On some level, he didn’t understand why they’d even let him out of prison if he wouldn’t have a chance to make a life for himself afterward. – Last Place Seen, 70.
Few Catholic authors today write crime thrillers with Catholic Social Teaching in mind, and even fewer receive accolades for their efforts. This makes Alessandra Harris, Catholic, and Bay Area native, a rare voice in today’s Catholic literary milieu. In her latest novel, Last Place Seen, her third with Red Adept Publishing, she successfully imbues a cultural realism with a backdrop of Catholicism that centers on those formerly incarcerated.
Recently lauded as the 2022 Indie Today Award Best in the thriller category, hers is a fast-paced story filled with complex protagonists who carry the weight of past faults, shoulder the burden of others’ failures, and continue to make new mistakes. The added burden of cultural stigma against those with criminal records, and how it impedes them from making a fresh start, adds a deep dimension that should resonate with Catholics.
Last Place Seen is set against the backdrop of the Yountville fire, which adds to the tension impacting the characters when they are inadvertently linked to the kidnapping event that opens the novel. As the chapters progress, the perspective shifts between the central couple. Through each one’s eyes, the reader is lead through the complexity facing the couple which is made up of many factors–not the least of which is Jay’s incarceration history– and which prevent the couple’s socio-economic prospects from improving. The main protagonist, Jay is consistently forced to contend with the reality that, as a person of color with a criminal record, at the wrong place at the wrong time, he will always be an automatic suspect in any proximate crime. Add to this, Tiana, who has been raising their son Marcus during Jay’s incarceration, must grapple with being a supportive spouse while believing in his presumed innocence even as society consistently condemns him for his past. That she does not always accomplish this with grace, lends a realism to Harris’s work that can be appreciated by anyone who has ever struggled with forgiveness and perseverance in general. Whether by society’s hand or by their own actions, Harris’s characters are caged, and personify those to whom she dedicates her book: “To the caged that they might find freedom.”
Alessandra graciously agreed to an interview with Where Peter Is to discuss her latest book’s themes, as well as her motivations, and how they connect to her Catholic faith.
What inspired you to write this story and can you give us your own author’s summary?
Writing fiction has allowed me to enter other people’s life experiences in a non-judgmental way. I’ve written about topics like abortion, infidelity, sex work, incarceration, and divorce that I have not personally experienced but that “good Catholics” would shun and condemn. I don’t glorify these experiences but I try to humanize them and understand why people may make the decisions they do. The Church is very divided, and I think that we need to stop focusing on “issues” and start connecting over the human experience. No one is without sin, and I truly do not think that any Catholic should try to gauge someone else’s holiness. I would like to see more empathy, more charity, more solidarity.
The “dust jacket” summary: after her husband, Jay, returns home from incarceration, Tiana Williams grapples with lingering resentment while working full-time and raising their toddler. But when Jay becomes a person of interest in the kidnapping of ten-year-old Zoe Miller, Tiana is torn between trusting her husband and believing the growing pile of evidence. After she gets dragged further into the mystery and discovers her connection to the missing girl, the shaky ground beneath her crumbles as she searches for the truth. With his freedom and family on the line, Jay will stop at nothing to clear his name and find the missing girl.
You mentioned in your previous interview with WPI that you had wanted to write a book suitable for a priest to read. How did that intentionality affect the final product?
Yes, I wanted to write a book both a priest and my teenage kids could read. I would say I accomplished that and this book is a solid PG-13 rating. There are no F-bombs or sex scenes.
What can a member of clergy gain through your book’s presentation of the subject of incarceration?
There is a lot of shame and stigma around incarceration both for the person who is or was incarcerated as well as their family. Sadly 1 in 15 people today will experience incarceration, and for African Americans, it is 1 in 3 men and 1 in 18 women, as well as 1 in 4 Black children who have a parent who either is or was incarcerated. So, we need to talk about it, and clergy need to provide a space where parishioners can feel safe to speak about their experiences. I also think it’s important for parishes to help those returning from incarceration with important things like financial support and help finding a job, which are serious barriers to successful reentry.
