I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Two decades into a life sentence, KunQuest remains determined to live his best life as a rapper, artist, relentless reader, and, now, a debut novelist with This Life.
In 2013, I spent a week at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola. The photographer Deborah Luster and I were on assignment to document The Life of Jesus Christ, a passion play that was being performed by men incarcerated there as well as by a group of women incarcerated at the nearby prison in St. Gabriel. Luster and I both have a parent who was murdered—both murders were contract killings in Phoenix, Arizona—and I expected to write about this fact and something redemptive about the Christ story as depicted by these actors, many of whom were serving life sentences for violent crimes. But over the course of that week of long, unsupervised conversations, I began to feel I had more in common with some of the incarcerated people I spoke to than I did with many people I knew in the free world. Despite our other differences, we all had firsthand knowledge of violent crime and its consequences. Many of them were philosophically and spiritually inclined in ways I identified with.
Quntos KunQuest was part of the sound crew for the play and also wrote some music for it. He had zero desire to talk to me at first, but once we started talking it became clear to both of us that we have the same brain shape. KunQuest wanted to write stadium songs, he told me that first day, songs for a huge crowd, which he likened to building an outfit around a pair of shoes or a necklace, a simple central concept as the focal point of a larger composition. Eventually, we started talking about books. He had been reading Machiavelli’s The Prince, and he believed that most people don’t appreciate its depths; they just rush toward the superficial points without appreciating the nuances or the development. And, as KunQuest said, “What you do small, you do large.”
KunQuest and I started corresponding by mail—the same method we used to conduct this interview. At some point, I mentioned I was trying to write a novel about a man serving life at Angola, and he told me he had written a novel like that himself. The manuscript was handwritten in ballpoint pen (KunQuest had transcribed a new copy of the novel for me, all 343 pages of it), and it arrived in my mailbox in November of 2015, almost twenty years into his sentence. The action centered around the relationship between Lil Chris, a new arrival, and Rise, who has been in prison for many years, their story interspersed with vivid set pieces describing daily life at Angola, written in many registers, from the African American slang of the dialogue to the rich mix of formal and colloquial English of the narration to rap lyrics. It was dramatic, elegant, and funny—funny in a way only possible for someone who in real life has maintained his sense of humor and joie de vivre two and a half decades into a life sentence for a $300 carjacking. Six years later, KunQuest’s debut novel, This Life, is finally going out into the wider world.
Zachary LazarYou started rapping when you were young and that grew into doing shows, traveling to different places, making recordings. I guess a rapper’s task, beyond creating a powerful hook, is to tell a story in an innovative way that catches people’s attention and makes them think. How much of that skill set of writing lyrics translated to writing This Life? How was telling a story in prose different from telling one in rhymes?
Quntos KunQuestI’ve always said that you make your statement first. Say what you’re trying to say. Then worry about rhyming. I never let the music and the constraints of timing dictate what I needed to convey. That’s how I matured as a lyricist. My poetry took me further along that vein, and I believe writing prose was another step in the same progression. Funny thing is, I thought when I first wrote This Life that I was free of 4/4 time and the metronome. But I’ve come to recognize that beats and rhythm have remained a large part of my sensibility as a writer.
So, to answer your question, how was prose different? Prose gave me a lot of room to breathe. To really say some shit. Originally, when I decided to write this book I saw it as a service to my music. My first love. This Life began as a platform to roll out my old song lyrics. Shit I didn’t believe I’d get a chance to record. Just a creative way to share statements I still believed were relevant, though they were dated in the stylistic sense. But, as with everything else we do with art, the work began to take on a spirit and character all its own. It occurs to me that it’s not about genre—prose, poetry, or lyric. Or even painting as opposed to sound production. Every creation is individual and comes with its own approach and method. Process. I guess we’re addicts in this sense. Addicted to watching our own work’s becoming.
ZL Sarah [Lazar’s wife] describes my relationship to writing as an addiction. She says it sort of as a joke, though she’s not really joking. I remember you once mentioned how you went back to watching TV just so that you weren’t so out of sync with everyone, so you could be on the same planet.
