twitter logoFacebook logo

PEN 2013: Literature: the Lock and Key

Monday, May 6, 2013

By JK Fowler

Saturday, May 04, 2013, 7:00pm
The Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10003

In Iran, Shane Bauer's cells were small but literature dismantled the walls and gave him temporary reprieve from the three years of solitary confinement he, his wife, Sarah Shourd, and his best friend, Joshua Frattal, served in the Iranian Evin House of Detention. Brought in and "held hostage" (Bauer's way of describing their incarceration) on suspicions of espionage while hiking the Iran/Iraq border (the same border that saw much fighting during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88), Bauer's two intensive months of blindfolded interrogation turned into four months, four months into eight months, and continued in a Kafka-esque masquerade of silly and strange questions that would extend for over two years (2009-2011). Stuck in this maddening bubble of solitary confinement, allowed to see or speak to very few people, Bauer never realized that their trio had become an international issue until another prisoner asked, "Are you one of the hikers?"

Bauer's discussion of what it is like to sit by oneself in solitary confinement day after day, month after month, is trying to simply listen to and forget how often we are allowed to distract ourselves in our daily lives. As Baeur said,  "The blankness of the mind is just like the blankness of the walls," noting that he found his mind slowing down and was quickly forgetting how to have a conversation in his mind. "It's really you, time, and the cell," said Bauer, "and you do everything you can to try to erase time." He noted that the simple light coming through his cell window could spell disaster for the rest of his day, the angle of the light telling him the time of day if he paid too close attention, and the time remaining within the daylight hours would stretch on seemingly without end. Rage would often result, an undirected well of pent up aggression erupting. For those that already had anger issues, Bauer noted, he can fully understand how people can become much more violent when put in similar circumstances to his own.

Early on in his incarceration, Bauer recounted that he was given Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Noting that this was his relationship in solitary confinement, Bauer said that he never would have known what it is like to "live a poem" if he had not been incarcerated. After some time, he began trying to write of his experiences, stealing pens and using the micro-writing techniques that Nelson Mandela used in his 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island to get as much on a small piece of paper as possible before hiding them within the spines of the books that he was given (only one of these such pages survived, the rest destroyed by prison guards). Bauer said that the first few months were terrifying and awful, but it soon became his life and he found that he could only write of those experiences that were "finished" and it was impossible to write on the present.

Asked whether he ever broke down, Bauer admitted that he experienced serious break downs on more than one occasion but stated that, "the experience of solitary confinement is very individual. You are faced with yourself and everyone is different." But breaking down, he said, was not an episode or singular event but rather a day after day desperation and feeling of emptiness driven by the enemy of time that colors everything inside of a person as well as the outside world around them.

The walls of the notorious Evin Prison (via Roxana Saberi)

Bauer was released in September of 2011 and soon thereafter traveled with his wife to California where he would read of a massive prisoner-organized hunger strike across a number of high security California prisons to protest the abysmal conditions they were held under. His life since has been marked by investigative journeys into his own country's widespread use of solitary confinement within his own country, often for erroneous and undemocratic charges of gang affiliation (including the discovery of literature such as Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, or prison writing). Noting that there are currently 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in the U.S., some that have been there for over 20 years, Bauer said that he believes this is torture, noting that international law dictates that 15 days of of cruel or unusual punishment constitutes torture. Unfortunately, by Bauer's own account, the conditions of solitary confinement have become far from unusual. Bauer's forays into the darkened corners of our own prison system can be read in the November/December issue of Mother Jones from last year and Bauer has now set his sites on the bail bonds industry. Prison reform is now front and center for Bauer, who closed by noting that the true nature of our democracy can be gauged by how we treat those people that we deem criminals. From all accounts, it seems as though we have quite a long road ahead of us.

 

Further Resources

Event listing on PEN website

Participants

Shane Bauer: is an award-winning investigative journalist and photographer based in Oakland, California. A fluent speaker of Arabic, his work has largely focused on the Middle East and North Africa. From 2009-2011 Shane was held hostage in Iran with his now wife Sarah Shourd and friend Josh Fattal, with whom he is currently writing a book. Seven months after his release from Iranian prison, he went back behind the wire to investigate solitary confinement in California. His articles have appeared in Mother Jones magazine, The Nation, the L.A. Times, Salon.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, and many other publications.

Laura Secor: has written on contemporary Iran for The New Yorker since she began traveling there in 2004. A former staff editor of the New York Times Op-Ed page, former reporter for the Boston Globe's ideas section, and former acting executive editor of the American Prospect, she has written for the New York Times Magazine,The New RepublicSalonThe NationThe Atlantic MonthlyDissent, and Lingua Franca, where she was an editor and writer from 1997-2001. She was a 2008-2009 fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and a Fall 2009 Holtzbrinck fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Her book on Iran's reform movement will be  published by Riverhead Books.

 

Follow JK on Twitter @JKFow

PEN 2013: South Africa in Two ActsNYC Cabbie, Poet, Comedian, and Political Activist: Interview with John McDonagh
 #
Readers may be interested in this dispatch discussing the exile of Shahrnush Parsipur, who spent almost 5 years in Evin Prison: http://mantlethought.org/content/pen-2013-not-writing-exile
 

J. K.