Published in 2019, Hummingbird in Underworld by Deborah Tobola caught my attention with its clever title, implying something small and beautiful but strong would go to a dark place. Alternating between her vagabond family life when she was a girl in the 1950s and her tenure running the Arts in Corrections program in a California correctional facility from the 1990s to 2008, Tobola has what could be an engaging memoir. Yet Tobola’s book, with her snide, thoughtless comments, wore me down, causing me to DNF at 25%.
Comments like when her father and uncle were fighting, so her grandpa used his “lard belly” to separate them. Or how Tobola describes a co-worker in the Arts in Corrections program as “like Forrest Gump, landing in the right place at the right time of the counterculture — except she’s very smart.” What was the point of adding that last bit about Gump’s intelligence when the point is that her co-worker has frequently, accidentally met people who later became famous? I’m not into intelligence shaming.
After she’s hired, she will need to choose inmates to clerk for her, so she sifts through their files, deciding which has crimes the least offensive to her. Perhaps this is how it works in other correctional facilities, but when I taught in prison, the focus was the student, not their reason for incarceration. We never knew why someone was in prison unless the student personally told us. Keeping their records in the back of your mind is a distraction and dehumanizes the potential in front of you. These moments felt like an annoying gnat in my face, not as egregious as a potentially virus-carrying mosquito, but aggravating all the same.
As Bard Prison Initiative graduate Rodney Spivey-Jones writes, “Believing that incarcerated citizens constitute a separate and distinct population can give the country only a false sense of comfort and security.” By sorting through inmates’ crimes and judging them, Tobola acts as jury yet again, hoping to keep the “bad” ones away from her, resulting in missed educational and financial opportunities for those she’s condemned.
Even a clerk she does get annoys her because he’s enthusiastic about the computer skills he’s learned. Passionate about digital films, the inmate tells her Antz is his favorite computer-animated movie. Tobola has never heard of Antz, and the clerk is surprised. Her response? “Whatever, I want to say, but don’t.”
The author continues to stomp on toes. When an inmate from a minimum security wing escapes and is later caught at Target, she jokes to the students, “At least he wasn’t shopping at Wal-Mart.” So now she’s shaming people for shopping at a store that serves many communities, including those with lower income who seek out cheaper items.
At this point, the metaphorical gnat would not stop getting up in my face, and I was getting frustrated. What made me stop reading, though, was the introduction of Alejandro. Tobola believes he is a gifted poet, but her instruction is completely tone deaf:
And I encourage him to write poems in his native tongue.
“I don’t know Spanish,” he says, “just a little Spanglish.”
“Well, Spanglish then,” I reply.
At this point I’m done with Hummingbird in Underworld. Assuming a man with the name Alejandro must speak Spanish, along with her other microaggressions, suggests Tobola needs training on insensitive language — such as referring to Alejando as an “illegal immigrant” — and how to be anti-racist. She needed to learn how to be a good steward of the power she held over students, or at least reflect in her new memoir on her perception at the time and how it could have been more inclusive were she teaching in the same program today.
If you’re wondering about the writing quality, Tobola rapidly explains what’s happened with students, showing instead of world building, which also made this memoir boring. Not recommended.