Hummingbird in Underworld by Deborah Tobola

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.

25 comments

  1. Yikes, this sounds insensitive on so many levels. I’m also appalled by the way she sorts through their files to choose the ones with the least offensive crimes – what a way to dehumanize and condemn them yet again. What did you think was the point of the memoir? Is it mostly to talk about HER experience instead of any meaningful reflection of the prison system and the people in it? (And to think I initially thought this was another delightful bird book.)

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    • I’m not sure what the point of the memoir is….when I did some research on the publisher, I discovered it’s this company that pretty much self-publishes people after they’ve given those (paying) authors some editorial advice. Thus, I can see how there might be more emphasis in that company on sentence-level issues instead of content.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “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.”

    I met a custody nurse a few years ago while preparing some learning for my students, and she told me the same thing. She split her time between working with people in police custody, and in a very senior child protection role, so she was used to working with people who had been charged and/or convicted with all kinds of terrible things, and I was so struck by her incredible compassion. In her police custody role, the only time she would know what a suspect had been arrested for was if it was drug or alcohol-related, because that might affect the way she needed to manage their symptoms, but even then she tried to avoid learning the details wherever possible.

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    • I think a big part of the problem is we get very cowboy for justice in the U.S. Someone is sentenced for a crime, let’s say ten years. If they’re verbally, physically, or emotionally abused in prison, well, they shouldn’t have done something to be sent to prison. They can’t call their families because the phone company the prison uses is making money off them? They shouldn’t have done something to go to prison. They’re being judged and denied opportunities because the staff around them know the crime they committed? They can’t get a job, find housing, vote, or qualify for assistance? Well, they shouldn’t have done something to go to prison. This mentality prevents us from rehabilitating people and reintegrating them into society where they can be good citizens of their communities. Even shake hands with a murderer? Ever shake hands with many murderers? I have, in different settings, and I imagine many of us have shaken hands with people who have committed unspeakable crimes who were not charged for them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We’ve got a similar issue. It’s very frustrating because I think prison reform is one of the few things there’s actually cross-party consensus for here, so they probably could do some really good work on it, but there is an incredibly vocal minority who will rise up against anyone who looks like being “soft on crime”, so the political consequences of reform are really unpalatable.

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  3. What a shame! I can see why you were excited to read this, especially considering your own work in prisons. Have you written about your experiences working in jails? Even some magazine pieces would be fascinating, and so badly needed right now.

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    • Actually, it’s considered unethical for people who work in correctional facilities to write about them, and in some cases you can get into trouble. The problem is that inmates are considered a vulnerable population — they lack rights and agency in a lot of ways — so for a writer to make money or advance in their career by writing about inmates is supposed to be a huge no. This may be why we often see prison memoirs from the perspective of the inmate or formerly incarcerated person, not corrections staff.

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  4. Oof, this sounds like a big yikes. It would be one thing if the writer were trying to show personal growth or something, but the fact that those comments and word choices seem so offhand and unaddressed makes me think she’s not really going to be growing in the course of the this book. What a shame. Especially with such an intriguing title!

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  5. Oh no, what a shame – and what a shame this got through the publication process (oh, I see your comment at the top here, so it didn’t, basically). Thank you for putting your calm and well-ordered comments on there so people might find them when searching for information about the book.

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    • It’s quite strange to have a publishing company that basically charges authors to publish their work after the company has edited it. Surely the company has a desire to do a good editing job so they can continue to make money on the book, too, but on the other hand, a traditional publisher didn’t find this book acceptable.

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      • I think the idea is that they make all their money off the authors paying them to publish them, and they probably sell millions of copies to the author too. Ugh. I self-published my business and Iris Murdoch books but I did print-on-demand through Amazon so no-risk.

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        • I love print-on-demand because it reduces so much waste. I know a woman who owned a small press (until she sold it to a group of women) who did introduced me to a print-on-demand model and would write about the benefits of it.

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  6. Yikes, this sounds awful! Particularly when you think of this being a real person who could have helped other real people but instead judged them. I was looking forward to hearing about this one since I remembered that you had experience teaching in a prison too.

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  7. YIKES. I can see how this memoir held a lot of potential, and I can also see why you DNFed it. It’s really unfortunate that the author holds insensitive/problematic views despite having worked at a correctional facility for so long – she had the opportunity to grow and see inmates in a more humanizing light, but clearly she feels more comfortable continuing to judge.

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    • The wild thing is that even if a writer does have problematic thinking, it was possible for her to question those views in her own book, now that she’s looking back on her life. However, I didn’t see any growth from starting her career in a correctional facility to now, and the result is she looks like a stubborn, closed-minded person.

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  8. First of all: Thank you for writing a DNF review! I wish bloggers would do that more often. I understand why they don’t, but I personally believe that we should feel comfortable sharing our honest opinions of all the books we read. It’s not our job to protect feelings. We are entitled to our opinions, and as long as we’re respectful in our reviews, it just helps make me a better reader. Keep it up.

    “Believing that incarcerated citizens constitute a separate and distinct population can give the country only a false sense of comfort and security.” THIS QUOTE. I know it’s not from the book, but it rings so true to me. Don’t let the crime shade the person you see — it will only prevent them from looking human to you.

    Sorry this was a boring, and only decently written, memoir. But thanks for sharing!

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    • I’m not sure who the audience for this book would even be. The author is not respectful to the people she taught, there’s little insight into what she did as an instructor….perhaps she thought this book would do well because Orange is the New Black did well, or perhaps she thought no one would publish this book because of prejudice reasons when the fact is that it’s not well done. I know publishers can be biased and business oriented when we want art to be freer than that, but their business eye also looks for quality telling.

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