Originally published in offshoot journal. Republished with permission.
From well-studied psychologists to fitness influencers we hear repeated iterations of: language is power, so be careful how you speak. Thus, relationship coaches advise creating google docs full of goals and reading it to yourself every morning while your unconscious is most impressionable. This way you can train your unconscious to believe that you can own Architectural Digest-esque property, and make so much money you’re not sure what to buy anymore, and the ego of your dreams will love you and only you. The example documents include stock images full of white furniture so it is advised to cut and paste endlessly.
The experts agree that language is power. But how many brilliant books have I read that fully delineate the violent degradation that is capitalism, colonialism, that convincingly examine the histories of unfreedom and incarceration? How many perfect lectures have I attended that reiterate this truth? And yet not a single jail collapsed. This is an earnest question. I am asking in earnest. Do their google docs work but not our books?
In 2020, I receive an email from TZ, a former student living in Hong Kong asking if we can speak on the phone. She explains who she is, and how I know her. She tells me, I was your student, I don’t know if you remember me. I am being charged for rioting. Would you consider writing to the court and speak about me as your student? I say yes, of course, to all of it. Yes I remember you, yes we can speak, yes I can write whatever you need.
During our brief call she only tells me the facts. She is looking at up to ten years. She doesn’t think what happened was rioting. She doesn’t go into specifics but she states upfront that she doesn’t regret what she did and that she won’t be apologizing. I respond and tell her that if she were to lie and say that she regrets it, that she regrets protesting, no one would blame her and that such a lie would not be shameful. We go back and forth a bit on the matter and she firmly tells me that she is not sorry, so she will not say she is sorry.
She sends me the poetry portfolio she made for my class, a bilingual series that wove and translated her Chinese poetry into English back and forth. I write in my letter that she is the best student I’ve ever had (you are all the best students, always). I write about her project. I ask the courts not to take her future from her, to support her growth as an adult and writer and person. I say that I can explain any part of my letter and provide all of my contact information hoping they might actually reach out. I am glad for my university letterhead and worry that my letter does not convey all that it needs. TZ can take of herself and she doesn’t need to be saved by anyone and I want to do everything I can to help her avoid incarceration.
After writing my letter for TZ I became embroiled in the specificities of the everyday, and forgot to ask about the result of her trial. By the time I remembered, almost a year had passed.
TZ was in my class for one semester. Cornered in one of the smallest classrooms on campus, we met twice a week and read everyone from Zukofsky, Brooks, from the Black Arts Movement and the Language Poets. Because of my own research interests I structured the syllabus to reflect the politics the poets were involved in and/or evading. So Anne Sexton writes war poems and through this we discuss: what is a persona? I ask the students, as I ask my friends and colleagues and enemies, to treat language as a medium of power. To tend to it as such—language is power, I insist. Though, is language power?
I asked TZ about her trial, and my message was routed through various channels and she was able to respond to me with a letter from prison, letting me know that she was sentenced to almost 5 years. In her letter she tells me that she is forced to make clothes five and half days a week and has been reading as much as possible. I immediately draft a response to tell her that I’m mad at her for telling the truth to a court that cannot hear her. Why not lie to the liars? Why not cheat the cheaters? I tell her I want to debate this with her, what is survival and what is strategy?
And simultaneously I’ve been thinking about what it means to refuse state lies, to refuse the language of untruth and to speak the truth. I think about how US state socialists will deny all of TZ’s claims to protect the possibilities of the Chinese state. The various proclamations made by those who have never visited and do not want to visit any of the countries they claim to know so much about, who neither love nor care about any of those who live there, who have little to say about the conditions of the poor, working class communities, the broken down union members, the incarcerated there. They will call me a liar, I am sure, for infringing on the fantasy they’ve created of an elsewhere utopian nation state. Their fantasy trumps the lives of those who live there—how very very USA. They will say Hong Kong activists are CIA fronts and the protests were a CIA ploy much like they insist all protests in “socialist” states are CIA plots. And they’re not even the perpetrators. But to be clear their infectious chatterings are at best, low level enemies.
Because it is the Chinese state that imprisoned TZ. The Hong Kong police and those who run the jails enforce its sentencing and uphold the imprisonment. The language of the law and those that profit from the law’s existence maintain its strictures. And then there is education that, as outlined in TZ’s letter, strips the learning of interconnected peoples’ history in service to normative and normativizing violence.