QK That was more in the context of reading too much. Leveraging TV to be more down to earth marked a real revelation for me. I remember calling home once to talk to my Moms. Nothing important. Just to conversate. And the terror of realizing we could no longer relate! Addiction is about mindset. It spawns from our thought patterns. The things we habitually think about. In that context, this passage of poems/song lyrics from This Life speaks to how our minds work:
With you, I buried everything I stood for.
Dead End. Anna Street Clic. I’m givin’ it up.
I’m no long thuggin’ it up.
I’m thuggin’ it out.
See, cause now I know what strugglin’ ’bout…
When I lost my brother, I flat-out didn’t want to be here. I remember longing to push the reset button like a kid who’s fucked up his run on a video game. I thought about this obsessively. And, rather than drugs or destructive behavior, reading became what I did to not think about it. In hindsight, reading became compulsive because from the jump I began doing it so I wouldn’t think about what I’d lost. My grandfather. My freedom. My brother. Just like that. Boom, boom, boom. As a consequence, this world of books and study that I escaped to, the writing and music that were the byproduct, afforded me a mental cache of information and theory. What I didn’t realize, until that conversation with Ma, is that this escape had taken me far, far away from my roots. In a very simple way, television and creativity have been what I’ve used to work my way back.
ZL I recognize how art and books can help a person to survive trauma, maybe almost save your life, but then you have to retain that new information and reconnect to the people, your family and friends, who were your first reality.
QK If you’ve never experienced complete isolation from everything you are familiar with, I doubt if you can appreciate that first reality. I doubt if you can imagine the bitterness that sears you when other people attempt to fill that gap, that vacuum, with program, posturing, or sterile good intentions…
Ha ha ha! Takes me back to when you and I first really started moving toward what has become a strong friendship. Me less than a year off the mental health tier, audio hallucinations having scared the shit out of me. Ha ha! I used to kick shit off between us on purpose. None o’ that code-shifting shit. No filter. (Shit is funny, now; I have no idea how or why you put up with it. You got some shit with you, too, by the way.)
I was reconstructing back then. I realized on that mental health run that my biggest problem was all the faking. And maneuvering. The disdain I had for it even while being involved in it. My freedom invested. Shit make ya soul feel filthy. In my recovery, you just happened to be one of the few people I was still in contact with. Yeah, we bickered and argued like brothers. But we never missed a beat. I’ll never forget that.
ZL Those fights were the first time I felt friction between us that intensely. It’s interesting to learn that you were provoking me on purpose back then. You did a good job!
I’ve told the story of how we became friends so many times. And now that story is in the introduction to your book—and to this interview.
QKThink people will read it and appreciate how a white Jewish man from Phoenix managed to become a southern Black lifer’s John the Baptist? That passion play was a moment for the men and women of Angola and St. Gabriel. Since then, both those of us who are still inside and the ones who’ve been released have kept in contact with each other. Like some prisoners’ alumni group. And, with your “unsupervised” (nice word) presence in that space, you are an integral part of this community. Chops earned, dues paid in full. I’m not tryna stomach anyone questioning your intentions or credibility, that’s straight talk. Don’t edit a syllable of this with your less-is-more sensibilities. Let’s get it said, now, so we can say less later. Ha!
Next question, bro.
ZL In one of our first conversations, we talked about experimentation and boundary pushing in art and the limits of how much of that you can do without losing your audience. In my memory anyway, we got to this within the first five minutes of our first conversation. How much were you thinking about “audience” when you were writing This Life? The writing itself, the style, is distinctly yours. The sound is yours. That implies experimentation, a willingness to do things your own way, which of course is not the same as creating a hook or seducing the audience.
QK I’m audacious as an author, a creator. I always have been. I can honestly say I’ve never been into worrying about what people are expecting to hear. Abstraction and empathy—before I knew the terms—that was my process. From the very beginning, I’m arguing with the elements. The rules. When they won’t bend, I’m conversing with them. Fighting for my statement. I need this car. I have somewhere to go. Just really selfish. Subjective. I think for artists, that is what’s real, as opposed to saying what we believe people are expecting to hear.
