Fans of the uber-popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” likely spent a good portion of the last week binge watching recently released season three.
The award-winning series is based on the best-selling memoir “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” by Piper Kerman.
In the book, Kerman recalls her 13 months — what she calls her “crucible experience” — spent in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. Kerman had a brief connection with drug trafficking in her early 20s, which 10 years later — while settled into a comfortable upper middle class New York City lifestyle — turned into prison time for money laundering.
“Almost everyone I knew wanted to know about the experience of being in prison but they were afraid to ask because they recognized that it was incredibly traumatizing,” says Kerman of life after her “fish out of water” incarceration experience. “But people really were interested and once you start talking about the experience they ask, ‘And then what happened,’ ‘And then what happened.’ So I decide to write the book after I came home.”
While incarcerated, Kerman wrote often in the form of letters to family members and friends.
“I have never been a daily diarist,” she says. “I was very fortunate that so many people were writing to me while I was locked up. This is an incredible lifeline for so many people who are in prison or jail. And I had written all these letters to my family and friends and people on the outside to tell them what I was experiencing. Many of my friends saved those letters and photocopied them and sent them to me and that was incredibly useful as I wrote.”
Kerman truly feels that the reason “Orange is the New Black” has become so popular is that it help explains the much bigger phenomenon that the United States has more people in prison than any other nation in the world by far. “The book and the story afford a way into that, to try to understand it on a much more human level than data and statistics can convey.”
She also wants readers, and fans of the show, to come away with a new perspective on incarceration. “What I hope is that people who finish the book will come away with a different idea of who is in prison in this country and why they are there and what really happens in there. It really is quite different from what people think it is.”
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“Orange is the New Black” was published in 2010, and that same year talks began about a TV series.
“Producer Jenji Kohan had read the book and when I went to Los Angeles for my book tour it was arranged that we would have lunch,” Kerman says. “I was thrilled that Jenji was interested in my project because she has a provocative view of the world, and I was confident that she would do something interesting with it.”
Kerman now serves as a consultant for the show but is quick to remind fans that the book and the show are not one and the same.
“The process of adaptation is fascinating,” she says. “Obviously there are huge departures from the book and that’s fine. The (show) is not a biopic and it’s not a documentary. It’s very different and frankly very creative in terms of what they have done.”
“I think the thing that’s most provocative about the show is not the sex or the other things people talk about, but the way it uses humor to analyze the world even in very serious scenes,” Kerman says. “I think that’s one of many reasons the show has found such broad appeal with many different audiences.”
Kerman has met with a multitude of audiences herself in the years since the book was published. She has traveled all over the country speaking with various groups about her memoir and as an activist for prison reform. She serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association and recently was awarded the 2015 Humanist Heroine Award from Harvard University.
“I can say that I have never met a single person in this country that has said, ‘I am proud that we have the biggest prison population in history.’ What you find is a really interesting discussion about why is that and how can we change it.”
Within the last year, Kerman and her family moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Ohio where she continues to make an impact on the world of criminal justice.
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“Now I am teaching non-fiction writing in a women’s prison and a men’s prison and it is fantastic,” she says. “They are really interesting classes, and my students are writing really interesting stories about their own lives. It’s very rewarding.”
Fans can hear Kerman’s stories Friday night when she speaks in Cedar Rapids as the final author in this year’s OutLoud! Author Series by the Metro Library Network.
“I always enjoy meeting readers and fans of the show. It’s really interesting to me the different perspectives they bring to the material. Of course when I came home (from prison) I didn’t know I’d choose to write a book, or that the Netflix series would happen,” Kerman says. “But there was no question that I was much more fortunate than many of the women I was incarcerated with and that I had more opportunities to put that experience behind me. I had a lot of help coming home.”
“But it was impossible to pack that away and forget about all the things I had experienced and witnessed,” she adds. “I was in a much better position to speak out than many of the people who had very serious survival situations like the women I knew who were going to homeless shelters right from prison.
“So there was never any question in my mind that when I came home that I had to do something with my own voice. I did the thing I was most capable of doing, which was to just tell the story.”
If you go
What: Out Loud! Author Series presents Piper Kerman
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, 7725 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids
Cost: Free, but registration is required at http://metrolibrarynetwork.org/outloud/ or firstname.lastname@example.org