And then there is US Empire with its ideological and material commitments to denying any other project than that of transnational neoliberal capitalism; the US Empire is directly responsible for the maintenance of white supremacy, antiblackness, and the various neo-fascistic projects it supports inside its borders and rigorously exports around the globe. There can be no denying that this empire is either directly responsible for, or profiting from, all forms of international and corporate violence—from the weapons it invents, produces and exports, to the ways in which its security apparatus accelerates technologies and industries most antithetical to the possibilities of life, and on and on and on.
Confronted by such unbearable truths, liberals as well conservatives gleefully leap at any narrative that fictionalizes how the US is peak best, and everyone and all other systems are “primitive,” behind, backwards as they strategically create policies that reject migrants from “entering” into this supposedly superior settler state. There are immigrants who weaponize this narrative for their gain, who gladly become pawns in a tired and enduring ideological war that needs no volunteers. And then there are those on the left who proclaim to have critiques of capitalism and colonialism, but are uninterested in hearing from those facing state violence, who are incarcerated, elsewhere.
Their lies surround like a life force so much so that the simulacra seems permanent. I think about how in addition to the forces above, my small little life is a series of constructed personal and institutional lies, some more painful than others, some assembled benignly, some even charming while others so blatantly crude. I think about the compulsive liars in my life, the ones who lie because they cannot change reality and others who do it because they get off on the pursuit of power. But they are amateurs compared to the compulsive liars who are hired and promoted because they tell better lies. I read popular books on power and they advise against truth. They advise that in order to wield power one must construct fantasies and sell them. They bluntly inscribe how no one wants the truth: so don’t give them what they don’t want. I think about how our worlds are fortified on untruths and half truths and how many of us are undone by the narcissism, that only we have been denied the thing called truth.
I think about the many months I’ve spent savage detective-ing the tales I’ve been told by sadists who did not just fool me. There are months I’ll never get back because it was too painful for me to accept that I was manipulated and not the manipulator (there is no innocence, here), so who isn’t drunk on fantasies and lies and who doesn’t believe its ritual is the only magic we have? Language that is.
Because to press again, if language is power, why hasn’t the world erupted upon hearing the testimony of survivors? How has the poetry of war criminals eradicated our dreams? Do you believe your dreams have nothing to do with their language?
And just when I am sure of this melody that truth is a private matter to be held closely and not out loud I think about TZ telling me that she will not lie. TZ telling me she will not apologize. How she cannot say “prison” in “prison” because it offends the guards so she will say nothing rather than what they want and I’m not sure if I’ll ever recover from her puncture. Her insistence that the stories we tell ourselves and what and how and when we compromise, the way we speak to each other (irrespective, irrespective)—cannot be sacrificed.
I want to protect TZ from criticism:1 what she should’ve done, what she could’ve done, what she did wrong, etc etc. Preemptively I want to scream: she is serving a sentence–she has been policed! We need not assist the police, ever.
She and all those incarcerated do not require ideological protection/projection; they need material commitments towards the abolition of all prisons all around the world. I wonder if TZ is suggesting that the foundation to this abolition is a daily, lifelong refusal to apologize: to refuse when they demand it, refuse to speak only as they instruct, refuse to learn the dictums of their language at the expense of one’s own, and instead, insist on another.
Letters from TZ
Dear Professor Kim,
Sorry for the delayed reply. I was convicted in July last year and was sent to the prison for five years imprisonment. I’ve been in prison for almost a year already.
I wasn’t too surprised about the result. Hundreds of teenagers were sent to the prison already. But I still think it’s surreal and unbelievable. The judge said that I was guilty for mere presence, inside my university, in the middle of a protest (riot, as they’ve said). In these 2-3 years, people were convicted because of words or articles they wrote, pictures they drew, comments they posted on the internet, disagreements towards the police, cop or HK government. Five speech therapists were sent to the prison because of the children books they created. A priest was arrested because he shouted “Is this what you call justice?” in the court, a musician was sued because of the song he played in public places. Oh! And three poets’ new works were removed from the public libraries, banned and disqualified from a HK literature award.
