Research from a Land Down Under

2 Jul

For the last two and a half years, I’ve been trekking around the globe whenever my teaching schedule permits in order to learn as much as I can about theatre programming in prisons around the world. I’ve just begun my last big international research trip for the book I’m writing and will be spending a little over three weeks exploring Australia and New Zealand.

All my life, I’ve wanted to see Australia. In literature and film, I’ve been enchanted by tales of the vastness of its deserts, the strangeness of its wildlife, the decadence of its drag queens. It’s history of incarceration is as interesting and unique as its natural wonders. Australia is the only nation founded as a penal colony. Before the buildings we call prisons were ever erected on this continent, the British sent ships of captives and sailors to a land so distant and difficult to settle that landing upon its shores was a form of imprisonment. Those first settlers had no hope of a return passage to England, and the only lives they had known prior to their exile were gone from them forever. The sailors who journeyed with the imprisoned fell to the same lot as their wards and were equally punished alongside the men they were set to guard. Many of those sentenced to life in Australia were guilty of very minor offences—Bill Bryson remarks about one man who was sent across the globe for the offence of impersonating an Egyptian—and the effect of this was a deportation of a sizable chunk of England’s poor.

This narrative of incarceration as a strategy for class and race containment recurs again and again all over the world. Though no one comes close to the horrific rates of incarceration in my home country, New Zealand has one of the next highest per capita incarceration rates in the world, precisely because they’ve ravaged their indigenous population. The Maori make up only 15% of the population of this island nation yet form 51% of their prison population. Michelle Alexander wasn’t just describing the U.S. when she wrote about prisons as the new Jim Crow. In fact, there’s not much that’s new about racism, class consciousness, and fear driving systems of punishment. I’m newly struck by this sadness in each country whose prisons I visit.

That said, I am equally struck by the generosity and kindness that prison theatre makers and volunteers have shown me in every place that I have traveled to do this research. I’ve only just arrived in Australia, and the folks in Sydney have been extraordinarily kind. It seems to me that volunteering in prisons, particularly in ways that engage one’s creativity, makes people more considerate of one another in every place we encounter one another in the world. When you intimately understand the ways in which human beings have calculatedly stripped one another of dignity and freedom, it makes one want to treat those around one with as much respect and thoughtfulness as we imperfect beings can muster. I am immensely grateful to all the folks I’ve encountered in my years of travel who have made time for a perfect stranger who asks all sorts of probing questions about the sensitive work that they do under immensely difficult circumstances.

Many more ruminations about prisons are doubtless forthcoming as I chronicle this trip, but for now I’d rather talk about the bizarre experience of getting to the other side of the world. It’s 8:30 in the morning as I write this from a charming Sydney café where I’ve had a fabulous breakfast. Many restaurants in Sydney serve breakfast until early afternoon, and I could definitely get used to this. Meanwhile, it’s yesterday where I live in Michigan—around 6:30 PM—which puts me a day ahead of my loved ones who are presently living the past while I wander about making new friends tomorrow, which feels very much like right now.

Dr. Who would call this one of those timey wimey thingies, and there are certainly aspects of being in Australia that feel rather like science fiction. For starters, one flies in perpetual darkness from Los Angeles to Sydney and arrives two days after you’ve started. I realize that this has something to do with crossing the international dateline, but I understand that in the same way that I comprehend quantum physics or my relationship with Time Warner Cable. I had a window seat on the flight to Sydney, and though the middle seat was mercifully empty, I had a rather chatty companion in the aisle seat of my little row. Mary is a fifty-something Lebanese Australian housekeeper with four children, one of whom had just been married in Michigan. She was returning home to Sydney after about five weeks of travel in the U.S., including a lengthy stay at her brother’s home in Detroit. You may rightly assume that I know all of this because Mary saw fit to tell it to me. I am the sort of person to whom strangers tell the stories of their lives, especially when we happen to be seated next to one another on any form of public transit. I have no idea what it is about me that causes the ready unburdening of others’ souls, but it happens so routinely that my mother used to greet me at the airport by asking me to point out which friends I’d made on my journey.

This gift of mine is particularly acute when I am seated next to anyone over the age of fifty. Women wish to adopt me as an extra member of their families, and men want to talk me into going back to their hotel rooms upon arrival in whichever place the plane, bus, or train is landing. This was a particularly acute problem when I was in my teens and twenties and thankfully appears to have waned a bit in the last few years. That is not to say that folks on public transit talk to me any less, but I am propositioned less often by men. I’m sure this has something to do with arriving at the ancient state of being in my mid-thirties—an age which I’m loving but about which the sort of men who try to pick up younger women are less excited. I’ve also now had a decade to practice my look of disgusted impatience with men who begin this line of inquiry with me. An air of haughty self-possession can go a long way to chasing off unwanted flirtation.

This, however, has absolutely no effect on men or women who just wish to tell you about themselves, and the fact that I find most people absolutely fascinating does little to dissuade those who wish to talk to me, even when I would rather have this chat at some other time when I am not exhausted to the point of near collapse. Mary from the flight to Sydney needed help with filling out her immigration and customs form. I was relieved to find that she had not recently been exposed to Ebola and that she was not carrying illicit drugs or over 40,000 Australian dollars on our flight. It’s amazing what intimate things you learn when filling out someone’s immigration forms. When she wasn’t telling me about her family, she laid across the empty seat between us with her head in my lap and dozed, only to wake up again and warn me about how cold it is in Sydney these days. Bless the hearts of people in Sydney! It’s in the 50s here, and they’re all shivering. Mary was lucky to have visited Michigan in June. A February trip might have killed her. In keeping with my mother’s admonitions about how dirty airplanes are, I liberally wiped all the surfaces I might touch over the course of our flight with a Clorox wipe and offered one to Mary, who thought I was the funniest person alive for doing this. She gleefully wiped all of the MERS, MRSA, and whatever other forms of vile death lurk on germy airplane surfaces off her arm rests and tray table with exclamations that I was just like her! I thought this was amusing because she was simultaneously thinking me ridiculous for this precaution and likening me to herself. Perhaps believing oneself to be ridiculous is the key to happiness because Mary thoroughly enjoyed herself throughout our trip.

She kept asking me to raise the shade on our window so that we could see what it looked like outside, and each time the darkness of the night was astounding. We didn’t even see stars or clouds, it was just sheer blackness. I found myself pondering why there are no stars on this side of the earth, for surely there must be. There was only one episode of Dr. Who that I can recall when something terrible made the stars disappear, and rather than contemplate this further, I closed my window shade and offered Mary a stick of Juicy Fruit. She was so delighted that I would share my gum that she offered to take me home with her for coffee and breakfast upon our arrival in Sydney. Though I would have genuinely loved to have seen her home and appreciated her hospitality, I had to decline because I knew that my husband was somewhere across the earth anxiously calculating the hours until my arrival and that if I didn’t get to my hotel and email him as quickly as I could, he would presume that one of those dreadful Dr. Who things had indeed befallen me somewhere over a vast expanse of ocean.

We landed in Sydney in the unrelenting darkness with the watery lights of the city beneath us. Then my adventures really started.

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