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Author Zeke Caligiuri reflects on redemption, family, and writing from prison

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There’s no graceful way to say it: Zeke Caligiuri, author of the new memoir This Is Where I Am, is in prison.

But the story of how he became an inmate is told in a poetic narrative anchored in the Powderhorn neighborhood where Caligiuri grew up. From falling in with the wrong crowd to selling crack, the book retraces the trajectory that resulted in Caligiuri’s imprisonment. The book is not without its bittersweet moments, including interactions with his beloved grandmother.

Despite being behind bars, Caligiuri has managed to create an admirable resume, including several PEN Prison Writing Contest awards and an inclusion in Prison Noir, a story collection edited by Joyce Carol Oates.

We spoke to Caligiuri from Faribault Correctional Facility in anticipation of the book’s launch celebration at Open Book this evening.

City Pages: You didn’t include the crime that you’re in prison for in the book. Why did you omit that from the story?

Zeke Caligiuri: I wanted respect for family members and anybody else that may have been impacted by this to be able to feel the way they feel about everything that happened. I didn’t want to bring up any kind of bad memories.

CP: What role has writing played in your rehabilitation?

ZC: It’s been a way for me to have an ongoing dialogue with myself. It’s a self-check. I have these projects that keep me on task so I don’t get lost in the long stretches of time. That’s a really easy thing to do in these places. There’s a re-humanization process involved in it, too. A lot of what the writing does is it allows me to rebuild the human aspect of me, sort of re-establish the value of my own life.

CP: Do you think you would have become a writer if you had remained on the outside?

ZC: I kind of have a hunch. When I was young, I wanted to write, but I don’t know if that was just because I didn’t have the drive and the determination to go out and seek other things. I think in a lot of aspects, we tend to develop fairytale ideas about our future or what our lives will be when we haven’t put enough work in... I think maybe those abilities may have come out. I don’t know in what capacity and I don’t know what book I would have written.

CP: Did you have any hesitation about publishing a book about your past that might affect your future?

ZC: There’s no denying where you come from. I can say there’s a general fear as to the way people will respond to my work. I think that’s something, though, that’s similar for a lot of writers, whether they’re incarcerated or not. I had these stories and I had to make sense of them in some way. I wouldn’t be able to get rid of who I was as a teenager in south Minneapolis. That was going to be embedded wherever I was at. The things I did, they don’t go away. That’s a real fact of life.

CP: What was your mother’s reaction to the book?

ZC: She’s been around throughout the process. At times, she’s very touched by it. I think she would like it to mean more than what it does. She would love it to mean redemption, but that’s not a real thing. The real thing is it’s a piece of art, it represents a portion of what our family experience was. I have this project that was created, but during the course of that, we lost my father. I lost my grandmother. It’s something I completed, but we had a long way to get there. I think she understands that journey, too, to an extent, through her own lens. I think she’s very touched and very glad that it’s happening.

CP: You mentioned redemption. What would that look like? What form would it take if not in the form of a book?

ZC: I don’t ask for it. I don’t expect it. I don’t think that’s something human beings should be reaching out for. Life creates a whole lot of consequences when you do things and you just sort of have to say, “All right. This is what’s going to happen.” I’m just creating art as a human being now who’s trying to rebuild himself after 17 years.

CP: How much time do you have left on your sentence?

ZC: I get out in 2022.

CP: Do you think you’ll move back to Powderhorn?

ZC: It’s a strong possibility. I’m not opposed to it. I also know, too, there are certain disadvantages when you come out with a felony, and it’s tough to find living arrangements.

CP: Are you concerned about falling back into old habits or circles of former friends?

ZC: Absolutely not. That was an entire world ago. I’ve done my best to be able to grow up out of that. Those were habits of a child.

CP: What does an average day look like for you now?

ZC: I get up early. I drink my coffee. I usually will lay out my materials -- I have these big, long to-do lists of projects I’ve been working on. I plot my course for the day. I may go to breakfast. I have a job here that I spend most of the morning and most of the afternoon doing, tutoring men in post-secondary situations. I come back, I write. This is not the ideal living situation in Faribault. I’ve had better living situations, but that’s what I do. I continue to write. I spend time with my people, my friends.

CP: Are you working on another book right now?

ZC: I’m in the beginning stages. I’m just sort of conceptualizing what the next big project is. I’ve always looked at my time in the sense of projects remaining. This was a big one, but I have one more big project before I get out. I’m trying to put that together at this point, just to hammer out the details in my mind so I at least can go forward.

CP: What do you miss most about life on the outside?

ZC: My family. But a lot of my family is no longer out there. It’s essentially me and my mom at this point. I miss my family, but I miss things that aren’t there also. I’m so far removed from the missing part that I don’t worry about those things. I don’t feel them as acutely as I once did.

CP: What are you most looking forward to doing when you get out?

ZC: I haven’t really thought about that. I’m sure I’ll want to eat, but I’ll need some time to decompress. I’ll need some time with myself to sort of examine some things. Take a walk. Eat some vegetables. Fruits and vegetables. That’s a big thing: whole foods.

CP: If a parent were to ask you what to do to prevent their son from falling into drugs or crime or any other activity that would land him in prison, what would your advice be?

ZC: I’m not the best one to give advice, but I would just say: love them. Just be present. I had that, but there were other circumstances involved there, too. Life deals a lot of really strange wild cards sometimes, but I think you just sort of have to prepare ‘em and love ‘em and be there at falls and help teach ‘em and help guide ‘em. In the end, we have each other. And that is maybe what’s most extraordinary about the whole thing. What we have is each other and we support each other regardless of what happens.

CP: Do you think you’ll have a family of your own someday?

ZC: I might. I’m not ruling it out. If it happens, that would be a blessing. If it doesn’t, I’ll worry about -- I have a family, though. I have a family of people I’ve done time with, people who have affected my life very positively, people who’ve come to support me. That’s enough for me if that’s what it has to be.

IF YOU GO:

Zeke Caligiuri, This Is Where I Am launch celebration
Open Book's Target Performance Hall
7 p.m. Monday, October 24
Free
All Ages