There’s No Cure for Lucidity
Summertime (and COVID) in Paris; a class on prisons, democracy, and storytelling
Michelle here. Sorry we’ve been out of touch since our piece about the shooting at the Taiwanese church. We’ve been even busier than usual: we flew to California for a conference at UC Irvine organized by Emily Baum that Albert helped with, and which seems to have gone splendidly! (In related news, I can’t resist giving Albert props for publishing his piece on superstition and anti-imperial movements in the British journal Past & Present, a dream venue of his since forever—as he recalls, it was reading articles there by E. P. Thompson and Natalie Zemon Davis that made him want to become a historian.) Then we flew to Paris, where I’m co-teaching an intensive three-week class. Almost immediately upon arriving, Albert tested positive for COVID. Our two-year-old followed suit soon after. I held out for a week or so, feeling superior to the fallen around me, but then I got it too. (While they were sick at home, though, I had tons of fun riding a scooter along the Seine.) We’ve been prudently N95-masking, self-quarantining, and consuming large quantities of zinc, which the pharmacies here sell in small glass vials, and we’re basically recovered, thank goodness. We’ll be heading back to Taiwan soon.
In happier news, Paris seems more gorgeous to me than ever. It’s been glorious sitting and walking and biking in the sun. The city has marked off even more bike paths, which makes it a joy to get around sans car. When we left, the city was just reopening; now it seems like everything is “back,” the cafes and bars overflowing. Of course, a handful of Parisians (not all) are just as rude as we remember. If only we could replace Parisians with the Taiwanese, we’ve been joking… (The Taiwanese are the type to leap to their feet on the metro when they see someone old or wobbly or pregnant or with little ones in tow, or to stop and help someone on the street who looks lost.) For instance, Albert went to the bank to take out some euros, only to be scornfully waved off and told he couldn’t withdraw money after noon. Why should I know your stupid arbitrary rules? he fulminated, after the fact. Nonetheless, we feel lucky to be here, teaching and doing research.
My flâneries aside, I’ve been co-teaching a course, “I’ve Never Belonged to a Democracy,” at the American University of Paris. The name comes from a Broad and Ample Road interview with activist, artist, and formerly incarcerated person Adnan Khan, who spoke to the class this Wednesday about teaching himself the California legislative process from prison and passing a law that would eventually free him.
I became friends with my wonderful co-teacher, Hannah Taieb, when Albert and I worked with her to create a course at a prison in Paris, modeled on the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in the U.S. and the Walls to Bridges program in Canada, where Hannah trained to prepare for that class. (W2B is taught inside the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario; half the trainers are incarcerated women, and the approach is radically egalitarian.) In our class, ten “traditional” students from AUP traveled to La Santé Prison in the 14th arrondissement to learn alongside ten incarcerated students. The class helped birth our France-based nonprofit, Dialogue & Transformation, which Hannah and I created with Kassia Aleksic and Simone Davis. We’ve been working on creating a youth project co-led by educators who have experienced incarceration, organizing global conversations among formerly incarcerated people, and more. If you’re interested in volunteering, donating, or joining our mailing list, don’t hesitate to contact us. People from all over the world are welcome—that’s part of the idea!
This summer our students have engaged almost daily with formerly incarcerated speakers, writers, activists, and playwrights from France and the U.S. We’ve read parole board hearing transcripts, pardon applications, prison autobiographies, and texts on prison education (such as Simone Davis’s insightful piece on prison education), among others. It’s also the first time I’ve read ethnographic texts in the presence of their “subjects,” which has changed my experience of teaching forever. For instance, when we read sociologist Didier Fassin’s Prison Worlds, we asked H., who was incarcerated in France and now works with our nonprofit, to read with us. (I want to add that one reason H. has been willing to share so much of his time and perspective is that he and Hannah already have a relationship of trust, based on separate projects they do together through our nonprofit.)
H. has come to roughly half our classes and shared his own experiences: how “in prison there is no law,” how guards senselessly beat inmates, how he taught himself to meditate. His perspective anchors the discussion, and we don’t always come back to the text—a valuable assumption for me to reevaluate. (“Always bring it back to the text!” is one of those things that gets drilled into you when you become a teacher.) And letting that assumption go, letting him lead us to more surprising places—such as meditation, or mastering emotions, or the difficulty of forgiveness—has been a moving experience I’m still trying to understand.
That said, we did discuss some of Fassin’s points, in particular his writing about racism and policing. “Two thirds of the prison population made up by Arab and Black men certainly do not reflect the local demographics,” Fassin writes. “There is little doubt that they are massively overrepresented.” In response, H., who is a person of color, said (shared with his permission):
At the prison I walked into the courtyard. It was a shock. There were only Black people and Arabs there. (The only white people were Eastern Europeans or Russians, Chechens, Croats, Roma. You can’t really see them as white people; they’re in between—they’re white but not seen as white.) When I saw the courtyard, I frankly wanted to burst into tears. I felt it here [touches his heart]. I saw a ghetto within a ghetto, voilà.
It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are or whether you’re left or right or Martian: you will see something’s wrong when you see the courtyard. I said to myself, How will I let other people understand? I said to myself, When I get out of here, I will tell people. People going to the metro, going home, going to sleep, they can’t possibly know. And this is France, this is supposed to be center of human rights, of Enlightenment—we preach to the world, going other places to civilize other people. But even lawyers who come every day don’t see the things I see. What people inside tell you and what you see aren’t the same.
The class has also brought out the fundamental tension and discomfort of research—of the “one person studies another” model—while also communicating its urgency. H. didn’t refer to Fassin by name, for instance, as professors do; he remarked only in passing, that “he must have been powerful, to be able to talk to everyone.”
H.’s presence drove home for students—and for me—the obvious point that the “subject” of research is not an abstraction to be generalized or pitied, but rather an individual who can insist on your attention, who can occasionally disagree or push back. One student asked innocently whether some people in prison should be in mental institutions instead—a question intended to get at the disastrous failure of health care in prison. “I’m confused by your question,” H. responded sharply. “I’m not sick. I knew the risks when I went to prison. And in prison there’s no cure for lucidity.”
Throughout the course we’ve talked about why societies punish, and how deeply this is driven, or at least justified, by “public opinion.” Fassin describes a man arrested for driving without a license and insurance. (Fassin writes that the number of convictions for road traffic offenses has risen by 58 percent over 20 years.) The judge sentences him to six months in prison. He’s been working at a warehouse for a year and will lose his job. “When I get out I’ll be out of work,” he complains to Fassin. “I’ll have to start all over again. It took nearly a year to find a job, now it’s fucked up. Last year I was jailed just before my son was born. And now I won’t be there for his first birthday.” When Fassin talks to the judge, she’s slightly embarrassed. Astonishingly, she tells him she felt “helpless,” and knows prison won’t help the defendant. Then why the sentence? Because, the judge says, society expects her to punish.
On a more personal note, it’s been a year since we moved to Taiwan. I won’t lie, it’s been a rough adjustment for both of us. This month in Paris, where we feel pretty free, has reminded us that the choice to move to Taiwan—largely revolving around illness in Albert’s family and a sense that at least one person in our marriage needed to go home—was largely an existential choice between notions of individual freedom and those of filiality and collectivity. We chose. It’s been hard but we try not to look back. Despite being struck down by COVID, we feel rejuvenated by this trip and look forward to embracing new projects both in France and in Taiwan.
For next Sunday we’ll compile reader responses, so don’t hesitate to respond to this email—or to anything else! And look out for a Chinese version, in a translation by Wenpei Lin, of Zito Madu’s brilliant piece about the misery of waiting places (responses to that piece here.)
We loved this piece in the TLS by Aaron Peck about a new translation of the unfinished work of Charles Baudelaire, who apparently hated Belgium with a passion, producing some of the “most angry and scathing criticisms of another country and its people” Peck has ever read.
In case you wanted to read more of our writings related to incarceration, here are some links: an interview with Chan, Michelle’s client who was released after being imprisoned for eighteen years in California; a two-part interview (part I here, part II here) with Adnan Khan, executive director of Re:Store Justice and a formerly incarcerated person; an interview with Zakee Hutchison, our former student at San Quentin who was released after serving twenty-one years in prison.
And finally, a couple of snapshots from summer in Paris: