Speaker: Ra Avis

The Frightfully Wondrous Experience of Being Here

Forgiveness is centered inside of you, just like love. In prison, you see all different versions of unforgivingness. And being a firefighter in prison, you understand the unforgiving nature of nature. Forgiveness occurs in the earth—just the way nature balances itself, you learn how to balance yourself. Forgiveness is just a wonderful thing…it feels like a superpower.

- Ra Avis

Ra Avis didn't call herself a writer till she was accused of the crime that would eventually result in 437 days of incarceration. In the four years between the accusation and the handcuffs, after a friendly push from her husbanda writer himselfshe started a blog and named it Rarasaur (frightfully wondrous things happen here). It became a space for writing about love and grace and grief, and won many awards for being gentle-spoken and insistently hopeful.

In May of 2015, she wrote a goodbye post on the blog, for the first time alluding to the case that had followed her around for years. She was in jail just a few days later. Shockingly to her, the blog followed. She received letters every single day and wrote posts when she could. Some writings were about topics she had covered before, some about the newness of this world. She traveled to the country's largest women's prison. She became a firefighter.

In May of 2016, with just a few months of a sentence left to serve, Ra's beloved husband, Dave, passed away.

“We often forget about how the [prison] system impacts people. One thing I try to highlight in my poetry is that I lost my husband while I was inside. And that’s obviously important on a personal level, probably the most important thing that’s happened to me in my life—the biggest thing—but it’s also important on a level when we’re speaking to mass incarceration. Because a year with his only person in jail killed a man. It does harm to the families who aren’t serving time. The people who are out there while pieces of their hearts are locked away. And there is a lot of healing that the world needs and the first step of any type of healing is to find the wounds.”

The blog came to Dave’s funeral, tooin the form of strangers who had been reading for some time, and in the form of stories written in support.

With that support behind her, Ra has since published three books. Sack Nasty: Prison Poetry, is a compilation of poetry and prose centered around her 437 days of incarceration. These true stories are about the illusion of dignity, the malleability of justice, and the fluidity (and fluids) of the human condition. Dinosaur-Hearted is decorated with sign board images and handscribed doodles constantly reaffirming the message that you are loved. Flowers and Stars is about inevitable transitions. Within its pages a little flower and a big star learn how to gently say goodbye. It is a reminder that some things stay still, and others move forward, and all things do both. In essence, Ra’s booksall three of themare about love, and grace, and grief.

Sometimes that grief is about the death-kind, sometimes it is the failed-systems-kind, and sometimes it is the kind that fluctuates between desperately wanting to remember and desperately wanting to forget.

In 2019, Ra had another experience with forgetting, and this one without the grace of want. A prison injury followed her outside into the world. What began as unhappy blood gathered by a hip injury exploded like tiny stars into her brain, and caused what the doctors call mini-strokes. She lost her ability to read or recognize written language in any way. 

“This isn’t the first time that prison took my words away from me. In jail, they give you pencils that are too small to use and they only keep the lights on for a certain amount of time. When I got to prison, the library was close to me and they wouldn’t deliver the books that my friends and family were sending in. And as a reader and a writer and somebody who’s so in love with my community, having those connections taken away was really, really heartbreaking. And to come back out, rebuild them slowly, and then have strokes that were ultimately caused from my time in prison take those things away again was frustrating on multiple levels.”

She learned to see out of the sides of her eyes again. She learned to read and write again. She learned to walk as if she had never ever fallen so hard.

On April 4th, 2021 Ra began a job as the Communications Manager for Initiate Justice, a non-profit organization in California that fights to end mass incarceration by activating the power of the people directly impacted by it.

People like her.

Initiate Justice sends updates to the prisons. It trains organizers inside. It helps family members and formerly incarcerated people get trained outside. It creates and passes bills. It talks to legislatures. It runs an educational program called The Institute of Impacted Leaders that Ra graduates from this June. It’s a 12-week program that educates system-impacted people on how to affect policy change.

Ra is also the creative force behind Silver Star Lab Press and Silver Star Apparel. She writes regularly at rarasaur.com.

This July, Ra will have been home six years, and after all those many experiences, she finds herself blessed to be here. Writing about love, and grace, and grief.

“It’s a really common thing for people to think that we come out of our terrible experiences stronger or braver. I actually think we come out of them more fragile, softer, and a little slower and a little bit more cautious of things because we’ve been a little broken. And usually, when people hear that barrage of words, they think of it as a negative thing. But that’s only because our society values speed and toughness.

There’s so much joy to be felt in slowness and softness.

Join Pavi Mehta and Maria Jain in conversation with this remarkable once-upon-a-time inmate, reluctantly-optimistic widow, and generational storyteller.

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