1998 / 10月
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Chang Chiung-fang /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Scott Williams
An inescapable hope
Waiting quietly, hidden in the ashes.
When the spring wind rises,
One anticipates tongues of flame will begin to dance and flicker.
No one knows how long this hope can be sustained,
Nor in what direction it will drive these inmates,
Held within these high walls,
Struggling to find themselves and a space in which to live.
-"Struggle" (Chao Hsing)
The works of the Penghu Prison's Tingwan Writing Class have been collected in the volume Stories from the Edge. Published in July, the book currently ranks among Kingstone Books' 10 best-sellers, indicating that there is a high level of curiosity among the public. In some cases this curiosity is so strong that readers have even asked, "How can I join the Tingwan Writing Class?"
Waiting to view the moon with you
". . . I wasn't expecting this kind of delay. A full 10 years have passed, and still I owe my friend an evening spent viewing the moon. But I haven't seen the moon since that night. Lately, my desire to see it is growing stronger. Memories of it often flit through my mind. . . ."
Of his own work, Shen Yu finds "Waiting to View the Moon with You" the most satisfying. The essay, which recalls friends and family members, won third prize in the Joyous World Writing Contest jointly sponsored by The Liberty Times and President Enterprises. It also earned him NT$10,000 in prize money.
Shen, who is in prison for the third time, is already 40 years old. Though he never used to write, since joining the class he has become a devoted inkslinger.
From 5:00-9:30 in the evening is "free time" for the inmates. In their tiny cells, some roommates might sit or lay down, while others play chess, listen to music or daydream. Shen Yu, however, spends every evening writing, a chess board on his legs serving as his desk. "I haven't taken a day off in three months. My hands are getting calluses." He smiles, showing his hands.
Shen will be released from prison at the end of this year. Once out, he plans to raise fish for a living, and says he will continue to write in his free time.
* * *
Pu Sha, in his early thirties, writes mostly of his feelings. He says, "My mood is better after I've written."
Pu, whose formal education ended with primary school, never thought that he would one day pick up a pen and begin writing, but after joining the prison's writing class, he discovered an exciting new realm of freedom and open spaces. "When I'm writing, I achieve something I never had before-peace of mind."
Pu's attitude towards life has changed, too. "In the past, all I thought about was how to be a better criminal." He says that he used to scan the news for ways to avoid being caught. Lately, however, he is no longer interested in that kind of thing. In his essay "A 30-year-old Newborn," he says that he has been reborn through writing.
* * *
The 37-year-old "Big Head" was sentenced to life in prison for transporting narcotics. After more than three years on the inside, his greatest regret is that he has seen his son, who was only four years old when Big Head was incarcerated, only once. "The biggest mistake I've made in this life was the wasting of my son's childhood years," he says, his eyes rimmed with red.
Big Head says, "There were many things I used to not like to think about." But in reading and writing, one unconsciously lets one's feelings have expression and, in Big Head's case, begins thinking about those things he used to avoid thinking about.
In an essay about a mother bringing a son to the Penghu Prison to visit, his real feelings are revealed: "Looking at the backs of the mother and son as they left, I couldn't help but shed a tear. . . ." The reader, too, feels a lump in her throat.
Writing also allows him to dream about the past. "Though my body is imprisoned, I often let my spirit roam over these high walls and across the black-water moat to the seaside of my hometown. I dream of being a fisherman. . . ."
For more than a year, writing has been something he has taken as a kind of responsibility. Though he writes everyday until his back aches, "I feel like if I don't write, I've wronged Teacher Ou."
The "Teacher Ou" he refers to is the 40-ish Ou Yin-chuan, a female reporter with the Min Sheng Daily.
An "Indian Blanket" invitation
The students in the Tingwan Writing Class are all inmates at the Penghu Prison, a so-called "professional prison" which houses some 1500 criminals, all repeat offenders on drug charges.
In addition to putting inmates to work in the prison factory, the prison also arranges classes for them. Over the last few years, the classes offered by Taiwan's prisons have become more lively and varied. In addition to classes on religion, there are classes in meditation, calligraphy, pottery and reading. Inmates are allowed to freely chose from among these. Nonetheless, the writing class at Penghu Prison is a first.