Do you have an overall message in your story that you feel is needed in the Church/Society right now?
The overall message is that American society needs to grapple with its abhorrent relationship to incarceration. Most people who are incarcerated in the United States are there because of one or more of the following reasons: they were born Black; they were born into poverty; they experienced trauma or violence growing up; they have an untreated mental health diagnosis; they have a substance use disorder or alcoholism.
In the story, Jay is an African American with a history of childhood abuse who makes a mistake that will haunt him for the rest of his life. But people who do time should be able to reenter society and make a life for themselves and their family after their sentence is over. Instead, in the US, there are thousands of laws that continue to penalize formerly incarcerated people for the rest of their lives and relegate them to second-class citizen status as Michelle Alexander explores in The New Jim Crow. They face discrimination in housing, employment, and accessing certain public benefits, which can be devastating. By writing Last Place Seen, I wanted to humanize the reality returning people face in the hopes that readers see what is wrong in our society and that change needs to happen.
Any comments/encouragement for writers in this time of Church polarity? Or how writing fiction can help interrupt the polarity?
When Pope Francis said the Catholic Church should be like a field hospital, we can’t do that when we’re standing in judgment of people on the margins of society or shunning people we condemn as sinners. The greatest saints ministered to people who were outcasts in society – the poor, the sick, the uneducated, the orphans and widows – and the saints’ love allowed those discarded people to encounter Jesus’s love, mercy, grace, and hope.
Any other recent literary/social justice achievements or involvements now?
I contributed an essay in the Living the Word: Catholic Women’s Bible out from Ave Maria Press. I have also been enjoying speaking about racial justice. On Veteran’s Day 2022, I was the Catholic speaker along with a Jewish Rabbi at the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference titled “Justice, Racism, and the Heart of God,” and I will be giving a talk “Striving for Justice: The History of Anti-Black Racism Past and present” at a City of San Jose branch library during Black History Month. I am looking forward to my first non-fiction book coming out this fall that will be published by Orbis books and examine the history of anti-Black racism and racial justice through a Catholic lens.
Jay shook the priest’s hand. “To be honest, I’m not Catholic. I don’t even know what perpetual adoration is.”
The priest chuckled. “We believe that Jesus is present in the communion host after a priest consecrates it. So when mass isn’t taking place, we have the host on display in the church. People take turns spending an hour or so in the church around the clock. Why don’t we walk there? I’ll show you.” – Last Place Seen, 219.
WPI thanks to Alessandra Harris for her responses.
Though a work of fiction, Harris’s story is based on the real experience of those attempting to reintegrate into society after incarceration, which is an aspect of restorative justice for the Church. In an address in 2019 to prison ministers, Pope Francis spoke of this stigma as incompatible with our faith, “There is no humane punishment without a horizon. No one can change their life if they don’t see a horizon. And so many times we are used to blocking the view of our inmates.” The Holy Father has often spoken against becoming a “throwaway culture” as it is unbecoming to the dignity of all peoples, to ignore, undermine, or throw them away, far out of view.
American Catholics might wish to reflect on whether our nation has made any progress in understanding incarceration as a stumbling block for the integration of all people into our communities or whether more can be done. This social “examination of conscience” lies at the heart of Harris’s suspenseful fiction, filled with flawed but sympathetic characters, who are grounded but still hopeful and ultimately committed to defying all odds. Poverty, racism, and childhood trauma add a timely human dimension to her work.
And few, if any, thrillers place their protagonists before a 35-foot metal statue of Our Lady in their quest for help. Alessandra Harris, on the other hand, places her main character, the reader, and in many ways, the whole Church, before their Mother–which may be the most thrilling thing of all to the Catholic reader.
Find Last Place Seen at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or from the publisher.
Image Credit: Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash
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