Little Dolls From Prison Carry a Big Message

Published December 12, 2016 in Episode 62

Editor's Note: Solitary Envoi is our segment focused on works of art created behind prison walls.

Have you ever seen a roly poly doll? They are also called tumbler dolls, or wobbly man dolls. They have round heads, round bottoms and no limbs. When you push the doll, it wobbles for a bit but never falls down.

There’s a version made by ethnic minorities in Việt Nam--colorful and crocheted. And now there’s another version, made exclusively by one political prisoner: Nguyễn Đặng Minh Mẫn.

Nguyễn Đặng Minh Mẫn is a 31-year-old photojournalist and beautician who is currently serving her fifth year in prison. She was sentenced to eight years on charges of subversion. Her mother, Đặng Ngọc Minh, is a former prisoner of conscience, who was arrested at the same time as her daughter, but was released much earlier.

Ngọc Minh recalls the time that she and Minh Mẫn learned how to make the dolls while in pretrial detention.

“We were brought to Nghệ An, at Nghi Kim camp. There were some ethnic minorities there, and they make these dolls, but they were kinda ugly! But they showed us how to make it,” Ngọc Minh says.

Each doll is unique and wears a different outfit. They are the size of your palm, with striking details like eyelashes and tiny butterflies and flowers stitched on their hats. One doll wears a hat that’s flipped up in a coquette-ish fashion. Another one is very festive -- decked out in red and green, her two braids tied with red ribbon with the words “Merry Christmas” threaded across her little body.

But arts and crafts get tricky when you're being held in a detention center. Ngọc Minh talks about gathering the materials to make the dolls:

“The thing is, when we learned how to make them, we were at a detention center so we didn’t really have materials,” she says. “When we wanted to practice making them, we had to use the threads from our bath towels. That doesn’t look very good though, when you pull out those threads. But when we were transferred to a different detention center, there were many prisoners working on embroidery, and they gave us their leftover thread -- all different colors. And we found some cotton too, so we stuffed their stomachs.”

Minh Mẫn went on a doll making frenzy. She made one for every occasion -- one for Christmas, one for her mom’s birthday, one for her parents’ wedding anniversary.

At the prison that Minh Mẫn and her mother were held, inmates are kept apart from each other and completely barred from going outdoors. Reading materials are highly regulated and inmates risk solitary confinement for any perceived misconduct. The roly poly dolls became a therapeutic source of creativity and distraction.  

When her mom was about to be released, Minh Mẫn passed a bunch along for her to take home. The prison guards got suspicious and demanded to cut open the dolls, to make sure it was not a ploy to sneak something out of prison. However, they found nothing in the stomachs of the dolls except cotton. What the authorities didn’t realize was the messages the dolls bear were right in front of their faces--they just couldn’t comprehend them.

“One has the flag of the Republic of Viêt Nam and she embroidered my english name, Ammy on it, along with my birthday, April 4th, next to the word Freedom, the white flower, and a cute butterfly on my hat,” Ngọc Minh tells Loa.

The white flower, hoa mai, that appears on many of Minh Mẫn’s roly poly dolls represents the symbol of Việt Tân, and serves as a message of solidarity for those fighting alongside her beyond prison walls. Minh Mẫn, like her mom, is a member of the pro-democracy party.

Another doll is dressed in black, with the letter T and the number 4 embroidered on the body: the T stands for “tháng,” or month, and the 4 stands for the month of April. This doll, Ngọc Minh says, commemorates tháng tư đen, Black April -- otherwise known as April 30th or the fall of Sài Gòn. The family had attempted but failed to flee Việt Nam after the war.

Ngọc Minh wanted to share her daughter’s cute and meaningful creations with the world, so after her release, she posted pictures of them on Facebook. People from around the world began to comment and notice the dolls. That’s when the authorities banned Ngọc Minh and her husband from bringing any more dolls home after prison visits.

But this is not the only time international attention Minh Mẫn has received international attention. Three months ago, in September, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared that Minh Mẫn “was detained solely for the peaceful exercise of her rights”. They called for her immediate release.

And while Minh Mẫn is still behind bars at Prison Camp 5 in Thanh Hóa, during their November family visit, Ngọc Minh said they have noticed a slight change in behavior among the authorities.

“She and her dad were talking through the glass partition on the phone,” Ngọc Minh recounts. “He said to her ‘The UN told the Vietnamese Government to release you unconditionally. I'm letting you know this, but don’t rush to hold too much hope, because at the end of the day it is still up to the State. Organizations and people all around the world are speaking up for your freedom.’ In the past, whenever we spoke about matters related to the case, they stopped us immediately. But this time, they didn’t stop us! All five of the prison guards standing watch did not say a word.”

Ngọc Minh says that she and her family just wish for Minh Mẫn to return home. They don’t want her to receive political asylum and be exiled to another country. She says that they want to fight together as a family for a free Việt Nam, in Việt Nam.

And if the authorities fear letting some roly poly dolls leave prison, one can only imagine how they feel about setting Minh Mẫn free.

If you would like to advocate for justice, or simply send a message to Minh Mẫn, please write a personal letter to her and send it to the following address:

Nguyễn Đặng Minh Mẫn:
Trại Giam 5 Yên Định, tỉnh Thanh Hoá
Prison 5 Yen Dinh, Thanh Hoa Province

To learn about reaching out to your representatives to urge them to take action for prisoners of conscience like Minh Mẫn, you can check out Bars for Blogging, a campaign to advocate for these bloggers, journalists, and activists behind bars.