In the case of This Life, the audience came in when we started editing. Another long argument. Not necessarily with you and Doug [Seibold, editor of This Life], but with my efforts to comply with what you were asking of me. In music terms, this was patterns and sequencing work. Emphasis. From my perspective, what amounted to translating the conversation for a larger audience.
In the beginning, unconsciously, I was speaking to people familiar with my reality, my voice, not necessarily as a target audience, but because my style is conversational. Working with you and Doug, I began to consider that I wanted readers beyond my surroundings to understand, to follow me. Ultimately, I realized that this was the whole purpose of this particular work. Hence the title, This Life.
ZL This is interesting, because as someone from “beyond your surroundings” (that is, “a white Jewish man from Phoenix”), part of what I saw in this book when I first read it was how elastic you made its southern Black voice, moving in and out of the characters’ spoken language, swirling it into more distant, omniscient language. I thought that in its original form it was already addressing a pretty wide audience.
QK Your level of sophistication, ahh worldliness, affords you this recognition. In order to follow me, you—or anyone else unfamiliar with the inside of a jail cell—have to appreciate the seclusion of a man cage. The totality of it.
Years ago, I remember telling you how gratifying it was to have an intellectual conversation with you (Brown University graduate, published author, I mean damn, a professor of English) and to be able to follow you. To keep up and to still feel within my depth. When you teach yourself, there is no one to tell you whether you have it right or not. There is no class curriculum to organize your efforts. The only way I can be sure that I have it right is if what I know doesn’t crumble when I build on top of it. There are no autodidactic degrees. No affirmations other than yourself.
Learning that This Life was very broad in its reach in its original form is like learning proper word pronunciation, or what it is to be socially tone-deaf. Things you can’t know until you interact with others.
ZL I want to hear how the book evolved. One of the things that struck me most when I first read This Life was how confident it was. You had a distinctive voice; you were good at characterization and setting. Okay, great, many writers have those skills. But many of them only have those skills, and they can’t do plot or structure. Whereas you constructed your story scene by scene, chapter by chapter, with authority. The book has a tight structure that pushes the narrative forward—it moves and it builds—but it doesn’t feel too “architected,” like you planned out every move in advance. That’s the opposite problem of no plot: a book is boring if it’s too deliberate and anal and controlled.
QK You’re making me worry about my next book now, and whether I can duplicate what we’ve accomplished with This Life. I didn’t plan it. It evolved, until I could see where the story needed to go. I just lived and wrote my life. Literally. Every morning there would be a handout on the security desk authorizing inter-prison movement for individual prisoners for the day. What’s called a call-out. A stack of eight to twelve pages printed on one side and stapled. I would swipe this on my way to work detail. Field labor, at the time. I was assigned to the buses that took you to the vegetable grading and processing shed. I’d fold the call-out and put it in my pocket. Later, I’d spend the day sitting on a milk crate in the dust, under the tin roofing, penning the chapter along the lines of whatever was happening around me. Work-call was five days a week. A chapter a day, the pages of the work-call dictating how long the chapter would be. That was how I completed the first seven or eight chapters. Having been a member of the Angola Drama Club for years, I was familiar with the anatomy of a dramatic composition. Build. Climax. Walk down. Repeat. That was before I got more purposeful and allowed the themes of the first five or six chapters to lead me.
The crazy part about it is that the book we’re publishing is like the seventh or eighth draft from the original story. I handwrote the manuscript like four times before I sent it to you. The facelift for Agate moved the emphasis from the song lyrics to the everyday life of the prisoner. At first, having been a prisoner for so long, I thought this would be mundane, but, as it turned out, that’s where I found the actual meat, the juicy stuff I had been taking for granted.