Books are banned, removed, destroyed (some works of Orwell, Camus are prohibited here in the prison too). My letters were ‘missing’ (⅓ of them), under surveillance (I hope I can send out this one since I am writing in English).
Poets, DJs, writers, artists censored themselves or they have to flee the country (city) in order to create freely. Professors were arrested on their way to the airport, in the airport, on the plane.
But life goes on. We will find a way to survive. Life in prison is stressful and boring, we are forced to work 5 and a half days per week. I am working in a garment workshop. I won’t say it’s terrible but it’s loathsome. I use most of my spare time reading : ) That makes me happy. Books create a space for me to rest and conceal myself.
I’ve met a lot of people, different types of people here. Drug addicts, murderers, abusers. It makes me question a lot on what’s good or evil, right or wrong.
I just finished reading Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned.” The Chinese translated version. I loved them : ) I am reading “The Catcher in the Rye” (half way through!) I read at least one book by Haruki Murakami or Natsume Soeki every month, the books calm me down and helped me a lot.
Hopefully, I will do a degree in Cultural Studies once I am released. I am used to the life here now. Most of the prisoners are very kind and nice to me : )
Thanks for asking about my trial! I was really touched when I received your message! How are you? I know the world is a big mess now, but I still hope you are healthy and happy : )
Thanks again for everything! I still remember the poetry class! I enjoyed it a lot. The mitigation letter and your kindness : ) Sending my love from this weird and funny place : )
Dear Professor Kim,
Thanks a lot. for your letter : ) Prison sucks. But I never regret a thing. It’s very hard to explain clearly. A lot of people evaluate us from time to time, keep asking if we feel like we were doing something wrong, do we regret it now. My answer is always no. I would feel terrible if I say something I don’t mean to. I remember a few months ago. Some officers asked me to do a sharing with other prisoners since I took the public exam in the prison last year and my result is not bad (the public exam, DSE, in Hong Kong is like SAT in the US). Students take it before they graduate from high school. I took it a long time ago. I was a science student at that time. I chose some subjects that I had never studied before because I thought it would be quite interesting to do exams in the prison and I don’t mind self studying.
[For the sharing] they checked my speech so many times and they didn’t allow me to use words like “freedom” “fight for” “prison” (we have to use ‘correctional institution’ instead), “restrictions” “exploit.” They wanted me to be thankful and use words they preferred. I felt so uncomfortable so I chose to cut my sharing short. All I shared was simply about studying, nothing else, nothing political.
But they were very sensitive about it. They are afraid of any type of agitation. Anything they think is antagonistic. It’s a very rigid place and I hate the way they are handling things. So I refused to follow the flow.
A few months ago, in a hot summer morning (almost 40’c), security came and did a search of all of us. I was not wearing a bra that day because of the hot weather, when they were patting my back, they found it out, the madam was furious, she asked why I wasn’t wearing a bra, but she didn’t let me explain. I could only say “Sorry madam” “I am wrong.” They would lock me up if I tried to say something else. I should be shameful because it’s not appropriate for a girl to not wear a bra.
I felt terrible when I was forced to say “sorry Madam.” So l can’t imagine myself saying it in court. In front of the public. Sometimes I think about things like that. Think about other possibilities. But words like those make me feel angry and want to cry.
The clothing we are making are uniforms for police, coats for doctors, products for, products for the government. We are like cheap laborers for the government haha.
We are being paid, but only 50-60 USD per month. We can use those money to buy items in the prisoner’s shopping list. We have some choices on snacks, sanitary items. I spent around half of my salary on tissue and stamps : )
It’s lucky that I am not a smoker, and I don’t eat many snacks. Some smokers will become crazy when they are running out of cigarettes. One of my friends in the male prison told me he shared a cigarette with 11 other prisoners!
There are things that made me extremely shocked when I just arrived to prison. When we were doing the search, naked, the madam suddenly asked if I am a virgin. I told other prisoners about it, and they said a long time, (maybe still now, I’m not sure), if you are not a virgin, they would put their fingers inside your vagina to check if you keep anything inside. All of our prisoner’s outfits are second-hand even underwear. I really wanted to refuse to wear old underwear at that time, but I didn’t have a choice. I can’t even choose not to wear underwear. Luckily, my mom came to visit me the next day and brought me 3 private underwear, it’s the only clothing we are allowed to hand in.
