AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 630

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Session 630: Prison Break: Asian Literature, Art, and Film of Incarceration

Organizer: Haosheng Yang, Miami University, Ohio, USA

Chair: Rina Fujita, Independent Scholar, Japan

Discussant: Rina Fujita, Independent Scholar, Japan

Prison, as a place and an idea, has been a fertile setting for creativity. The distinctive experiences of incarceration have inspired writers, artists, and thinkers alike to produce a wide scope of creative works. These works not only carry fundamental biographical descriptions and direct expressions of frustration, but also offer valuable perspectives for observing human beings’ complex relationship to the world when they are feeling trapped, helpless, and angry. By juxtaposing papers on paintings, poems, narratives, and film created either in conditions of physical incarceration or on the subject of imprisonment, this panel explores the literal and metaphoric imprisonment of Asian people in the modern discourse of political oppression and alienation, and the consequent intellectual effort to seek self-release through critical thinking and aesthetic creation. It involves the following topics: 1. The methodology of violence in the North Korean prison camp as shown in former camp survivors’ autobiographical texts. 2. The representation of trauma, loss, and survival in two Cambodian Tuol Sleng survivors’ paintings and the power relations involved in the creation of such art. 3. Minority representation and its ethical and political significance in Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging. 4. Modern Chinese writers Zhou Zuoren’s and Nie Gannu’s recreation of doggerel verse in prisons as their subtle resistance against the contemporary orthodox political ideologies. 5. The pedagogy of teaching Asian prison writings to American Undergraduates through critical thinking approach blended with humanistic and global perspectives.

North Korean Prison Survivor Literature: Shin Dong Hyuk’s “Out Into The World”
Sandra Fahy, Sophia University, Japan

I consider how government institutions deliver social control and social suffering in North Korea. To narrow the focus of this, I consider narratives written by survivors of political prisons inside the DPRK. Due to the brevity of conference time, I will narrow the scope in this paper to a text written by a young North Korean prison survivor, published in 2007. Shin Dong-Hyuk(신동혁), born and raised in a prison camp in the early 1980s, wrote and published a memoir about the experience in South Korea titled Out into the world (세상 밖으로 나오다). In this paper, I will consider what Shin has to say about social relations within the prison, how language, information and violence were used to maintain social control and deliver social suffering. What methodologies of social control existed in the prison and how did it operate on an intellectual level (the sharply narrowed information for prisoners on their nation and the world), the physical level (types of torture, directly or otherwise, which are utilized), and the interpersonal level (the gray zone of Primo Levi where victim turns victimizer)?

Breaking through the Prison’s Walls: Art of Tuol Sleng Prison
Sarah Jones Dickens, Duke University, USA

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh Cambodia, is a highly visited and studied site. Scholars, filmmakers, journalists, lawyers, and international judges have devoted considerable attention to the brutality that occurred there, which sent an almost 16,000 people to the nearby killing fields of Choeung Ek. While scholars and writers of Cambodia are deft to mention the prison and its survivors in their scholarship, one important part of the complex has received peripheral treatment: art that grapples with the Tuol Sleng experience This paper moves beyond these limitations and places works by artists, such as Binh Danh, Vann Nath, and Bou Meng, in an art historical context that views their art as representative of traumatic experience, loss, memory, and survival. Specifically, I argue that their works of art, individually and collectively, navigate through the interstitial spaces of knowing and not knowing, remembering and forgetting, home and exile, and life and death. As their art goes “inside” Tuol Sleng, they break through the prison’s walls and bring “outside” the multigenerational, transnational, trans-cultural, and trans-temporal legacies of trauma.

Afterlife of Letters from Death Row: Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging
Shota T. Ogawa, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, USA

Six years after the execution of Ri Chin’u, a young Korean-Japanese convict, Oshima Nagisa brought Ri back to life in Death by Hanging (1968) figuratively as the convict “R” who loses his memory as the result of surviving the execution and discursively through extensively citing Ri’s in-prison letters addressed to the Korean-Japanese journalist Pak Sunam and later published in her book, Crime, Death, and Love. Oshima rejects mass media’s racialized representation of Ri in favour of treating him as an imaginative thinker and his co-screenwriter. Ri was unable to truly own his crimes until he fell in love with Pak Sunam and realized the ethical demand to transfer his supposedly singular feeling toward Pak to his victims. By killing the amnesiac “R” just as he regains his memory and individuality, is Oshima attempting to elevate Ri’s death beyond that of an individual into an event? Does Oshima’s attack on state’s justice system rely on assuming the exterior standpoint of the already-executed convict whose voice from the grave assumes an ethical tone? Through analyzing the crucial albeit unacknowledged role Pak plays mediating between Ri and Oshima, I will complicate such views that place Ri’s letters in the realm of ethics than politics. What is at stake for Oshima in reclaiming Ri’s death and what does “R”’s death ultimately symbolize?

Lyricism Behind Walls: Zhou Zuoren’s and Nie Gannu’s Doggerel Verses in Prisons
Haosheng Yang, Miami University, Ohio, USA

This paper explores the complex interplay of poetics and politics in modern Chinese literature, through examining Zhou Zuoren’s and Nie Gannu’s classical-style poetry written when they were incarcerated, respectively, Zhou as a traitor who collaborated with the Japanese invaders during the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), and Nie as an “rightist” during the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” (1957-58) and an “anti-revolutionary” during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). As two accomplished writers of essays in modern vernacular language, Zhou and Nie had abandoned classical literary language and genres since the early 1920s, but during their imprisonment, they started to write poetry in classical style, and significantly developed the traditional poetic subgenre—doggerel verse [dayou shi]. I argue that Zhou and Nie had successfully transformed doggerel verse from a “worthless” pre-modern lyrical form that usually describes trivial and unserious feelings into an effective venue to bridge serious modernist concern and anxiety. What lies behind their lyricism in prisons is their subtle resistance against the contemporary orthodox approaches to China’s modernity.

Let the Voices Break the Prison Wall: Teaching Asian Prison Writings to American Undergraduates
Luying Chen, Columbia College, USA

Prison writings by Asian revolutionaries in early twentieth century present great opportunities for a liberal arts education with a global perspective, but also great challenges. The individual voices in the autobiographical writings by Japanese rebel women and Chinese revolutionaries between the 1920s and 1930s, and Hu Chí Minh’s Prison Diary (1941-1943) are valuable complements to the larger narrative of colonialism and anti-colonialism often used to describe the relationships among East Asian nations and between Asia and the West during that historical period. These voices ought to speak emphatically to American students who are familiar with the concepts of freedom and liberty and many of whom are concerned about human rights in Asia. This paper begins with an analysis of some negative student responses to these texts, including a feeling of indignation toward the texts because of propaganda elements or judgments that the revolutionaries were self-serving, amoral, self-righteous, and their devotion to a cause pathological. It continues to explore possibilities of breaking down the various walls of alienation between the students and the writers. Finally, it asks questions about the interrelatedness between literary analysis and pedagogy: Is it enough to use conventional methods of literary interpretation to help students understand the subject matter with a balance of empathy and critical thinking? Can writings of this kind really form a discourse of resistance or are they mainly a form of self-expression? What would be imprisoned if we call prison writings “prison literature”?