Counting the Skyless Days
By Savannah Kumar |
NOVEMBER 19, 2021
In his oral history interview, Tariq MaQbool, an incarcerated writer, said that he is interested in finding studies about the impact of long-term incarceration on humans. “But,” he said, “the travesty of this particular search is that my hands are tied. I can’t do searches. I don’t have internet access. I can just ask and beg my friends to help me.”
The question of this kind of access and how an online digital archive can be made available to incarcerated people, especially when carceral facilities deny them even the most basic of things, such as the sky, has been at the forefront of my mind during the Archival Creator Fellowship. For archives to truly be significant, they must be accessible and accountable to the communities whose stories they hold. It has been my priority to ensure that people who are currently incarcerated can contribute to and access the archival materials I’ve been assembling. This goal has come to life thanks to the support of the community.
Interviews on the Inside
In his interview, MaQbool pointed out the need to listen to the stories of incarcerated people., “No one talks to the prisoners,” he said. “No one is actually asking them ‘How did you end up here?’”
By collaborating with the Inside Books Project, a non-profit organization that sends free books and educational materials to incarcerated Texans, we were able to send interview questions to currently incarcerated community members. It is my hope that these interview questions will allow our incarcerated community members to describe their identities, share stories about their experiences with incarceration, and provide advice to other South Asian Americans affected by incarceration.
An Archive in an Envelope
Though digitization efforts have generally increased the accessibility of archives, they remain largely inaccessible to incarcerated people. Jails and prisons typically accept mailed letters and drawings, however, each facility has its own rules--sometimes, frustratingly, unwritten-- regarding what is allowed and not allowed. The Archive in an Envelope, my attempt to work around the existing limitations, contains snippets of the oral history interviews, photos of artifacts, historical articles, and other materials that can be sent to people behind bars upon request. Anyone who knows someone interested in receiving an exhibit in an archive in an envelope in 2021-2022, can send their mailing information firstname.lastname@example.org.
A common theme that emerged in the oral history interviews was the length of time incarcerated people had to go without seeing sunlight, the moon, or the sky. Growing up as the child of immigrants, I always thought of the sky as my one lasting connection to my family overseas. Even when I couldn’t talk with my grandparents or cousins on the phone, I knew we were looking up at the same sky. In her oral history interview, Ra Avis said, “The jail is the worst of the places. I didn’t see the moon for months and months. And that just felt really vanishing. I stopped feeling like a person.” She remembers clearly the moment she was able to see the moon again:
“The way prison works is you go into processing and you’re there for months and generally you’re not out at night. There was a mishap in the kitchen and it was actually my birthday, I was turning 30 years old and there was a tiny riot in the kitchen that afternoon. So everybody’s meals got delayed and it just happened to be that when we were walking down to the chow hall, I looked up and I was able to see the moon and it was just like the perfect birthday present from the universe.”
Another interviewee who has chosen to remain anonymous told me how her brother had to go months without seeing the sun:
“One of the most shocking things to me about some of these facilities is that they do not allow you to go outdoors. And to me, not allowing someone to see the sun, or the wind, or a tree is really cruel…[my brother] told me they got there by an old Southwest plane. He looked through the widow on the way there and he was like ‘I hadn’t seen the sun in eight or six months.’” He’s like ‘I stared at the sun for 10 minutes straight.’”
Tariq MaQbool talked about seeing the sky through his window slit:
“I’m one of those people blessed to have a window, which it’s a slit of a window, but at least I can see outside. It’s a vertical window and I get to see stars every night if it’s not cloudy. I’ve been infatuated by them since my early childhood. So yeah, I see them, but I can understand the gravity of your question because there are people who don’t have any windows in their cells and unless they go outside to the yard or something, they will never see the moon, stars, or even sky.”
To honor and expand on the interviewees’ stories, we launched a community art project to include within the Archive in an Envelope. Below are two beautiful drawings made by attendees at the recent event “An Archive Unbound.” We are also receiving submissions from currently incarcerated people, and would encourage those who would like to participate to draw a picture of the moon or sky as they last remember it and tell us how long it’s been since they experienced it.2
Another way to contribute to the “Exhibit in an Envelope” is to send a note to those who are incarcerated or to anyone who has been affected by incarceration. These can be submitted to email@example.com.
Closing thoughts on South Asian Americans and Incarceration
The interviewees participating in this project have shared tender, difficult stories about being South Asian American, including Indo-Fijian and Chicana-Desi, behind bars. They’ve shared about missing staple foods like pulao, daal, rice, aachar, chutney, kebabs, and anything cooked by their mother. They’ve shared about the humiliation of removing bangles and bras while going through prison security to visit a loved one. They’ve shared about the shame (“log kya kahenge?”) that can accompany incarceration and release.
These stories can teach us about the future we need to build. When asked what he’d want to share with people twenty years from now, Tariq MaQbool said that he wants them to ask “what is being done in my name?” He hopes that people will stay informed about mass incarceration by listening to people currently affected by the system. Other interviewees, including Vyasar Ganesan and some who have chosen to remain anonymous, discussed the power of therapy and mental health care, emphasizing the importance of destigmatizing mental health care in South Asian American communities. Charles “Bula” Joseph said “There are so many different ways to be involved. Vote, if you have the ability to vote…Build community. Build oneness. If we all feel like we are a part of something, we aren’t going to hurt it.”
Ra Avis closed her oral history interview by sharing how South Asian Americans are already prepared to begin abolishing state violence in the form of mass incarceration:
“If there is a community out there that knows what it is like to set up community structures to support people, it’s definitely Desis. So I think when we’re reimagining a world of what that looks like, what it looks like to care for each other’s children and each other’s elders like they’re our own, I mean that’s just the culture. So why not pass those imaginings and culture off to a place that is now our home?”
The stories I’ve had the privilege of documenting tell us about our collective past, but they also nudge us to reject the systems that box us in, and to reimagine a better, freer world.
1. Nhut Vo is a tattoo and commission artist, dog trainer, and community artist for Boundless Freedom Project. He was incarcerated for 20 years and was initially sentenced to Life Without Parole (LWOP) for a crime he was involved in when he was 16. He says, “During my time in confinement, I learned the healing power of creativity, particularly through painting. Painting is a powerful way for me to channel my thoughts and emotions into a tangible expression that is safe and therapeutic. When Savannah (SAADA) asked me to paint an image depicting South Asian incarceration and their experiences in confinement, I felt grateful for the opportunity. Here, I can give voice to my fellow people of the minority whose suffering is often overlooked. It is a great privilege for me to share their stories as well as mine in this painting.”
2. Submissions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Savannah (she/they) is a civil rights lawyer and community artist working on decarceration. Savannah's fellowship project involves bearing witness to South Asian Americans whose lives have been impacted by incarceration in jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers, and immigration detention centers. Savannah is collecting these intergenerational narratives and offering them back to the community to facilitate healing and solidarity. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.