Smiling Behind the Sun: An Interview with Zarria Alexander
A discussion diving into the prison industrial complex, poetry as a means of healing, and speaking out about injustice.
Libyans sometimes refer to being arrested and taken away without warning as being “taken behind the sun.” This interview series celebrates — through conversations with currently and formerly incarcerated artists — the ways in which an artistic, creative life can transmute the impact and redefine the legacy of an experience within the Prison Industrial Complex.
As I was preparing for this interview with Zarria Alexander, a friend described her as “a poet, mother, talent, and total force to be reckoned with.” At 22 years old, Zarria is celebrating the release of her first poetry collection, working on her second, and building her personal brand, Freedom Voice Poetry. We met up in Hyde Park to talk about Zarria’s poetry and inspirations, the legacy she’s building for her daughter, and the healing power of language.
Michael Fischer: You’ve been writing poetry since you were six years old. How did you first discover poetry, and what drew you to it?
Zarria Alexander: I first discovered poetry, I would say, when I was entering middle school. Oh no, that was right before middle school, right? Because six years old, that’s like grammar school. So I would just write out my feelings, and that would be just a free write of poetry. But once I got more into school and into Langston Hughes, that helped me develop the whole sense of poetry and me just getting my own rhythm, writing down my thoughts. Then I just started putting it together until it flowed like he did. I was really connected with him because it helped me identify, like, “that’s how I want to speak.”
I want to use my words and I want it to be clear. I want people to understand and for them to get an idea of what each emotion is by my words, by my description, by telling my story. That’s how it all started: just me writing down my thoughts daily. And from there, I just used to write whatever come to me — if anything I seen, sometimes in movies, TV shows, if any of my family members were going through something, anything I was going through. I would get a whole idea or topic and just go from there.
MF: You’ve stated that your writing saved your life because you chose to write your way through your challenges and not allow the stigma around things like depression and rape to keep you silent about things that have happened to you. Talk about what it took for you to make that choice — to write and speak out about those things.
ZA: I would say that it was a pretty big deal. I had to really sit and think, “Do I really want to say all this?” But my main thing in my head was that, “Yes I want to say all of this.” So I made it an opportunity for me to say it all and for me to be heard. Because at the end of the day, that was something that I always said: “I want somebody to hear my story, to hear everything that I gotta say and not ignore my feelings.” And to be able to just get it out of my head — because I feel like when you keep things in, it kind of bothers you. You’re not able to deal with life as best as you can, because life is already challenging. So to add on anything that you have in your mind that’s keeping you down? That’s kind of crazy. When you let things out, I feel like it’s better for you.
For me, it definitely was better. I was able to feel like a breath of fresh air was relieved. Which is actually the whole symbolism of my [book] cover, with the birds flying out of the cage, because it symbolizes freedom. I believe that when you’re telling your story, you’re telling your truth, because at the end of the day a lot of people hide truths. A lot of people stay to themselves and don’t let whatever it is be known, or just don’t feel comfortable with expressing how they feel in general about things. I think that it was just a way for me to let it all go — and I did.
MF: And do you feel like that worked? Did letting it go really change things for you?
ZA: Yeah, I think it did. Just because I feel lighter now. I don’t feel as depressed, I don’t feel as down. Life is still hard and every day sometimes is a challenge. But now, my book is my reminder: you went past all of that and you gotta keep going because every day you kept going and it got you here. So it’s still like, you made an improvement. You might not be where you really want to be, but you’re getting a step closer. That’s my message to everybody, is to keep going, no matter what. Don’t let anything stop you and just make the most of what you can. I feel like everybody needs to be free. And telling people to free themselves is for them to tell their stories.
MF: We’ll get to the book in a minute, but before we get there: back in 2019, you had a poem in memory of Kenneka Jenkins, “What Happened to Me,” which found a really nice, large audience on Facebook. Can you talk about what that experience was like, to lift up Kenneka in your work and see people really engage with that work?
