Bandele, Asha 1970(?)–
Asha Bandele 1970(?)–
Poet Asha Bandele wrote a wrenching chronicle of her marriage to a man incarcerated for murder in The Prisoner’s Wife: A Memoir. Published in 1999, the book earned enthusiastic critical accolades, and its author was commended for writing with frankness and grace about her unusual love story. Booklist critic Danise Hoover asserted that Bandele’s “highly polished and skillful writing makes one feel her pain and joy.”
Bandeie grew up in New York City, and came of age in a sheltered, middle-class environment. Her parents, both administrators at the City University of New York, provided a loving home as well as a private-school education, ballet classes, and summers at camp for her and her sister. As The Prisoner’s Wife recounts, however, Bandeie grew into a troubled teenager who flirted with the city’s seedier side. In her first semester away at college, she attempted suicide, and returned home. Enrolling at the City University of New York, she found her calling in the political science and black studies program at the school, and became a campus activist as well. Elected president of the student government, Bandeie took part in a protest sit-in at a university building, and was expelled for her role in it.
Bandeie married young, and eventually returned to school. She wrote poetry, and was published in the anthologies Catch the Fire and In the Tradition. A popular performer of her own work, Bandeie read her verse at juvenile detention centers and churches. Invited one day to read before a literally captive audience at the Eastern Correctional Facility in upstate New York, she was struck by one prisoner in the audience, who introduced himself to her afterward as Rashid. He invited her to perform again at one of the cultural heritage shows he staged at the prison, and she agreed. Bandeie brought poets and rappers from New York back to the facility, and it was a raucous performance. Authorities quickly shut it down, however, and Bandeie feared for Rashid’s safety because of his role in it. Before she left, she gave him her phone number. He called her several weeks later, and two years of a platonic relationship, carried out over phone lines and in letters, ensued.
Bandeie learned about Rashid’s troubled childhood in Guyana, and his equally problematic later life in the South Bronx. At age 29 he had already served several years of a 20-year-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, but had studied law, became a devout Muslim, and founded a program for at-risk youths to help them avoid his own fate. Over the months, Bandeie and Rashid slowly fell in love. “I’ve explained to people that I didn’t, despite what it would seem, fall in love with a killer,” Bandeie wrote in The Prisoner’s Wife. “I fell in love with a man who wanted to become his own more perfect creation, a man committed to the transformation of himself, of the world. And the world he imagined was like the world I imagined. It was a place that was just and fair and safe and livable.”
Bandeie recounts how differently she was treated once she began traveling to the prison to visit Rashid, no longer entering the heavily secured areas as a volunteer,
At a Glance…
Career: Poet and author. Essence magazine, editor-at-large.
Addresses: Home —Brooklyn, NY. Office —c/o Charles Scribner’s Sons, 300 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10010.
but rather as a friend of someone incarcerated there. In her book, she details the petty and incomprehensible security precautions—metal detectors, for example, set to a highly responsive degree, so that underwire bras cause them to beep—noting that such procedures and attitudes seemed designed to humiliate and denigrate women like herself.
When Bandeie first met Rashid, her first marriage was already disintegrating. Her long talks with him unearthed buried memories of an incident of sexual abuse that occurred when she was a child of seven or eight. Her mother had taken her to work, as she writes, where a colleague taught her math tricks in an empty classroom. She recalled sitting on the man’s lap, and remembered him saying to her as they walked back, “I taught you how to neck.” Bandeie writes of how this experience colored her relationships and life from that point forward: as a teen, she dated men twice her age, who were often abusive. She punished her body with years of drug and alcohol abuse, and was bulimic as well. Even that freshman-year suicide attempt in college had not brought forth the reasons behind her behavior. She came to realize that, “as a teenager and young woman, I had lived … on the outside of my own body, watching my soul wander through cities and men and unequal friendships and drugs and good, and jobs I hated, and by the time I got to Rashid, and found myself facing him with this big, terrible thing that I did not understand and could not control, I was tired, so incredibly tired, that I had to tell him so. I could not hide it.”
The turning point in Bandele’s relationship with Rashid came on a visit when she told him about the abuse, and he promised that he would never leave her, “and when he did that my soul sat down for the time that I can ever remember, it sat down and it rested,” she writes in The Prisoner’s Wife. She reformed many of her bad habits: she gave up smoking, began meditating and running, and finished college. She also worked toward her master’s degree and had her first book of poetry published. They decided to marry. This time, the ceremony took place at the prison, and Bandeie did not tell her family. When Rashid entered the room, he carried yellow paper flowers that a friend of his had made, telling her, “Every bride ought to have a bouquet.” Bandeie, recalling the expensive flowers at her lavish first wedding, wept throughout the entire Muslim ceremony. “The paper flowers are the evidence of all you have and all you do not have,” she thinks to herself.
Bandeie found herself expecting after her first conjugal visit with Rashid, and decided to terminate the pregnancy. Both she and Rashid had pinned their hopes on an appeal of his sentence, but when the court denied him the appeal and a reduction in his sentence, she realized that she faced several more years of visiting him. “What I can’t face,” she writes to him, “is turning my back another time and walking alone, out of that door, looking once over my shoulder to see if you are watching me. You always are.”
The Prisoner’s Wife ends on an ambiguous note. It earned positive reviews from critics, who often remarked about how well Bandele’s writing was able to evoke sympathy from the reader despite its unusual subject matter. “The author has a poet’s fluid skill with language and maintains a lyrical tone throughout,” wrote Library Journal reviewer Janice Dunham.
With degrees from the New School for Social Research and Bennington College, Bandeie serves as an editor-at-large for Essence. She has also written for The Source, Honey, and Rap Pages.
Absence in the Palms of My Hands (poetry), Writers & Readers Publishing, Inc., 1996.
The Prisoner’s Wife: A Memoir, Scribner, 1999.
Bandeie, Asha, The Prisoner’s Wife: A Memoir, Scribner, 1999.
Booklist, May 15, 1999, p. 1661; January 1, 2000, p. 813.
Library Journal, May 15, 1999, p. 110.
Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1999, p. 75.
Washington Post, March 27, 2001, p. A23.
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