"At the beginning, I had no idea we'd publish a book, nor that when we did, it would become so famous," says Chen Ming-chieh, head of Penghu Prison's education program. In fact, Chen says that the original intent of starting a writing class was simply to stir up interest in reading.
In April of 1997, Ou Yin-chuan came to the Penghu County Culture Center to present a lecture. Liao Te-fu, warden of the Penghu Prison, and Chen Ming-chieh attended with a bouquet of Indian Blanket in hand. After the lecture, they earnestly invited Ou to teach a writing class at the prison.
Because there are no funds for the class, the prison isn't able to offer Ou any compensation for her teaching. In fact, she must even pay for her plane tickets to Penghu herself. But Ou was born and raised in Penghu and was moved by Liao and Chen's appeal. She quickly agreed to their proposal. Moreover, she also persuaded several friends to volunteer with her including the poet Shen Hua-mo, novelist Lu Tse-chih and Chang Tien-wan, a writer on literature.
Naturally, when Lu Tse-chih, who's family is from Penghu, heard the appeal of his hometown friend, he couldn't refuse. Chang Tien-wan and Shen Hua-mo, on the other hand, viewed teaching the inmates as a way of fulfilling their own social responsibilities, and have happily contributed their time.
The two principal teachers of the class, Ou and Chang, take turns flying to Penghu an average of once every two week to give lectures. Lu and Shen, on the other hand, are "paper teachers," correcting and critiquing the students' works.
Sunlight inside the walls
About 200 students signed up for the Tingwan Writing Class of their own accord. To coordinate with inmates' "airing out" time (when inmates are let out of their cells, it is known as "airing out"; when they are put back in, it is known as "bottling up"), most of the writing classes are held from 9-11 in the morning and from 2-4 in the afternoon.
Ou sometimes invites writers from different fields or of different types to teach the class. She says that writers including Chen Juo-hsi, Lu Han-hsiu, Fan Chun-yi, Cheng Yao-tsung and Lin Pei-fen have all volunteered their time to lecture the class on writing techniques for the novel, song lyrics, Taiwanese poetry and screenplays. Following on the example of Ou, they are compensated for their time with a box of Penghu-style xianbing, savory meat-filled pastries.
At the beginning of September, Penghu's sun is still almost unbearably fierce. In spite of its harsh glare, writer Huang Chun-ming came to the prison to give a lecture to the Tingwan Writing Class.
"Precious Freedom Soup"
Huang is a noted storyteller. In his lecture, he speaks first of his childhood-the fights and his "study tour" of Taiwan. Then he turns his narrative to an American murderer. "This man was convicted of more than 10 murders and sentenced to more than 600 years in prison. He was much worse than Chen Ching-hsing. By the time his case was wrapped up, he had already spent 12 years in prison. During that time, he taught himself to read and eventually wrote an autobiography. He became a completely different person. . . ." Huang tells his story well, and the students listen with rapt attention.
The writer Bo Yang was also once imprisoned for political reasons, spending nine years on Green Island. He describes his experience in a poem entitled "Jail Cell": "Sealed in with heavy locks, the days and nights are long/ The four seasons are indistinct by lamplight/ The sky hangs low, the flame turned down, it feels like a woodstove/ Planks float atop the water, steamed like soup/ All day spent sitting or lying on the floor/ The wailing, moaning reverberates around stiff bodies/ The stinking liquid in the toilet-accumulated shit and urine/ Crowded, shoulders bumping and sweating/ Bodies like corpses, the ants crawling upon them/ People like rotten meat covered in roaches. . . ."
Living this kind of prison life, it's no wonder that Bo Yang said feelingly, "In Heaven, 1000 years passes like one day. In prison, one day passes like 1000 years."
Of course, things are much better at the Penghu Prison, known to inmates as the Penghu Tingwan Hotel, than they were on Green Island at the time of Bo Yang's imprisonment. But cells are still quite cramped with three inmates sharing a seven-square-meter cell. On the bright side, those in jail are isolated from the concerns of the outside world, which makes prison an excellent environment for writing.
Although inmates cannot roam about freely, their minds are free to go galloping on the four winds. Thus, in their written works one often encounters strange and unexpected ideas.