ZA: I wrote the poem in 2018 when I was in college. I didn’t stay there, but before leaving I was involved in a poetry slam and I won the first competition. The second competition included a list of people who we had to choose from to write a story about, using whatever your art was. I do poetry so I chose Kenneka Jenkins, because during the time that her death occurred, I was actually at a hotel near there with my friend for her birthday. And so the next day everybody was blowing our phones up, like, “Are you guys okay? Y’all need to see the news!” So I really felt connected to her: just being around the same age, being from the same city, the same place, and not being able to make it home. But I was fortunate to make it home to my family. I really felt touched and connected to her, and so when the opportunity presented itself for me to choose her, I felt like I was drawn to choose her.
I didn’t get to share the poem during the finale because I didn’t stay at the school, but once I came home and it was around the time of her incident, I decided to record myself doing the piece and then I posted it. Just really, it was for her that I posted it. But once it went viral, I was like I’m glad that it’s out there for everybody to hear, because I felt like I was speaking for her. For people all across the world to be listening to it and sharing it, I felt like that was another thing that was helpful. Anybody that knows me knows I’m a very loving and caring person, so anything I do, I do it for the love that I have for everybody deep down in my heart. I just really felt connected to her, so me putting it out was me speaking for her. I just want there to be justice. That was my motive behind that; just freeing that. I feel like that was not me freeing it, but her freeing it as well — for the world to keep trying to fight for her and make it known what happened to her.
MF: I’ve heard parents of little kids talk about how watching their children experience the world with such presence and wonder — everything is so new to them — how that really heightens the parents’ own ability to notice and to be open to inspiration and things you didn’t notice before, because now you see the world through the child’s eyes. Has having your daughter changed your creative practice and what you see, what you notice, in the world these days?
ZA: Yeah, I love watching my daughter just grow each and every day. It’s so amazing to see her just being involved, growing, doing new things. I believe that it’s made me more aware of life in general — making sure that I stay on my p’s and q’s for her, because at the end of the day, I have to be there for her and I have to show her as much as I can and teach her as much as I can. So it’s definitely made me more alert.
And I would say that it’s made me a little bit more creative. Just because COVID happened — so you know everybody was in and out the house, but mostly in the house — so I’ve had to come up with a lot of activities for us to do. It’s so interesting because now my daughter — spending time with her as much as I have now, just because of what’s going on in the world and how things have made a complete 360 — I get to see her talents.
My daughter is so talented at just two years old: she loves to write, she loves to draw. My grandma always tells me, “She’s gonna be a writer, just like you.” She’s just writing everywhere. She even had my book one day and she was like “reading” it, but reading it upside-down, and I was like, “Okay girl, you doing that.” And it made me proud. Just because this is something that she’s always gonna have to look back and say, “My mom did this, my mom is this person.” I want to see that for her. And so to see it now, and to see that she’s gonna be productive, to see that she’s gonna be talented and just everything that I was, it just makes me happy. Just to see your kid grow each and every day, it definitely makes you strive harder for your goals, and that’s what I’ve been doing.
MF: I love that about her reading the book upside-down. So, of all the misconceptions surrounding incarceration, I think people particularly misunderstand what it means to be locked up a.) as a young person and b.) as a woman. Most of these narratives, they’re male-centric and they’re often older people. What do you wish people understood about the unique challenges that are faced by young people in prisons and jails, but particularly young people who identify as women?
ZA: I would say that people should be more open to the differences we have — and not even just the differences we have, but just understanding people in general. A lot of people are kind of selfish, as to where they only think about themselves and how they will react or how a situation played out for them, versus being open to somebody else’s life and what their emotions are, what their experience was. Because at the end of the day, all of our experiences are different.
