Don’t write about it…
We do not like to talk about prison. We look the other way when we drive by the barbed wire, change the subject to something brighter (something more ‘free’), or mutter a thanks to the system when certain kinds of criminals are incarcerated (the ‘bad’ kind).
Do not be alarmed: we are meant to fear prisons. They are supposed to serve as a deterrent against breaking the law. They are also meant to punish criminals, or restore them, and the state has taken full responsibility for accomplishing these aims. Right?
But it’s more complicated. Some people are imprisoned for their political beliefs, others for crimes precipitated by structural inequalities, and some entirely by accident. Suddenly we’re in a gray area. In the U.S., we have over 2 million people behind bars, most of whom are minorities, and some of whom are political prisoners. So maybe we should talk about prison.
Writers and Prisons
Four phenomenal writers gathered at the CUNY Graduate Center to discuss the relationship between writing and prison in a panel entitled ‘Prison Deform’. Hwang Sok-yong of North Korea, Khet Mar of Burma, Susan Rosenberg of the U.S., and Jose Dalisay of the Phillipines had each been incarcerated for their political beliefs. The panel discussed the influence of prison upon their writing — and the answers were both surprising and inspirational. Author Jackson Taylor moderated.
These writers were not bristling with rage or bitterness, even though some, such as Ms. Rosenberg, had served sentences as long as 16 years. Jose Dalisay had been imprisoned while only 18 years old in the Phillipines as a military dictatorship swept to power. “What we made out of our experience,” he explained, “made it worth it, in the sense of the whole.” His incarceration along with fellow activists paved the way for a generation of Phillipinos to stake their claim in their country. Burmese writer Khet Mar’s grandmother suffered a heart attack while Mar was being taken away by soldiers, and the author then experienced horrific torture. “Those nine days of torture made me know that I could overcome anything.”
Survival of Beliefs
What seems to have emerged was a greater understanding of other people. North Korean author Hwang Sok-Yong was imprisoned for seven years after returning from exile. He engaged in 19 hunger strikes during his first three years, determined to preserve his beliefs, scribbling stories on tinfoil and toiletpaper. But eventually he relented and decided to engage with the common criminals. His sense of humor helped him to develop relationships with the other prisoners and learn to live life behind bars.
When the world changes outside the prison walls, people can be forced to change too. Nowhere was this more clear than with Rosenberg. A committed socialist, the Berlin Wall crumbled while Rosenberg was incarcerated. The system in which she had believed had tumbled like dominos (the capitalist kind). “History moves forward and you don’t. Either you move forward and engage with history or you get stuck.”
How Prison Affects Writing
But this post is supposed to be about writing. Each writer responded to his or her incarceration differently. The Burmese government censored all writing about prison, so author Khet Mar developed allegories. She set her stories in a fictional university that loosely represented the state, or published her chapters serially so that they would not come under the scrutiny of a work in one volume. Jose Dalisay preferred to examine the themes of prison in the guise of an historical novel, and has only recently begun writing directly about his time in prison. Rosenberg developed screenplays and novels as a bulwark against the authority of the ’state’, preserving her individuality. It was only when Hwang Sok-Yong stopped trying to write in prison — and socialized with fellow prisoners — that the wellspring began to flow.
The panelists showed that prison is not isolated from the world around us. The walls are not impermeable. When the world changes, so too must prisoners. And they view the world with a new set of assumptions. ‘I had just stepped out of a smaller prison,” Dalisay realized upon his release, “into a bigger one.” He now saw the dictatorship in the Phillipines for what it was.
Prison did, as we noted above, make the writers bolder. They had suffered for their beliefs and no longer abjectly feared the state. Yet release for Rosenberg was challenging because parole terms prevented her from visiting fellow prisoners — the very prisoners who had supported her through 16 years of hardship.
These authors had paid a high price for their activism. Jail time, torture, loss of family and friends, nervous breakdowns, and the limbo of political asylum. None expressed regret for their actions. But importantly, they also did not wish prison upon anyone else.
People in Prison
I suppose I was drawn to this panel because my legal work has exposed me to both juvenile and adult prisoners. My ignorant view was that life inside ‘wasn’t pretty’, and just about ended there. The point of my work was to help prisoners get out by putting the law on their side.
The panelists showed, with the able moderation of Jackson Taylor, why we should avoid looking the other way as we motor by the local prison. The walls may separate us, but the world seeps into the cells. Only by listening to former prisoners will we recognize that when they are released, the world comes with them.
You can visit my other posts at the PEN World Voices Blog (at the very bottom of the page): http://www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/1842