Once, after a lecture by Ou on the relationship of food to creativity, one student in the Tingwan Writing Class created a prison recipe. Called "Precious Freedom Soup," it called for three parts patience, five parts perseverance and 12 parts decisiveness. After stewing for three years, it is to be drunk while still hot, garnished with agony and tears.
Another inmate produced a work entitled "The Water's Escape." Casting himself as water, the story expresses the writer's own desire to escape.
In his story "Ah-ching's Wish," Ya-chuan, who was abandoned by his father as a child, tells of a boy who expectantly writes "I want a father" on a strip of paper. He hopes that Santa Claus can stuff this gift, one which he desires above all others, into his stocking for Christmas.
Not simply repentance
Naturally, the students were not great writers at the outset. Ou says that in the beginning, most of the content of their work was enveloped in their feelings of remorse and regret over their past behavior. It was difficult for them to break out of this.
"I encouraged them to return to their childhoods, to look at those days with naivet*," says Ou. She explains that with guidance and encouragement, the number of repentant works lessened, replaced by works relating experiences from their childhood and adult lives.
"They don't have other work to distract them, and can therefore put all of their vital force into their writing." Chen Ming-chieh, the Penghu Prison's education director, feels that inmates will grasp at any opportunity which allows them to breathe and create.
Lu Chih-tse says that in the beginning, the students really didn't write very well. However, by the time he got their third set of works to critique, he noted that they had already begun to improve. This was heartening. "They were dedicating themselves to their writing, so I couldn't treat it lightly." Lu says that when reading the works of inmates, he can't help but lose himself within each and every one.
"Their experiences are pretty unique. Moreover, the limitations placed upon them by their environment push them to focus still more intently on their writing. The work they produce naturally has a special character of its own." Lu says that he recently read a work called "Pictures" which describes a sleepless night. An inmate observes the fan, the geckos and the mosquitoes on the ceiling of his cell. The theme is simple, yet it creates a rare world of the imagination which leaves a deep impression on the reader.
The other "paper teacher," Shen Hua-mo, also rates her imprisoned students highly. Although most of them are not highly educated, the quality of their work is on a par with that of the works submitted to literary contests such as the Taipei City Writing Contest and the Taiwan Province's Love in the World contest.
Chang Tien-wan says that she has taught writing classes for youths, mothers and aborigines, and at literary retreats, but that it has been these writing classes for prisoners that have been the most rewarding to her.
"With the prison writing classes, I was taking a stab at something new," says Chang. The stories she has read this past year have involved the sea, old soldiers, tearooms and slaughtering pigs. She says that their style and their themes are not part of people's everyday experiences.
A dangerous decision
Bo Yang, who jokingly refers to himself as a "professional jailbird," feels that it was a dangerous decision to start a prison writing class. But in doing so, the sponsors have shown their wisdom and their courage.
He explains that the purpose of prison is to keep inmates separate from society. The "purer" the prison environment, the less likely there is to be trouble, which means easier management. These prison writing classes have brought people in and out of the jail, providing the convicts with contact with the outside world. He feels that this will affect their moods, making them more emotionally unstable. Liao Te-fu took a risk in inviting these teachers to hold writing classes in the prison. His decision was a first.
Ou and the other teachers are extremely conscientious about the class, carefully considering their topics, materials and the discussion process before ever stepping into the classroom. For example, their students expressed an interest in the recently popular Japanese novel and film Paradise Lost. The teachers decided to present the material, discussing sexual themes and writing techniques. Everyone learned a great deal.
Fortunately, the negative effects that Bo Yang worries about have not yet been seen at the Penghu Prison. Chen Ming-chieh says, in fact, that judging from comments in letters written by the inmates' families, the ability of the inmates to express themselves in writing has improved. At the same time, their emotions have found an outlet, they have broadened their worldview and expanded their understanding. As a result, they are less inclined to quarrel with others.
"Reflecting on your mistakes is a great impetus to growing up," says Huang Chun-ming. He feels that the aid that the writing class has given the inmates in recovering their lost childhoods has been its greatest contribution.
After reading more than a year's worth of works, Shen Hua-mo has come to the conclusion that it is their mothers whom the inmates feel they have most wronged, and it is the warmth of motherly love which they find it most difficult to forget. Therefore, most of their works are reminiscences about their mothers. They are not, however, much willing to discuss their former wives and girlfriends. Their deep feelings on these latter are difficult to reveal.
