Thursday, October 28, 2010

Prison Pain

In "The Cross of Soot," Albert Wendt, in his capacity as a storyteller, demonstrates the ability of a tattoo to strengthen a "friendship a culture [one] admires," a concept he talks about in his essay "Tatuing the Postcolonial Body" (409). In "Soot," the unnamed boy clearly holds respect and feels affection for the inmates of the prison he regularly visits. Because he is able to enter the prison grounds merely by burrowing under the fence surrounding it, the boy has been able to regularly "cross...from" the civilian "world" to that of the incarcerated. This ability blurs a social divide which seems much more immovable in our culture between the criminal, who in being imprisoned is to a large degree ostracized from society, and the supposedly free citizen. Whereas in this country there are numerous barriers, both physical and bureaucratic, to be passed before the prisoner and non-prisoner can come into communion with one another, in "Soot" the boy largely disregards both the material and civil indicators which attempt to demarcate him as a different kind of person than those who live behind the barbwire fence.

Throughout his interactions with the prisoner known only as "the man," as well as in his conversations with Samasoni and Tagi, the boy repeatedly attempts to show that he is an integrated member of the jail community. In bragging about how he has been taught to roll up cigarettes, in pretending to know what rape is, and in lying to Samasoni after he has been knocked down by an aggressive inmate even though his initial inclination is to "cry," the boy exhibits his desire to be esteemed at the same level of prowess as his imprisoned friends (14). Simultaneously, the fact that he feels the need to make these shows of strength underlines his and the reader's understanding that the boy is perpetually at an emotional distance from the prisoners because he does not share their experience of the horrors of life, and of the guilt that comes from having committed some of those horrors. The old man and Tagi must "control" the "pain [they are] feeling" because they know it is a pain the boy does not understand (9). Similarly, the boy is able to joke with the policeman in a way the prisoners cannot, because he has not made the mistakes which would lead him to fear or avoid contact with law enforcement.

In being tattooed by Tagi, the boy comes to have a better understanding of pain, and is therefore able to strengthen his "friendship connection" with the prisoners while -- as Rosie talked about -- like "Jesus," remaining innocent of a crime (409; 20). He is still not fully a part of the prison community, his unfinished tattoo acting as a reminder of the crimes which Tagi has committed and he has not However, the boy has shared an experience with his friends which deepens his bond with them.


Readings and conversations about prison life in Drew Leder's HN280: The Modern World.

Prejean, Helen. Dead Man Walking.

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