Ask a Bookseller: ‘The Women’s House of Detention’

Ask a Bookseller Podcast
Ask a Bookseller

Halee Kirkwood of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis says one of their favorite books from this year is “The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison” by Hugh Ryan.

This history explores a women’s prison in Greenwich Village, New York that became a site of LGBTQ activism before the Stonewall Riots.

In operation from 1929 to 1974, the Women’s House of Detention housed many trans and gender-nonconforming inmates. It also housed such activists as Angela Davis and Andrea Dworkin.  

The Women's House of Detention
“The Women’s House of Detention” by Hugh Ryan
Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

Kirkwood said they were able to hear the author speak at a writer’s conference about the challenges of locating queer history in archival research and reconstructing the lives of incarcerated people, resulting in a work of nonfiction that read reads like an accessible story.

Kirkwood says this accessible history pairs nicely with Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s novel “Chain Gang All-Stars,” which also explores the failings of the prison system. 

“He does a really good job of showing that hate and an exclusion of LGBTQ plus people isn't a straight line,” concludes Kirkwood.

“It hasn't always been this way, and that it's always been kind of these like, waves of acceptance and exclusion. That's one thing that I think is really important about this book. It shows the fluidity of queer identity and homophobia and transphobia is not inevitable.” 

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