Literary Fiction Book Seized by Michigan Prison

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Descriptions of check fraud "may encourage criminal activity" in censored book NOTHING LOOKS FAMILIAR by Shawn Syms, according to mailroom censor and Michigan Department of Corrections policy directive.

A new book of literary short stories has been seized en route to a book reviewer in jail. Nothing Looks Familiar by Toronto author Shawn Syms was censored by the Michigan Department of Corrections because it alleged violates Policy Directive 05.03.118, which bars entry to materials that “may facilitate or encourage criminal activity.”

The story "Family Circus," about a woman plotting her escape from a drug-addicted fraud ring, includes a description of how to "wash" checks, removing the ink from them so they can be rewritten fraudulently.

Book reviewer Curtis Dawkins, who writes for the literary journal BULL: Men's Fiction, is an inmate at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia MI. He was not allowed access to the book because it was deemed by a mailroom censor to be in violation of the policy directive, as it “may interfere with the rehabilitation of the prisoner.”

An advance-review copy of the book was seized on April 21, according to documents received by publisher Arsenal Pulp Press. Arsenal Pulp published a photo of a section of the document on social media ( It showed that a prison employee named P. Dickson had made the determination.

Dickson cited sections of Policy Directive 05.03.118, the full text of which is available online: According to the online archives of the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based prison-advocacy organization, Policy Directive 05.03.118 has been used multiple times in the past to censor literary materials (

The prison-censorship policy "is as arbitrary as it is absurd, as condescending as it is counterproductive," Syms wrote in a National Post op-ed. He says that his book is "a work of literary fiction — not a how-to guide for committing crime." According to Syms, "outlining the method of forging cheques serves a practical purpose in the narrative. But it also represents an orderly process, symbolizing the ability to exert control over something — in a life that is otherwise completely destabilized. These are the sort of observations through which characters — and readers — make sense and meaning out of our lives."

Nothing Looks Familiar was released in the U.S. May 12 to favorable initial reviews. Publisher Brian Lam of Arsenal Pulp Press expressed surprise at the seizure. "We’ve had books rejected for sexually explicit content before, but never for this. This book is now officially dangerous!"

National Post op-ed:

For more information, please contact Shawn Syms at shawn(at)shawnsyms(dot)com.


About Nothing Looks Familiar
In Nothing Looks Familiar, characters from a wide swath of society chart paths from places of danger or unhappiness into the great unknown, each grappling with a central and sometimes unanswerable question: if you fight to change your circumstances, could it be possible to reconfigure your very identity? From bullied kids to meth-smoking mothers, characters in dire straits take measures―sometimes drastic ones―to take charge of their own fates. More info:

About Shawn Syms
Shawn Syms has written for over 25 years for more than 50 publications. He is author of Nothing Looks Familiar and editor of Friend, Follow, Text: #storiesFromLivingOnline, the first book of literary fiction about social media. More info:

About Arsenal Pulp Press
Arsenal Pulp Press is a book publisher in Vancouver, Canada, distributed in the U.S. by Consortium. Our over 200 titles currently in print include literary fiction and nonfiction; cultural and gender studies; LGBT and multicultural literature; cookbooks, including vegan; alternative crafts; graphic novels; visual arts; and books in translation.

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Shawn Syms
Shawn Syms
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