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Inside Voices

Inside Voices: A Prison Choir, My Mother, and Me | Amy Kolen | 9781948509558 | $21.99 | 186p | Paper | Release September 24, 2024 | Order Early

For fifteen months Amy Kolen traveled between two very different worlds: a medium-security men’s prison, where she participated as an outside singer in the prison choir, and the confines of her mother’s room in a health center, where her mother required round-the-clock care following a massive stroke. The author realizes the limits of her turbulent relationship with her mother, Lillian, while navigating her new role as an initially reluctant advocate for a woman with a diminished voice. At the same time, she welcomes the community within the prison walls as a place of acceptance and freedom. Working with the inside singers provides the expanding perspective she needs to approach her mother in a new light, eventually finding self-affirmation, clarity, and grace during the final fifteen months of Lillian’s life. Told with unflinching honesty, Inside Voices speaks to our longing for human connection and is a testament to how embracing new experiences with “beginners mind” can deepen understanding and bring inner peace.

Praise for Inside Voices

“Halfway through this powerful memoir, Amy Kolen uses the phrase ‘freedom of movement,’ and by then most readers will have realized how ironical those words have become. Nothing in the two dissimilar stories that give this book its structure suggests freedom of movement, not the illness and death of Kolen’s mother who has lost her freedom, and surely not the inside singers in Iowa’s Oakdale Prison. Although their warden has allowed them to form a choir that includes outside members of the local community, still, they are incarcerated, and while the choir sings the world outside becomes a place where Kolen’s mother is dying. That her daughter is able to discover the many connections between these two seemingly unrelated stories, one about her mother and one about this life-affirming choir, is one of the marvels of this book. Another is the transparent clarity of Kolen’s writing. But above all, page by page, the drama of her effort to understand her contentious mother and, at the same time, to work with inmates, depicts a moving struggle to express human sympathy.”
John Vernon, author, A Book of Reasons

“Amy Kolen’s book intersects her desire for affirmation from her mother, alongside her challenging yet satisfying experiences singing with the Oakdale (Prison) Community Choir. Her masterful storytelling provides the reader a clear window into her relationships with family, community, writing, and singing. Her story speaks to our desire for human connection, especially in the difficulties of death and prison. —Mary L. Cohen, Ph.D., Professor of Music Education, University of Iowa, lead author of Music-Making in US Prisons: Listening to Incarcerated Voices

“In this poignant memoir, Amy Kolen probes the enduring story of mother/daughter relationships. Just as her aging mother’s voice is diminished by a stroke, Kolen remembers how her own adolescent voice—the voice of pleasure and creative knowing—was constricted by her Jewish mother’s conventionality, by her sense of the constraints of a Protestant ethos in small town Iowa in the 1960s. Braided with this story of contradictory voices is the story of Kolen acquiring a new voice—the voice of community and resilience—while singing with the Oakdale Community Choir at Oakdale Prison in Coralville, IA. What is remarkable in this narrative is how Kolen begins to translate the openness and gratitude she discovers within the prison choir group to the possibility of a more loving relationship with her dying mother. Now the voice of grief is flooded with empathy and forgiveness and with the consciousness of renewal. This is a brave, beautiful book.”
Patricia Foster, author, Written in the Sky: Lessons of a Southern Daughter

“In this powerful, moving, masterfully written memoir, Amy Kolen, a volunteer singer, enters the gates of a prison, slowly liberating herself and finding emotional relief from her old family wounds. She sings in a choir, insiders and outsiders joining together to find harmony not only in the music but in the spirit of the experience. Kolen’s rehearsals inside the prison alternate with the outside reality of her mother’s confinement in her Health Center room, where, with a Beginner’s Mind, she connects with Lillian in a deeper way than ever in her life. In fluid, penetrating prose, Kolen allows us to step into this primal relationship, experience it with her, and find transformation. A must-read for anyone who has struggled with family dynamics or assumed the role of elder caretaker.”
Mary Swander, author, The Maverick MD

“Here, in a frank and caring voice, Amy Kolen looks back on a lifelong mother-daughter rift, conscious that she has one last chance to connect before her mom passes away, confined in the Health Center of her lifecare community. At the same time, Kolen is part of a prison choir, where she sings alongside incarcerated men who are finding surprising liberty. Her encounters with these inside singers bring hard-won and rewarding revelations—valuable for anyone who has felt estranged from family or friends.”—Tim Bascom, author, Climbing Lessons: Stories of Fathers and Sons, and The Bond Between

“The mother-daughter relation, an exotic landscape for sure, has rarely been so tenderly mapped as here, nor with its anguish more clearly felt as a journey of discovery and healing. Music helps. Doesn’t it always, if you, like Kolen, prove able to join in.”—David Hamilton, author, A Certain Arc: Essays on Finding Myself

Inside Voices is a gem. Whether writing about music, family bonds, love, or dogs, Amy Kolen’s lovely prose captures and celebrates heartfelt emotions. Richly detailed, brimming with emotion, raw, and honest, Inside Voices explores the mysteries of love and devotion. Readers will be deeply moved by this book.”—Tom Wolf, co-author, Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland


Amy Kolen’s essays have been published in several anthologies, including Best American Essays, 2002. Her work has also appeared in various publications, including Orion Magazine, The Missouri Review, Bayou, The Massachusetts Review, and The Florida Review, and has been shortlisted in Best American Essays, 2009. Holding an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa, she sang with the Oakdale Community Choir for four years. She lives with her husband in Estes Park, Colorado.


*Prairie Lights Reading September 28, 2024