I would just say people have to understand that anybody that is incarcerated, at any point in their lives, it’s a different environment from what anybody is used to. You know, every day [on the outside] you get a chance to do whatever you want to do. When you’re locked up and you can’t do what you want to do at that time period, at that moment, and you’re stuck in this new habitat, it’s very hard. It’s challenging to deal with your emotions inside a place where you’ve never been and where you know you’re confined. I would say a lot of people need to put that into play when thinking about how people are reacting or how people feel. People’s feelings matter and their opinions matter, because your situation might not have been like somebody else’s situation was, and at the end of the day, you never know what happened to even put them in a predicament like that.
MF: Your first book of poetry, Lived Through Hell, was published in 2021, shortly after your uncle’s death. You dedicated the book to him and to all those who have experienced traumatic life changes and kept moving forward. You’ve touched on this a little bit already, but what message do you hope readers of your collection come away with?
ZA: I would say it’s always to keep going. I even have another slogan from Freedom Voice, which is to always choose life. A lot of times people go through depression; not everybody continues to survive their depression. So for the people who are choosing life, you’re choosing to keep forward in life, to keep going, and to deal with your emotions as best as you can, because it’s not easy. But when you’re choosing life, you’re making a big choice to step up. You’re saying, “Yes, I’m choosing myself and that I want to stand here, I want to be here, I want to survive this, and I want to keep going.”
I just want readers to take away that you should always keep going, no matter what. Just try as best as you can to stick through each and every thing. No matter what obstacle presents itself, you just keep moving forward, you try to go over all the hurdles whatever way you gotta go, whether it’s under or over.
Another thing that I want people to take away is to stop feeling like you don’t have a voice because everybody has a voice and everybody is entitled to use that voice. You should be able to say whatever you want to say and not feel like you can’t say it because of the next person, or you can’t say it because of the limitations that are held for that certain thing. I feel like you should know that it’s okay to speak up — and that can be over anything. However you feel comfortable speaking up, you should just not feel so voiceless. Use your voice because you have a voice. That’s just what I want everybody to know.
MF: You identify very strongly as a fearless, open, and outspoken poet. Obviously being outspoken is about so much more than just being the loudest voice in the room, right? In this moment — as we continue grappling with issues around race and incarceration and policing — what does being outspoken mean and look like to you? How do you think about and define what it means to be outspoken in a productive way right now?
ZA: I would say, in a productive way, being outspoken is making a difference with your words to where you’re putting them out there. But sometimes you have to be careful with what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and where you’re saying it at because there’s always a time and place for everything. So even if you want to say something, it might not be the best time to say something, because the better moment becomes the better outcome for your words. Me being outspoken in everyday life now, I’m just telling my truths and I’m speaking up against everything I feel is unjust or not right.
In my justice situation, I had to speak up for what was right for me, because at the end of the day I was put up against somebody that was in law enforcement, and I wasn’t able to speak for myself at first. But then, when I was given the opportunity to speak up against my situation, I made sure that I told my story as it was experienced by me, and I let them know, “Hey, this is my life, this is the way it happened, this is how I dealt with it, this was the outcome, and this is how it’s going.” So every day, I’m just outspoken by choosing to be myself.
MF: With your first poetry collection now out in the world, what subjects and themes are you looking to explore in your current and future work?
ZA: I’m actually heading on my new journey, which will be medical school. I want to assist at the job, just being able to provide patients the love and care that they deserve. I’m very passionate, like I said, about helping people in general and people getting justice, people getting fair quality and everything. So really, I just want to be that person that’s providing that love for people that they may not already be receiving.
I want it to be generous love, so not something fake but something very real and something that they know is available to them. Because sometimes people will just go about their life, they might not be having the best day, so then they don’t care about your day when you might not be having the best life either. And them speaking to you or you speaking to them can help. A lot of people don’t think that that matters and a lot of people don’t even think about that.
I just want to be that person that’s there every day: bringing the energy and making sure that people know there’s somebody in their corner that can help them. I’m also going to stay on my journey with my writing. Next year, or in 2024, I’m planning on releasing my second book, and that’s something that I currently have in the works, as well as with the medical field, so I’m very excited.