More here. I will admit that when Doug asked us to rework some of the story’s elements I was kind of shook. Fighting off flashes of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Twelve Years a Slave. Both popular books but, from my perspective, suspect because they were both reworkings of the words of the men who had actually spoke them. Like when Hollywood says “based on a true story.” Harrumph. My concerns were misplaced, though. Homeboy respected the integrity of the book’s statement. In this way, where you helped me to refine the literary mechanics of the work, Doug’s thing was to draw out the characters and issues that were most interesting. Like a damn good line-level EQ.
ZL You had two middle-aged white guys offering you suggestions about your book. I was never not thinking about that, and you and I talked about it often, but I guess the reality of it boiled down to time moving forward. The book was finally going out into the world and choices had to be made moment to moment. In the end, I think the EQ mix shifted it toward character and away from plot, or rebalanced it.
QK It did. That was necessary.
Along with the impressions that I’ve garnered from our broader friendship, beyond the business of books, I’ve come to recognize the need for a human interest piece about humanity and prison. Everything on the TV is Black Lives Matter or COVID and quarantine. A lot more people are being released from prison. And there’s the social politics of a post-Trump America. The country as we know it is changing. This moment, itself, gives us license to move away from the norm. In this context, it is proper to write a book that is character-driven. It’s a simple statement that if you are alive you are living. Even with a life sentence, after decades of incarceration, you’re still in the game and tryna make something shake. Still tryna live your best life.
When you look at it this way, the benefit of having you and Doug is clear. I know my own mind. I’ve lived in it for years. Ha ha! Right now, I’m writing this after lights-out on a dark cell block. I can hardly see the ink the pen leaves behind. And I’ve been here for years. Of course I know what I want to say. Between the two of you, I’ve already been educated and paid. Now I’m about to be heard. That ain’t leading me to the river. That’s puttin’ the water in a cup.
ZL I asked you before about some of the practical aspects of writing fiction in prison. Maybe you could talk about that question on a more conceptual level.
QK I touched on the actual when I spoke of the grading shed. The call-out papers. I’ve also written in the open dorms. In two-man and one-man cells on lockdown. All of it is much the same vibe. Manually. Conceptually, though, the act of writing is very cerebral. When you really get into it, it’s a refuge. Even the proposition of a prisoner writing a prison story in prison. Every artist in their own way is idealistic. We have a way of seeing things in our truth. But, again, in the act of writing, if you’re real with yourself you begin to see the objective reflections of everyday life in ways that you wouldn’t expect. Writing made scenes I had been seeing every day for decades take on fresh new color. To this day, incarceration isn’t the same for me because of those impressions.
ZL You and I have argued about “happy endings.” I’m not against them, but I think they’re hard to pull off without seeming fake. The ending of your book and the ending of my forthcoming one have made me think a lot about this. Maybe in some cases, a happy ending is a kind of political or spiritual statement: this is the way the world could be. I’m not really there yet, but as you know I revised the ending of my own new book, partly because of you calling me a “dark motherfucker” when you read the original version. I guess you could say that, like the old cliché about journalism, art is supposed “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
QK I’ve never heard that cliché. At first encounter, I disagree with the sentiment. It assumes the comfortable should be afflicted, and the afflicted deserve to be comforted. Here’s another one for you: “Vote Democratic but think Republican.”
I’m not so much for a happy ending as I am for resolution. At first, it was my position that you should never present a problem without offering a solution. Here we see where we’ve influenced each other. I’ve realized from our spars that the Huxtables were the only ones who could solve every problem in thirty minutes or less. Actual life is chaotic. And struggle is beautiful.
I’d just say that the story should serve the truth. If that afflicts the afflicted, so be it. It can also be confirmation for the accomplished. And a kick in the ass for slackers and underachievers.
ZL I keep going back to the earlier days of our friendship. I remember being “surprised,” for example, when you would name check, say, Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. I’m not surprised by that kind of reference from you anymore (though I’m probably still an asshole). I’m trying to think of a reading list that will illustrate the library that is in the Quntos mind, and I’m coming up with a large section on Black history (Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s Before the Mayflower, for example, plays an important part in This Life), then a big section for mysticism, one for Egyptology, one for political science (with a deep subsection regarding Russia, for some reason), the kabbalah—I’m forgetting all the fantasy and sci-fi novels that are fucking all that up. I have always wondered how you get these books. Access to books is sacred, but I know from experience that I can’t just send you books unless it’s through a publisher or a website named after a large river in South America.