"I think that prison counseling should address this point," says Shen. She recommends that future writing classes should include segments on control of emotions and relations between the sexes.
The power of literature
Having encountered literature and taken up writing, the interests of the inmates in the Tingwan Writing Class are growing. One has started studying Chinese macram*. Another has thrown himself into the performance of Taiwanese puppet opera. Their life in prison is becoming more bearable.
For the students in the class, the publication of Stories from the Edge has provided even greater encouragement. "When our works were printed, it was great!" says Big Head. He comments that he doesn't know how many letters he wrote to family and friends telling them about it. He wished for the whole world to know.
Although writing has allowed some inmates to regain their confidence, from her interactions with them, their teacher can nonetheless feel that they still are experiencing problems on a deeper level.
Ou thus periodically holds a "literature clinic" for her students. In it she addresses problems individual students are having in their writing. Students with problems can also apply to "see the doctor." But typically, the content of these visits goes beyond merely addressing difficulties with writing. Students happily pour out their hearts to Ou, asking about problems in their lives and emotional issues.
"I often tell them, I came out of the fire and I've come to visit them-these folks who are still in the fire," says Ou. She explains that she doesn't play the role of psychological counselor, but that of a friend, "a friend who is struggling with life in real society, and who, like them, has faults."
For this reason, "Teacher Ou" has never spoken of virtue and morality in front of her students. "The influence of literature and writing is wrought slowly. But the self-discovery and self-reflection that it brings is more useful," she says.
For Ou herself, entering the prison to teach has opened a new window on life. "This writing class has made me aware of where the pain in life lies. This has struck me like a blow." She says that the direction of her writing and her view of life have also changed as a result. She has been more inclined to take untoward events in stride.
A student once said in class that being in prison for a long time, one's whole body becomes sluggish and unresponsive. The only good thing about it is that smiles disappear particularly slowly. This statement impressed Ou deeply and led her to write "The Smile Which Faded Slowly."
If you sow, there is hope
The writing class was like a submarine chugging quietly along beneath the surface of the sea. No one expected its work to receive such positive reviews.
In July, Liao Te-fu, originally the warden of the Penghu Prison, was transferred, becoming warden of Taoyuan Prison. Since the move, he has invited Ou and her friends to set up a second writing class, this one for the inmates in Taoyuan. Although the new class is not in Penghu, in memory of the spirit of the original invitation, the teachers have decided to call the Taoyuan class the Indian Blanket Writing Class.
The Tingwan Writing Class has received wide acclaim. Since the publication of its book, its members have been interviewed by the media almost without rest. Moreover, a number of other prisons have now requested that Ou establish writing classes for their inmates, too. Ou, however, has politely refused. They hope that the writing class can become like a submarine once again, chugging along unseen as it spreads the seeds of literature.
Pu Sha looks at a note he has placed on the window between his cell and the corridor. He seems to have something on his mind. For Pu, who next year may be released on parole, writing is a source of hope and confidence.
Ou Yin-chuan invited writers of different types to come to the prison and present lectures to its writing class. In September, the "rural school" writer Huang Chun-ming traveled to Penghu to give two days of classes.
The Tingwan Puppet Opera Club has grown out of the writing class. The script, the narration, the music and the performance are all handled by prisoners working together.
There are no desks or tables in the cells, so Big Head's only option is to write on a chessboard he sets on his legs. After a few hours of this, his whole body aches, but he's happy.
In spite of the difficulties of their environment, the prisoners write in a neat and regular hand. Over the course of three months, Shen Yu has produced a thick stack of work.
The four teachers of the Tingwan Writing Class, from left to right: Chang Tien-wan, Lu Tse-chih, Ou Yin-chuan and Shen Hua Mo. Usually busy with their work and their families, they rarely have the chance to all get together.
The Tingwan Writing Class, which "grew" out of a basket of plastic Indian blanket flowers, has brought a ray of sunshine into the dank interior of the prison.
0593, 1553, 0721. . . Prisoners have no names, only numbers. After joining the writing class, they chose noms de plume for themselves. From left to right: Big Head, Shen Yu and Pu Sha.