SEEN is a prison portrait and poetry project. But more importantly, it’s a Minnesota portrait and poetry project. Through photography, video, and written word, we share the poignant brilliance of poets and prose writers in Minnesota state prisons, and work together to make the invisible visible, the unheard heard, and the unseen seen. Mass incarceration is dependent upon the ignoring and erasure of the human beings we cage. In collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) and the thoughtful, intelligent, humble, and deeply gifted writers on the inside, WAAC challenges and disrupts mass incarceration by clearing the pathways for people behind bars to have their voices heard, faces seen, and humanity recognized–and for people on the outside to reckon with the inhumanity of our country’s mass incarceration mass disaster.
This page is dedicated to Fong Lee’s work. For more poets and essayists, check out the SEEN page.
Autobiography In Five Songs Of Six-Word Memoirs
My Father Is A Hmong Shaman
Alien Yellow Among White And Black
I Should Have Saved One Bullet
Her Smile Is My Last Remedy
I Am A Late Home Comer
In American School
I cried my first day in American school—
Denver, Pennsylvania—no one like me in American school
My spirit flew back to those huts in Thailand’s refugee camp
As tears washed my face, in American School
Where are my friends with dried snot across their faces?
Why my parent’s left me alone—in American School?
A little girl with white hair and blue eyes grabbed me, like she was kidnapping me
I didn’t know then and there that it was called a “Hug,” in American School
We would become best friends and I kidnapped her every day—
She would giggle when I annunciated A-B-C and 1-2-3 in American School
When we have to move again—I again despise them
I could not leave that blue-eyed girl behind in American School
Fong—go and hug her for the last time
Soon she will forget about you at this American School
DROP A KITE
*In prison, people use “kites” to communicate in writing with the authorities.
Instructions: Writers are encouraged to communicate with themselves at any age. Send your kite to the age that can best answer your questions and satisfy your curiosity.
July 4, 1998
From: LEE Fong at 13 years old
To: LEE Fong at 31 years old
970 Pickett Street North
Bayport, Minnesota 55003
Dear Fong at 31—I picked to write to you especially because 31 is the reverse of 13. I sincerely hope that you reply because it will be disheartening if you do not. Fold this kite* into a paper plane and send it by air. Or fold it into a boat and send it by sea and hope it will reach me before I fall too deep in the madness of the street.
The 1998 summer sun is cooking everything in its path. I have just lost my boyhood. I am officially a man. Middle school is a struggle. It is so fuckin’ boring. And quite frankly I am tired of waking up in the morning every day to nothing. There is nothing to learn at school besides fighting and hanging out with girls in abandoned houses until school is over. I cannot wait until I am 18 when I can get away and explore the world. I want to become a model or an artist—could that be possible? My motto is to live life to the fullest and I think I am living life to the fullest, but somehow, I feel unsatisfied.
What is it like in the future? How will I turn out? Will fate be kind? Will I be good if not great? I can honestly say that mother and father’s dream of me becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer is dead. I would like to share with you this poem. Please do not laugh at me.
my life begins
when i let go of books,
classrooms & my given name
for a red bandana
& become “Pluav”
my life begins
under the 1998 sun,
when i climbed into
the back seat of a dead
in the backyard of my
my life begins
with the two Hmong girls
that i knew from school—
waiting for me
to officially introduce
my life begins
when i emerge
from the toyota
thinking that i
am now Genghis Khan
Response from: LEE Fong at 31 years old
Dear Fong at 13—I hate to be blunt but it is true, fate will not be kind. Life goes by quicker than the time you take to blink. Do stop and take a cold hard look at your life. I know that middle school is difficult but you must endure it, because high school is fast approaching. That is your best shot at being a model like you have always dreamed. Or an artist. And that is where you will meet Jenny V. She will become your high school sweetheart. One blink is equivalent to one year; do not blink. It is funny to hear how much you hate school when you are still young, free, handsome, and smart. Why funny? Because at 31 with a felony and balding due to stress, you are attending college and on the verge of receiving your Associate of Arts degree.
I am not writing you from the warmth of an office or a mansion, but the cold loneliness of a Minnesota prison cell filled with ugly secrets. You know now that punishments are not created by Heaven but by men. Therefore, you affiliate yourself mostly with killers because you all share the same sorrow. Your friends are no longer friends from childhood but lifers who seev suab ntsia ntsoov lub ntuj (hum, staring straight to heaven) for another chance at life. Sometimes you wonder if there really is a place called heaven nearby. You will ask yourself which would be better: Death? Or 38 years in prison?
You must be there for your mother and father and siblings. You never did cup your hands in prayer, whether to ntuj (Heaven) or ancestors, but I strongly suggest you do. I want you to remember the name Jenny V. You will love her because she will wait for you while you sit in detention. She will ask you to stop smoking and drinking, stop fighting, stop gang banging. You got a big heart be sure to never let it go when life gets tough. Be there for Jenny V. Xyaum muab lus mos lus muag los hais. Siab ntev. Hwm ntuj thiaj tau ntuj ntoo. Hwm niam, hwm txiv thiaj tau zoo. Please know that you always have a choice. You are not Genghis Khan. Your poem was good, and I will not laugh at you.
I want to share a poem with you as well.
listen—look at these two mirrors they are your eyes from the future / they want you to know that you are on a bumpy road / start planning your next caper with Jenny V, the young Hmong woman / bury the red bandana that wrapped around your head & hands / do not blink—open those virgin ears / stop appeasing your friends. they are not worth your life
listen—you owe no one but your mother & father your life / they have abandoned their thatched hut just to give you a future / do not let their wisdom sit as wax in your ears / do not get run over on this adolescent road / people can be stingy with helping hands / let your Hmong bones age with a person you love
listen—cherish Jenny’s soul-piercing smile / watch this scene: you will end up taking a life / after you wed pistols to hands / for every shot, scratch two years off your future / it will be decades before you will see another road / the number 217805 becomes you & despised by your ears
listen—hear your parents’ endless grief, they miss your jumbo ears / the woman you love will birth someone else a baby girl / your legacy will be gesso on canvas & left blank on this empty road / you will miss out when your grandma & uncle wave good-bye to life / friends will let you stand in the rain & laugh from their sunnier future / you will seek answers in the lines of your palms
listen—nothing good grows on this dehydrated road / there is no holy water to wash your tattooed hands / cosmetics could not cover the scars you have caused / you will trade “it’s your love” for “me against the world” / you will remember words Jenny whispered in your ears
listen—listen to me, for I am you in the future / love her / so you can say to her that your children got your sleeping Buddha’s ears