As the world of media is all too ready to transition from print to online, those of us incarcerated without Internet access are finding it tougher and tougher to access reliable news and information, making print publications our only connection to our community at home.
For 50 years and counting, the one publication that has remained the sticky rice to our community and ANHPIA prisoners in Washington State has been the International Examiner.
As I sit in my prison cell writing this latest installment of ‘On the Fence Line,’ listening to Lil Tjay’s new album 222, I smile as I reminisce about the first time I was ever published in the IE. My piece about what being a Laotian man means to me, published in February 2017, first introduced me to this amazing world of storytelling.
I’ve had a few more stories published in other publications over the years, but that very first one remains one of the only stories my father has ever read of mine. The print publication just makes news a lot more accessible to his generation. I guess we have a lot more in common than I thought.
Nonetheless, his acknowledgment of me as a “legit” writer from that first effort is a gift that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Without the IE‘s accessibility? Maybe a gift never received.
A testament to the newspaper’s historical foundation, rooted in political activism and community, the IE has been committed to publishing writers from all walks of life and backgrounds —even those marginalized and locked away in cages… like yours truly.
Francisco Sao, who is currently incarcerated and serves as vice president of the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group at Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC), recalled how it felt for him to be published in IE back in 2017. “Seeing my article in the International Examiner makes me feel appreciated because this article is close to my heart,” he said. “Knowing that my community will be reading my article gives me inspiration to continue sharing my story.”
Like Francisco, it’s this beautiful art of storytelling that has also inspired me to put my pain into writing, hopefully to leave it there. On other occasions, it’s the people I’m blessed to feature in my stories that are compelled to unpack some of their own pain and trauma.
For instance, in a follow-up conversation with Country, who I was fortunate enough to feature in last month’s Pride issue, he shared how it felt to be a part of ‘On the Fence Line.’ He said: “[It was] exhilarating to be telling my story… and how validating it was just to see my story in print in a real newspaper where I knew community would be reading it.”
Personally, I still remember how nervous I was to receive a copy of that Pride issue in the mail last month and share it with Country. But seeing how proud he was to see his story printed was worth every late night of writing — even through my cellmate’s thunderous snoring.
Similarly, Jarrod Messer, a member of the Nuestro Grupo Cultural at SCCC, who participated in the inaugral ‘Mail Call’ installment of this column, where those of us on the inside answered a reader question about what we missed most about home, spoke about his family memories. “A memory shared out loud is a memory lived again. When I shared my memory, I felt alive,” he said on his participation.
I wonder if back in 1974, Gerald Yuasa, Larry Imamura, and George Cox could have ever been able to imagine the impact this “small” publication would have on our communities, both inside and out.
Now that I have been fortunate enough to write a regular column for IE, speaking directly to our community and telling stories from behind these walls where the system silences us, is something that I will remain grateful for and will never take for granted. Being able to highlight the work of organizers such as Andres Pacificar will also always remain special to me.
I also humbly acknowledge that I have a responsibility to protect the legacies of those organizers and columnists that came before me, who have helped pave the way for my own column. And at the end of the day, I can only hope that I contribute to our community even a fraction of what columns such as Donnie Chin’s “District Watch” and “District Notes” have contributed in the past.
Though mainstream media remains beholden to surface level sponsorships, hidden political agendas, and an unspoken agreement to maintain the status quo, the IE remains accountable to our community. That’s why I love writing here and will continue to do so as long as y’all want me.
As the world is constantly evolving, and the fear that community is moving on without us, those of us on the inside can only hope that we can still continue to count on the first and third Wednesdays of the month to keep us connected to our community. I’m confident we will.
From all of us ‘On the Fence Line,’ Happy 50th Anniversary, IE! You will always be “The Heartbeat of the International District” and beyond!
Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed AsianAmerican studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. You can reach him with questions for “On the Fence Line” via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, 191 Constantine Way, Aberdeen, WA 98520.