QK Ha ha! That was all before I picked up on how not-fly name checking really is? Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind are the shit! Ha ha! And them Russia shits was edifying as hell, too. Ah, crap. Did I tell you I finally finished The Brothers Karamazov? Make me wanna go back and see if I slept on War and Peace. And fuck if it ain’t fly. I gotta catch up on Pushkin. Ha ha!
Have I ever told you I’ve perfected the art of walking and reading? At the same time? Yeah, I do that shit. I mean really get into whatever’s being presented.
I conversate with books better than I do with people. Though I’ve learned that’s more handicap than anything.
ZL For a while, I was trying to perfect the art of reading and brushing my teeth. I had this nice edition of Nabokov’s Pale Fire (speaking of Russian lit), and I couldn’t stop reading it, so I’m in there with the toothpaste and the brush and the running water and, fuck, there goes the hardcover book, all this red dye streaming down the drain. It’s a dangerous pastime, that reading.
In addition to writing and music, you make visual art. Common themes and symbols are Mercury, Gemini, and (most mysteriously) the dodecahedron. What is up with all this and how did you get interested in it?
QK So much of who we are and what we accomplish and are capable of as adults stems from how we manage our inner world, our psyche. To a large part, our unconscious. Mercury, Gemini, they’re all hermetic. Not necessarily because I ascribe any type of superstitious affirmatives to these icons, I’m partial to them because they center on aspects of life I naturally personify. Movement. Dualism. Thoth was the god of thought. I don’t know. Maybe because so much of what my life has already become spawns from my own stupidity. My inability to manage the moment. Like a Christian is drawn to the Bible and its wisdom, these are my reminders and benchmarks of what I’ve learned along the way. Principles I strive to exemplify in my efforts to sketch out the best version of manhood. Humanity as I see it.
Interestingly, the dodecahedron is an analog of one of the few African mysteries I know of. Its twelve sides correspond to the twelve sons of Konaté, the youngest of which was Sundiata, the crippled toddler who grew with lion cubs and became whole and strong. Became king. Sundiata’s path was conquest. The same principle I intend to be the mark of my own legacy.
How obvious my interest when you take into account my beginnings. How life didn’t wait for me to mature. I’ve had to manage real-world situations crippled by my own ignorance and underdevelopment. What ultimately happens to young Black men who become statistics early in life? This Life has become my testament to their lot. An account of what should be obvious. As long as there is breath in your body, you keep on living. You keep dreaming and pursuing your own interpretation of happiness, seeking that fulfillment.
It’s as if squares—people who don’t know anything about life’s trenches—believe that once we catch these extraordinarily long, terminal sentences, we’re somehow disconnected from the general stream of life. Like we can no longer exist once we’re incarcerated.
Time to see if we should rethink that notion.
Zachary Lazar is the author of five books, including the novels Sway, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, and Vengeance (Catapult, 2018). His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship, and the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches creative writing classes at Tulane University that bring together students from Tulane and incarcerated students in Louisiana jails. He also serves on the advisory board PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship and the selection committee for the National Book Foundation’s Literature for Justice program. His novel The Apartment on Calle Uruguay will be published by Catapult in January of 2022.
Originally published in
Our summer issue features interviews with Mel Kendrick, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Kader Attia, Arthur Jafa and Dana Hoey, Quntos Kunquest, Katiana Rangel, and Anne Anlin Cheng; fiction by Jenzo DuQue, Dylan Landis, Anthony Veasna So, and Sophie Hoss; nonfiction by A.V. Marraccini; a comic by Ronald Wimberly; poetry by Arthur Solway, Rickey Laurentiis, and Alina Stefanescu; an essay and portfolio by Kalup Linzy; an archival interview with Suzan-Lori Parks; and more.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee