Why hadn’t I known about Karen Connelly and her novel before? With my involvement in the anti-torture movement and with exiles and refugees, how on earth did I miss such a powerful novel about a political prisoner in Burma? I only learned about it after Connelly chose a story of mine for Magnolia: A Journal of Women’s Socially Engaged Literature. I figured then I should find out about her.
The Lizard Cage stunned me: its language, its knowledge and depth of understanding. It’s the sort of book that always makes me wonder how a mere human being could have written it. I immediately ordered a copy for Duc Ta. This is what we’ve talked about in the past: how to survive in prison, not just physically, but psychologically and spiritually. He–the essence of him–survives as Connelly’s protagonist Teza does: through meditation and Buddhist practice, his commitment to feeling compassion and forgiveness for those who put him where he is and who commit brutality around him, his attempts to find meaning in his life by bringing whatever help he can to others.
Duc, facing a life sentence, has spent only one year in solitary in a California prison. Connelly’s protagonist, Teza, faces twenty years in solitary confinement. During that one year, Duc was forbidden to have books, magazines, newspapers. He could receive letters and the wonderful Leslie Neale photocopied whole novels a few double-sided pages at a time, and mailed an installment every day. He says that’s what kept him sane (along with origami paper she sent. Believe me, he made a lot of cranes.) In Connelly’s novel, Teza’s situation is more extreme in every way. Possession of pen or paper is a crime. He treasures and reads scraps of newsprint he finds inside cheroot filters.
Connelly doesn’t spare the reader any of the brutality suffered by her characters and yet she’s written a book of grace and singular beauty.