I am used to the life here now, I have to be. But it’s still very surreal to find other people’s hair from the old blankets we are using, dust and hair in the water we drink sometimes. It’s a very interesting place I have never imagined myself being trapped into.
I still remember the classes I took. I was quite scared at that time to be honest : )
I was a Chinese literature major student back in my university in HK. I did minor in English literature, but all we learned in class were classics like John Donne, Milton, Shakespeare…I’ve never heard of Frank O’Hara, the Beat Poets nor even Sylvia Plath! I was really nervous when I was in the class. Everything is so new to me and I felt like everyone already knew everything. In the very first lesson you asked us to write down how we would like to be addressed (I forgot the term you used), he/she/they etc. I have no idea what you wanted us to write down and I was so panicked about it. I peeked at the one who sat next to me and finally figured it out. I was quiet in most of the courses (all of the courses haha) because I was so afraid to make stupid mistakes.
I also took the Greek and Roman literature class and I was so scared when the professor asked us to read out passages from “The Iliad” one by one. There were so many words I didn’t know and I had no idea how to read them! And all the ancient names!
But I am really happy that I’ve chosen all these classes and I had tried my best. Many things happened in 2019. I spent half of the year studying and was arrested at the end of the year.
I won’t say I was full of political desires, not even now. But at that time, we just did what we needed to do. There were too much pain and we were surrounded by it, immersed in it. Especially my university. My uni is quite famous for its liberal studies courses and all students have to take quite a few of them. We have liberal studies class in high school too and the government said that it’s the reason that the students were rotten and they had canceled the subject already. It’s a very funny place. Students are not allowed to critically think anymore.
To be honest, a lot of people, my teachers in high school, professors in university were quite shocked that I was arrested. I won’t consider myself a radical person, even though I am quite stubborn sometimes. I just did what everyone else would do at the time. There were thousands of students, alumni came back that day, roads were blocked. So many people were wounded, injured students were lying in the gym. Doctors sneaked in to provide medical help because no one dared to take the risk to go to the hospital and be arrested. Only 10 of us were arrested during that period, but thousands of us were doing the same thing. Even mere presence is guilty. They could have arrested anyone. No one could pretend nothing had happened that day. Tear gas was shot inside the tennis court. Fire, smoke, bullets were everywhere. It was impossible to just walk away. Even exchange students I knew were there.
It’s my honor that you want to share my letters. But my handwriting is quite terrible and my letters are quite messy. I am not sure if that’s ok. I didn’t even double check my spelling and I wrote my letters in the dark (cuz the light is off at 10pm).
I think the English literature education in HK is quite behind the schedule, actually, it might be going backwards since most high schools have canceled English literature class already.
Even for me, someone who took English lit as a minor in uni just started reading books by Hemingway, Fitzgerald etc. Oh, but one of the reasons that I’m interested in them is because of Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite Japanese writers. He loves Hemingway and Fitzgerald a lot. I will ask my friends to help me order “No-No Boy” “Distant Star” and books by Pat Parker and James Baldwin online. Only 6 books are allowed to be handed in each month. I will read them once my friends have found them : ) I am excited about it : )
Merry Christmas and I hope this letter will be sent out successfully : ) Have a nice and warm christmas! Most prisoners have already planned what to make during our Christmas holiday! The “creative” food here is really amazing! I will share some with you in my next letter.
- I feel hesitant to speak of students, to read or hear when others speak of students. The uneasiness usually has something to do with the hierarchies, apparent to all but the aloof, speaking professor. They say or write something about how students these days do this, don’t do that, believe they know this, don’t believe that. Even when tempered by compliments, most devolve into, at best, cringe-inducing rants, worded in such a way as to poke fun at students’ naivety and inexperience.
And yet, in private conversations with friends and colleagues I have often expressed that the adage, what and who radicalized you, can be clearly answered as: students.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have my own concerns. This doesn’t mean hero worship of the young. This just means I don’t think I’m the only one. I don’t think I’m the only one transformed by the classroom, which I do believe as bell hooks reminds, is the one radical space left in the university. I hope we can hold onto this space. I hope we can protect this space.