PEN World Voices: Prison Deform

Administrator | Home | Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Prison Deform

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.

Getting Out

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.

–Deji Olukotun

You can visit my other posts at the PEN World Voices Blog (at the very bottom of the page):

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The Velvet Touch of Persuasion: Mary Stuart, Theatre Review

Administrator | Home | Friday, April 24th, 2009


Mary Stuart
Written by Friedrich Schiller
Adopted by Peter Oswald
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring: Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter, Brian Murray, Chandler Williams
Broadhurst Theatre, New York

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Imagine if Alberto Fujimori had fled Peru to Japan and then tried to become Prime Minister. What would Prime Minister Aso do with him? Serve him sencha tea?

This seems an absurd scenario today (although Fujimori did flee Peru after being accused of human rights violations), but in 16th century England anything was possible. Throw in sex and a few bloodlines, and there you go.

Frierdrich Schiller’s 1800 play Mary Stuart is set shortly after Henry VIII beheaded several of his wives and created his own Church. Queen Mary Stuart, a Catholic, has fled Scotland after being ousted from the throne by Protestants and her half-brother. She has sought asylum in England and the protection of Queen Elizabeth I. The problem is that she has also asserted a claim to the English throne. Several assassination attempts against Queen Elizabeth I have implicated her, and the once proud and passionate Mary Queen of Scots has lived for two decades under close guard in isolated castles.

Mary Stuart is a new translation from the German original and Phyllida Lloyd’s production is also new. There is a freshness about the set — not least because of the spring rain that falls upon the stage — and the dialogue comes across as nuanced and insightful. I thought, while listening to the eloquent soliloquies, that Shakespeare may have written like this if he was alive today, instead of pottering about in his Elizabethan drawl. (What kid nowadays does not use the glossary on the verso page of Macbeth?) It is little surprise that translator Peter Oswald was once a writer in residence at Shakespeare’s Globe. I also found it very enjoyable that the lords and knights don modern business suits, while the leading actresses wear stylized period dress. We are at once watching boardroom and royal court, bridging the centuries.

Read the full review here.

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PEN World Voices Collaboration with Fictionthatmatters

Administrator | Home | Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009


I am pleased to announce a collaboration with the PEN World Voices Festival. The festival runs from April 27-May 3.

I have been granted access to a number of events. I’ll be blogging on human rights and fiction. It’s a fantastic festival, featuring writers such as Salman Rushdie, Edwidge Danticat, and Mark Kurlansky.

PEN has invited me to post both here at FTM and on their website. I’ll be in touch with more details soon.

–Deji Olukotun

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Genes and Crimes Against Humanity

Administrator | Home | Friday, April 10th, 2009

The BBC News featured an article today about an historic meeting between the son of former dictator of Uganda Idi Amin and the son of former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere. Jaffar Amin and Madaraka Nyerere agreed to meet three decades after Uganda’s brutal 1978-79 war with Tanzania, in which Idi Amin was ousted from power.

Reconciliation is certainly a positive development, but I find this a disturbing example of our built-in genetic ability to defend kin. If you are related to a murderer — especially one of prominence and prestige — you will rationalize his behavior in order to sustain your own well being. It is frighteningly simple.

It is very likely that Idi Amin today would be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, and possibly for genocide. Yet Jaffar Amin writes glowingly of his father’s achievements, with absolutely no mention of his brutal human rights violations. Granted, he is only one child of amongst between 30 and 40 siblings, but I can’t help but be bothered by the lengths one will go to rehabilitate one’s own name in the face of overwhelming evidence. Reconciliation means little without remorse. Jaffar, in this article at least, has shown none of it.


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Film Review: Judgment at Nuremberg 9|9

Administrator | Home | Friday, April 3rd, 2009

MGM Pictures, 1961. 186 minutes.
Produced and Directed by Stanley Kramer
Written by Abby Mann

And here are all these things that pass in the night. Wouldn’t it be nice to have something beyond that? Just simply to help people. And to be remembered for that. You know, time humbles all of us, and all of us are defeated in one way or another in the end. And I wanted something that I wouldn’t be defeated at. And if I help people, if I help people change the world just a molecule, then that would be something worth having.
–Abby Mann, writer

The current President of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, was charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity. How did this come to be? Nuremberg. Slobadan Milosevic, former president of Serbia? Nuremberg. Josheph Kony of the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda? Nuremberg? Saddam Hussein? Nuremberg.

Any serious advocate for international justice and human rights will eventually grow to appreciate the legacy of Nuremberg. These historic trials occurred immediately after the close of World War II and held Nazi officials accountable for their actions. Goering, Hess, Streicher, and over a dozen others were all tried under an international tribunal. The charges were conspiracy, waging aggressive war, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Some were found guilty and hanged. Others received milder sentences. But what was groundbreaking was the fact that a trial occurred at all. The Soviet Union, Winston Churchill, and American leaders wanted swift retribution: summary execution of the Nazi leaders. Only the forward thinking U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson prevented this from happening. After prolonged negotiations, he convinced the Allied powers to hold a fair trial at Nuremberg, Germany with the presumption of innocence for all charged. It would have been easier to execute indiscriminately, and it was desired by the survivors of millions of victims of the German war machine around the world. Justice Jackson ensured a fair trial, preserving the vital record of Nazi war time atrocities, and temporarily vacated his spot on the Supreme Court to serve as chief prosecutor in the first trial.

The film Judgment at Nuremberg takes up where Jackson left off. The first trial concluded and Jackson flew home to resume his duties on the U.S. Supreme Court, ushering in a new era of desegregation with landmark decisions. Many more perpetrators remained to be tried, this time not by an international tribunal of Allies but solely by Americans. Judgment at Nuremberg depicts the trial of Nazi judges in 1949. It is a layered, thoughtful work with moving performances and penetrating ruminations on the nature of justice — and the value of a single human life in a world of billions.

Read the full review here.

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