonist Carlotta Mercedes finds herself after being released from prison in PEN/Faulkner Award-winner, James Hannaham’s new novel, Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta.
Carlotta has spent over twenty years in prison for a robbery committed back when she went by the name and gender assigned to her at birth. Shortly after her conviction, she embraced her true self — an act prison authorities didn’t honor, forcing her to continue her incarceration amongst men, where she is abused by both inmates and guards. But now, after four failed attempts before the parole board, she is finally released on parole. She’s well aware even a minor parole infraction could send her back to the true physical hell that’s prison in America. But life outside bars has its own limitations, and Carlotta faces the challenges anyone reentering the world after being locked up for two decades must contend with — the culture shock of technological and societal changes, disorientating, even disappointing, reunions with loved ones and acquaintances, navigating parole and the uphill battle of trying to find employment. Plus, as a trans woman, Carlotta faces additional struggles: transphobia in a heteronormative society, her release paperwork has her birth name, her reunions with loved ones and acquaintances are layered — some don’t recognize her and some don’t accept her, including, devastatingly, her son.
This homecoming echoes The Odyssey — Carlotta is returning home after a literal and metaphoric battle. We’re given glimpses of the horrors she endured as a trans woman in a male cell block and in solitary confinement, but the focus is on moving forward. But there’s no way to resurrect her old life, so it’s onward to forge something new. Yet there are so many obstacles as a person formerly incarcerated and as a trans woman of color.
Hannaham’s decision to situate Carlotta’s release for the Fourth of July weekend leverages the hypocrisy of this national holiday. America declares itself the land of the free, but that’s only true for some of its citizens and inhabitants.
Freedom as a concept is interrogated throughout the novel. One of Carlotta’s first observations after her release is the way everyone around her is glued to their cell phones. Without owning one herself, Carlotta is free from the addiction of endlessly scrolling — a prison of the mind. And her brother spends his days playing video games alone — a kind of solitary confinement. As she watches how people spend their time, she considers what it means to be free:
“Maybe that’s what freedom is, the freedom to waste your fuckin freedom, to not even notice you got it till you wind up behind bars getting your ass beat an raped by a rapist who cryin rape. Hell, I wonder how free anybody who out here pissin away they freedom anyhow? Gotta work ten jobs an still can’t afford no rent, gettin kicked round by the man, gettin kicked round by your own damn man, your family up in ya face tryna tell you how to live your life all the time — Be a woman! Be a man! Wear this! Don’t wear that! Watch the same fuckin TV shows I watch, even though I know they suck!”
It’s a nicely drawn paradox — Carlotta’s physical freedom has been nonexistent (and in some ways that doesn’t change after her release), and yet, she is freer than many of us. Free from social media and caring about trends. She staunchly knows who she is and her allegiance to herself is admirable.
Anyone who read Hannaham’s award-winning novel, Delicious Foods — which is partially narrated by crack cocaine — knows he’s a master of point of view. Hannaham isn’t afraid to experiment with perspective or POV, making bold craft decisions. Such decisions in this novel may be met with criticism. But what some might call POV slips from third to first are conscious shifts deeper into Carlotta’s perspective. This craft decision, while ultimately successful, may leave some readers wishing for a more conventional narrative style.
Hannaham’s virtues as a novelist are many. He is not only masterful at voice, but at creating compelling characters and enthralling swiftly paced plots. Despite tackling heavy topics, there’s humor and playfulness in his prose. But Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta is more than a page-turner, it says something we all need to hear. Mass incarceration is an important social justice issue, one we should all care about. By drawing such a vibrant main character readers can’t help but fall in love with, Hannaham asks us to consider others in Carlotta’s situation and challenges us to give a shit about what happens to them.
Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta
By James Hannaham
Published August 30, 2022