Hard Time

Siobhan Dowd, editor

This Prison Where I Live:
The PEN Anthology of Imprisoned Writers


TWO YEARS AGO, while getting ready to teach my first lit class at Minnesota's only maximum-security correctional facility, I considered having my new students study some "prison literature." Diving into this nebulous genre, I found writing of widely varying quality about prisons actual and metaphorical, by authors who may or may not have ever been incarcerated. For this reason, and given the obvious danger of patronizing prisoners by presenting them with a dubious version of their lives, I decided to teach the same works on the inside as I would on the outside.

Something amazing happened in that class at Oak Park Heights. Without my prompting, the students consistently drew metaphorical connections between prison life and the works we read. Everywhere we looked, characters were inhabiting cells built only by consciousness. What we learned was that, in some sense, all literature is prison literature in that it is about confined lives that want to be freed. This desire for transformation may be what all worthwhile writing has in common.

At the same time, I was learning another lesson--about the impossibility of metaphors. Once, the class was discussing humiliation, as suggested by a short story we were reading, when a student asked me if I'd ever been strip-searched: if I'd ever removed my clothes for a guard, bent over and spread my cheeks, lifted my scrotum and penis to reveal nothing but air. The answer was absolute--yes or no--and it divided me from every other man in that room. After each class session, I'd leave that labyrinth of corridors scanned by video cameras, sealed by muscular doors, and lope self-consciously across the parking lot, feeling the fact of my freedom.

The temptation may be strong to make literary connections between the inside and the outside, but the best prison writing avoids metaphorical language altogether, or at least uses it to define rather than manipulate. If good prison writing teaches us about freedom, it does so by showing us what freedom is not. This is why any reader should spend time with This Prison Where I Live, an anthology of imprisoned writers edited by Siobhan Dowd and sponsored by PEN, an association that promotes the written word around the globe.

A slim but large-minded collection of works by international writers who've done time in the 20th century, the collection succeeds by offering brutal, immediate sketches of prison life with rarely a stitch of rhetorical adornment. Often my impression after reading a passage was less like thoughtful empathy than awe at such strange, horrific experience. This book confirms that the true profundity of prison is simply that it exists, and that the task of the incarcerated writer is to describe life inside it.

Consider the opening of the anthology's first piece, Arthur Koestler's "The Cell Door Closes": "It is a unique sound. A cell door has no handle, either outside or inside. It cannot be shut except by being slammed. It is made of massive steel and concrete, about four inches thick, and every time it falls to there is a resounding crash just as though a shot has been fired." Prison is inherently dramatic and heavy with figurative weight; to embellish what's already there is to risk making it unbelievable or trite. Even this book's more metaphysical moments speak to a singular starkness. Take Izzat Ghazzawi's "Marwa, My Daughter," which ends with an explanation of how, over time, insane circumstances come to seem normal: "As if the sewage and stench were of our own choosing. As if we were hungry because we fasted voluntarily. As if illness were a matter of happenstance. And as if God had stopped trying and had closed the doors of mercy."

Such merciless prose, laced with the improvisational intimacy of diaries and letters, is the favored brand of this anthology's nearly 200 pages and some 37 writers, including Václav Havel, Primo Levi, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nien Cheng, and Wole Soyinka. There are some poems scattered across this landscape, and some of these have power--those by Osip Mandelstam, Yannis Ritsos, and Cesar Vallejo especially. But many fit awkwardly into the whole--which may be due in part to some poor translating. But mostly it's because poetry is a different means toward evocation that, here, interrupts the narrative river.

Along with the decision to include poets, Dowd has also chosen to label the contributors here "political prisoners." This usually means they were locked up for holding views deemed contrary to the ruling political system's--still a crime in many countries. But calling prisoners "political" also means they're sufficiently powerful to express those views in a threatening manner. When those expressions are delivered in writing, "political prisoner" translates into "writer with an established reputation." This country's political prisoner célèbre seems to be Mumia Abu-Jamal, the writer/radio journalist awaiting execution in Pennsylvania. But I wonder what distinguishes him from many other death-row inmates except that his communication skills tend to be superior. What prisoner has not landed behind walls at least partly in response to the established political system? What minority who makes up the majority of my current prison classes is not, on some level, a political prisoner?

This Prison Where I Live begins by leaving the outside behind (the first step into the cell, the first meal), travels through time spent on acts trivial and essential (such as observing the play of shadow and light), and finally moves toward an end, which can be either release or death--as in Wang Ruowang's closing account of a young prisoner who commits suicide by leaping face-first into a concrete hole. Aside from such fatal drama, these works are about mundane deprivation: stomach empty, skin untouched, feet without miles, time that is lightless, motionless, endless. While it may be popular to mistake prison for an incubator of imagination--as if all that solitude and structure were a respite from society's maddening demands--Dowd's collection testifies that real prison is more likely to be deadening, and for a writer that means no writing. As Joseph Brodsky points out in his introduction, "By and large, prisons are survivable. Though hope is indeed what you need least upon entering here: a lump of sugar would be more useful."

Despite the odds against it, this crucial anthology exists, and it shows how confined lives can somehow be lived. Last week, in a post-class conversation, I asked one of my inmate-students how he maintains his good attitude. He said it's taken a lot of practice--26 years of practice. Sometimes he talks to the younger guys and realizes he's been locked up for longer than they've been alive, and sometimes he looks in the mirror to remind himself where the time has gone.

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