MF: That’s a lot of great things happening. So, what can you tell us about the new book? Having explored all this difficult stuff in the first book, are there new horizons that you’re exploring in the second book that maybe you didn’t have space for or didn’t touch on before?
ZA: I’ll be speaking on new events. But in the second book, I’m gonna get more into how life is going currently, the new challenges I face. Because the first book identified the current [struggles] and it was mixed in with old experiences from my childhood, my teenage years. Now that I’m older, now that I have a daughter, now that I’ve went through a little bit crazier things, I’m gonna try to include those as well in this second book — and also carry another message, like I did in the first book.
MF: Well that’s great, congratulations. Being a source of inspiration is a key driver for you in everything you do, of course, but obviously receiving inspiration is crucial as well. So I wanted to finish up by asking what movements, what people, what ideas, what art, just what anything is inspiring you these days?
ZA: I’m inspired by another author and activist; she goes by the name of Kimberly Jones. I just found out about her, but she’s been doing movement work for so long and being so involved, and I would say she’s inspiring me every day to be a better writer and to continue to speak out. Because of her being an activist, she’s speaking out on injustice, she’s speaking out for whatever she feels is right. At the end of the day that’s always been me, I’ve always been a type of activist kind of leader, in school, out of school. Everybody knows me as outspoken, everybody knows me as being involved, and everybody knows me as being caring, being loving, being motivated. I gravitate toward people who are just like me, and I found her to be just like me.
Cristina Williams — I met her with Storycatchers [a nonprofit theatre organization that helps court-involved youth to tell their own stories] — she inspires me every day to keep going. I actually just told her the other day, I can hear her voice in my head every day since June — because I haven’t seen her since June. But every day when I’ve felt down, I hear her in my head, like, “You know you just gotta keep going.” She always told us each and every day in Storycatchers: no matter what, life goes up and down, it’s like a rollercoaster, but you gotta keep going. And no matter what, I’ve been going. I’m just very drawn to people who share the same beliefs as me and keep me on my toes.
Langston Hughes is still a very big inspiration to me. Maya Angelou — I love her poetry, I love her work, I love her being a phenomenal woman. I hope to be one day just like her, and I know that because I already am! So I speak highly of that and I believe that to be true.
I would say I’m also very inspired by my mom because even though we faced our differences and our challenges before, she’s still my rock, she still motivates me. She has her sickness, her illness, and every day she goes on like nothing is affecting her. Lupus is a big, big disease in the world that a lot of people are dealing with. Every day nobody knows how these illnesses are affecting people in their minds, in their bodies, so just to see somebody you know that’s dealing with something, but every day shows you that you gotta keep going? That installs in my head like, “Okay I gotta keep going.”
My grandmother — really all of my family, they’re very inspirational to my life, because I know that I want to make them proud and every day they’re making me proud. We put aside our differences, we get together, and we all wake up each day. Because at the end of the day, life is so crazy now, we gotta cherish our days. And so to see us each and every day all getting up, all going forward, all putting our best foot forward, whether it’s a small achievement or a big achievement, we’re doing it. I feel like at the end of the day, whatever change you’re making that’s a positive change, that’s a great change. So I’m just very inspired by my family, by my friends, by people that I love, people that I hold dear to my heart, and it pushes me.
MF: I’ll have to look up [Kimberly’s] work. Since you mentioned Storycatchers: can you talk about what effect being in the program has had on your creative process? What’s that done for you creatively, to be a part of that cohort?
ZA: I would say it has helped me improve as a writer, just because I experience writer’s block a lot, and sometimes I can’t write for months. It’s kinda hard because sometimes I have an idea and I try to write it and I lose it. And with me, I like to have a beginning, middle, and end. I gotta start with knowing how I’m going to end. If I don’t know how I’m gonna end it, I can’t write. If I don’t have a title, I can’t write. I’m very precise in my work. But when I have an idea, once something clicks in my head, I just get to writing.
So I would say that Storycatchers really helped me improve my writing, [and] helped me identify what I need, just because we also had a segment where you received help with case management. You were dealing with just putting out your goals or just talking about your day and how you’re doing, how you’re feeling. So it helped me identify what I need mentally, emotionally, physically, financially, everything. It’s really made a big, big difference in my life.
I’m lucky to have been a part of this program and to have been able to get this experience with these people. I always tell them: when I first walked into Storycatchers, I was just like, “This is Freedom Writers” — that’s another one of my favorite movies that I love. So it always connected with me and how I feel as a writer, and I feel like that was us: all coming from different backgrounds, different areas around the city, but we’re in the same city. And you know we’re going through different challenges but at the end of the day, we all experience similar things. To have this new family, to adapt to this new environment, to feel all of these emotions and to connect with people, really changed me and bettered me as a person, as a writer, as a student, [and] an employee. Because it was also a job experience. So I got better at talking, my communication got a little better. Helping me just calm down and be a little bit more attentive, I would say that as well.
And just dealing with the whole justice system. I was able to participate [in] this program and get this off of my background — which is a huge, huge, huge, huge, huge accomplishment in my life. Just because I feel like honestly, even though I might have gotten through this without them, I believe that being involved with them helped me get through this quicker.
I’m just proud of myself and I’m blessed and like I said, I’m thankful that I was a part of this program because now this is not on my back, now this is not interfering with me working anymore. Because at first it was; I wasn’t able to get jobs that I wanted. I would receive a job offer and then it was like, “Oh, we can’t hire you because this is on your background.”
And so being a part of Storycatchers and getting the opportunity to receive the help, to go down there and deal with this case, and now it’s thrown out and now it’s not hindering me. I really feel like I’m just doing it. I’m so happy because it’s not affecting me anymore. But it’s also a milestone that I’ve crossed and now it’s going to help me help people speak up against what they’ve dealt with. Because at the end of the day, this is still something that I dealt with and am still dealing with because it’s an experience that will forever be in my mind.
But also I’m able to say that I kept going and that I got through it — because sometimes people don’t think that they should deal with problems. It’s like, “Oh, I’m not gonna be able to take care of that” or “I’m just gonna leave that in the back.” But always going forward and trying to get through something is I believe the best option, and I just want to tell people your story does not define you. You can use your story to get past everything and to get somewhere where you never thought you would be. Like right now: I’m in this room talking to you, telling you my story, and it all started from being involved in that situation. But I used that situation to make me better as a person, and to not so easily land back in the same situation, but to also identify if I am in that same situation, how can things be different and how can I speak up against the injustice of the justice system?
MF: Getting that off your background — that’s a huge win, that’s a big relief. Alright, those are all the questions I came up with. Is there anything that you want to talk about, that you want to take a chance to make sure you say that we didn’t get around to?
ZA: I would just say that I’m very thankful that you have me here today. I’m thankful that I get to continue to talk and use my words because this is like a dream come true to me. Just being from six years old knowing that I wanted to be a writer, knowing that I wanted to be a speaker, this is very… real to me. I just want to say thank you for having me and thank you to everybody that’s going to hear this and be aware that I was here.
About the Author: Michael Fischer was released from prison in 2015 and is currently a humanities instructor in the Odyssey Project, a free college credit program for income-eligible adults. He’s an Illinois Humanities Envisioning Justice commissioned humanist, Luminarts Cultural Foundation fellow, Illinois Arts Council grantee, and a finalist for the PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship. His nonfiction appears in The New York Times, Salon, The Sun, Lit Hub, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and he’s been featured on the Outside Magazine Podcast, The New York Times‘s Modern Love: The Podcast, and The Moth Radio Hour.
About the Photographer: Kristie Kahns is a photographer and art educator based in Chicago. Remaining close to her first passion of dance, she has spent over a decade as part of the Chicago dance community through her camera. She is also a dedicated teaching artist, creating analog photography programs for teens. She is currently a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, studying art education and administration.